Tuesday, June 27, 2006


I didn't get much sleep last night.

I'm afraid of not being able to sleep, and I knew that chances of sleeping well last night were not good. So I made a point of winding down before going to bed. I watched TV and talked to my son for a while, did some gentle yoga, answered a few very short emails, cleared away some dishes, and then I went to bed with a book--a boring one.

I dozed off quickly, but then I woke up and started to worry. Dozed off again, woke up, stayed awake, read, worried some more. Thanks to the yoga, my body felt relaxed during all of this, but my mind could not let go and sleep. I was gripped by a big, tense hand that wrapped around me as I shivered under the covers. it gave me a good shake every now and then, just to be sure I was still awake and paying attention to my problems.

I prayed during the night. Prayed for quick answers, for the telephone to ring with news tomorrow. I prayed for wisdom to recognize slow, transcendent answers, prayed about my guilt about being lazy, shy, fake. I prayed for the drug of sleep to creep through my veins and turn off the recordings playing in my brain.

Then I worried and wondered about these prayers. The basic theme was "God, show up right now and help me (even though I'm not sure that I'm the kind of person who believes you're going to do that)."

What should we pray for? God's will be done. Help me accept what your will is, O God. (And by the way, could your will for me please include a happy ending for my problems?) Make me mindful of your presence. Remind me to be grateful. (And if I'm grateful enough, will you give me what I want right now?) Your kingdom come, O Lord. (With peace and justice for all, and a good seat for me.)

These are my selfish little prayers, prompted by tossing, turning and trying to warm my feet in the night. The fear of things not going so well in the days ahead puts a hard edge on prayer. No spiritual niceties, no praying for a deeper faith. Just fix this now, so I can stop feeling so uncomfortable.

I wish I could report that insight and a better attitude arrived with the dawn, or that these signs of spiritual maturity arrived at all. The day dawned, the alarm rang, just as it seemed that sleep was finally within my grasp. I dragged my body downstairs to the bathroom, on bare feet because I couldn't find my smelly, easy-to-slide-into navy blue summer slides. I considered skipping the coffee so that I could go back to bed after getting kids off to day camp and summer school.

But I never skip coffee. I stayed awake and tackled jobs that needed to be done. Unpleasant jobs, such as sorting through the medical bills, making phone calls, cleaning my desk. I tried to take a nap in the late afternoon, but as things turned out, I read, dozed off and was awakened by the telephone.

The work I did today may have sown the seeds for solutions to some of the problems I worried about last night. My sleep-deprived numbness made it easier to just keep doing what needed to be done, without my brain running off to play or exaggerate the difficulty.

An answer to prayer?

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Put your hips into it

"If you get the perfect swing and hit the ball exactly right and you watch it soar and take off like an airplane, it is so satisfying, so pleasing."

Asked my 19-year-old son for a topic and that's what he gave me. He and his younger brother went to the driving range today, with their garage sale golf clubs--girls' clubs, I'm told, but how would I have known that when I bought them? Things did not go well at first at the driving range. It's been a year since they've done this. But then, they said they remembered Happy Gilmore (Adam Sandler in a movie, not someone on the PGA tour) and how he said to put your hips into it. The balls took off.

Golf. How did they learn anything about that? There are no golfing parents in this house. Yet any mother of sons, any Cub Scout den leader, can tell you that boys have a natural affinity for swinging sticks around and hitting things. There's a broken window in our basement that can attest to this. So forget the idea that golf is a product of civilization, course designers, and lawn mowers. No, that whacking instinct is utterly natural. That same urge to use the explosive power of the body to force an object to fly through space also explains baseball. And spiking in volleyball. And all that dribbling, spinning, leaping, and turning that finally propels the ball through the net in basketball.

I don't have these urges. Never did. The closest thing I've ever had to an athletic obsession involved a balance beam routine in high school. No believe me, there was no careless leaping there. At the moment I have a pretty good case of tennis elbow, but I did not get it from hitting balls around the court. It's from snapping my fingers while conducting. It won't go away because I aggravate it every time I sit down to knit. Here, however I do have something in common with professional athletes: I can knit through pain.

Still, I love to watch my sons play Frisbee or shoot hoops in the backyard. An email survey sent by a friend once asked for my favorite sport. "Whatever Kurt is playing at the moment," I said. When Kris was his age we watched him play soccer and speed from one end of the field to the other, challenging guys much bigger than he was. When they play Frisbee, they run, dive, and jump after a disk that often spins by off in unexpected directions. Oh to be young--and have that much faith in your body.

These guys need space. If all this energy erupts late at night in the kitchen, while a certain thirteen-year-old is waiting for the pizza rolls to come out of the toaster oven, dishes may break. Heads may crack--not that he notices. This kid has bruises and scrapes up and down his legs, arms, shoulders, and he doesn't know where they come from--which headlong dive into the dirt caused which area of damage.

Spirits live in bodies. We don't actually know of any other places they live. In yoga, you put the physical body on, around the breath body, and then they move together, motion activated by breathing. That's about the extend of my athleticism, these days. But when you get it all working right, you soar, just like the ball when you put your hips into the golf swing. It's so satisfying, so pleasing.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Gazing on the whole world

"After all, it doesn't matter where you watch life from if your gaze takes in the whole world." Verlyn Klinkenborg writing today in the NY Times about Donald Hall the new poet laureate of the United States.

Can you see the whole world from rural New Hampshire? That's where Donald Hall lives and writes. Is his home up on a hill, with a less obstructed view of the horizon than I see from my window overlooking backyards in suburban Chicago? How can one man's gaze take in the whole world? How does one connect the inner world of the mind, where sentences are formed and experience is questioned, with how the big world works?

Artists, writers, and performers both specify and generalize. Anne Lamott, in Plan B and her other collections of essays, skids across the page, veering wildly from her own quirky, narcissistic existence to statements summing up how God works in the world. There's a whole genre out there that I'd call "And isn't that a lot like life?" Fill in pretty much whatever you want--knitting, quilting, daily walks, childrearing, schooling. Sewing together little bits of cloth or ripping out six inches of lacework is supposed to reflect some larger pattern, or steel the soul for encounters with Big Issues.

Does anyone write down observations about banking and life, or playing the stock market and life? Or do the people who do those things take it for granted that what they do is real life? Does the poetic urge in some of us--the urge to organize the material of experience into an object or a performance or a blog--live alongside the assumption that what we do day in and day out somehow must hook up with a larger purpose?

Glory. Why can't I just write about recipes or something? Of course, I couldn't type up my chocolate chip cookie recipe without commenting that it comes from my sainted Aunt Clara who clipped the original from the Chicago Tribune and then tested and refined it before passing it on. It is a recipe held in reverence by me and my sisters, and no matter how deep a ditch I might try to dig around it, some observation about family, food, and childhood memory would leap out from the list of ingredients and start a little brush fire somewhere else, one that would crackle away with "Isn't that a lot like life?"

A gaze that takes in the entire world, of course, processes data from many more sources than one life or one family's traditions--almost an infinite number of sources. There are worlds of politics, economics, development in Africa, art installations in Paris, and censorship in China. There's the world you would see swimming with the fishes on a coral reef northwest of Kauai and another one to be found in the human genome. That variety of topics and more can be found just in one day's headlines (today's).

What protects a poet from being overwhelmed by the many specific stories that crowd his gaze, each with its own unique details? Drawing a little lesson from each one would produce a surfeit of shallow truths. Zooming in to let the subject speak its own truth might be more in line with the aesthetic of a 20th or 21st century poet. Giving up, living one's own small life, unchallenged by a wide-world gaze, is another option.

Those neurons in our brains, however, insist on hooking up. The wide world we gaze on may be no more than an illusion constructed by those neurons and neurotransmitters, in response to sensory stimuli. Oh, cripes, was my real calling philosophy? I am getting all weirded out, like when I was a child and would lie in bed at night wondering if I was really a robot, experiencing things that were not real at all.

Words on paper, or on a computer screen, seem real. The struggle I am having with them this morning is real enough. My neighbor's fence and bushes and the blue and white garage beyond her yard don't offer much in terms of gazing at the world, but they remind me to look beyond the mess of papers and bills on my desk. Maybe I need a birdfeeder, too, on this corner of the house. Then I could contemplate the consciousness of little brown sparrows.God's eye is on them.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

"High summer holds the earth."

That's a line from James Agee's poem "Sure on This Shining Night." I know it from an exquisitely legato song setting by Samuel Barber. It seems to describe today, June 14th. Not quite summer by the calendar, the day is nevertheless everything you could want from the season: warm, green, gentle, promising. The birds sing, and this afternoon, Jack the dog will take her nap in warm sunshine, on the lawn chair on the patio, rather than on the couch in the darkened living room.

Barber's vocal line soars over the beating heart of repeated chords in the song's accompaniment, while the words describe "hearts all healed" and kindness and wonder. Many important words in the poem begin with h: high, holds, healed, hearts, health--each one exhaled, each one a letting-go. High summer holds the earth, and we walk in that blessed space beneath sky and stars, where kindness watches us, as Agee says, "this side the ground." It is a space that, to me, seems to be filled with God's love, explicitly in the molecules of oxygen that I breathe, in the humidity of the air that touches my skin. In high summer, gentle, nurturing love seems suspended in the atmosphere, and even in the grey of winter, the cold air that reddens cheeks and freezes fingers enfolds me with God's care. The Psalmist says, "Your tender love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens," and that is a vast and infinite love.

Listen to the song here: Sure on This Shining Night

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Green Season

Pentecost stretches from here to Christ the King at the end of the November. High summer to nearly winter, lush June green fading to gray, with a month-long pass through autumn's red, orange and yellow. Where, who, what will we be after the Thanksgiving Day trumpets sound, Christ's final rule is contemplated and Advent begins the cycle all over again? So many Sundays, so many lessons, so much ordinary life.

The liturgical color for Pentecost is red, yet the color for the Pentecost season is green. Red and green sit opposite each other on the color wheel. Mix them together and you get a muddy brown. The red of Pentecost stands for fire, as we pray God to "kindle in us the fire of your love." Green is the color of plants that are getting plenty of water--not the kind that go up in flames in the late summer dry season.

So what can we make of these opposed colors? Plants are green because of the pigment chlorophyll, which absorbs light from the sun. That absorbed energy powers photosynthesis, the chemical reactions that transform water and carbon dioxide into glucose, food for the plant. (Food for us, too, and the herds of cattle that become steak and ice cream.) We absorb the sunshine of God's love, all the energy of Pentecost's wind and fire, and it turns the ordinary material of our lives into nourishment. We live and flourish because of the fire kindled by God's love--Pentecost red transformed into the green of the Sundays after Pentecost.

That's all pretty abstract. But as I sit here at the computer looking out the window at all the "volunteer trees" in my yard, weedy things that grow as tall as the house in a single summer, lush green growth is real to me. I don't fertilize these things or water them. They just grow, fed by air and sunlight and the water from the downspouts after rainstorms. If only my soul flourished so readily.

Ah, that Pentecost red is also the color of the blood of saints and martyrs, which has nourished the Church through the centuries. Red stands in for pain, suffering and sacrifice. We are not plants that develop from air, earth and water, that are lifted by the wind and battered by rain and hail, yet feel nothing. Passion flows through our veins--the passionate love of God and each other, the love of the sun and the earth, the love of truth and justice. Passion makes us act, not always wisely, not always rightly. It burns, like fire, warms us and lights the way, but it also destroys, without caution or control.

So what lies ahead in the next 5-6 months of Sunday mornings, as we listen to Gospel lessons from Mark about Jesus's life on earth, followed by sermons on what Christ's ministry means for our lives? Does the Spirit's pentecostal fire inspire passion or give energy for steady, daily growth? Both, of course, in the same way that making art or making anything requires both enthusiasm and discipline. Inflame our hearts, Lord, but also set off that steady chain of chemical reactions that turns energy and light into food for ourselves and for others.