(no title) draft

She felt she had no plans, no thoughts; yet at some level, her mind and her body had taken action and catapulted her into this pool of stillness . . . She felt as if she were suspended between two worlds, belonging to neither.  —from Astrid & Veronika, by Linda Olsson

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I do love how, in my life, the right book comes around at just the very right time (the one mentioned above was given to me by a dear friend). And the books, they are hardly ever big and important, as some might consider such categories. If I were to list a few . .  .

The Education of Little Tree, Forrest Carter

My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok

Assault on Eden: A Memoir, Virginia Stem Owens

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keefe, Laurie Lisle

Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset (trans. Tiina Nunnally)

I can’t and wouldn’t say that most of these books make my own favorite-of-all-time list (except maybe Little Tree—o wait, and Kristin Lavransdatter), but each has been vital to me as my person was shifting, recognizing, searching. Those times when life felt/feels too big or too hard or too lonely. When it seems as though I’m moving around, doing what needs to be done, but I’m doing it in a world filled with kinetic sand, up to my shoulders. I can still look around, but there’s a drag to every motion. A way of being in which every action is so very intentional.

Bet you can’t guess I’m in the midst of one of those times now.

I typically respond to my entry into this strange land in an intensely physical way. Let’s say I start weeding my flock of gardenias, azaleas, camellias, and roses. In 100 degree Alabama heat. For a week. Which I follow by multiple trips to Lowes for pine straw (let’s say twenty bales worth), which I spend the Labor Day weekend spreading. In short, I exhaust myself to the point of not being able to move, which is to say,

She sat
     still being
and not being afraid
     but afraid            some
of the same
     vast girl talking to
the gardenias.

Thankfully, errands and wilting azaleas and afterschool pick-up (as well as an infected toe) draw me back from the edge. I’ve only fallen in a few times over the course of a life. The important thing is not being so afraid that I deny the darkness is part of who I am.

“Fr. Sophrony, how can I be saved?” Fr. Sophrony offered him a cup of tea and after awhile replied, “Stay on the brink of despair, and when you cannot go on, step back and have a cup of tea.” (Mount Athos, the Sacred Bridge: The Spirituality of the Holy Mountain, Dimitri E. Conomos and Graham Speake)

Or step out into the hot Alabama sun and move the watering hose.

She was thinking about the book, about the continuous process of reshaping and reassembling all her ideas and plans. It was as if the book she had begun in another world, in another life, had been written by someone else. The words no longer had a connection with the person she had become. Here, there were no distractions other than those she carried within, and everything lay exposed. It was time to find new words.  —Linda Olsson, Astrid & Veronika

A life like compost

When the poet Gary Snyder was asked if he’d ever serve as Secretary of the Interior or some other political post, he said this:

I’ve never thought seriously about that question. Probably not, although I am foolish enough to think that if I did do it, I’d do it fairly well, because I’m pretty single-minded. But you don’t want to be victimized by your lesser talents. One of my lesser talents is that I am a good administrator, so I really have to resist being drawn into straightening things out. The work I see for myself remains on the mythopoetic level of understanding the interface of society, ecology, and language, and I think it is valuable to keep doing that.

Gary Snyder

Me too. “I really have to resist being drawn into straightening things out.” I think probably at least 60% of my life is administrative. Being a mother is naturally administrative. Add in my penchant for order and heck, I’m screwed. And while the work I see for myself (if I am even somewhat sure I know what the work is I see for myself) does not remain “on the mythopoetic level of understanding the interface of society, ecology, and language,” I know that writing is my work. I stare at this screen and I know it.

Now, to throttle the cycle! Let the legos lie! Ignore the dog hair-dustballs scuttling across the room! Let the toothpaste spit harden in the basin of the sink…Okay, sorry. Can’t do that.

Compost. Let’s think about it in terms of compost. The mind, the piling up and turning over. What comes of a dirty, hot and holy mess.

On Top

All this new stuff goes on top
turn it over, turn it over
wait and water down
from the dark bottom
turn it inside out
let it spread through
Sift down even.
Watch it sprout.

A mind like compost.

Gary Snyder

Mercy on me

I’m always gladder to see the birds at our feeder. Maybe I like thinking I’m somehow helping them along through the winter. But mostly I think it’s just their skittery company I find comfort in.

wabi sabi birds by tricia mckellar
© Trisha McKeller

I have a jumble of things to say, and I keep waiting around for them to coalesce into some kind of theme, but that’s not working, so I’m just going to try and work them out here. Your patience please.

Wait. First I need to dry my hair.

I am back at my very own desk in my freezing hallway space. Cobwebs have formed in my absence. My coffee goes cold within five minutes. I rob my husband of our one space heater, shut my three doors (bathroom, playroom, front room), and huddle. Waiting. The whir of the heater’s fan muffles the boys screaming play in the basement. I wait.

Writing is hard work. I tell myself this as I sit staring out the window, trying to silence the other Jennifer who diverts herself with laundry, vacuuming, dishes, online shopping, mirror cleaning, floorboard dusting, recipe surfing—any kind of “productive” work (okay, the online shopping is just a vice) so that she doesn’t have to sit here in this office and work to get what’s in her brain out.

In her Letters Flannery O’Connor writes of writing: “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”

I don’t do fiction, but trying to sort out what’s going on—with me, with the world, with my family—can feel a little like pulling teeth. Like O’Connor, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Let’s start with what seems to be my near-constant state of irritation. (My office is finally warming. The great thing about tiny spaces is that they don’t take much.) One can blame irritation on others for only so long, at which point one can blame insufficient or excessive drug dosages, hormones, weather, inadequate sleep, or an unreasonable workload. But alas, the source of my irritation is my own dark self.

I have a friend I will call November. November is beautiful. She is tall and stately; her face is honest and kind. She is my friend who can see the world clearly, without romance, and still find it wonderful, if hard. November loves Jesus, but she doesn’t talk about loving Jesus. She just loves him. Verses from the Bible mark her refrigerator and her bathroom mirror. Her house is shambly in a wabi-sabi (wabi=simple imperfection, sabi=bloom of time) sort of way, always warm. Her life is often difficult, and she knows that this is partly her own doing. November works at love.

I haven’t been praying much for months. What I mean is, I have abandoned a rule of prayer and mostly resorted to Hail Marys and the occasional Thank You. Like I do with my irritation, I make excuses. I have been making them for so long that they are hardly even half-hearted. I certainly don’t believe them, so I finally gave them up. (Okay, I’m still in the process of giving them up.)  And so the only thing to do was ask for the desire to pray. More simply, to want to want to love Jesus, which is where my friend N came in. She had sent me a letter, a harrowing account of losing her three-year-old in arctic conditions (he had actually fallen asleep under a bed while playing hide-and-seek), that ended with Emmanuel. He is near.

So it was N that made me want to love Jesus again. To rediscover the joy behind/within the religiosity. To shoot for simplicity in the midst of chaos in the midst of a very grey January winter. I began to read three psalms at night: Psalms 50, 69 and 142—which are the psalms of Small Compline. Just three psalms, and not particularly long ones. But they are abundant, and every time I read them, if I pray them, I see myself a little more clearly. Which is to say I am humbled to recognize my lowly state, my need of mercy always.

So I offer here a very Short commentary on a few lines from 142. Just to say how words can speak and show. How God will speak and show through what we read (Scripture or otherwise). How joy can begin to return.

WHAT I READ:  He [“the enemy”] hath sat me in darkness as those that have been long dead… 

WHAT I HEARD:  The Enemy of Souls is certainly a crafty trickster. He starts with a good and then twists it all up until the good becomes a god. My own apathy, sloth, impatience (read irritation) and lust had me stuck in a dark place. Leisure became apathy, which turned to sloth. Having spent way to much time scanning through pages of clothing on an online used clothing site, I felt numb and blank, but I couldn’t stop. I had been effectively set in darkness.

SIDE NOTE (FUNNY STORY):  As spoken by the spiritually discerning and holy monk, Father Raphael (from Everyday Saint by Archimandrite Tikhon): He might, quite without intending to offend, still unerringly tell a sanctimonious priest: “What a snout your face looks like today! Were you watching television all day yesterday?”

WHAT I READ:  …and my spirit within me is become despondent; within me my heart is troubled.

WHAT I HEARD:  The darkness brought on by my own apathy, sloth and greed deceived me into thinking I was good. I was happy. I wasn’t even capable of recognizing my own troubled heart.

WHAT I READ:  Cause me to hear they mercy…Cause me to know the way wherein I should walk…

WHAT I HEARD:  The idea of refuge is forming inside of me. I may write more on this later, but initially, it occurs to me that cultivating a landscape of refuge would make for a self-sustaining existence, which isn’t really self-sustaining at all. It is God-sustaining. I still shy away from religious-sounding phrases like that, but I need to get over it. Because that’s what I mean.

WHAT I READ:  Teach me to do thy will…

WHAT I HEARD:  I am already being taught (read above). This astounds me. I begin to see what might be possible.

WHAT I READ:  In Thy Righteousness shalt Thou bring my soul out of affliction, and in Thy mercy shalt Thou utterly destroy mine enemies… 

WHAT I HEARD:  It is the good of God that brings me out of aforementioned darkness. The idea of God’s mercy destroying something is potent. Mercy isn’t necessarily about comfort or good feeling. It can be sharp and deadly. What’s frightening is thinking about that mercy working on me.

Showing up

So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one’s days. One may be preoccupied with shopping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead: one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from the air: the situations that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse move forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.

Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

I’m still here, plugging away. Thanking Graham Greene for the superficiality of my days. Though I don’t agree completely. Yes, the unconscious subconscious continues to flow, solving it’s problems in surprising ways, but I don’t go for the superficiality terminology. My deep hunch is the opposite: pretty much everything is, or can be, infused with meaning. It’s not only about paying attention; it’s about showing up—at the desk, in carline for the third time in a day, in the take out lane at the Russian festival—separating sticky, slippery pierogis with a spoon to dish out by the dozens. Heck, I even had to show up at the dictionary because I couldn’t for the life of me spell pierogi correctly.

Jonah shows up, if begrudgingly, to do his spelling homework. By the end, he can’t stop repeating “I’m sorry” because he thinks I’m mad but I’m only trying to keep him on track and he’s interpreted my actions as irritation and then I’m giving him a chocolate chip for every word he gets down on the page because who wants to have homework as a seven-year-old anyway?

Gabriel shows up for the bizillionth time, asking help finding his Lego Darth Maul head or the silver light saber handle, or his Yodie (pet name for Yoda who has been missing for weeks, though G hasn’t given up — He’ll turn up someday, G intones, ever the optimist).

J pointed out, as we trekked from the garage to the house, weighed down with school bags and groceries, trying to balance on the larger stones John lined the river rock path with (because, let’s face it, those little rocks are kind of hard to walk on with a load—it’s like wading through wet sand—but it sure looks pretty), that when we looked back we could see where the time went. What he meant was we could count the rocks we’d already walked on and we could clearly see how far we had to go. Gee, wouldn’t that be nice sometimes? Knowing how far we had to go, being able to look back and clearly see what we’d already done. Heck, being able to see where we are going! But being the messy humans we are, it all gets too complicated too much of the time.

My favorite line from End of the Affair is written by the woman, in her diary. She is the woman pouring myrrh on Jesus’ feet, drying them with her hair. She is the squanderer, giving every earthly, human thing she has to the one she loves. Many would call her immoral—her character the very definition of immorality, if not also adultery and lust. She falls into belief like she falls into love: unreservedly, to the hilt. It comes down to a certain purity of heart I think.

You were there teaching me to squander, so that one day we might have nothing left except this love of You. But You are too good to me. When I ask You for Pain, You give me peace. Give it him too. Give him my peace—he needs it more.

She can no longer give everything to both her lover and her God, and she knows it’s killing him (her lover). But she’s already spent it all, everything she has. Maybe showing up every day can do that.

up is down

“M”

M stencilFlannery O’Connor famously wrote nearly three hundred letters to a woman referred to only as “A”, whose identity (per her request) was kept secret and sealed for twenty years. In 2007, her letters were made available to the public through Emory University. “A”s new (real) name? Hazel Elizabeth “Betty” Hester.

While I’m no Flannery O’Connor, it occurs to me that my melancholy is a little bit like Betty Hester: thoughtful, intelligent, reaching, private, even reclusive. A friend, in ways like Betty, that I can exchange thoughts and ideas with. As O’Connor puts it in a letter to “A” (I will always call Betty by her single letter), “I would like to know who this is who understands my stories.”

Very clearly yesterday morning, as I walked downtown in the semi-bustle that is Canton, OH, the week of the Football Hall of Fame Induction/Parade/Game, I met up with “M” again. That is, I recognized that she’d been hanging around, waiting for me to notice her.

Because gosh, I’ve been sad. An ache in my soul for weeks. At first I called it exhaustion. Then I said it was the drugs (either too much or too little). O, must be those crazy hormones.

But no, it is just my melancholy, whose hardly even had wallflower status in the party that is our life—I think, in part, because our life has been about familial survival for almost three years now. The boys are all okay, in mostly good grooves, so maybe my whole self has room to surface. A girl can only repress for so long. The definition of a crisis is that it will eventually end.

I am thus grateful and disconcerted. Having not had the luxury of “M”s presence for awhile now, I need a feel for her substance.

M gold red antiqueShe is heavy and full. A kind of ripeness that smells of sour milk (which my grandfather would simply call buttermilk and pour over his stale chocolate cake).  She urges slowness but can drag me into a sticky molasses sleep. In the morning she almost blesses me, like the sky, but by noon she’s gone parking lot grey, filling me with oppressive heat. She can beget creation; she can beget despair.

In honor of her reemergence, I physically wore myself out yesterday and stayed outside as long as possible (my best way to bear her particular kind of friendship). I walked downtown to work and then walked back. The boys and I cleaned up the yard, swept the driveway, and toted rocks to mallet in the mulch that’s been escaping the bricked wall near our front sidewalk. I weed-whacked. I mowed. This morning it felt like yesterday was the first day of basketball practice; I liked the way the aches lined up.

And today I was sufficiently worn out to take it slow and handle the slowness without being drug under.  Which was exactly the point: my being in relationship with “M”, which is a way of saying how I manage a relationship with myself.

m lower shaggyI read a very true thing about writers and their work last week, the gist being that the writer writes to be, for a moment, more than she truly is. Melancholy reminds me of a reality not driven by circumstance. It’s about reach.

Writers and their books will always be inextricably connected, but the relationship between them isn’t simple. As [George] Saunders told me, “A work of art is something produced by a person, but is not that person — it is of her, but is not her. It’s a reach, really — the artist is trying to inhabit, temporarily, a more compact, distilled, efficient, wittier, more true-seeing, precise version of herself — one that she can’t replicate in so-called ‘real’ life, no matter how hard she tries. That’s why she writes: to try and briefly be more than she truly is.”

Maybe, as a reader, that is what I keep falling in love with — not the author, but the art of reaching.

Margo Rabb, from “Fallen Idols” in the New York Times Sunday Review of Books 

Liturgy of days

My patience yesterday was a loose button on an old coat at the end of a long winter. How’s that for melodrama?

Jonah was home sick, but not all that sick. Sick enough for an ear-check at the doctor (mild infection—probably caused by my trying to get him to blow all the snot out of his sinuses, which he did with such force that I immediately regretted my directive to “blow harder”). Sick enough that he slept in until 7:30 (very irregular) and only wanted to go back to sleep after I woke him. Sick to the degree of 99.7. Sick enough that a promise of healing (Pedialyte) popsicles was made.

But not sick enough that he slowed down much. Not sick enough that he didn’t complain mightily when I told him his iPad time was up. Not sick enough that he and Gabriel couldn’t get into it over who was going to wear which mask (Darth Vader or General Grievous) or who was going to be the bad guy and who was going to be the good guy as they chased each other in circles around the house (every game begun usually ends as a thinly veiled version of Coyote and Roadrunner). By noon I was certain that I would take J to dance at 5:30; a physical respite for all.

Next day I was looking forward to a long morning in front of my computer working at Starbucks. A recovery of sorts. But our friend/G’s babysitter had an unexpected change of plans and was only able to stay a few hours instead of the customary five. I was trying to process this as I pushed Jonah out the door so that I could drop him at school before zooming over to a doctor’s appointment for myself. I was tense, trying to hold back my angry tears.

Vexed. There’s a word for you. When my silent expectations aren’t met, I pretty much embody the meaning of the word—from vexare, to “shake or disturb.” As I drove to the doctor I wondered what my blood pressure would be. I carry my vexation in my shoulders and my neck. My breathing goes shallow. I get tunnel vision. Thank God for my car and NPR. It’s hard to stay mad when listening to a story about a strip of highway that’s closed every night for a week in spring so that car wheels won’t flatten the salamanders and spring peepers migrating to their vernal pool for an underwater sex orgy.

And this small, strange turn in my day made it possible to apprehend—as I sat on the examination table waiting for the doctor and reading a memoir about grief—this passage about time and the way it breaks us open. The first half is from Margaret Atwood’s novel, Alias Graceworked into the context of Emily Rapp’s Still Point of the Turning World:

“It’s the middle of the night, but time keeps going on, and it also goes round and around, like the sun and the moon on the tall clock in the parlour. Soon it will be daybreak. Soon the day will break. I can’t stop it from breaking in the same way it always does, and then from lying there broken; always the same day, which comes around again like clockwork. It begins with the day before the day before, and then the day before, and then it’s the day itself…The breaking day.” Time, time, time: our enemy, and the only friend we have. We need it, long for it, fear it, loathe it, dream about it, try to extend it and shrink it.

Coming to peace with “nonaction,” I realized, felt impossible. I was used to doing and moving. Now I was waiting and thinking. Writing. Crawling up over the edge of each breaking day, broken but ready for action. Aching with fear and also brimming with a bright, swollen fearlessness. Fueled by a new ambition: to be still, to consider, to examine. It was against my nature, but my nature was changing. I was living an oddly liturgical life: examining grief with thought, word and, occasionally, a hell of a lot of movement.

We all, to some extent, are broken up like this every day, though our grief may not be as fathomless as Ms. Rapp’s (whose infant son was diagnosed with Tay Sachs). There is always some fear, but also some hope, because most of us do manage to get out of bed most days. As I consider my Lenten journey (or lack thereof) this year, my hope is significantly augmented by this one sentence: “It was against my nature, but my nature was changing.” Though I haven’t been able, haven’t chosen, to make it to as many Lenten services as I’d like, there is still a liturgy to my days—especially if I pay attention, if I accept what’s given rather than fight against it. I only inflict pain on myself and others when I do.

I like to think it possible–that “bright, swollen fearlessness”—a meditative attention amidst “a hell of a lot of movement” (that’s pretty much the definition of life with Gabriel and Jonah). And there’s some things that just can’t be prevented. Like G’s fall from half a flight of stairs (an incarnation of bright, swollen fearlessness). It’s his best shiner yet, and, true to form, he was ready to run ten minutes after he crashed. Jonah’s just inordinately proud of his big hat hair.

shiner      crazy face hat hair

Yes, and yes, and yes

Saturday morning John took charge of keeping track of the boys and managing the “I peed my unders!” mishaps as well as refereeing the “I don’t want to play with my brother!” and inevitable stomping-up-the-stairs-scream-crying-door-slamming-hide-in-the-closet outburst so that I could write a book review.

Whew. And having read that paragraph of a convoluted run-on sentence, you have some sense of what it felt like to stay locked in my little room at my little desk trying to form coherent thoughts about The Trivium, Thomas Nashe, and the media philosopher Marshall McLuhan.

My ideal workspace involves no children, but that scenario means dolling out cash that we’re always running short of. It becomes necessary, imperative even, to work through the pain. I’m overstating of course, but attention is a fragile thing. Somedays it takes exactly one hour to write a blurb; Saturday it took four.

I’ve become tolerably good at entering my own headspace and tuning out episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba, Super Why, or Scooby Doo. Just a few years ago I wouldn’t have thought that possible. I required and demanded silence. I don’t know how John or my previous roommates—namely my sister Cammy and good friend Kaete—managed it. I had this unspoken don’t-talk-to-me-before-ten rule they gamely tried to abide by, lest they be met by the cranky furrowing of my brow, or worse, my uncharitable habit of banging things (cabinet doors, dishes, etc.) around in a huff at being inconvenienced by some minor offense like leaving out the creamer. 

Then I had kids; and as John likes to say, we no longer had the luxury of sinking (by which we mean that inclination to wallow in our own less than healthy mental proclivities). This is as much a matter of survival as it is any conscious change for the better (i.e., repentance). But it is a kind of proof for the way that the given can affect real (good) changes in behavior.

That said, the kids rampaging the house smashing and crashing and generally out of my control takes a whole different kind of mind control. I was heading for a sinkhole Saturday morning whichever way you look at it—I was critical and cranky, internally blaming everyone but me for my own foul weather. Before I could work I needed to write.

Okay, my work is writing, but I mean personal writing. I used to be an avid letter writer, then email composer. I’ve fallen away from both, but picking up the pen and working out what was going on inside of me (the weight of which I wasn’t even myself aware) settled me. A better word  is acclimatize. Biologically, acclimatize means to respond physiologically or behaviorally to changes in a complex of environmental factors. A decent definition for human being, especially in our media driven culture.

In writing the letter, I was reaching out to another human being. I was choosing the renewal of a relationship rather than the wreck of another. The letter writing moved me on, nudging me away from self-destruction and the inevitably bad (hurtful) behavior that follows. It was a kind of revelation, this turning. I can recognize my habitual sins, but simply saying no to them—even saying no to the thoughts before they become sins—doesn’t stop the cycle. Only saying yes to something else will.

I wrestle with the problem of habitual sin, especially during lent, because that’s when I pay better attention. So I was glad to read this from Scott CairnsThe End of SufferingThe presence of it in my mind this past weekend was the beginning of a small recovery:

Those of us who struggle with habitual sins—and we know who we are—are very likely to break our hearts over the business of turning away from those chronic mark missings. Our problems with recurring sin, and the more general human problem of being enslaved by sin, is never solved simply by our rejecting that sin, no matter how many times we try, no matter how strenuously we struggle to reject it.

This is because merely rejecting sin—that is, focusing on not sinning—is finally just another species of infernal no.

“Just say no” is an insufficient principle.

The strongest man or woman in the world is not nearly strong enough to triumph over his or her sin simply by saying no to it. What we need is the strength-giving grace occasioned by our saying yes to something else, by our saying yes, and yes, and yes—ceaselessly—to someone else.