Living Questions

An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion.

It sharpens your eye for the road.

Rachel Naomi Remen

That’s the tricky part—being able to hold fear and release, sadness and joy, assurance and mystery— that is surrounded by unexplainable hopefulness. 

How do we experience God and humanity, not as a rescuer or fixer or even a comforter, but as an abiding presence?

Rachel Naomi Remen reminds us of the power of questions that confound our lives.  My wondering today is an evolution of that question that has been with me for most of my life: What is my responsibility for my life and what is God’s and what just happens?

Again and again I bump up against what eludes explanation, the aligning of freedoms of choices: God’s, mine, and stuff that doesn’t fit into that binary.  I’m faced with facing what is, trusting in the moment without second-guessing what is already done, and at the same time, I am still trying to control outcomes that are not in my control.  How do I let go of boundaries of time, of expectations, of accomplishments, and whatever else occupies my attention in a state of brace, instead of giving space to what I cannot predict or even imagine?

Well, this seems to be one of those times.

Most of the things I do have been radically altered.  I actually like being home and released from the tug of social obligations—even though most of those encounters are life-giving.  I didn’t have to choose where to meet my friend for coffee or whether to invite her to my house instead.  I didn’t have to figure out a meal suitable to take to a friend or whether to invite another to my house because that is not comfortable for anyone right now.  I didn’t have to plan the English class I lead or wonder what my responsibilities are for Sunday church.   I didn’t have to feel guilty about deciding to skip my yoga class or dreading a trip to the grocery store for things that I didn’t really need anyway.

In the wake of all this release, I have actually been sleeping soundly all night.  The imaginaries that visited me at 3 a.m. have vanished or taken on a new perspective.  

I have been concerned that our immigration paperwork—that makes it easy to travel to see my family—expires in July.  Even though we know Mitch has a contract extension, I had conjured up all kinds of scenarios about what could and might happen during the renewal process.  Without knowing the “real” requirements, I have agonized over an imagined time line and the ill effects of delays. 

In order to stabilize the procedure, we were frantically preparing for an English test we were to take, even though English is our first and only language.  We sent our education credentials for a costly “official” review, knowing we have advanced degrees.  I applied for a job at the local University and was encouraged by the response and at the same time terrified of the possibility. I even imagined where we might live if it wasn’t where we are and couldn’t even come up with a place that made any sense.

The English test has been canceled.  The degree review is delayed because the company employees are working from home.  The University interview was canceled because there are so many unknowns about when classes might resume and how.

We are part of the fabric of this community and the formal paperwork doesn’t seem as pressing right now as I previously imagined.  We are grateful that Mitch’s job pays him to continue transforming what it means to do his job in unforeseen circumstances. We are grateful for simple encounters with people that matter. I’ve made more phone calls and reached out to more people this week and it has been without fear or obligation.  

Whether it is God’s choice, my choice, or someone else’s choice, or the aligning of freedom of choices, I don’t know.  My question hasn’t changed but I have been forced to let go of some boundaries and what might be possible that kept me looking and longing instead of living into what is.

That’s the tricky part—being able to hold what is and abide in the presence of Love where fear and release and sadness and joy don’t require resolution.  And the future is pure mystery.

Earth is Messaging

“Is God trying to send us a message through this Coronavirus pandemic?” That’s what a member of our Lenten study group asked.

“No, but the earth is.

I thought that was a wise and wonder provoking answer from our guest leader, Paul Galbreath. Clearly, the unprecedented changes and challenges of the last few days have gotten our attention.

At the very moment I am writing this, my husband is at our church, meeting with a group of elders who are wondering how to be the Church without Sunday worship.

The discussion of the elders will include how to care for each other during this time. Ours is an aging congregation like many so-called mainline denominations. However, we are all vulnerable.

Martin and his wife live on his dishwasher’s salary. They are gifted musicians from another continent. On Friday, he was sent home from the restaurant, indefinitely, because there are no dishes to wash.

Paul is a young man waiting for a kidney transplant. I noticed he often comes from the balcony to the downstairs washroom about halfway through Sunday’s service. He has green hair and a joyous smile.

Andy is a thirty-something climate scientist who had never been to a church until he showed up on a recent Sunday morning. He wears a suit and slips into the back row. A lady in the choir thought he was Justin Trudeau visiting and wondered about his security detail.

Jee Yoon and her two sons are far from their home country. She wanted to expand her young sons’ opportunities and education. They cannot go home safely now. She is drenched with so many questions and so many gifts.

There is a lot to wonder about these times. But in our Lenten study, our conversation took a different turn than I expected; unveiling the messages we might hear.

We might pay attention to the earth in scripture, our leader suggested. How does the text associate with our landscapes?  Victoria, our city, is the Garden City, with resplendent ocean and mountain views. Yet, our J-pod of orcas and the salmon that spawn in Gold Stream Park and the Garry Oaks that line the Camosun College grounds are in peril.

Victoria is Canada’s busiest cruise ship port-of-call. With the season officially delayed until July, 120 ships will not visit our city. The promise delivers a crushing economic impact and more jobs like Martin’s will be compromised. And yet, slowing the surge of cruise ships, airplanes, and all kinds of travel might save our planet.

When I walk past the homeless man and hear him cough, I am reminded that his health is as important as mine. The strong public health system of Canada and the more limited public offerings in the United States will shape our collective response.

Toilet paper has come to represent our most basic need for luxury. Is there more to hear than the call of consumerism that says our needs must be met at all costs?

Earth shares a message with the Lenten season—to die and live is earth’s refrain.

What will rebirth look like?

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Moss Lady at Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, BC     Photo by Mitch Coggin

Neither the end or the beginning…

The story isn’t finished; the stories I connected in my last blog, that is. The story in the movie It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, the story behind the Jewish teaching Tikkun Olan (to repair the world), and my own story are linked in an odd conflation of time. I realize how life unfolds, not “in order,” but it emerges in disorder, maybe even haphazardly at times. The disorder engenders reflection and wonder when I pay attention.

My adult son asked me to expand upon the idea that systems of public education celebrate submission to standardized thinking and dictate acceptable social roles and norms. It was a tall order. Looking back through some of my own academic writing, I uncovered this story about a young man I tutored more than ten years ago. There is more to see here.

Along with the part of town where he lived, Michael was seen as lacking.  Michael didn’t measure up to either the academic or social expectations of his teachers or community leaders. He wore labels that schools generate and use to describe deficiencies and predict outcomes for a lifetime.

Michael’s dad, John, beamed that Michael had failed the test to qualify for a special class as a prospective high school freshman. His son was “too smart,” he said, to be accepted into the class that would separate him from the mainstream. John was looking for a tutor to teach 15-year-old Michael to read before school began that fall.

The director of the Neighbourhood Center contacted me to ask if I might help find a tutor for Michael. I had a long history with the community and knew the family. I decided that the tutor could be me.

During June and July, Michael and I met twice a week at the Center. He regularly brought a book of stories about his favourite cartoon characters, books from the library about dogs or famous people (like Albert Einstein) and his cell phone as reading material he wished to share. Considered a “non-reader” in school, Michael admitted he let teachers read aloud to him as he navigated his way through the school day, in and out of the special services resource room for extra help.

In our time together, Michael found his way to online reading sites (he particularly enjoyed Greek mythology for early readers), read signs in the driver’s manual I thought would be of interest to him, and played online family feud, one of his favourite games. He told stories about cruising the neighbourhood on his bicycle and about the 1964 Ford Galaxy he and his dad had recently purchased to fix-up. Together, we wrote down a few of his adventures to use as familiar texts that supported his rereading. To find another way for Michael to share his stories, I encouraged him to photograph the car he’d been telling me so much about.

Michael used his photographs to create a digital story that he wrote as a short narrative, read as a voice-over, and completed with country music he remixed to add to his video. We made an official-looking CD to share with his family and the Neighbourhood Center’s staff. Michael’s dad watched the video, listening to his son read with tear-filled eyes.

How Michael actually used literacy did not neatly conform to the linear standardized conceptions of what counts as “meeting expectations” at his new school. In contrast to the school community’s perception of Michael as a failed literacy learner, finding Michael in his own stories allowed me, his family, and the community center staff to see Michael in ways that counted in his life.

Yes, it was a Fred Rogers kind of finding. Michael’s story articulates a discourse of possibility that is what Fred Rogers had mastered.

At the end of the summer, I was preparing for a new semester and arranging for Angie, a community volunteer, to take over my weekly meetings with Michael. In our conversations, I eagerly shared: “he likes… he knows… he wants to find out about… he’s really good at… no, he doesn’t like to… he’s kind of scared about.”

Angie was enthusiastic about possibilities, not just for Michael as a reader—we both knew his strength and his struggle—but for Michael as a young man, growing into his strengths. Angie ended the conversation with:  We spend too much time remediating and not enough time encouraging.

Yes, to capaciously find the hidden light in each person; to lift it up and make it visible once again restores wholeness to part of the world that we can touch.

Seek to Find

Personal stories don’t really have a beginning, or middle, and an ending. Things happen. One thing follows another and some things lead up to what we thought might have happened first. The effects, implications, and the lessons we gain along the way are never finished. A pattern forms that is sometimes hidden from plain sight.

We do make sense of our lives by constructing a story – it doesn’t have to be written down. Stories connect us—to each other and to larger truths.

This story could begin with a Christmas habit; one our family took up quite a few years ago. It happened when our children became young adults. After eating a big breakfast, opening a few presents, and sustaining dwindling conversations, we would retreat to an afternoon movie at our local theatre. This past Christmas, it was just Mitch and I, and guess what? People in our new town shared our family’s holiday escape; the cinema was packed.

We decided to catch the 4:00 show and narrowed our choices down to two: CATS and It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. Our quick watch of the official trailers made the decision easy. At the downtown theatre, we indulged in the almost leather reclining seats and a $14 bag of buttery popcorn. Truly, it was a holiday event.

We were assigned seats in row 3. My neck was grateful for the 14 ads for upcoming attractions that gave it time to adjust to the view. It took me a bit longer to get used to the actor, Tom Hanks, playing Mr. Rogers. I’m still not comfortable with that choice. But it didn’t matter.

The movie, to me, was more about the actual relationship that framed the story: the transformation of the journalist, Tom Junod, who was assigned to interview the children’s television icon in the late 1990s. The official movie trailer touts: “It only takes one person to inspire a world of kindness.” While there have been several news and magazine stories that say this is the lesson our world most needs right now, that is not the essence of the movie I watched.

Sure, Fred Roger’s was kind. However, what I witnessed that made a difference in Tom Junod’s life was beyond kindness. I am unable to find adequate words to describe the ways Fred Rogers celebrated, no, uncovered goodness in a person that people like you and I don’t easily see. Goodness isn’t exactly the right word either.

Fred Rogers recognized an intangible something— making an attitude, an insight, an observation matter to encourage another’s life. Fred’s gift was his ability to recognize and name a kernel of Tom’s being (in this case) that was healing to name. Evidently, Tom Jurod was an interrogator with a reputation, not a good one. The fact that Fred and Tom developed a relationship is another miracle of the Fred Rogers’ sort.

Events of both these men’s lives were remixed in the movie. I found myself searching for more evidence to flesh out what was Fred Rogers. I watched videos, read and watched interviews, and reread articles both from the time of the events and those that the movie has generated in recent weeks.

I found this line in the original article in Esquire magazine that Tom Jurod crafted back in November of 1998:

He finds me, because that’s what Mister Rogers does—he looks, and then he finds.

Tom is recalling a time when he met Fred Rogers at Penn Station in New York City. “Find” seems like an appropriate verb for meeting in a large place with lots of people. However, the verb “find” that Tom uses transcends an act of physically locating.   Different than being kind, or gracious, or even good, Fred Rogers looks and then he finds—the person—the real person deep inside.

The story isn’t finished, of course. And this story (the one in the movie) came up in my mind and in my daily writing and is woven into daily relationships both after and, I realized, even before I watched it.

Six or seven months ago, I read a story in Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. I marked the story and wrote bits of both the tale and Krista’s interview in my journal.

On her podcast, On Being, Krista interviewed Rachel Naomi Remen, who told this story in response to a question asking her to recall the spiritual roots of her life. Rachel’s Hasidic rabbi grandfather gifted her this story that is behind the Jewish teaching, Tikkun Olan, to “repair the world.”  Rachel Naomi Remen’s story begins,

…when there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. In the course of history, this world… emerged from the heart of holy darkness as a great ray of light. And … there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world broke. The wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

According to Rachel’s rabbi grandfather, the whole human race is here because

…we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world.

Both lived stories, the one wise woman Rachel was told by her grandfather 63 years ago and the one I watched in It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood and beyond, tell us that we are healers of the world. Both stories open a window of possibility.

As Rachel told Krista: “It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you.” It is a collective task.

That’s what Fred Rogers had—the courage to be unselfconscious enough to practice that kind of looking and finding.

 

Treasure

Mitch, with the newspaper in hand, simply said, “You’ve got to see this!”

I don’t know Blake Handley, but I appreciate his letter to the Editor of the Times Colonist, our local newspaper.

I told you in my last post my delight in discovering “The Poetree” on my walk home one of these cloudy days we’ve been having. Blake Handley had similar words of thanks to whoever created his discovery.

Dallas Road is a walk we take more often in clearer conditions, maybe strolling through Beacon Hill Park on the way and, if it is summer, stopping for an ice cream cone at Beacon Hill Drive-In. Nonetheless, I could go there almost any day and find dogs and their walkers in almost any weather.

From the Ogden Point Breakwater to Clover Point Park, escapees from visiting cruise ships, para-sailors, annual yacht racers, and windsurfers join all ages of Victoria’s residents that stroll, run, play, and get an eye full along the shoreline. Freightliners, fishing boats, and floatplanes traverse the space between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula that is visible across the way. All kinds of people and, more noticeably, all kinds of dogs make their way up and down Dallas Road’s vistas.

This isn’t a story, though, about the beauty and, yes, the majesty of the scenery, but the surprise of shared community encountered along the trail.

Blake Handley’s letter was in gratitude:

A great big thanks to whoever created and placed this Stick Library in the Dallas Road Dog Park. Already it has gathered a lot of four-footed interest and much appreciation. The treasure chest is located where the sidewalk splits at Dallas Road and Cook Street.

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Times Colonist, January 24, 2020  Photo by Blake Handley

Celebrating the pace of unhurried wonder, responding creatively to another’s delight and even whimsy, someone took a moment to bring a bit of joy to even the “least” of those passing by and me and maybe you, too.  Treasure indeed.

Invited

Simply to expect that we will be given what we need for our own growth—that we will be invited again and again to awaken, pay attention, learn, stretch into love in new ways, practice discernment, exercise generosity or rest and be held in a rich and joyous way of life.

Marilyn McIntyre, Adverbs for Advent

 An invitation…

One thing about Victoria, where I live, is that there is always something new to discover, unexpected encounters with people, places, and things. I am sure this is true wherever I’ve been and I was too preoccupied with other things to notice.  Victoria invites walking and biking and not having access to our car most days encourages me to take alternative forms of transportation.

This wasn’t true in the city where I used to live. Early one spring evening, I decided to walk to a meeting just a few blocks from my house. Without my dog walking alongside me, three neighbours stopped to see if I needed a ride, asking if my car was out of service. At the university, where I worked,  I regularly walked through a steep winding path to teach in a building that most of my colleagues and even students drove to instead. On that path, I met squirrels and birds and even a muskrat swimming in the narrow creek. Neon blue dragonflies dotted the grasses near the edge of the water and just off the paved walkway; a wooden porch swing, hidden among the foliage, invited reflection.

I don’t know if Marilyn McIntryre was thinking of these kinds of opportunities, nonetheless, taking time to walk, alter my usual route, or ride the city bus creates an opening for noticing. Invited by a slower pace and immersed in the freedom to look, I see my surroundings differently.

And maybe, the people who choose to offer a sense of community and abundance, like the owner of the Poetree I discovered, extend those invitations to someone like me who happens by.

In the winter here, the sun is a glorious gift in the midst of cloudy, rainy forecasts and walking or biking is common, no matter what the weather. I walk home often from Fernwood, a gentrified by still funky neighbourhood, where I go to yoga, get my hair cut, and monitor offerings at the community theatre. Meandering toward home, I pass through Haultain Corners in the adjacent Oakland’s neighbourhood.

 

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Haultain Corners is two blocks of friendly places: Koffee (yes, a coffee & lunch spot), two small groceries, a community collective offering creative classes, and even a “General Store” that has everything you might need from fresh bread to vegan leather handbags. I bought my thermal French press coffee pot there a few months ago. Even if I don’t stop in, there is a sense of belonging and welcome there.

IMG_0188The shops are nestled between residential streets of early 20th century houses, many lovingly restored and some in need of a handy person. The Poetree was just around the corner from the shops on Scott Street.

Victoria is filled with unexpected “libraries”—some kind of structure on a post with a door for access and a shelf for books— like the one near the corner of my street. Neighbours and strangers who happen by exchange books with no need for a special card or incentive to “sign up,” – an unconventional way to build community, belonging, and shared lives.

The Poetree was one of those unexpected encounters.

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At first glance, I thought it was another inventive container filled with books to share. Startled by the narrowness of the frame, I took a closer look.

One lone poem, handwritten on a scrap of paper, was on the clipboard behind the glass door.

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I delightfully lingered. I wondered: Who put this poem here? Who is Edwin Markham?  Why this poem? (I had many thoughts about the timelessness of this message.) Who had the idea to create this Poetree? Can I put a poem here, too? Questions that may never be answered and that is part of the delight. Wondering expectantly without expectation.

I don’t expect much, or do I have too many disguised expectations? Maybe I expect too much of myself—that I am the one who has to figure things out, do something, decide, right now. So I want to hold Marilyn McIntyre’s words close, to simply expect that I will be given what I need, and maybe even that what I need is already here. It is not a one-time invitation.

I am grateful for whoever chose to put up the Poetree. I am grateful for that one who penned that poem on a scrap of paper and opened the door to share it with me. I am grateful for Edwin Markem who risked sharing his thoughts so long ago. The Poetree reminds me of what a joyful encounter looks like, to notice, to take a closer look, and extends an intentional pause along my way. Wonder. Questions don’t have to be answered or even answerable.

invited again and again to awaken, pay attention, learn, stretch into love in new ways, practice discernment, exercise generosity or rest and be held in a rich and joyous way of life.

Yoga with Jesus

Maybe it is true. Waiting is generative even when it seems like willful inaction or slovenly procrastination. I wanted so much to share something about my yoga with Jesus at the end of the summer, but I could not seem to put it into words. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough or maybe I wasn’t ready to write it.  Now, in the arrival of Advent, I have a frame for it.

Mitch was teaching for the week at Montreat and I went along hoping to rest in a familiar place. I am not usually the one who seeks out the church when I don’t have to when I’m away on a kind of vacation. However, my hope was to meet God in these Appalachian Mountains: in the forest, the gurgling stream, and amid the majestic rock face of the mountain exposed. I also longed for the ritual of the Anglican expression of faith that I regularly participated in before we moved to Canada. I wasn’t expecting the Christs I encountered.

51989125_10156824646220390_5861940780565790720_nI met this image of Jesus when I attended the early Sunday Eucharist at St. James Episcopal Church in Black Mountain. As soon as I entered the sanctuary, I was confronted with this Jesus towering above the chancel, bringing his human presence to center stage. He was larger than life itself; Jesus with his hand outstretched toward me, beckoning me, while his other hand is open and receiving. He has a kind, compassionate gaze, easy to look toward. So intimate, I sensed the unexplainable tears about to come; I hoped they aren’t noticed. I didn’t look too intently even though I wanted desperately to look deeply into that face.

Saying the name “Jesus” makes me feel self-conscious, I will admit.   I usually choose to use God or Spirit more often from the trinity of names. I remember (not fondly) my Dad often said, thank you, Jesus. My sisters and I felt some embarrassment for the trembling tone and mismatched care between my Dad’s Jesus and us. As I grew up, God seemed more dignified, godly even, a divine presence that seemed more inclusive and a safe distance away.

I know that this Jesus I encountered at St. James was, as Frederick Buechner says our unexpected tears are, “speaking to me through the mystery of where I’d come from and was summoning me to where, if my soul is to be saved, I should go to next.”

 My next was a “contemplative yoga” class that met at St. James on Wednesday. I wished I had, had the courage to ask the kind Priest about the class as she greeted us as we exited. Of course, I didn’t. But I did have the courage to show up, after checking online to make sure anyone was welcome and found they even provided yoga mats.

The class was in this very sanctuary. A couple more mature than I and two other people set up their yoga mats on the floor around the communion railing. And yes, we were lying at Jesus’ feet. In fact, that is what I could see, his bare feet and the hem of his garment as I grounded myself on my mat. And that is where my eyes stayed; all I needed to do was touch the hem with my gaze.

Since that day, I repeat Come Lord, Jesus, at the beginning of each yoga class and occasionally even at church.

I didn’t remember at the time that this was an Advent mantra. I suppose I should have known that but I was literally lying at an adult Jesus’ feet. I desired the intimacy, to see and know that Adult Jesus, whose very name challenges my ego.

This is the image I am waiting for this Advent – a bigger than life Jesus, not a little baby that is to me an abstraction of hope and requires little response from an adult me.

Richard Rohr says that it is to the adult and cosmic Christ that we are saying, Come, Lord Jesus. The Advent mantra means that

.. all of Christian history has to live out of a kind of deliberate emptiness, a kind of chosen non-fulfillment. Perfect fullness is always to come, and we do not need to demand it now. This keeps the field of life wide open and especially open to grace and a future created by God rather than ourselves…

When we demand satisfaction of one another, when we demand any completion to history on our terms, when we demand that our anxiety or any dissatisfaction be taken away…we are refusing to say, “Come, Lord Jesus.” We are refusing to hold out for the full picture that is always given by God.

Come, Lord Jesus is a leap into the kind of freedom and surrender that is rightly called the virtue of hope. The theological virtue of hope is the patient and trustful willingness to live without closure, without resolution… our Satisfaction is now at another level, and our Source is beyond ourselves.

Jesus will come again, yes, this bigger than life Jesus that has been ever-present even when that presence seemed too intimate to publically acknowledge.

Come, Lord Jesus.