30 December 2014

Facing the Darkness

Another Christmas has passed.

When I was a child, my mother was a consummate Christmas magician. Her decorations sparkled with promise. Her holiday table groaned with delicious treats. The pretty packages under the tree contained carefully chosen signs of her love. I wanted to taste this magic so badly that I once burnt my tongue on one of the colored lights on the tree.

I grew up, the scales fell from my eyes, and I saw things differently. The Christmas tableau now seemed like an exercise in excess: too much food, too much drink, too much stress, too many presents filled with too many things that people didn't need. No one in the family was a practicing Christian.

What was it all for?

My mother's explanation that Christmas was about family failed to satisfy me.

I was reading a lot of Pagan thought at the time, including James Frazer's amazing work The Golden Bough. One of the things that amazed/amused me most about Frazer's work was that he devoted his enormous tome to the universality of the sacrificed god of vegetation without once mentioning how the Christian myth is an instantiation of the same blood sacrifice. I guess Frazer's work was scandalous enough in 1890 without thumbing his nose at the establishment religion.

The subtext was very clear to me in the 1980s. The Jesus myth was another instance enacting a blood sacrifice of the god of vegetation in order to bring the Sun back from its winter darkness and restore the fecundity of the Earth. We animals shivering in cold as the days grow darker need to believe that Spring will come again. We need to believe in the return of the Light and Warmth to keep us from despair in our darkest days.

So. The Christian myth was relevant to me after all. Change the spelling of Son to Sun, shift the celebration from Christmas to Solstice, and we're good to go. The tree and the lights and the presents and the music and the treats can all stay.

This would have worked except for the inexorable insistence of the rest of my world (including my extended family) to keep the Christmas celebration on the 24th and 25th. Adding in a Solstice celebration just increased the stress.

I next read the book Unplug the Christmas Machine in an attempt to tame the Stressmas holidaze. This helped me prioritize the aspects of the winter holidays that mattered the most to me and my loved ones, and to strike a balance between Christmas minimalism and Christmas excess.

Then I became a Quaker. To my somewhat uneasy truce with the Christmas holiday, I now added the Quaker opinion that Christmas oughtn't to be celebrated at all. I had a lot of sympathy with this viewpoint, but it wasn't going to fly. I received no leading during worship to eschew the celebration of Christmas. I was left to work it out for myself.

My mostly minimalist approach worked pretty well except for a few things. Members of my immediate family, still tended to have meltdowns around the holidays. I struggled with a deep depression between Christmas and New Year's most years. This annual battle with the darkness discouraged and exhausted me.

Over the past several years, I've spent more time thinking about what religion is for. Why do humans all over the world engage in religious practices? What deep human needs does religion fill?

It's hard to be a warm-blooded animal in a big, cold, sharp, hard, and indifferent universe. We need a Light to shine within and around us, leading us through the dark nights of our souls. We need to believe that things will be alright, that we will make it, that we can do it.

The celebration of Christmas, right after the darkest time, is a way of laughing in the face of the forces of darkness and cold and stillness. It's a way of asserting our animal warmth and movement and noise, our ability to light a candle against the darkness. It's an annual act of courage.

My mother has always been full of that kind of courage. She makes merry in the face of despair, and has often stalked her own depression with laughter and love and gatherings of loved ones.

I have a greater peace with Christmas this year. I look around at all the people frenetically trying to make merry. I see the courageous souls behind their eyes, struggling against the darkness. Every hackneyed Christmas card inscription can be a prayer held in the heart, a counter to all the messages of anger, greed, and despair.

I will not give in to the darkness. I will stand in the path of darkness, sing Christmas carols, quaff ridiculous holiday drinks, decorate trees, light candles, boil sugar syrup into magical concoctions, and fill my family's stockings with hope and wishes for a good future.

When the darkness triumphs, as it does sometimes, I will have the courage to laugh at it. I will acknowledge the annual Christmas meltdowns, the forays into depression and despair, the deep sadness that can well up in the darkest part of the year. There is a place at the table for the darkness. Perhaps it would like a cup of cocoa?

23 April 2013

facing in and out

Prayers to be going on with:

Make me a strong vessel for Thy work.

Let me be a Light to everyone I meet.

18 April 2013

is it supposed to be hard?

At  midweek worship, we often read the words of weighty Friends. The words are usually weighty, too, and often the writers make it sound like this business of being a Quaker is hard. Much of what they write is wisdom, and yet the words Does it really have to be that hard? often flit across my mind.

There is much in life that IS hard. There's plenty of suffering to go around, and we all have our struggles, our roadblocks, and our limitations.

Living in the Spirit, though, how can that be hard? The Spirit giveth life and truth and guidance and all good things. It is the Spirit to which I turn when I don't know what to do, and the Spirit that speaks Truth into my soul, and the Spirit that gives me more wisdom than I possess. It is the Spirit that buoys me up when I am afraid, and that strengthens me to face what I must.

Sure, I fall short all the time. I do things that would have been better undone and fail to do things that were required.

On the whole, though, I think I do a pretty good job.

I am not often a Friend who will rise and talk about what a miserable worm I am, lost in sin and darkness. (Are there still Friends who do that?) More often, my mistakes amuse me. Oh, Heather, you are so incorrigibly human! What an odd duck you are! How often do you keep needing to fall into that hole before you learn better?

I did my best to avoid accolades when I passed on that clerkly mantle. I do want to know, honestly, how people think that I served so that I can grow. The words that were spoken when accolades could no longer be avoided, however, surprised me.

My former co-Clerk talked at length about my courage in truly naming whatever we were facing.

Now, I do not consider myself particularly brave. I tend to think of the trait that my former co-Clerk described as clarity (when I am feeling good about it) or my charming habit of going for the jugular (when I am aware how uncomfortable my plain speaking makes others).

I have my father to thank for the practice of facing facts squarely. All his life, he did just that. He did his best to make an accurate assessment of every situation he faced. While my mother gave vent to her feelings, he would say, Now Dee, this is the situation. And what we must do is....

He taught me that an accurate assessment of problems carries with it the design of the solution. My life problems, no less than my programming and calculus problems, could be solved by careful attention to what I know about the situation and what I can derive from it.

My former co-Clerk called that wisdom. In my dad, it often looked like wisdom, but I think he would have said it was simple common sense. It was an economical approach to problem-solving, one that avoided a lot of wasted effort.

She also seemed to think that I was foolishly optimistic about how well those solutions would work. She didn't use the word foolishly, but I could tell. My optimism, in the face of all the ways that things can go wrong, is foolish. I believe that, if we move forward with honesty and love and tenderness and compassion, that we will get to the place that is right for us.

So if I have courage or wisdom, it is by not minding too much if I appear foolish. I don't have to worry about how things will turn out, or about whether I know enough to do this, I simply need to take the next step that is before my foot.

And that is not hard at all.

i have been released

i feel the light come shining
from the west down to the east
any day now
any way now
i shall be released

— Bob Dylan

I found it difficult to continue this blog while I was serving as co-Clerk of my monthly Meeting. So much of my focus during worship and in life was concerned with holding the Meeting that it didn't feel proper to share it.

I learned much serving as Clerk. For me, there was no better way to learn to let go and let God. To trust that small voice within to guide me. To trust my Meeting to act as motive and curb and brake as I learned what we needed to do, together. To trust that I could share my bit of Light, spoken plainly, and that others would bring their bits of Light to bear and that we would get through this. Together.

During that time, the Friends with whom I served as co-Clerk often felt like the other half of me. We worked together so harmoniously that I frequently joked that we were not two co-Clerks, but one Clerk that just happened to occupy two bodies.

There came a time when the work of Clerk felt not like a challenge, but like my own skin. Where I felt myself slipping from Serving as Clerk to Being the Clerk. When that happened, I knew it was time to let someone else sit in that seat for a while.

That decision felt clean and clear. I was able to finish my term joyfully and at full strength, and to pass the baton to a Friend who will serve excellently.

I am enjoying the release of that responsibility and authority.

And I feel freer to share my faith and practice than I did.

30 March 2013

still becoming

A friend I hadn't heard from in years contacted me a few days ago. At the end of his note, he wrote "How are you? It's been a long time."

It has been a long time. I thought about the person he knew and the person I am now. Our children, his as well as mine, have grown up.

So how am I?

I am well. We are getting to a time in life when health can no longer be taken for granted. In recent years, my body has been under siege by surgery, injury, and illness. At times, I wondered whether something was seriously wrong with me, whether I might not live very much longer. Now I am exuberantly well, focused on building my strength and fitness. I dance gladly most mornings. I bought body fat calipers and entered an online bodybuilding challenge.

Does that tell how I am?

For the past several years, the word "clergy" has defined my occupation better than most. I have served as Clerk of our Quaker Meeting, and much of what I have done has been to tend the Meeting community. During that time, I have seen how valiantly human beings struggle with the burdens they bear. I have come to believe that everybody is an ordinary hero, soldiering on through the challenges of life. What courage and resilience we humans have!

I look in the mirror for hints of how to tell this person, or any person, how I have changed. Who I have become. Where my life and my choices have taken me.

The face in the mirror is finer boned than I imagined I'd be. More severe. Much more fragile. Warier. Still warm, still cheerful, but with a firm determination that does not quite mask the underlying well of suffering and compassion. Still restless, still quick to joke, still seeking to learn and discover. Still patient, but the patience is sharper and thinner than it was.

I think back to who I was, the years unreeling behind me.

When I met my husband, I was 19. I had been shaped, but was still malleable. I saw myself as strong, earthy, vivid, dynamic. The tiger was my totem, and I moved through the world with a tiger's confidence. If I saw myself as a pot, it would have been an earthenware vessel -- strong and capacious.

The years and my own choices have whittled and hardened me.

I have breathed 400 million breaths and taken 50 million steps in my lifetime. I have changed 12,000 diapers. I have lugged over 10,000 bags of groceries home. I've prepared 30,000 meals. I've read thousands of books, sung and danced to thousands of songs.  I have raised four children. I have cared for my father as he died of cancer. I have been deeply hurt by people I loved. I have been lightly cast aside by a culture focused on youth and maleness. I have sat with people in deep pain, knowing that I had nothing to offer them but my compassion. I have told computers what to do and how to do it. I have mastered cookery. I have pumped iron. I have walked cheerfully over the earth answering that of God in everyone. I have studied the art of shibori dyeing, the art of haiku. I have developed a system for designing knitwear that fits.

I've been married to the same man for 28 years.

I have been shattered. I have performed the Japanese art of kintsugi on myself, fitting the broken bits of myself back together in a way that celebrates the beauty of both the shattering and of the continued work that I do to live up to my potential.

Looking in the mirror, I find that I am no longer a tiger. The years have shaped me to become a bird instead. I am not a strong earthenware vessel. I am more like a ceremonial porcelain chalice. I can't carry heavy loads, but with a little grace, perhaps I can create brief oases of light and cheer in the darkness.

Looking in the mirror, I see that I have become a porcelain bird. I bow my head a little, shocked by this discovery but not disappointed by it.

25 September 2011

bridge of birds

This morning, I decided to wear my bird necklace to Meeting. The necklace has six strands of tiny abalone birds. My grandmother gave it to me over 25 years ago, and so it has special meaning for me.

Through a process I don't understand, the strands of the necklace become tangled around one another. Every so often, I have to untangle them as best I can. I hold the necklace by one clasp and gently work the strands smooth. The birds catch on one another, and the necklace is somewhat delicate, so I have to work slowly and carefully. Working one end free tangles the end by the other clasp, so I have to turn the necklace upside-down and repeat the process. Which tangles the first side again, although not so badly as it was originally. After several repeats, the necklace is almost tangle-free. I've never managed to work all of the tangles out, but it gets close.

So, necklace mostly untangled, I headed off to Meeting.

There are many knotty problems before me, both in Meeting and in my personal life.

I put these problems before God as I settled into worship and waited for guidance.

The image of a long strand of the necklace working free came to my mind. Each of the problems I faced, I suddenly saw, would benefit from the slow, gentle approach that I use to untangle the necklace. I would have to work the strands of these problems free slowly, one bit at a time. Likely there would be other snags in the process of working through the problems, and I might have to turn things upside-down a few times before I could work things out. Even then, the problems probably wouldn't be fully solved. There would still be a few small tangles in them.

Once solved, however, I'd have a bridge of birds to hang around my neck, a tangible link between the past and the future, a lovely thing worthy of the care it demands.

06 September 2011

fitness witness: weight-lifting

I recently resolved to attend to this blog more faithfully.

 I thought perhaps I would record a few thoughts about worship each First Day. 

This last First Day, for example, a Friend read the advices and queries on Integrity. Several Friends spoke on Integrity, and I also felt moved to speak of this testimony that is the dearest and truest of all the Quaker testimonies to me. It flitted through my thoughts that I might blog about Integrity, that it is a good weighty subject to which I have devoted much thought.

But no.

What I feel called to write about is weight-lifting.

I have been doing strength training all of my adult life. The kind that I have found easiest to stick to and most beneficial is high intensity, super slow strength training. Work each muscle to exhaustion in a set of 8-12 repetitions, with care to do each repetition slowly and carefully.

I had my appendix out in February, and I have found getting back into shape to be slow going. Some of this is due to lingering effects of the surgery, but much of it is simple laziness and self-deception.

I went back to dance as soon as I could. I worked back in slowly (although probably not slowly enough). During this time, my knees ached abominably.

I wondered if perhaps I was past my ability to do this kind of dance. Maybe my knees had suddenly, over the course of my surgery, gotten old. Perhaps I should find an easier, less stressful type of exercise.

That was a possibility, but it seemed more likely that my muscles had gotten soft, that they were no longer doing the work that protected my knees while I danced.

I told the instructor about the type of pain I was having and asked if she knew of anything I could do to strengthen my muscles so I could dance without pain. She was able, without any apparent thought, to identify the weak muscles that were causing the problem and to suggest exercises that would help.

A few weeks later, my legs felt as good as they've ever felt.

I was slower getting back into the weight-lifting, however. I couldn't seem to remember to do it or find time for it, either.

At the end of June, I wrenched my shoulder. I rested it for a few weeks hoping it would get better. It didn't really get better, but it didn't get worse either.

I'd had shoulder pain before, but I hadn't had problems with my neck or shoulders for many years. Posture work that I'd done in tai chi, as well as my strength training, had kept that part of my body healthy.

After a while, a small still voice whispered “Maybe you're having this pain because you haven't been doing your weight routine. The antagonistic muscles have gotten weak, and the pain won't go away until you strengthen them again.”

My stubborn and lazy self argued. Maybe weight-lifting would make the pain worse. Besides, weight-lifting was too much trouble and took too much time. I should let the shoulder get better first and worry about weight-lifting, you know, like, later.

Finally, something clicked in me and I said, “Fine. I'll start weight-lifting again with absurdly light weights and I'll do all the opposing muscle groups.”

After a mere two sessions, I know it's working. I can feel the shoulder moving more easily and I can feel the weak areas getting stronger.

I could turn this into a message about listening to our guidance or about overcoming our own lazy, selfish, stubborn, misguided natures or about the need for balance in one's life or about how we need to strengthen our spiritual muscles in order to live lives that are healthy in the spirit.

But no.

What I feel called to write about is weight-lifting.

Our physical strength operates on a use-it-or-lose-it principle. When we exercise our muscles faithfully, we are strong. We can more easily do our ordinary activities, and we enjoy being active.

When we let our muscles atrophy, we become weak. Our muscles no longer do the work they were designed to do, and this puts strain on our joints. We fall prey to aches and pains, leading us to become less active, leading to more weakness and more pain.

Miriam Nelson, a researcher at Tufts University and the author of the Strong Women books, determined that our bone and muscle strength declines as we age, and also that we can completely reverse this process with regular strength training. Many of the ills that we attribute to age are nothing more than the ills of inactivity.

So, Friends, this is my public service announcement to you all. If you want to do the work you are called to do in the world, you need to take good care of your body. Aerobic exercise and a healthy diet are important, of course, but strength-training is an often-overlooked piece of the puzzle, especially for women.

16 August 2011

the unbearable lightness of being

This last First Day, I was feeling like I was sliding into a deep blue funk. My griefs were at the front of my mind. I'd been fending them off by keeping busy, but I could feel them all gathering, ready to settle.

I'd been wondering whether I should just surrender, slide down into the grief and let it have its due. Or whether it was better to keep fending just a little longer.

I got to worship early and slid into my seat, but I didn't find it so easy to slide into worship. It seemed to me that I'd been treating worship lightly, just skimming the surface. I thirsted for something deeper, something more connected, something that would fill me and feed me and give me strength for what is to come.

I made some false starts, got distracted a few times, started over.

I have my own Lord's Prayer ritual that often works to sink me into worship. First comes gratitude for all that is of worth in my life (not just the things that I like, but also the challenges and griefs that teach me and take me deeper). Next comes my regrets for the mistakes I've made recently (Father, forgive me...). Then I set my troubles and burdens and worries before God.

After I've done those bits of spiritual housekeeping, I feel ready to open to worship. To open to whatever God has for me that day.

This last First Day, however, I was so snowed in that all I could do was to lay my griefs before God.

I'm sorry, I said, I have to start from here today. All I have to set before you is my burdens.

I heard a deep chuckle.

I will take your burdens, your light, insignificant burdens, if you will take on mine.

I thought that was absurd, but was curious to see what would happen if I accepted.

Okay, I said, I'll try.

Suddenly, I was swept up into a great lightness and airiness. It was as though God was a great hawk flying through the heavens and I was on his back, clinging to his feathers. It was wonderful and terrifying and very very funny.

A half an hour later, I wondered irreverently if I was some sort of parasite, if God might try to pry me loose from his feathers with a great hooked beak.