Poem – I orbit God

I orbit God
far away and near.
Circling away and close,
I never ever
stay close
for long.

Perhaps I’m a moth,
the flame of God
drawing me in.
Perhaps the flame will burn me.
Perhaps that is why
I move away.
Perhaps this is
the story
I tell myself
to not feel bad
about how far away
I’ve gotten.

Perhaps really, it is that
when I get close,
I forget.
I forget
how desperately
I need the light
when I’m close.
It is only when
I’m cold
and dark
that I remember
I need
the light
and I start to swim closer.

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Hair covering butterfly

In thinking about my new (sometimes) practice of covering my hair:

I’m comparing it to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. It has to cover itself up in order to transform.

The funniest thing is that it is the easiest way to color my hair. I can have blue or purple hair quite easily and change it very simply. No chemicals, no risk.

I’m of mixed opinions as to people commenting on it. Most people say that they like it and I like to think that what they see is not the covering or the color but they like the fact that I am transforming myself and trying to make myself better than I am. I like to think that what they’re noticing is my practice of self-improvement rather than my fashion sense.

I’m being transferred to a small library in a very close community. I feel that it is very conservative. I’ll be under the microscope for a bit, from the staff as well as the patrons. They are very protective and proud of their library, and they don’t want some stranger in there. I’ll have to let them know early on that I’m OK. Sticking out isn’t going to work.

Nothing sticks out more than covering your head, but it is for religious and modesty reasons. Thus, even though it is unusual, it is unusual in a very conservative way.

I have to work every Saturday now, unless I ask off. That will be tricky, because there are only three people in the branch. There isn’t any wiggle room. Sure, they can borrow from another library in the cluster if needed. I hear it is slow enough that two people can run the library with no problems. This is amazing to me since having just two people in my department was an emergency in my previous library. My department was one of three in that branch.

I’d started covering my head at the library on the Saturdays I work about four months ago. It was my way of remembering that Saturday was the Sabbath, and keeping it different and special. I’d cover at home on my weekends off. I worked every other Saturday on average. It was awkward when I was at work. I got asked questions, people would comment. Generally they liked it. They didn’t really understand, but they were kind. Explaining something as personal as a religious conviction is hard. I had to explain it and get it approved by the branch manager because there is a library policy against head covering (except for religious reasons). I only stuck out at work 26 days a year because I only covered at work every other week on Saturday. Working every Saturday at the new place, I’m going to stick out more.

I remember Jesus says that we should not make our piety obvious. We should pray in private, and not show others our religious acts. They are to be seen by God, not others. Jesus also worked on the Sabbath, and said that the Sabbath was made for us, not the other way around. Jesus also reminds us of the words from the prophet Hosea – “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

So should I worry about working every Saturday? Is Saturday the Sabbath, or is Sunday? Do I have to take a full day off from work to rest, or am I covered if I’m doing God’s work? Should I cover my head or not?

This is all a work in progress.

I think like Jacob, we are praised for wrestling with God. God wants us to actively engage with our faith and our practices. God wants us to be mindful and fully alive. Our practices should draw us closer to God and to other humans. If they put up walls, then we have to stop.

For now, I’m going to modify how I do it. I have seen that opinions vary as to if women are to cover all their hair, or just their head. It is not a commandment to cover – just a tradition, inferred from a story in the Hebrew Bible. In the Christian texts, Paul has his own things to say about it, but Jesus is silent on the matter. So I see it as optional – if it draws me closer to God and reminds me to be kinder to others, then it is good. Since I can’t see my headcovering, it is the pressure of it that reminds me to modify my actions. I can achieve that pressure by tying the tichel like a headband. I’ll be covering my head, getting the pressure as a reminder, but my hair will be exposed as it falls from the back.

I’ll see how this works out. Hopefully it will be seen as a fashion statement and not a religious one. I’m not doing this to make other people change their ways. I’m doing it to change my own.

Heart Exorcise

While waiting for my cardiologist, I heard his comments with the patient in the room next to mine. The walls are very thin and so I was able to hear almost all of the conversation. Things weren’t going well for the patient. I could tell it was also very awkward for the doctor. He is fairly young, this doctor, in a field where he sees very sick people all day long.

I had seen the patient before in the waiting room. I suspected he had cancer by the color of his skin. It also looked like he had gone bald from chemotherapy. He was also being pushed around in a wheelchair and had oxygen. So there was far more than just heart problems going on here.

The doctor started off by saying “Sorry to hear about the diagnosis and stuff.” And then he asked the patient if he wanted to continue treatment he was on, assessing what was valuable and what wasn’t. With a stage four cancer diagnosis, you have to reassess everything. Some treatments are just more hassle than they are worth. Some are worthless. They had to make some hard decisions. Cure wasn’t an option. Just easing symptoms. Palliative care.

I thought how hard it has to be to be a doctor and go from patient to patient, from hard thing to hard thing. Of course he’s a cardiologist and people get sick and die. They’re not here because they’re well. I am one of the few patients who is well and is doing well. In part I go to a cardiologist because I want to stay well. But I am unusual. I believe in prevention, rather than cure.

The doctor came to visit me next. He was in a rush and wanted to get right into the exam. I asked the doctor when we had a pause how he goes from one patient to another when it’s a hard thing. He looked at me briefly and he said “You just get used to it.” That really wasn’t what I was expecting. I was hoping he would say something useful like “I pray” or “I do yoga”. But he just said “You get used to it.”

I could see later that he was shaking. You don’t get used to it. You don’t get used to carrying heavy burdens. And when you know that someone you know, even if it’s just a patient and not someone you love, is going to die soon and in a ugly way then it’s a heavy thing to have to carry.

The only way of getting rid of these feelings that are hard is processing them. It’s not about ignoring them or about running away from them. That it is not dealing with them.

Hard feelings are just like having to go to the bathroom. We have to know what to do when we have that feeling in our body. Stress is the accumulation of a lot of hard feelings that have not been processed. Stress is like poop. If you don’t get rid of poop it will build up and you will become very sick. If you don’t get rid of the anger and the sadness and the fear it will back up and you will also become very sick. There are ways to process it at the time, but the best thing is to learn how to not store it at all.

I do that by my practice. Part of that is exercising and by eating well daily. I get enough sleep. I make sure that I am strong enough to be able to handle these feelings when they come to me. Praying and reading the Word daily helps too. When something does surprise or overwhelm me, I remember to return to my routine and my practice. I remember to pray. I remember to do yoga. I remember to do art. I remember to write.

When something extra difficult happens, not the everyday sort of stress, I make sure to set aside a little extra time to do all of those things. I may paint a painting specifically for that purpose. I may write a poem just on that issue. I’ll write more, even though I may not publish it. I have to process it or it will process me.

Think of a food processor – something is going to get ground up into little bits. I’d rather have some say as to what gets ground up. You don’t just “get used to it”. If you don’t process something hard, it will use you up and wear you out. It will wash you away until you are nothing.

Container

We need containers for our feelings just like banana bread needs a container in order to shape it in the heat of the oven. The container gives the feeling shape. The container is a ritual or a practice.

We have to have places to put our feelings. Rituals are the way to do that. Western culture has some rituals and ceremonies for how to handle big events – birth, marriage, graduation, death. But it doesn’t have rituals for much of anything else. Perhaps this is why so many people suffer from depression and anxiety.

When your culture doesn’t have the tools you need, you have to make your own.

Feelings are difficult to handle. Our culture tells us how to handle the feeling of having to go to the bathroom, but not other feelings. When you have the feeling that you have to go to the bathroom, you need to know what to do with that feeling otherwise you will make a mess everywhere. If you have that feeling you know what to do because you’ve been trained. That feeling you have is what lets you know that there something that needs to get out.

Other feelings are harder to figure out, but they are just as important to get out. There isn’t a physical thing that needs to come out of you, but there still is a need to release that feeling. Emotional, spiritual, and psychological pain will manifest in physical ways. Just like with having to go to the bathroom, you need to know how to deal with it.

When you have a sensation of tension in your shoulders, chest, or gut it is a sign that you have a feeling that needs to be processed. The poet Rumi reminds us that grain has to be broken up before it can become bread. But I’ll add that in order for it to become bread it has to be mixed together with other ingredients, poured into a form and put into the oven.

Difficult feelings aren’t ever alone – we aren’t just grain that has been ground up. And the form is our practice. It gives shape to our feelings. What do you do to stay balanced? Do you drift through your days, or are you intentional?

Our practice is our form, our mold for our feelings. If we don’t use it, our feelings will pour out all over everywhere and be a big mess.

When I found out that my coworker had died unexpectedly, I felt a pain in my stomach. I chose to sing it out. Rather than yell or cry, I chose to give it shape. Deep from my gut I sang out a long clear note, simply saying “Ahhhhh……” for as long as I could. Then I took another breath and did it again and again until I released the tension. I have since found out that this is from yoga. It is called “Lion’s breath”, except in yoga, you just breathe out hard. Here, I sang.

I have also used the technique “praying in color” to process my feelings. I have created some other art and started a prayer book that I will use to memorize prayers. I did all of this in his memory. I have chosen to use what I already do to stay balanced as a way to honor him and acknowledge his passing.

And, of course, I’m writing.

It doesn’t matter what you use to process your feelings – whatever form you use is good, as long as it works for you. What matters is that you use it.

Don’t wait until the storm hits to have a place to go.
Don’t wait until something bad happens to have a practice.

If you stick with your practice every day, then you will have something to rely upon when the inevitable happens. It will help you keep your balance and not get swept away. It doesn’t mean that you escape your feelings – it means that you don’t let your feelings overwhelm you. You still have them – they just don’t have you.

Smudge head

It is Ash Wednesday and I haven’t seen anybody with a smudge on their heads.

Now, this is the South. There aren’t a lot of people who observe Ash Wednesday. Most people, if they go to church at all other than at Easter and Christmas, don’t do Ash Wednesday. The most common denominations are Baptist or Presbyterian, and they don’t play this game.

Catholics certainly do, and Episcopalians. Many Methodists do it as well. Lutherans for sure. But in the South, smudges are rare.

So last year I felt like I was in a special club when I’d see someone wearing a dirty grey cross on their forehead. It was weirdly cool. We were all Christian, sure, but we were part of a different batch of Christian who did this odd thing. Not better, just different. It was kind of like being in a club within a club. Maybe it was like being a 33rd degree Mason, versus a 32nd degree. We were all “in,” but some of us got the extra special handshake.

Last year I felt really strange, sticking out like that. I worked my normal shift at the library and had to be out amongst the public. Part of the game is that you aren’t supposed to wash it off. It is like wearing a cross around your neck. It is a visible sign of your faith. The irony is that one of the readings at the service is always about not making your piety known before others. Jesus said a lot about that.

Matthew 6:1
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Matthew 6:5
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

Matthew 6:16-18
16″Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 17″But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 18so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

So maybe we are doing it wrong. Jesus tells us not to do it, and yet we do it. Jesus didn’t tell us to do any of this ritual, either. There is a lot we do in church that Jesus didn’t tell us to do. But I hadn’t realized this then. Then, I was doing it because it was something my church did.

It was strange to have a mark on my head, out in public. I’d wear a straight face and pretend like this Thing wasn’t on my head. It is hard to miss. Now, some people understood, but not most. Some just pretended it wasn’t there. Some didn’t even notice. Some would gesture towards their own foreheads and say “You have a bit of dirt on your head” and I’d have to explain it to them. Some would look at me, think about it, and say “It’s a religious thing, right?”

Sometimes they would say “Happy Lent” and I’d not know what to say. It isn’t a happy thing, on purpose.

In a way, it was a good way to tell them about the whole idea. I think that making Christianity a participatory event is a good thing, in more than one way. I think that people certainly need to live like Jesus did and treat others like he treated them. But sometimes, getting there can be hard. So a little bit of playacting is necessary. It can get things going.

But nobody that I saw was wearing ashes this year. Maybe they are all doing it right now. It is the evening, and it is common for some churches to have this service then. Making time to go to church before work or in the middle of the day is hard. Plus, not all churches have the staff necessary to have multiple services. If you don’t have enough staff, it is easier to have just one service.

Plus, if you have the service at night, you don’t have the dilemma – wash it off, or not. Nobody is going to see it except your family, and they all have one too.

But I kind of liked having the cross on my head last year. I’d have a weird kind of bond with people – people I didn’t know played the same game I did. A lady looked at it and it helped her – she said “Oh, that’s today!” and realized she needed to go to church.

While that isn’t the best way to enter Lent, it certainly is a way.

Ideally, we enter our Christian life awake, and prepared. Ideally, we plan for it. Ideally, it isn’t a rush or something we forgot.

But then sometimes God comes to us right where we are and surprises us, just like Jacob in the desert.

Genesis 28:11-17
11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

May we all be ready to receive the Guest that is God, at all times. May we all be marked with the Cross in our hearts, and not just on our foreheads.

Practice

What is a “practice”? You may have heard this word before and wondered. People these days will talk about something that they do as being part of their practice. Your practice is anything you do mindfully and intentionally.

In the same way that you have to practice playing piano to get better at it, you have to adopt a practice for life to get better at it.

The interesting part is that there is not just one way to practice. Anything you choose mindfully can be your practice. You can have several practices and they can change over time. You don’t have to keep the same one. In fact, when your practice becomes stale is a good time to reexamine it. It may be time to change it. It may also be time to stick with it and dig deeper.

There are just as many practices as there are people. Gardening can be a practice. So can walking outside. So can painting, drawing, and writing. Eating vegetarian, or raw, or local can be a practice. Being part of a group class at the Y is just as valid a path as exercising at home alone to a video or making it up yourself.

The only constant to a practice is that it must be intentionally chosen. It can’t just be something you do because that is what you’ve always done. It can’t be something you do when you are bored. It has to be the exact opposite of an addiction.

How do you pick a practice?

First, think of where you want to go. If you don’t have a goal, you aren’t being intentional. Now, your practice may be the goal. You may find yourself opening up and growing just by adopting a practice.

A practice is like a map that gets you there. If you want to go to Cleveland and you have never been there you’ll either ask someone who has or you’ll get a map. The same is with a practice. Ask people who are good at what they do and enjoy it. Ask people you admire, either friends or experts (the two can be the same thing) what they did (or do) Read a book or twelve. Pray for guidance. Ask God/Source/the Divine to show you what direction you should go.

Then pick something and do it. It will be awkward at first. Give it some time. If it doesn’t feel like a good fit for you, try something else. You can’t get there if you have on the wrong shoes. Sometimes the practice works for someone else but it doesn’t fit you. That is normal. It doesn’t mean you are wrong. It means the practice is wrong for you.

Your practice may be to fully participate in your religion. Practice doesn’t have to be something new, it can be something old. You don’t have to take up a new habit or hobby. You can just do what you already do, but more mindfully.

You can find enlightenment through almost any path. Even doing a jigsaw puzzle can teach you a valuable lesson. Being open and childlike is essential. If your practice becomes like a job, then it isn’t a practice anymore.

It helps if your practice helps others. Sure, you need some inward focus too. You can’t help others very well if you are broken. If you are off balance and you try to catch someone else who is off balance you will both fall. But a practice that is all self-focused will be tight, like a flower bud that isn’t open. Flowers are made to open and be delightful. So are we.

Finding patience in a Monet painting.

I came across a Monet painting recently and noticed the date. I was surprised to find out that it was completed over the course of four years. I’d always thought that I was a slacker if I didn’t finish an art project in a few days.

The painting is this –
Claude_Monet,_Saint-Georges_majeur_au_crépuscule

It is called “San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk”, or in the original French, “Saint-Georges Majeur au Crepuscule”. The dates are 1908-1912.

This looks like a pretty simple piece to me. This looks like something that could be knocked out in an afternoon. But then again, I’m not a famous artist. Maybe the trick is that he just makes it look simple.

I’ve decided to take this to heart. I’ve decided to be more patient with my art and with myself. This is a dangerous place to be for me. If I don’t push myself enough I won’t do anything. I’ll let projects sit half completed. I’ll start things and not finish them.

But then again, if I do things too fast, I’ll not have time to do them well. I’ll not take the time to let them digest, or ferment, or mellow. Some things are better if they are done slowly. Some things have to be done slowly if they are going to be done right.

I’m not in a race. I don’t have any assignments. Creating isn’t my job. There aren’t any deadlines. The only rules I have are ones I’ve created.

I’m reminded of Luke Skywalker about to enter the cave on Dagobah. The only thing he took in there was himself. Sometimes that is the scariest thing of all.

When I create, I take with me all the rules that I’ve been given of how things have to be and all the rules I’ve made up. I put limits on myself before I’ve even begun. I have expectations that prevent me from finding innovations.

Part of my practice this year is to not limit anything, anymore. It is to be open and trusting to what God is leading me to be and to become. Part of that practice is to encourage you to do the same.