dropping the storyline

Once upon a time a little boy had a favorite blanket that became tattered and worn and seemingly useless until his mother refashioned the rag into a vest.  Over time the beloved vest became similarly worn and was then refashioned into a tie.  The tie, when worn, became a button.  When the button fell off and was lost forever, the little boy was certain that the treasure was gone for good.  “Oh, no,” said his mother.  “There is just enough left for a story!”

Stories are powerful.  Stories are treasure.  Yet in tandem with their power, stories can also be destructive, and as I move through this season of life I am aware that the stories I carry are both bane and blessing.  I have been through a major transition and with the metamorphisis comes signficant loss.  Although the story of the broken cocoon is real and worthy, I am aware that the constant drumbeat of the lost cocoon threatens the fragile beauty of the butterfly.  All of the stories that come together to weave our lives are worthy, but our lives will be shaped by the choices we make about which stories to remember and share.  Although a million and one stories fill my heart, daily I repeat only a handful.  These stories that I repeat wear a groove on my soul, and wisdom demands that I tend the selection for the stories shape us in powerful if unseen ways.

Pema Chodron is a popular spiritual teacher who encourages us to honor the feelings that are ours, to sit with them and be mindfully aware of the emotions with one important caveat: “drop the storyline”.

In “My Stroke of Insight”, the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s book about her recovery from a massive stroke, she explains the physiological mechanism behind emotion: an emotion like anger that’s an automatic response lasts just 90 seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all. When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it. (Chodron)

Recently I’ve been experimenting with Chodron’s challenge.  As the waves of emotion crash and I begin to recount the story, I practice catching myself long enough to remove words and images.  I seek to focus on the emotion, the body sensation.  Particularly helpful with the painful emotions, dropping the storyline removes the quicksand effect. Receiving emotions sans sticky drama enables us to face and dispatch emotions that otherwise would either bury us or be buried by us.

Sometimes I want the storyline, even the painful one.  Sometimes the storyline is seductive in its promise to revise history, a promise upon which it can never deliver.  I awoke this morning after a dream invoked loaded feelings from a recent loss. I wanted to recount the dream in vivid detail, to examine the story in excruciating detail.  My instinct is to spin and I do it with amazing deftness.  But I’ve been practicing the invitation to drop the storyline today; feeling the emotion as it washes back and forth through the day and letting it flow.  The instinct to reach for the story is strong; I feel the pull, honor it’s presence and return my attention to the emotion at hand.  This too is practice not perfection, and I’m grateful that baby steps yield progress.

Also I am grateful for storylines that are worthy of repetition. I have a picture on my desk of my beloved and I at our wedding.  We are both grinning and my head is resting on her shoulder.  As I look at the picture, the storyline fills my heart with sweetness and I am reminded of the great gift of love.  This is a storyline that opens my heart to compassion and my mind to possibility, a storyline that creates more of what I value in life.  I will keep this one.

Daffodils and Impermanence

The daffodils are blooming just around the corner, an exquisite carpet of yellow on the late winter lawn.  Close on the heels of the crocus, the daffodils are the annual harbinger of new life which is already, if not yet, come among us.  The deepness of the yellow, the intricacy of the bloom, the fragility of the life-bearing stem are all testaments to the earth’s longing for life.  And it is very good.

daffodilsWhen my dear one pulled me around the corner to see them, her eyes were shining with delight.  When I caught sight of them, I could feel the grin that filled my face.  Stopping to take a picture, the gardener smiled knowingly and offered that I could take some home.  His generosity not withstanding, we both knew that I couldn’t accept such an offer.  To take a daffodil, even just one, would remove it from its life source.  To take one home would quite literally kill the wonder.  Daffodils and the wonder of the spring must be observed but not owned or contained.  Yet even in the heartiness of the garden ledge, the blooms will not last more than a long week.  Stop now while they dance this week to soak in the delight.

The spring flowers shower us with essential life lessons as we are ready to listen.  For years mesmerized by their beauty, I was a couple of decades into life when I began to take seriously the fragility of these early spring flowers.  In midlife I began to understand the promise of the annual return and now as I crest this midpoint of life I find myself taken by the message of impermanence. Jesus is said to have given a nod to the lilies of the field in their simultaneous splendor and fleeting nature.  A fundamental spiritual practice is allowing the water of life to flow unimpeded in, through, and around us as we come to peace with fluidity.  Sometimes I would build a damn or cling to a dangling branch, yet movement is constant and clinging is both painful and futile. “Let go or be dragged” (Zen proverb) is the promise of the quickly changing flowers of early spring.

As I revel in the wonder of the daffodils, aware that in their wake will bloom a plethora of fragrant marvels, I begin to see the comings and goings of life put in context.  A short life span is not a comment on beauty, the ending of a chapter is not a testament to its worth, for with the passing of crocus comes the delight of the daffodils and with the passing of the daffodils comes the tulips. Life is filled with beauty and promise just as surely as it is carries sorrows and losses.  The flowers, in fact, rely on the richness of the soil where our sorrows are woven into new life.

Today I share a prayer of gratitude for the daffodils.  Fabulous, truly.

Step 2: Restoration’s Challenge

Step 2: Came to believe a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

I watch as the pink leaves the morning sky and I am aware that though my definitions for God have been woefully inadequate and my decision to step away from professionally speaking on his/her behalf an immense relief, whatever it is that turns the sky from pink to blue and from night to day and from stormy to calm – this is power beyond me.  This is a power beyond my species.

Lisa Call: Inspiration

The only uncertainty in this second step is whether I believe that the power that coaxes the earth into orbit and makes the sun brilliant with light can restore my wonky ego into some semblence of sanity.  With a remarkable capacity to embody extremes, to embody hubris and humiliation with little in between, I am prone to believe that I am uniquely irredemeable.  Convinced of the essential nature of my insanity, I find myself flirting with a belief that a missing piece, a sanity which never existed, cannot be restored.  Maybe so.  But that which coaxes life from the frozen earth ought not be underestimated.

As I consider the efficacy of this source, I take note of the patterns. There is an order to the earth’s rhythms which suggests a power that is not capricious, but similarly not particularly personal.  A sanity grounded in this power will not be an individually brilliant one but rather find strength in the company of equals.

Comfortable in the morning glow, with the jury out still out on the sanity piece, I find comfort in the first order of this day before me, breathing in beauty.   Breathing in beauty, I exhale the negative impulses. Breathing in hope, I exhale the fears.  Breathing in possibility, I exhale the despair.  While sanity may still be out of reach, peace creeps from a place deep within and takes its place in the order of things.  In this quiet place, I begin to believe.

solitude

Years ago I sat with a Henri Nouwen book in which he suggested that the first of three steps on the spiritual journey is the path from loneliness to solitude.  I remember the feeling of reading those words, a feeling which clung to me while I sat with a group of seminarians discussing the text.  The feeling was one of foreboding.  If I embrace this spiritual challenge, I must first face the loneliness that is endemic in my life.

More than a half century later, I still feel the challenge in his words but in this season of life I feel more hope in them.  In this passage I see the necessity of embracing the impermanence that defines our lives whether or not we are willing.  Long awaited children turn first into toddlers and then teens, the fast pace of an elementary mom is inevitably followed by the quiet of the empty nest.  Though I can grieve any particular relational loss, and there are many for which I grieve, the simple truth is that if we are blessed with longevity we will outlive any number of relationships.  If we are blessed with authenticity, we will also outgrow more than a few.  In our younger years our collecting tends to offset the losses, but as we crest midlife we inevitably begin to discover more time with one who gives us breath.

One of my favorite elders is an artistic extrovert who’s life was filled with color and beauty and people, lots of people.  Well into her 80’s she was making friends and stirring conversation.  Blessed with family both in town and literally around the world, she loved to travel and to regale visitors with the tales.  Yet for more than a decade this beautiful woman’s memory has been leaving her.  For many years now she has struggled to piece together words for a conversation and her stories no longer make cognitive sense.  Stranger still is the silence that now sits around us as we visit.  I am struck by the smallness of a world filled now only with caregivers and visits by family members, and even those growing more sparse as months turn into seasons, seasons into years and now years into a decade. Yet as I sit with her and together we take notice of a bird flitting outside the window, I hear a lilt in her voice, her spirit vibrant even as her memory is gone.   As I consider the solitude that I feel in her presence, I am reminded of Henri Nouwen’s invitation to move beyond the loneliness.

As the shape of my life pauses in this transition time, now with both an empty nest and a clear calendar, I feel the invitation with a more balanced mix of emotions.  Realizing the futility of the alternative, I am more ready to face the loneliness that lies in front of the solitude that I now seek.  For this next journey I am grateful for breathing lessons, for lengthening days, and for the patter of the rain drops that hold my tears.

rearview mirrors

The bane and blessing of aging is the growing collection of rearview mirrors.  The mirrors are precious because they hold the sweet memories of our baby’s touch and the first kiss of our beloved.  The mirrors are also painful as they remind us of things we’d rather forget and distort events in macabre ways.  And with each passing year of our lives, they accumulate.  As I careen through the second half of life, their weight is unmistakable.

While one might expect their weight to be an anchor which slows this second half of life, these mirrors function more often as the weight that speeds the downhill run.  I am aware at points that I am racing in a failed attempt to stay ahead of the mirrors.  What I wish my heart knew is that no matter how fast or slow I go, the mirror remains anchored in my side view.  Always.

What does change is my awareness of these mirrors and thereby their influence on my life.  While I cannot change a single event of my past nor the unsettling truth that more of my life is behind than before, I do continually face choices about how I engage with that past.  I can deny the past and be haunted by it or I can welcome the perspective and allow it to be information that guides my choices.

Five years ago this week I made the decision to stop drinking and my carefully constructed life began to unravel. Then I was a woman married to a man with two teenage children; now I am a woman married to a woman with an empty nest.  The most recent loss is that of my professional identity as I retire from my “life’s work” as a pastor.  What is behind me seems clear, but what lies in front of me is not yet discernable.  In seasons like this one,  the invitation of the rearview mirrors is particularly seductive because the mirrors offer a clarity not available looking forward.

While living life in the rearview mirror is deadly, the mirrors themselves can offer invaluable lessons.  As I consider the unraveling of my life, I can see the powerful promise that it is in the well tilled soil that the most beautiful new life emerges.  It is in the places where I’ve loosed my grip most completely that the gains have swelled far beyond the losses.  If I dare to face the mirrors with the deepest pain, I am aware that the seat in which I sit today bears witness to the trustworthiness of the road ahead.  Neither running from nor living in the rearview mirrors, they provide context for the gratitude that is mine today.

A way watered with tears is the one lined with flowers.  As I look today in the admittedly hefty pile of broken glass, I see bourgeoning bouquets in their reflection.  And it is very good.

at one with the river

A story is told of an old man who falls into a raging river just above the rapids.  His friends frantically reach for him as the current carries him toward danger.  Helpless they watch as his lifeless body is plunged into the whitewater.  Racked with grief they race to the bottom to retrieve his body.  At the bottom of the rapids, however, they watched stunned as the old man stands and walks towards them.  “How?” pleads their question from disbelieving eyes. “Simple,” says the old man, “become one with the river and it carries us safely through the difficult passages.”

I believe this story and repeat it often, but I confess that in my own life I am most often found on the shore remarking in awe about the water’s power. More dangerous still, when I am sucked into the currents of life, I make the mistake of holding on to branches or rocks or anything stationary to which I can cling.

The problem is that while I am clinging, the river is pulling.  And with my energies rooted to the stationary, the current can be both painful and also incredibly destructive.  Broken bones, mangled bodies. And I curse the current for it’s brutal assault.

The real problem with the current is that I can’t control it.  I can’t even pretend to control it or convince myself that I am controlling it.  The current comes from a place beyond what can be seen and moves with a passion that is not ours to own.  We are merely spectators along the way and our choices, should we enter the river, are whether we will be carried by the current or casualties in its wake.

In the rare moments when I am able to accept life on life’s terms, to float in the water with my hands resting at my side, I confess that the current has been trustworthy.  The bruises and scars that are mine from the river are, every one, a testimony not to the current itself but rather to my struggle against it.

Today I feel as though I am at the bottom of the rapids, bruised from too much clinging along the way, aware too of moments in which I was held safely by the current.  As is most of life, my learning to be at one with the current is progress not perfection and I am grateful for a pause in the action and a new day in which to practice.

 

 

 

sunrise

Once upon a time a precocious child approached his grandfather with a half glass of water. “Grandpa,” he asked, “is this glass of water half full or half empty?” The grandfather smiled gently and turned to the cupboard pulling out a new glass. “Let’s pour the water in this one and then decide.” As the child poured the water it filled the new glass to the rim. “Oh!” exclaimed the child, “a right-sized glass!”

I awoke early this morning. Also true is that I had a sleepless night and gave up trying just before dawn. Regardless, I found pen and paper and sat with early morning coffee watching the sun rise… and it was very good.

I wonder about the power of our stories for framing our experiences of today and even tomorrow.

Yesterday I lamented to my beloved, frightened by the prospect of my pending unemployment. “I’ve never been unemployed. What if I can’t find a job?” My dear one has been exceedingly patient in this time of transition and also grounding. She gently reminded me that I chose to leave this position, that together we made a conscious decision to step off the secure path, that there is no shame in taking time away from payroll earnings. Her voice is soothing and I realize that even greater than my financial concerns are concerns about identity. Who will I be without a professional role that has given my life shape and definition for literally decades?

Although my employment may cease, whether I am “unemployed” or taking time for spiritual renewal or retooling for a new career, the label I choose will affect how I experience these coming months. Awaking this morning, I had clarity that for today I choose to be honoring this time for personal/spiritual renewal.

And as I sit with this clarity in the shadow of the rising sun, my cup runneth over.

Cloud Break

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
– Meister Eckhart

The sun’s warmth is all the more brilliant after a cloudy day, and the hope in my heart feels all the more precious after a period of mourning. While I will no doubt soon enough be reminded that grief is a circular process and the sadness will pull me under yet again, in this moment I feel the hope that is mine from the tenderest place within my being and I am grateful.

This is not a hope born of external circumstance. Nothing has changed really.

This is a hope born simply, profoundly, of it’s own accord. It is the essence of me dancing with the very spirit of life. And it is joy.

Yesterday… I grieve the loss of what I once loved, the life that was mine as a suburban pastor with tenure and respect. Tomorrow… totally uncertain and may include words and numbers, blogging and classroom teaching, new learning and familiar skills; frightening if I look for definition for it is not yet apparent.

The hope that is mine, palpable in this January sunshine, is about neither yesterday nor tomorrow. The hope is in the peace that I feel in this very moment; the surety that the connection that is mine in this moment connects me with what it is that I need for all time.

Perhaps it is a place of humility, this hope that I feel. In this moment I am not dogged by the hubris that I must create a spectacular next chapter of my life nor the humiliation of defeat in closing the last. In this moment I am aware that I am right where I need to be; quiet, open, waiting.

Breathing in this gift of hope, this moment of peace, one more shackle falls and I, with Meister Eckhart, pray the most important prayer of all time, “thank you”.

January Stillness

“Practice inaction, occupy yourself with doing nothing.” (Lau-Tzo)

The brilliant sun of a cold January morning catches my breath with anticipation.  Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of the warm rays with the cold air.  Perhaps it is the barren trees that appear bleak in the moment even as they speak to yesterday and tomorrow.  Perhaps it is the eery calm whilst the animals are tucked away for their winter slumber.  There is a melancholy to this brilliant day but one that is met and carried by the hope of new life promised in the warmth of the sun.

This jumble of feelings that rollicks in the air is fitting this morning.  As I move between projects I feel them all pounding within.  The now familiar pain of loss is a steady thread, but it is held in tension with threads of possibility taking shape and form.  The sustenance of gratitude is palpable as I sip coffee in the morning quiet with lover-cat sitting on my desk, pawing gently.

The expectation to achieve nips persistently and I scan a couple of websites to check for new postings for which I might apply.  I feel a sense of urgency to be productive in rhythm with the brilliance of the sun, but feel a dissonance between the smile that the light engenders and the lethargy that bears tandem witness to the bitter cold.  I am reminded that this is the season of hibernation.  Lifting my face to the sun is essential, but all other body parts should be covered and conserve energy in this season of deep growth.

To be sure there is movement deep in my soul that parallels that in the earth itself.  But I need not pick or prod, and in fact such impatience might be destructive.  This is a day to say “thank you”, to practice walking and talking gently with myself and others, to sit in the window with a smile on my face and drink in the beauty that is present.

When the warmth returns in springtime the sun’s rays will spur us to action, but in this season of shadows the sun’s glare is witness simply to behold.

squirrel dance

I watch the squirrel dance on the tree limb with daring grace and wonder at the lessons offered just outside my window.

I wonder at the squirrel’s lack of felt need to explore career options or really to set goals of any kind.  The day begins and ends with a more singular focus.  I wonder if the choices that flood our senses add to our experience of delight or perhaps perversely suck us dry.

For many months my energy has been sapped by not simply the knowing of my impending transition but more by the felt need to shape and control the outcomes.  The decisions about timing and new directions have been consuming and altogether unnerving.  Sadly I’ve allowed even the decisions to step away from the drama to be bathed in drama.  I am very grateful for calm and faithful friends, by chance now in elected leadership at the church, who have been grounded and gracious as I bobble through this transition.  One day at a time, more will be revealed, breathe.

And so we come to this one day that begins with a squirrel dancing on a tree branch.  Perhaps in search of one last nut before the first snow fall?

As I watch the focus of the run, which is driven by instinct rather than desire or logic, my heart softens for the me that scurries to and fro.  Like the squirrel outside my window, I cannot control the instinctive impulses that beat deep within my being.  But perhaps unlike the squirrel, I have the luxury of reflection which is of course bane and blessing.  I can use my reflection to sit in judgement of myself and others, or I can use my reflection to marvel in the wonder of our interconnections and rest in gratitude.

Like the squirrel, I have this one day.  And I choose to spend it mindful of the breath that fills my being, breath that comes from a place far beyond myself and connects me with all of creation, breath that is sacred, holy, good.