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.

This is a story that I need to tell myself. I have experienced this message before and I’m sure I will again and now I’m including you. I use my writing to read again my evolving stories and remind myself what faithful presence might look like.

Every Monday and Thursday, Carrie, a Naturopathic Doctor, teaches the yoga class I attend. Her class reflects her deep knowledge of anatomy and explores the connection between sensation and experience. She guides us to make connections between those sensations (often unimaginable ones like the edge of your right foot or the muscles around your ribs) to explore and expand our mobility. According to her bio at the college where she is full-time faculty, she has a great interest in the connections between somatic sensing and the mind.

Yes, I realize this yoga class affords me an amazing opportunity for practice. However, what I took away from a recent class was an embodied experience beyond Carrie’s guidance.

On this day, the focus of the class was stability. Carrie skillfully guided us through a progression of poses to build capacity and awareness of how our bodies support us through small shifts in where we put weight; how we transfer weight through hands, feet, or even the slightest shift in our hips. We moved from standing (mountain pose) to a high lunge (crescent lunge) and eventually to a very challenging balancing pose (half-moon) over the course of the 75-minute class using foam blocks and sensing variations of moves throughout our body.

As I focused on the micro-movements and shifts, I was amazed at the ease of my transition between positions when I followed her lead. Even with all this expert guidance, there were a couple of moments when I wasn’t able to sustain that ease.

No matter which pose, I noticed that if I even just glanced in front of me or beside me to see how someone else in the class was moving, I lost my way. I wobbled, fell out of position, and had to reset my body and my mind to maintain the posture. In other words, I lost the stability that Carrie guided me to experience that required all of me.

As I’ve heard it said about embodied practice: that might be one that I take off my yoga mat and into the rest of my life.

The Clean Edge of Change

Things do change, maybe even me.

It is the idea of a gradual instant again. The moment, a shift, that comes by living into imperceptible insight.

In one of my wanderings down a rabbit hole of my own recent history, I happened to gaze upon pictures of my old house, the one I left as the perfect and blessed welcome—that physical structure that was both the pinnacle and holder of my vision for a life. Oddly, even with some of the furniture I still sit on every day, the rooms looked like someone else’s, someone older and out of touch. The layout and furnishings seemed so perfect when we lived there for making many people who came to visit feel comfortable. I felt comfortable having them there. However, this time when I looked, I didn’t recognize the welcome or the vision that that place once held for me. Maybe, I have made a slight shift; maybe, I am, even for a moment, living in the present.

I always say I wish people would just drop by so I don’t have to think about getting everything “right” when we have visitors. Just a few days after seeing those pictures, I welcomed another kind of group where I wasn’t at the center. My husband had decided to have an evening work meeting at our home in the hope of easing some tensions in a more hospitable space. I didn’t have to do anything, he said.

The afternoon sun heated up our small living room where I’d taken out tables and pillows and unnecessary ware to make room for chairs from the bedroom, the kitchen, and even the yard to accommodate our guests. That morning, I decided that I would make something for the group to eat after the meeting. I made cookies, a quick bread, and cut up some fruit—all things that I already had on hand. I put the food on the kitchen table.  I put some pitchers of cold water and small glasses right inside the front door.

The dog and I spent the evening in the backyard. It didn’t matter that the food was hastily prepared and served in a menagerie of dishes. It didn’t matter that I had forgotten to buy paper napkins or make coffee or tea. It didn’t matter that we had only a small fan to circulate air or that the windows in our living room didn’t open on this unusually warm day. The cold water was enough.

What happens next is nearly weightless,
The opening where we stand breathless,
On the clean edge of change.      
Carrie Newcomer

And yet…

I happened upon one of Wendell Berry’s poems from Sabbaths 1998 when I was actually looking for something else. And just like Krista Tippett says, there was “the same wild gratitude I know inside myself when poetry intrudes and demands I let it take up space.” Space to muscle out my clenched jaw and heavy chest, one more time.

Wendell Berry has a way with words. His poetry demands to be read more than once and lived with for a time. His words amplify both an overwhelming sadness and unearth a well of joy at the same time in me. Living is not true in only one telling.

I copied the first and the almost last stanza of the poem in my commonplace notebook, thinking that those were the words that made sense for me. I wanted to skip the middle, even though I don’t believe that is an honest practice. The last stanza had a bit more resolution than I was ready to bear, just yet.  And so Wendell Berry begins,

By expenditure of hope,

Intelligence, and work,

You think you have it fixed.

 And I thought I knew what I was doing, being brave, taking a risk. leaving my career, as I knew it. It seemed right, even freeing to go—to pursue the pinnacle of degrees and experience an academic life that I thought more fitting my gifts. It was a wild and crazy idea that seemed to work.

Things fell into place. I was offered a teaching assistantship that paid my way. A house in an ideal spot landed in our lap. Mitch had a challenging interim for a few years and then another one followed literally blocks away from our house. We fell into the rhythm of that place. I finished the degree and opportunities eventually unfolded.

I found a job, or maybe a job found me, in a series of events serendipitously linked. A Frederick Buechner Writing Workshop, the integration of faith and learning, the lull of picturesque academia, the call of the mountains, the move to a perfect house, the friendly neighbours…

It is unfixed by rule.

Within the darkness, all

Is being changed, and you

Also will be changed.

 What I thought I had fixed, wasn’t, even me.  I’m not actually sure what the rules are. I am sure it might not matter. The truth is that nothing stays the same.  All is being changed. In the land of words, I believe this is aptly called a continuous tense that is both in progress and ongoing.

Then another miraculous turn, this place where we are now finding us—that’s how it happened. We didn’t look; we did take a leap, Mitch more easily than me. I agonized over each step that I made steeper by looking too far ahead, trying to micro-manage each part that required I let go of that security. I tried again to fix things, to meld them into something I didn’t know.

That’s the beginning of the middle of the poem for me, the part I wanted to skip over.

Now I recall to mind

A costly year: Jane Kenyon,

Bill Lippert, Philip Sherrard,

All in the same spring dead,

So much companionship

Gone as the river goes.

 And my good workhourse Nick

Dead, who called out to me

In his conclusive pain

To ask my help. I had

No help to give. And flood

Covered the cropland twice.

By summer’s end there are

No more perfect leaves.

*

Notice that asterisk.  Wendell Berry penned the asterisk between stanzas. I think that is where the author, the wise man, suspected I might continue to fill in my own recalling of a costly year. This is where the unspeakable pain, the deaths of illusion and relationship had promised a fix. This is where the unspeakable joy of sharing deep sorrow and the promise of new life illuminates sadness in the midst of possibility. I’m learning to name those names, as Wendell Berry is able to do, but I’m not quite ready for the last stanzas, yet.  Yet, they continue:

But won’t you be ashamed

to count the passing year

At its mere cost, your debt

Inevitably paid?

 

For every year is costly,

As you know well. Nothing

Is given that is not

Taken, and nothing taken

That was not first a gift.

 I, too, am recalling a costly year, from the end of October through the next October—so much change. So this middle, the gifts that are given and taken, darkness and light all mixed together is my life.   Scott Russell Sanders reminds that these gifts cannot be summoned; pain and suffering are measured against the sheer exuberant flow of things. 

 The gift is balanced by

Its total loss, and yet,

And yet the light breaks in,

Heaven seizing its moments

That are at once its own

And yours. The day ends

And is unending where

The summer tanager,

Warbler, and vireo

Sing as they move among illuminated leaves.

And yet. And yet…

risky and holy business.

Read again poem VI from Sabbath 1998 and skip my own story in between. Read the words more than once and live with them for a time. Maybe you are ready to hear the song.

Holy Holes

Out of 463 pages, one sentence, on page 181, captures my little corner.

In a room with a ceiling height of 66 inches, just enough to clear my height of 5’3”, there is a built-in L-shaped desk that is quite handy for spreading out—papers, books, or fabric projects. A large bulletin board, lined with colourful fabric supporting black and white peace signs, brightens the pale yellow wainscoted walls. A rod iron bookshelf, a 70’s era small cabinet, and the inner workings of our central vacuum system line the other walls. But the part that is captured in that one sentence is in the corner.

My sister and I found the retro rocking chair in a second-hand store. We sat in it and tried it out, both she and I recalling one of an almost identical style but with soft grey leather that sat in our living room for the years we were growing up. We used the ottoman, turned on its end, for the pulpit when we played church, arranging kitchen chairs in rows for the congregation of my sisters and me and an assortment of dolls and stuffed animals. We took turns giving announcements, caring for our ‘children,’ and my sister sang with spit on her eyes to evoke the emotion of a singer we’d observed. So, we brought the retro chair and the memories home to my little room.

Every morning and most afternoons, I sit in my chair.

IMG_0128.JPGIn other houses where I’ve lived, it’s been other seats and other corners. The oversized red chair and ottoman that sat near the fireplace and looked out toward our big oak tree; the tiny basement room with no windows, lots of bookshelves, and a black chair with wheels and a shifting seat; and the twin bed DIY’ed as a daybed in the “prayer room” as my husband called it, where every morning I met the day before the sun was up. I have steadily shown up and at the time it may not have always seemed like much was happening. But something did and does happen here.

Michelle Obama, in her memoir on page 181, recalls how her husband carved out a similar space for himself in every place they’d lived or even vacationed that she called “the Hole.” Whether a corner or a whole room, the Hole seems to hold the same respite and promise as my corner chair in a room that is mostly my own lair. Michelle writes,

For him, the Hole is a kind of sacred high place, where insights are birthed and clarity comes to visit.

I’ve been working with a trusted friend whose expertise is leading me to do significant soul work. She asked me in our last conversation if I had a place where I can be; I imagined my own “hole” to notice and surrender, to see circumstances anew and rest. In my corner chair, I lay down the pretense, the worries, the “outside,” and internal physical senses that cloud my vision. I open to the presence and work of a loving spirit. For those moments, that old chair is a sacred place, where insights are birthed through the stillness. Clarity comes to visit, wonder unfolds, and gratitude abides.

God’s Wisdom spun by the Desert Fathers, Yoda, and Michelle Obama.

I’d just missed the bus, watching it go by as I walked briskly toward the stop. So, I had a few minutes to wait. I’ve taken a more leisurely view of my surroundings, riding public transportation here—whether the bus, the ferry, or even a water taxi. You see the city (and the people in it) differently when you take transportation that slows down your time and attention.

A couple of days ago I came across these words from Henri Nouwen’s book, The Way of the Heart, and since then, the ideas have turned up in other forms all around me.

In my morning Lectio Divina, I contemplated the story from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. Jesus asks a tax collector, Levi, to be his follower.  Jesus goes to Levi’s house for dinner that evening where there are other tax collector kinds of people in attendance. And the neighbor’s say Jesus shouldn’t do that.

I suppose you might conclude that the neighbors are just considering the facts—that tax collectors are not nice people (in the time that Jesus lived) and Jesus is supposed to be, so he shouldn’t be having a casual dinner with them. The neighbors are coming to a logical conclusion, forming an opinion, and that is what the dictionary says it means to make a judgment.

Henri Nouwen seems to also see how this might be how our “modern” minds think differently than the earliest Christian monastics, our Desert Fathers. (My emphasis added.)

If you would ask the Desert Fathers why solitude gives birth to compassion, they would say, “Because it makes us die to our neighbor.” At first, this answer seems quite disturbing to a modern mind. But when we give it a closer look we can see that in order to be of service to others we have to die to them; that is, we have to give up measuring our meaning and value with the yardstick of others. To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction that prevents us from really being with the other.   

The Way of the Heart

And then, words about judging others came up as I waited for the bus.

You see I’d been impacted by Nouwen’s insight as I struggle with my own continual “evaluation” of others, especially those closest to me, my family. Taking time to wait and watch, as I did, letting Nouwen’s troubling words sink in over a few days and just standing open to the moment at that bus stop yielded new insights.

Several people walked by me and one lady’s t-shirt startled me.

Judge me by my size. Do you?

For days, I’d been trying out how to write about my own melee, not only of judging others, I’ve been working really hard on being aware of that, but of evaluating others. And here was this lady’s t-shirt shouting at me.

She was maybe five feet tall, probably just past middle age, and weighed slightly more than her ideal body weight. Where I live, people of all ages walk and bike often. It is a bit unusual to see someone markedly overweight and this lady wasn’t exactly what her t-shirt hinted at either.

Not until I got home did I find out that the quote, Judge me by my size. Do you, is one of the 10 most popular quotes of Yoda from Star Wars. When I noticed the lady plodding past me, head down and determined, I thought she was making a statement—and on my ride home I considered the breadth and longevity of judging and the pervasive culture of evaluating…everything.

I covertly judge family members, when they don’t do things the way I might do them. I disguise the “judging” as helping, you know, I am older, have more experience, and see that their choices might not work out. And I similarly judge my enemies. I didn’t really think I had any real enemies, however, I am painfully aware of how much I am at odds with some public figures that I actually do not even know personally, yet this distance creates a safer and less informed judgment that seems harmless, right?

This is what this pretense sounds like. Is it true? Is it clear? Is it possible? Is it the best course? And then, Nouwen says STOP—give up measuring meaning and value of others with the yardstick that I’ve created to make sense of my own fears.

I’m almost finished reading Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoir. On page 313 are these words.

As a kid, you learn to measure long before you understand the size or value of anything. Eventually, you learn that you’ve been measuring all wrong.

 And sometimes, it takes lots of practice to learn.