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.

 

 

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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.

How To Be A Better Parent All The Time At Everything

Loved this post. Hope you will too. Wish I’d read it twenty years ago!

How to be a better parent all the time at everything?? You can’t. The end.

Jess Basson

Dear Parent,

You’re probably thirty-something. You probably have a child or two under the age of four. You never knew you could feel SO MUCH LOVE, but you also never knew it was going to be THIS HARD. There are moments of sheer delight, but they’re often separated by long, mundane hours that range from busy to infuriating.

You feel guilty that you miss your pre-parent life. You wish you never lost your temper as often as you do. You know your spouse is supposed to be on the same team as you but often they feel like The Enemy.

But most of all, there is this nagging suspicion that you are messing it up.

mugIt being Parenthood, Your Child, Marriage, Life.

You used to feel like someone who could manage stress, who knew how to handle, who had a game plan. But between discipline and diet, health and safety, tantrums and tired…

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Touching

The morning started off very sweetly. My daughter, now 29, dropped her son off at school and swung by the house. I was still in bed. In my early-morning stupor, I tried to ask her something, and she decided what I was trying to say was that I needed to snuggle with her before she had to go. I didn’t object. Snuggling felt warm, and toasty and soft and delicious. I didn’t realize how much I missed that feeling. I was very affectionate with my kids–we slept together, cuddled, warm piles of limbs and elbows, tickles, plump cheeks and shinbones, knobby knees and tangled hair, morning breath and morning waking, a messy nest of love.

I first brought my daughter to bed with us when she was several months old, after I nearly dropped her one night while nursing her in the rocking chair, bone-weary from exhaustion. And there was no turning back, but it was mostly a good thing.  The kids didn’t see their dad much during the day, but we’d all be together at night, or at least by morning, the kids trickling in one by one as the night wore on, first the nursing baby, and then the siblings, little feet pitter pattering their way to our room in the dark.

My husband and I gave up our double bed, traded with the kids, pushed their twin mattresses together, and called it a king. I think that was before the bedbugs, but that’s another story.

Years later, as a single parent, the trend continued, my youngest refusing to stay for long in his own bed or his own bedroom. “But mom”, he pleaded with me once “you’re my love connection.”

Sometimes when I dream at night, my children are little again, at least for a while–they come to me unbidden, the memory true and undistorted–solid, clear, precise, in a way that my daytime memory cannot produce.

I wake with nostalgia, a sense of sweetness, wholeness, and loss in the same blurry exhale. And in those just-before-consciousness moments, I savor the knowledge that I wasn’t such a bad mother after all.

Mending a Broken Heart

It’s a gloomy day in a gloomy spring. Rain is pouring non-stop in what appears to be our new local temperate rain forest.

I’m lying in bed, recovering from a leg injury, trying to “be have” myself, resting my leg on a pillow. I’m “supposed to” be paying bills and such, but my heart isn’t in it. My heart is in a lot of other places apparently.

My heart is with Anne, my mentor, teacher, wise woman and companion in the healing profession, who will undergo a bilateral mastectomy tomorrow, on her path to reclaim a long life of vibrant health. Something about this grips me to the core. Her courage, her spirit, her choice to embrace all the positive aspects of this experience, leave me awestruck. But I am railing about the unfairness. Why? Why her? Why anybody?

A mastectomy seems like such a maiming, such a violation, such a shattering of something so powerfully symbolic of the feminine—the first bloom of the path to womanhood, the seat of our ability to nurture new life.

According to legend, Amazon warriors used to cut off a breast to permit them to be better archers. And so it is that as we lose parts of ourselves, be they physical, emotional, or spiritual, the ensuing process of loss, grief and recovery, allow us to develop new skills, habits, attitudes, that will serve us better in the days to come.

Oh Anne, my prayer for you today is that your sacrifice will ultimately be worth the cost, and that when all is said and done, your arrows will fly true.

My heart is with Michelle, our pastor of the past six years, moving today to Mankato in the rain. She has served us well, and is called to move on. I am thankful for the crossing of our paths, for the miles we have walked together. We are at that crossroads where our ways must part, at least for the time being, that fork in the road marked “God be with ye”, the origin of today’s simpler “goodbye”.

My heart is with my artist son, bound today for Tennessee, for a gig doing airbrush tattoos for–as he put it–” hillbillies at NASCAR”. It’s the millennium, in what would some say is post-racial America, yet I worry  for his safety as a young man of color traveling in the South.

My heart is with the people of South Africa, as Nelson Mandela’s light begins to flicker. The man whose life has been a testament to persistence, forgiveness, hope, and freedom, will undoubtedly soon finish his earth’s journey. When we lose our leaders and teachers, our pastors, or parents, it’s a frightening prospect—the mantle has passed to our shoulders and we understand that carrying on the work is now up to us. We pray that the seeds they’ve planted have fallen on rich soil, and have had time to root deeply, so that we’ll be strong enough and equipped for the task at hand.

My heart is with a couple of little girls I met last week at the overflow shelter. I spent some time reading to them on a saggy couch in a church basement. They liked my earrings and told me I looked like a rock star, high praise from a four and a six year-old, (and music to the ears of one whose last birthday just made her eligible for the Goodwill’s senior discount).   One of them asked me if it was ok to take her shoes off. I said “of course”. “That’s ‘cause this is my house” she replied, then asked me, beaming “are you my auntie?” “I’m your auntie for tonight”, I said, but went home troubled, thinking about all our children, and how we can be better aunties.

My heart is in so many places today, it feels splintered, if not shattered, and I struggle to hold onto enough of it for myself. I hold these people in my heart, and perhaps they hold me in theirs as well, but does that mean that a part of my heart goes with them, and a part of their hearts get left behind? Is that why people end up being heartless, because they get spread too thin? Or is it part of the mystery of life that the heart continually replenishes itself, that as much as we give away and share, more grows to replace it?

The Bible tells us that “God hardened Pharoah’s heart”, which has always seemed a dirty trick, a heartless play by God, if you will, which I have never understood. Dr. Suess, on the other hand, tells us that the Grinch’s heart “grew three sizes that day”. This gives me hope that, given the blessing of a non-judgmental, loving community, small-heartedness is something from which we can ultimately recover.

And how does the heart work, I wonder? I don’t mean the physical, blood-pumping, life-sustaining heart with which we are all too familiar. I mean the metaphorical heart, the one the Bible tells us to guard since “it is the wellspring of life”.   The ancients understood the heart, rather than the mind, to be the seat of the soul, and they may well have been right. Besides, theres just no poetic ring to “I love you with all of my brain” or “I hold you in my cranium.”

And my dreams, oh those dreams. They just keep on a’comin’, wave after wave after wave—I need some dreamless nights to catch up and incorporate the lessons they bring:

Little girls that need tending, girls bitten by tigers, or riding camels, or afraid that they are not beautiful enough.

A young man, driving erratically (I hope he at least has his permit)–I am riding in the backseat, leaning forward, calmly speaking into his right ear as he careens the wrong way down a divided road, coaxing him past obstacles until he can get back on the right side of traffic, making sure he slows down before he goes over a big bump.

 A woman I meet at a retreat house tells me she was at the funeral of a mother of three children—I don’t recognize the dead woman’s name. I wonder–did I know her? Her partner has already remarried; I think that seems a little quick, and hope she’s taken time to do her grieving.

As I heated my coffee this morning and the haze of sleep finally started to lift, I was startled to recognize that the dead woman was me, as was her remarried partner, as was the young driver, as were the little girls–pieces of my psyche that have separated or gotten left behind along the way. I understand that I have to be kind and gentle to myself, to invite back and incorporate these missing pieces of me, honor their journey, tend their wounds, embrace them back into my current life. I need to take good care of myself and pace myself, and make space for the frightened little girls, for the young man who’s driving through scary territory, to grieve for that young woman who died, and rejoice for that somewhat older, slightly wiser woman, who’s still taking a chance on life.

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?”

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