Every morning, I write a few pages. Not pages for any sort of paper or blog, I write what I am thinking or wondering or whatever comes to mind. Today my writing was filled with questions. On some days, I recall and reflect on what has happened or anticipate what will happen or maybe even what I hope will happen. And somehow, God is in the midst of all the meanderings.
Anne Lamont says that we don’t think our way into becoming ourselves. We take action and insight follows. For me, writing is an action, a spiritual practice, and yes, insight does often emerge. Somehow in the words I write, God speaks; occasionally in that moment, but most often over time. I’ve been pondering across the pages how my life unfolds without so much purposeful striving but with some intention.
I just finished reading the first novel in Buechner’s The Book of Bebb. Buechner weaves this intriguing analogy throughout the story.
In Hindu iconography, I have read somewhere, the mind of man is portrayed as a monkey swinging from tree to tree, witless, purposeless, grabbing out at whatever new branch happens to come to hand, which I take to mean that it is not we who control our thoughts but circumstances that control them. Let me smell bacon frying, and in spite of myself I am hungry; wave a red flag at me, and I am made as hell. Or subtler stimuli—a drop in barometric pressure, the look in somebody’s eye…
Buechner goes on as the narrator of Lion Country to wonder how our perceptions of or attitudes toward people (his of Bebb) change “just because these were the branches that presented themselves.”
A few evenings ago, two graduate students were slated to be community readers at parent/child-reading events at two local elementary schools. As the adult students’ instructor, I wanted to be there to support each of them. Leaving another event at the University early, I drove just a few blocks to find Garret welcomed and comfortable in a school cafeteria filled with teachers, parents, and young children. He was confident and assured in the opportunities the evening held. After a few conversions with others there, I headed for the door and the next school, a few miles away.
The school was farther than I had anticipated. I felt a bit anxious that I would arrive in time. Janelle, my other student and community reader, would be beginning in just a few minutes. However, the monkey’s arm presented in that moment made me even more uneasy; actually more than uneasy—indignant and then self-conscious of my own reputation—how I might be perceived instead of her dilemmas.
You see I am trying to establish new relationships between local schools and my University. Some of the schools provide field education and student teaching placements for our students. My desire is to create more equitable partnerships where we support one another. One way is to provide community readers and other support for these “reading parties” where children read with a community member while their parents are encouraged in new ways to support their young learners. Everyone in attendance shares a meal together and the children leave with a new book and a stuffed animal. For these teacher candidates and me, this is an incredible opportunity to share this time with these children and their parents.
As I drove, my phone was next to me giving directions when a text message from Janelle popped up. She simply said she would be “heading that way” as soon as an issue at her work was resolved, She was so sorry.
What?? She wasn’t already at the event like I expected? That meant there wasn’t anyone from the community there, from my university community that had promised a guest reader for the evening. Like the narrator in The Book of Bebb, the branches that flung in my face as I drove faster moved me from anger to disappointment to action. I was disappointed that she hadn’t made work arrangements that freed her to keep her commitment. I was angry with her for not being there, at the school, as our University’s representative. I felt compelled to make it right—to get there myself and somehow make up for the fact that she wasn’t there.
More texts came but I didn’t have time to safely look at them. I pulled into the parking lot and ran into the cafeteria filled with busy parents and teachers. Fortunately, a lady happened to be passing by the entrance. Anxiously I inquired, “Our community reader is late, could you direct me to the children?”
I paused to introduce myself and she smiled and led me to the kindergarten classroom filled with young readers. A young girl jumped up to grab my hand and ask if I had come to take her back [to her parents]. The teacher who had just finished reading looked my way. I explained the predicament. She didn’t actually respond to me and began handing out books and stuffed animals to the eager recipients. I helped.
After the books were passed out, another adult noted that there was time for another story. I quickly suggested that I read the next one and the teachers could do what they needed to do. I grabbed a book from a nearby bookshelf and began reading.
Funny how reading to a group of engaged five and six-year-olds, taking a logical next action, changed things. I didn’t have time to be angry or disappointed or even think about the “real” circumstances that lead me to this action.
I didn’t see her arrive, but I could see Janelle standing forlornly a few feet away from our group.
When I finished reading it was time for the children to go back to their parents. As I walked toward Janelle, I surprisingly remembered my intention to support her. So I did something I usually only think to do after I say too much, I listened.
Janelle was almost in tears. In fact,she said, “I’m about to cry.” She told me how she did get her supervisor to take over her usual responsibilities at her work, however, she was caught waiting for a teen girl’s parent who didn’t show up on time. Janelle was doing what she had to do, wait. Waiting when she knew she had other obligations. Waiting that required surrender to circumstances beyond her control. Waiting that challenged her own resources—could she… should she… would she…
My learning was to let both our anxiousness and disappointment remind us of our need for embracing God’s love that is beyond our experience and meets us over and over again in these everyday moments as we honor one another.
How can I make this sacred center home? To think from here, speak from here, act from here instead of reacting to a world that controls, rewards, and enables other possibilities. To act in ways to gain insight from these moments when, as Buechner says, we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know.
In No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton makes a distinction between two kinds of intention, a right intention and a simple intention. Merton says,
When we have a right intention, our intention is pure. We seek to do God’s will…we consider the work and ourselves apart from God and outside of Him. Our intention is directly chiefly upon the work to be done. When the work is done, we rest in its accomplishment…
But when we have a simple intention, we are less occupied with the thing to be done… We are more aware of God who works in us than of ourselves or of our work.