Things Not to Worry About

I don’t know about you, but I catch myself worrying far too often, and usually about inconsequential things. If it is true that our brains can only hold one thought at a time, then why do I spend precious moments worrying about all sorts of improbable scenarios rather than focus on the joy, and light, and beauty that is right in front of my eyes?

At this very moment, for example, I am writing from my dining room, where the sun is shining brightly, warming up my back and neck, a balm after the chilly weather we’ve been subjected to this week. I can see my outline reflected on my computer screen, and in this outline, (which is gentler on the psyche than a real mirror), it looks like I’m having a good hair day and am wearing some pretty cool earrings.

My silhouette is framed by a bright blue sky and the nearly-barren branches of my favorite backyard tree. This tree fools us every year. We think it’s dead, and then, in its own way, in its own timing, it suddenly bursts into bloom and fills the yard with fragrance. Even in the winter when its leaves are gone, it stands tall and reminds me of what strength looks like.

The light gradually shifts, and suddenly a rainbow illuminates the paragraph I’m writing. (The light also illuminates all the fingerprints and smudges on my screen, but today I’m choosing to ignore them.) The furnace kicks in and I raise a mental “thank you” for a warm house and enough money to pay the heating bill.

Stephanie Pearl McPhee, in her book—“—“Things I Learned from Knitting…Whether I Wanted to or Not”, gave me a good laugh today. In her chapter, aptly titled: “Don’t worry, be happy” McPhee lists “5 things WORRYING NON-KNITTERS HAVE WARNED ME ABOUT” :

  1. Knitting needles are very pointy. I could put out my eye at any moment.
  2. If I were knitting while in a car and there happened to be an accident, I could be impaled or even killed by my own knitting.
  3. If I am not very careful, I or someone else could become entangled in my yarn and be unable to elude or escape danger.
  4. If I am a victim of a crime or terrorism, my knitting needles could be grabbed and turned against me as a weapon.
  5. If I’m sitting and knitting in the presence of children, one of them could run into my knitting while playing and be impaled, have an eye put out, become entangled, or, heaven forbid, all of the above. “

When I read the above list of worries, it puts my own mental loop into perspective, and I just shake my head and laugh at my silly old self. I don’t need to shame her, she’s just doing the best she can, and old habits die hard.

Speaking of habits, did any of you make new year’s resolutions? Mine were pretty simple this year: Honor my gifts, and …something else that I can’t remember at the moment. Maybe the worry got in the way again, I wouldn’t be surprised. But I’ll choose to be amused. I’m sure it will come back to me when the time is right.

 

 

 

 

Theology in a Box of Crayons

“When was the last time you were really happy” read the writing prompt. And I was immediately transported.

Five years old, a box of round crayons from my grandma–was she there for my birthday? I don’t remember. But the crayons were many, more than the eight or sixteen usual ones, and the container was round, stiff and sturdy with a lid.

Something about it was magical. It stretched my idea of what was possible. Forty-eight magnificent colors, so much unencumbered possibility. What might I draw with these? What fun might I have? Who would stop me?

And they were mine, just mine, for me, not to squander over other people’s needs and feelings, nor to hand over indiscriminately out of pity or martyrdom or knee-jerk caregiving.

To use or not. To color my own life, so that I wouldn’t just be left with dreary shades of beige or gray, dusty, muted tones that never captured the depth of my own beauty. At five I somehow still knew that the colors were all mine and that that was ok.

It wasn’t until later that I started giving all my colors away. Or having them taken by force.

At seven I wrote my grandma a letter. The pictures, I said, were drawn in pencil, since my dad had taken our crayons away until Christmas, still three months away, after my three-year-old sister made the mistake of being a normal toddler and drew in crayon on our shared bedroom wall.

In an angry meting out of punishment I was made to pay for her “transgression”.  And we both paid a price. An early reason why the idea of substitutionary atonement no longer rings true for me.

At fifty-seven, I again own my own crayons, sixty-four this time, and they remind me that while it’s nice to share, it can be ok, necessary, in fact, to hold back something for yourself.

Jesus’ well-known commandment, to love our neighbor as ourself, holds out self-love, rather than self-hatred or self-sacrifice, as the gold standard by which to measure our love for others.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but perhaps it is true, that the surest route to a peaceful world is to learn to truly love ourselves first.

 

 

Two Hands Full of Dust

I am at the Garden of a Thousand Buddhas, just north of Missoula, Montana, where I have come to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday. My mom, my sister, and I have taken a day trip to see this sacred place, carved out in the middle of nowhere. When I first heard of this Buddha garden, I envisioned lush green grounds, with a thousand different Buddha statues spread throughout a labyrinthine Eden.

Like much of the rest of my life, the place I now find myself in no way resembles my preconceived notions of where I thought I would be. This “garden” is flat and arid, stark and dry, surrounded by mountains, with very little greenery. It is much more open and unobstructed than I had envisioned, somehow simultaneously desolate and beautiful.

The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas is designed in the shape of an 8-spoked Dharma Wheel, and the one thousand Buddha statues are placed along the spokes of this wheel. According to the written summary we received at the gate, “each of these handmade concrete statues contains prayers, mandalas and blessed substances.”

After the unexpected delightful circumstance of meeting the current Buddhist abbott at the entrance, my mother, sister and I decide to go our separate ways, exploring in our own manner, at our own pace.

I take some time to sit on a bench and just take in the scenery, do a little writing, breathe out some of the tension I’ve brought along on my trip west. This fall has seen me take on a new endeavor–teaching Spanish to middle-schoolers–an unexpected bend in the road that is my life’s journey. I’m sure there are lessons I’m learning, am supposed to learn, at this stage of the game. But do they have to be so difficult, so taxing, so painful? I feel like I’ve been doing nothing but whine for the last two months. Even I am tired of hearing my constant litany of complaints.

And I think about family. Families can be so complicated sometimes, I think.  Or maybe we make them more complicated than they need to be. Maybe families are just everybody doing the best that they can on any given day, and sometimes getting it right, and sometimes missing the mark. Sometimes it’s about learning to find your voice and saying “no’. Sometimes it’s about learning to say “yes”. Sometimes it’s about “I’m sorry”, and hopefully it can be about “I love you.”

And if you weren’t born into that kind of a family, sometimes it’s about saying “I’m sorry you can’t see my beauty, and I deserve to find people who do”, then finding a place where people love and value and respect who you are, and claim you as their own. That can be family too.

After breathing out my teaching stress, and my family stress, and my rushing from the classroom to the airport and making it through the security line stress, I finally relax into my bench, and become aware that there is a prayer wheel some twenty yards to my right, making a rhythmic ringing noise as it spins. It is a large brownish metal cylinder, which rotates continually, covered by a triangular “hat” and a larger protective canopy. The prayer wheel has symbols carved into its surface, symbols whose meaning I don’t know, but can only guess. And I am finally restored enough to explore.

I meander back and forth through rows of seemingly identical white Buddha figurines, and discover that some of them are marked at the base with small nameplates. These list an individual’s Tibetan name, followed by an English name, such as “Protected by Dragons”, “Pinnacle of Wisdom”, or “Best Intellect”, and seem to describe the breakthrough moment when these individuals (are they perhaps the equivalent of Catholic saints?) “first generated the mind of enlightenment”. Now I am intrigued. What great deeds or prayers, I wonder, might take one from the realm of the daily, the ordinary, to the “mind of enlightenment”?

I read the inscriptions on the plaques, several of which mention people doing grand deeds, but more often than not, point to very kind and simple deeds and offerings. One, I read was “a hunter who offered to point out the way on the road.” Another, “the daughter of a prostitute, when offering a mirror”. A third was inscribed as “a seller of dried cow dung fuel who offered it so that the Tathagata known as Praised by the Wise could wash his begging bowl.”

The one that finally stops me short, strikes me to the core, and brings me to tears,  reads: “he was a young boy who offered a double handful of dust.”

For weeks I have felt desperate because my knowledge and meager attempts at teaching have seemed so woefully inadequate.  I am constantly overwrought, insecure. Never mind that everyone tells me that this is normal for first-year teachers. It doesn’t feel normal to me. Those murky demons named “never good enough” and “not ok to make mistakes” have reared their ugly heads and are battling mightily for possession of my soul. Many days they win.

And yet, I read, one boy first generated the mind of enlightenment by humbly offering a “double handful of dust”. Even I, woefully inadequate as I often feel, can offer that much, I am most certain. And some days, that’s the very best I have to offer.

Could it be that I am not called to do an exceptional job, to be successful, even to feel like I know what I’m doing? Every day I go to school, I am in relationship with friends and family, I cross paths with strangers. Can it possibly be enough to simply offer what I have available–a compassionate heart and two willing hands, full of joy, or hope, or some days, simply dust? Somehow, I think it can.

The prayer flags posted around the perimeter of the garden are tattered, weathered spirits holding sacred intentions. As are we. And in the distance, the prayer wheel is still ringing, and the prayers continue to rise.

A Jarful of Idiosycrasies

I received a very special birthday gift last week–a glass jar, perhaps cornflower or sky blue, nestled in a lovely metal holder with wooden handles. It’s full. To the brim. Of writing prompts, which my son and his girlfriend transcribed and cut up into individual slips of paper. It’s a homemade gift, so thoughtful, and fits me to a “T”.

This morning as I prepared to write, I pulled out several prompts, settling finally on this one: What are some of your idiosyncrasies?

I think I know what this means–those quirky little habits that make sense to you,(or that you’re totally unaware of) which drive the people you love and, especially, those you live with, a little bit nuts.  I look it up in the dictionary, just to be sure. There I find idiosyncrasy described as “a peculiarity of constitution or temperament; an individualizing characteristic or quality.”

So I pause in my journal to reflect on any one of my many personal peculiarities. I wait for that voice within to speak up and give me a lesson I need to learn, something I should be working on, or subduing, or fixing, but instead what finally surfaces surprises and touches me deeply:

“O how I love thee,

let me count the ways

I love thee more than breadth or depth or height can reach.”

Wow–that’s amazing. I reach for quirks, eccentricities, annoying habits, and find a love letter to myself. It makes me catch my breath. It reminds me, once again, that I have spent an inordinate amount of my life looking at what’s wrong, or what needs fixing, prodding or pruning, and have totally missed the blossoming and blooming.

Maybe spiritual growth can be as much about standing reverently in awe of what already is, rather than simply pointing an accusatory finger at what “should not” be.. Taking a moment to sit still to admire, to embrace and celebrate our achievements instead of always striving for what’s next.

Now can be ok too.

Stepping off the Hamster Wheel

My soul spoke up the other day.  I was logging tasks at work, and it unexpectedly popped in and finished my sentence:  “I tidied bathroom, ran a load of laundry, ironed handkerchiefs, started dishwasher…and sat down to spin straw into gold”.

I had been struggling to find a metaphor to help me solve a personal problem, and had fairy tales on the brain. “Wow,” I thought after my soul weighed in, “so THAT’s my fairy tale–every time I do the impossible, they bring me to a room where there’s more impossible to do, and it’s never enough. And if I get it wrong, I will be killed, and if I get it right, I will be married to the dolt who would have killed me if I got it wrong, and where’s the happily ever after in that story?” Just to be clear, that dolt I’m married to in the aforementioned fairy tale–it’s me. I’m my own worst taskmaster.

Doing, doing, doing, always doing, doing more, doing faster, doing better, doing constantly. And whenever you stop doing, there is the thinking. The thinking about the doing, about what’s next, about what’s six months from now. When you try to sleep, the thinking takes over, and it NEVER quits, never gives you a moment’s peace. It’s beyond ridiculous. So one day you decide to get off the hamster wheel, stop doing for a minute, and take the time to ask yourself “what am I feeling in this moment?”

And that is when the healing can begin. Because under all that frantic doing, beyond all that compulsive thinking, lie the keys to joy that you have been trying to pursue by doing more, by being perfect, by achieving others’ definitions of “success”. And after months or years of unwinding yourself from all the shoulds and have-tos, at last you understand that true success (your authentic “happily ever after”, if you will) lies in creating for yourself an authentic life, one that’s tailor-made to fit who you are–your gifts, your passions, your needs.  And the doing finally becomes pleasurable instead of reflexive. It’s not so frantic and is truly connected to your heart’s desire, whatever that might be.

And all because you stopped doing long enough to stand still, take a deep breath and ask “What am I feeling?” “Who am I really?” and “Where do I belong?”

Labyrinth

Once again I find myself at the ARC retreat center, with a comfortable pen, a familiar chair, a well-worn journal, and a spectacular vantage point. Here I give myself permission to just be me, allowing myself time to simply sit and breathe, to let the accumulated layers of worry and exhaustion and stress drop away one by one by one. This place reminds me to let my body relax, convinces my mind to step out of its self-imposed hamster wheel, and frees my spirit to float ever-so-gently to the surface.

Last night I dreamed that a woman I didn’t know told me she needed some space–that she needed to break up with me. I was slightly anxious, but even more confused. Had I been married to this woman? And if so, why didn’t I recognize her? I looked around the house to see where she’d been a part of my life, and there was no evidence of her anywhere—she’d never lived at my home, so how could I have been married to her?

Obviously, this woman represents an important part of me, one that’s been underfed and unattended to. She’s my soul, saying to my ego (who thinks SHE’s all there is of me): “I need to separate from you and be my own person.” I’m sad to realize there hasn’t been room for her at home. She’s the one who has brought me to the ARC. She’s the one who urges me to take a nap.

After napping, I decide to walk the labyrinth. For this short journey, I bring along a glass of water and a piece of chocolate cake. I enter the labyrinth with the intention of letting go, of leaving behind everything that isn’t useful anymore, of unloading old habits and messages, as well as other people’s baggage that I seem to carry, whether they’ve asked me to or not. As I wind my way inward, I notice a small feather, and nearly stoop to pick it up. I catch myself just in time—I don’t need to add to my load.

I reach the center, stand still for several moments, and visualize myself removing a heavy backpack and laying it to rest at my feet. My, that was heavier than I realized. I sit cross-legged, rest awhile, and eat my sumptuous repast. I am reminded of Elijah under the broom tree, ministered to by ravens and angels. I breathe deeply, taking in the crisp fall air, and imagine sending my roots down deep, far to the center of the earth, down to the world’s well of deepest wisdom. “Is there anything else I need to let go of?” I ask. I wait. The still, small voice answers: “Self-doubt.” Again I ask, “What do I need to take with me on this journey?” There is a long silence, and I finally get it. This part of the journey is about letting go, not about taking on more.

A song runs through my head. It starts faintly, and I recognize it from “Pinocchio”: “I’ve got no strings to hold me down, to make me fret, or make me frown. I’ve got no strings, so now I’m free. I’ve got no strings on me.” I laugh and resume my journey.

I wind my way slowly out of the labyrinth. Again I see the small feather I had noticed on my way in. This time I choose to take it with me. I have room for it now. It’s a lot lighter than the heavy burden I left behind, a reminder of the weightlessness of letting go. As I approach the gateway at the end of the labyrinth, I take my shoes off. I tread more lightly now, aware that, back in the “real” world, in my everyday life, I’m treading on holy ground.

Walking back up the hill toward the retreat center, enjoying the feel of the rough ground and crunching leaves beneath my stockinged feet, I receive the answer to the question I asked earlier, “What do I need to take with me on this journey?” The question that was previously met with silence. “You already have everything you need for this journey.” You just have to remember to stop picking up things that aren’t yours to carry, and to make use of that most important instrument of all—your own inner compass.”

Blessedly, I’m no longer afraid of dying, but I am afraid of never having lived, so I direct my compass to take me home, back to my heart’s desire, where my long-lost soul has a fire burning in the hearth, and a kettle on the stove. She is watching for me from the window so she can be the first one to greet me and welcome me home.

Warped Mirrors

As a child, one of my literary touchstones was Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”.  In the prelude to this story, Andersen describes a warped mirror that has been designed by the devil.  Like the mirrors in funhouses of days gone by, this mirror distorts and mars everything it reflects.  Often Satan’s demons roam the earth carrying this mirror with them, cackling gleefully at all the mischief they are creating by reflecting untruths down upon humankind.  One day a power struggle ensues, and in the turmoil the demons drop the mirror, which shatters into thousands of shards, some lodging in people’s eyes and hearts, distorting their view and turning their hearts to stone.

The remainder of this fairy tale concerns the epic search by a little girl, Greta, to find her dearest friend, Kay, whose heart has turned to ice from the mirror sliver lodged there.  Ultimately love triumphs, but at great cost.

I think of this story whenever I hear Matthew’s warning in the gospel—”you who see a speck in your brother’s eye, first take the log out of your own.”   The devil’s mirror still has the power to play fancy tricks on us.  But only until we recognize it and remove it.  Then we regain our true eyesight.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a sermon, read something meaningful, seen a powerful movie, etc. and thought to myself “so-and-so should really hear this message.”  That may be true, but it might also be that warped mirror speaking, reflecting away from me and projecting onto others my own worst fears and darkest traits.  If I take the time to be honest with myself and look a little deeper, I often understand that the lesson or message is for ME.  It may or may not apply to others as well, but my job, as I’m better beginning to understand, it to pay attention to who I am called to be and what I am called to do, and trust God to nudge others in the direction they’re supposed to be heading. If I can successfully rein in my tendencies to make sure everybody else is getting it right, that equips me with more than enough energy to follow God’s call for me.  

And today, that call appears to be leading me towards Europe.  If I ever had a better incentive to give up micro-managing, I don’t know what that might be.  Try pulling that plank out of your eye and see what happens.  The view can be pretty spectacular.

 

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