Traumatized by Poetry

A running joke in my family, is that our daughters were traumatized when they were young, by my reciting poetry in the family van.  As daughters K and L tell the story, their childhood was scarred by my reciting portions of poems as I drove them to dance classes, school events or on family vacations.

To show that the trauma wasn’t too great and that their humor remained intact, the daughters in their teens, graced me (for Father’s Day) with a home made anthology of my favorite poets. The booklet was entitled ‘from the back of the van’ (in lower case a nod to ee.cummings).

The introduction written by L my eldest daughter reads: ‘A collection of acceptable poetry. Please, please, please do not feel like we are giving you permission to read this to us.  Love your darling daughters.’

Best Father’s Day gift, ever. (Okay, second best, the best was L and K gifting me with Red Sox tickets, 10 rows from third base, with me sitting between my daughters).

Where did my love of poetry come from?

It came out of the blue.  For much of my life I’d found poetry too sugary or too abstract.  What I heard I didn’t like or didn’t get.

A kayak trip to the Tongass Wilderness in Alaska changed everything.  It was summer of 2002 and I was on a Zen meditation Kayak trip in the primal wilderness of the Tongass.   A deep, dark, beautiful old growth forest indented by the bracing blue waters of Tebenkof Bay.

Kurt Hoelting our guide, welcomed each morning by reciting a poem.  He channeled the words of the poets Mary Oliver, David Whyte, William Stafford, Wendell Berry.  Their words weren’t syrupy or abstract.  They were real.  They reflected and amplified the wisdom of this wilderness.

Poems spoken from the heart spoke to mine.  It was an epiphany.

For the first time, I heard and received as a gift, this poem by Mary Oliver:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Kayaking on Tebenkof Bay, paddling the inlets as doorways into the wilderness, I let the poem wash over me…announcing my place in the family of things.  This poem, as others have done, opened my heart, mind and imagination to the beauty and mystery that was in, with and all around me.

Years later, during a health crisis, Mary Oliver’s poems would settle and sustain me on a different journey.   Mary and William Stafford (the poet laureate of Oregon) and others, became my travelling companions through the varied seasons of living.

So, you can see why I couldn’t help but share my love of poetry.  Even when our daughters were buckled-in to their car seats and had little choice.

My children, now grown, have forgiven me my poetic excess.  Their long ago gift of a homegrown anthology was their way of saying ‘all was forgiven’.

And, it gets even better.  K my journalist daughter recently invited me to participate in a book club for a radio show she produces.  The book? ‘Delights and Shadows’ by Ted Kooser, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Yes!

Normal Never Was

I hear a lot of us saying: ‘I’m tired and I want life to get back to normal’.  I get that.  If normal means going to my local coffee shop, being with friends and family, going to school and church, taking a vacation, being employed….then, yes, I want that too.

Yet, I think this difficult time provides and opportunity for us to think about what we want a post-pandemic life to look like.  Do we really want to go back to normal?

What if what was normal wasn’t all that great?

Is it normal that the 30 million Americans who lost their jobs in the past month, many of whom get health care through their employer, no longer have health care? Is it normal that millions more who have health care can’t afford to seek care because their deductibles and copays are too high?

Is it normal that those we call heroes during this pandemic (those who sanitize our hospitals, pick up our trash, stock our shelves, deliver our packages) too often, don’t have paid sick leave?  Or don’t make enough income to survive on one job?

Is it normal that an EMT named Jason in NYC, works 7 days a week, 14 hour shifts and falls in bed at night worried for those he treated that day.  And worries whether he will wake up with the virus, knowing that he doesn’t have health care because it costs too much?

Is it normal that we lack a robust public health care system? Or, that our government rolls back protections for the environment, that we all depend upon for life?

Is that the normal we want to return to?

In the Navajo religion, the purpose of a life well lived is to learn to walk in harmony. To walk in harmony with the Creator, with one’s neighbors, with creation and with oneself.

What can it look like for us, individually and as a society, to walk in harmony?

Sonya Renee Taylor, a poet, author, activist offers these prophetic words:

We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return my friends…We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment.  One that fits all of humanity and nature.

What do you think? Are you ready to stitch a new garment?

To create a new way of living and being informed by our values.  Built upon the truth that we are mutually dependent.  This pandemic has stripped away the illusion and myth that we are self-made, independent, islands unto oneself.

It’s not true. It never was.

Jesus cut to the chase: ‘Whatever you do (or don’t do) unto the most vulnerable, you do (or don’t do) unto me’ (Matthew 25:40).

Dream with me of a new normal:

Where access to health care is a basic human right.  Where quality affordable health care is accessible to everyone.

Where workers receive a livable wage.  So that a mom or dad doesn’t have to work 2 – 3 jobs to pay the rent and put food on the table.  Who at the end of the day, has enough energy to read to their child at bedtime.

Where clean water and air is considered a sacred trust. Where citizens insist on policies that ensure the health and well being of all.

Where no one is considered illegal or less than. Rather, Imago Dei, created in the Image of God, each person with inherent worth.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not going back to normal.  Normal never was.

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan monk and activist puts it this way:

I wonder what we will be like after this pandemic? But I really don’t want to get back to normal.  I hope that in facing my fear and anger and learning new ways of being in relationship, there will arise within me, a more willing spirit to embrace ‘us’ rather than ‘me’.

What new normal can arise from this moment in history?  What new garment can we stitch together?

Truly, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  The promise of a new normal, rests with us.

May it be so.

Opening to the Thin Place

In Celtic spirituality there is a Thin Place which separates the conscious world from that of the Spirit. Thin Places are the places and moments which transcend our daily preoccupations and transport us into a deeper awareness of what is and what can be.

Thin Places are the moments that elicit awe, wonder, dare I say, reverence.  A deep seated belief that there is more going on than meets the eye. A truth that cannot be proven, measured or quantified.

In my Christian tradition the Easter Season is full of appearance stories. Oftentimes the Risen Christ appears to the disciples but they don’t recognize him.  Their mind and imagination can’t grasp that the Christ has overcome death, violence and despair.

As the stories unfold there comes an a-ha moment. When their self imposed limitations as to what is possible, slip away.  Often times it is in the simplest gesture that everything turns: In John 20: 16 Mary Magdalene hears her name spoken; 21: 12 the disciples see Jesus preparing them a breakfast of fish and bread on the beach and they know.

What is it that allows one to suddenly see, feel, hear in a new way?

Have you ever had such a moment when your sense of what is possible, expands?

When I was a boy of 10, playing in a wetlands near my home, I had my first memory of a Thin Place.  I was with my cousin.  We were lying by a brook, listening  to the water.  Our faces were turned up to the sun, as beams of light flooded through the canopy above us.  At that moment I felt transported.  That I was connected to everything, the water, the sun, the call of the birds, the frogs in the stream.  Everything was interconnected.  There was no separation.

A Thin Place.

Anyone who has had a similar experience, knows that what I’m saying is true.

Instinctively we understand that there is an  intimate connection between place and openness.  Mystics over the ages, of various cultures and traditions, have understood that certain places have cosmic energy.  Places which heighten our sense of creativity and imagination.

Skellig-Michael – Ireland

The early Celtic monks in Ireland and Scotland sought out the most isolated places, feeling that such places heightened their senses.  This is true too in many Native American traditions.

It is why instinctively we go to the beach, the mountains, the desert, even our backyard garden.  It is more than a place for play and rest.  It is a place of meeting.

Mary Oliver, the American poet and mystic, in her seminal poem ‘Messenger’, writes:

My work is loving the world.

Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbirds –

equal seekers of sweetness.

Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.

Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Let me keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

astonished.

Thin places are those moments where we are cracked open to see, hear, feel and understand in fresh, expansive ways.  Places of astonishment.

How do we live in such a way?  The answer is simple and profound:

A desire to be open and curious.  Mixed with a healthy measure of humility. Which is to say, a willingness to admit we don’t know it all.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers offer this:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?”  Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.”

May it be so.

 

 

 

 

COVID-19: A Kairos Moment?

This pandemic has thrown everything into disarray. Some of us are fortunate to be able to shelter in place in a home with room to move.  Others of us live on the streets, or live in crowded apartments where sheltering in place for safety is a fantasy.

Those who work on the front lines: First responders, medical staff, grocery workers, delivery drivers, sanitation workers put themselves at risk from a spirit of service and because economically, there is no other choice.

Others of us are newly unemployed or run a business that may not survive.  Graduating seniors wonder what their future will hold.  We worry over loved ones that we can’t visit.

And so it goes. The list is endless as we worry over our health, economy and future.

What do we make of this time in our lives?

In ancient Greek culture time is defined in two ways.  Chronos refers to the ways in which we are shaped by time.  The word chronological is derived from this word. We have schedules, calendars and to do lists that help us manage our time and provide structure and meaning.

COVID-19 however has disrupted our sense of time.

The ancient Greeks viewed such disruptions through an alternative concept of time: Kairos.  Kairos in contrast to the familiarity of chronos is unpredictable.   Ancient Greek philosophies offered this definition:

Kairos: A passing instant when an opening appears which creates a new opportunity.

This pandemic is a Kairos moment.

In the midst of the disruptions and losses, can this moment offer opportunity? For you? For our society?

In my Christian tradition Kairos is used 86 times.  It refers to an opportune time, a moment, a season, when God enters and acts.  Jesus was referring to a Kairos moment when he said: ‘The Kingdom of God is near’ (Mt 3:2; Lk 17:21). A reference to a time of justice, healing and hope.

What do you need at this moment in your life?  What do we need as a society?

Who are we when health and wealth and status is stripped away?

It has been said:

We remember who we are, as we remember the One and the ones, to whom we belong.

This is true.

Could it be that this Kairos moment is reminding us of what we’ve too often forgotten?  Namely, that we belong to God (who goes by many names) and to one another.

This Kairos moment has made us painfully aware of the injustice in our economic and political system. That those who clean our rest rooms and buildings, who pick up our trash, who staff our nursing homes, serve our meals, who stock our shelves and deliver our packages, are the ones who make our society run. These are the ones who to often don’t make a living wage and can’t afford health care.

Could it be that from this pandemic will come a reallocation of resources built upon a new way of viewing who has worth and value?  Could it be that we have a renewed sense of responsibility to and for one another?

Imagine people having time to spend with family, friends, neighbors. A time when people can make ends meet with one job (not 2 or 3).  A time when everyone has access to quality health care. A time when our environment is not viewed as a commodity but as a gift to steward for a healthy present and future.

If this is to be a Kairos moment, we must seize the opportunity to reflect on what in our heart of hearts, that we know to be true: We belong to God and we belong to one another.

As we claim this truth all things become possible.  All things become new.

May it be so.

 

 

 

COVID-19 and the Thin Place

In Celtic theology there is the concept of a thin place.  The Celts believed that there is a thin place, a permeable membrane that separates the conscious world from that of the Spirit.

They believed (and believe) that there is another source of reality that is distinct from the world of the mind: Plans, projects, pride, worries.  This world of the mind is defined by the Greek word chronos.   Chonos is the root for chronological, defined by that which we are aware of and guided by.

The Celts believed that beyond the life of the mind, beyond chronological time is a separate realm.  It is the world of that great mystery of many names:  Spirit/Sacred/Wisdom/God/Higher Power/Creator /Presence/Source.

This other realm has a different measurement of time, Kairos time.  Kairos transcends calendars and to do lists.  It is a time beyond time which breaks into our carefully constructed lives and reminds us that there is more to life than we can imagine.

The Celts speaks of such places of awareness as thin places. A place of awe, wonder and blessing. Ever been in a thin place?

I’d like to suggest that this bizarre moment of pandemic that we find ourselves in, is just such a moment.  Allow me to explain.

This pandemic has created a moment of profound unsettledness and fear for all of us.  Such a moment (stretching into weeks and months) pulls us out of our structure of ‘normal life’ into an unstructured time.  It is here in the midst of this profound unsettledness that we may become more spiritually open.

What am I talking about?

Let me suggest that many of us have more experience than we may be at first aware.  Here are some examples of thin place moments:

Holding an infant for the first time.

Seeing a rainbow after long wet and grey days.

Standing at the beach during a storm as the waves pound.

Watching a whale off the coast.

Hiking above the clouds.

Sitting on the ground with a 3 year old and seeing the world through their eyes.

Moments before and after surgery.

Falling in love.

Holding the hand of a loved one as they take their last breath.

Such moments are profound.  They pull us up and out of our self.  Time is stopped. Feelings are heightened.  We may experience fear or joy.  Hope or despair.  All with greater intensity.

When was the last time you cried out ‘Wow!’ or, whispered into the silence ‘help me’.

During such moments of awareness, we may experience what I call a ‘felt presence’.  An awareness that there is more going on than meets the eye.  An awareness that can’t be measured or quantified but only felt.

In the work I do, there are times when I’m with a person and their family when they take their final breath or soon there after.  We gather in a circle and offer a prayer.  In such moments, often but not always, we look up and at one another and ask: ‘Did you feel that too?’  A moment of oneness, communion with the one who has died, with those we love and with that Source to whom we all one day will return.

A thin place.

This pandemic has that effect for many of us.  It strips away the illusion that we are in control. Even those who haven’t thought of themselves as spiritual may sense something deeper going on.  An awareness that we need comfort and peace and that maybe, just maybe, it may be found in a place we never imagined before, a thin place.

May peace be yours during this unsettled season.

May it be so.

Good Friday and the Illusion of Control

For Christians like me, Good Friday is often that day in Holy Week to easily move past.  Many of us are more comfortable with the joyous entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, than we are with Good Friday. We’d much prefer moving on to the joy of Easter.

Part of our discomfort is that we simply don’t want to deal with the pain that takes place between these two events.  Who wants to focus on betrayal, arrest, crucifixion and death?

Our society in the USA (at least for white middle class folk like me), is built on the illusion that we are in control.  Captains of our own destiny.  This illusion teaches that power, possessions and accomplishments will make us happy and give our lives meaning. Our economic and to varying degrees, our political system, is built on this narrative of the rugged individualist.  This illusion also permeates and to often warps Christian theology

The pandemic that we are living through, has laid to rest this illusion.  We aren’t in control. We have a profound sense of dislocation. We worry over our health and economic well being of self, family, neighbors, nation and world.

This pandemic has made the Good Friday story relevant and real. We can relate to the despair that the early disciples felt on that Good Friday as they watched Jesus take his final breath.  Many of us have lost family or friends to COVID-19. We too know grief.

The story of the cross is of God entering into the pain and brokenness of the human condition lived out in the life and witness of Jesus.  People who live on the margins know this to be true. (For the Passion story, read Luke 22 -23)

In the 1970’s a group of Catholic bishops in South America, led by Gustavo Guttierez spoke of God’s solidarity with the poor and oppressed.  They chose the phrase ‘Liberation Theology’, to reflect God’s accompaniment with the vulnerable.

Liberation Theology is rooted in a theology of the cross, in particular Jesus being crucified at the hands of the Roman Empire.  This complements Jesus’ other teachings, such as Matthew 25:40:

“Whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers, you do unto me.”

Such words, coupled with Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross, reflects the heart and essence of God.  As Jesus says in John 15:

“No one has greater love than this, than to lay down ones life for ones friends.”

Such teachings and witness have so much to say during this pandemic crisis. We belong to one another and, we belong to God.  It was true at the time of Jesus and it is true now.

Parker Palmer, the Quaker theologian speaks of  a tensions between an ‘economy of scarcity’ as compared to a ‘gospel of abundance’.  During this pandemic we see the economy of scarcity being lived out as affluent nations gobble up ventilators, while poor countries struggle to respond.

For example in Nicaragua I’m on the board for a public health ministry called AMOS: Health and Hope (http://www.amoshealth.org).  It is estimated that there are less than 100 ventilators in a nation of 6 million people.  The AMOS staff are gearing up to be on the frontlines of COVID-19 with few tools to draw upon.

Cross overlooking volcano in Managua

Truly the vulnerable in such nations are living out the pain of the Good Friday story.

Yet, there is another way.  The path of sacrificial love as expressed by Jesus. A way of living and being that teaches that we belong to one another.  That love transcends national boundaries.  That when we see each other as connected, we become responsible to and for one another.  This is what Parker Palmer calls, a Gospel of Abundance.  This radical love is in part, what the cross symbolizes.

That few countries, including my own, will respond in such a way, does not make it any less true.  Or, any less compelling.

Those who live on the margins know the truth found in Good Friday. During this challenging time more of us are discovering this truth too.

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On Staying Emotionally Connected

This pandemic has brought dramatic changes to society.  None more so than social distancing.  Experts tell us that staying at home and keeping apart 6 feet is essential for flattening the curve of the pandemic.  I have no doubt that they are correct.  Like you I’m doing my part.

How then can we stay emotionally connected?  One elderly lady who walks in our neighborhood noticed that people were not only practicing social distancing but also avoiding eye contact, as if fearful of the other.  This lady lives alone and walking is one of the few opportunities she has to connect.

What then can we do?  Here are some suggestions, based on my own  practice or what others have done that inspire me:

  • On your walks, from the proper distance, wave or say hello.
  • Greet your neighbors when you see them outside or text or call to let them know you are thinking of them.
  • Stay connected with friends and family using the many social platforms available (ZOOM, SKYPE, Facetime etc.).  These are uncertain and anxious times and it is a gift to one another to know that we are not in this alone.
  • Use snail mail to send a note of encouragement.  Taking the time to send a card with a personal note is ‘old school’ but carries good emotional weight.  This is important too for those not on social media to let them know they are remembered.
  • Cultivate your spiritual life. Draw from your faith tradition or create rituals that allow you to feel connected to the needs and pain around us.  This is particularly counter cultural.  Our culture has reinforced the illusion that we are in control, captains of our own destiny.  COVID-19 has shown that illusion for what it is.  What is REAL, is this:  We are all fragile and live in a time of great uncertainty that in many ways is outside of our control.  What is real, is our need and moral calling, to take care of one another. That our meaning is found in how we foster community. Community of the heart.
  • Here’s a ritual I find helpful: I carve out 10 – 15 minutes at the beginning of the day to be quiet. (For those with kids at home, find the quiet when you can).  Oftentimes, I’ll scan my local newspaper or news feed to be aware of some of the needs locally and globally.  Then, in my time of silence I sit with my hands in the shape of a bowl.  Slowly I place each of my worries and concerns in that bowl. In doing so I acknowledge the need in my own life and in the world.  Then, I ask God to ‘be with those dealing with a particular situation, to ask God to bless those involved each according to their need’. I often pray for those in the medical field who risk so much for the well being of others.  In doing so two things happen:  I enter into community with others like me who are fragile. And, I enter into communion with that loving Mystery people call God/Spirit/Creator. Afterwards I feel more centered and more emotionally connected.

I want my elderly neighbor and all of us to know, that we aren’t alone.  That we belong to one another.  Perhaps one positive change that will come out of this pandemic is a reminder that we belong to one another and we belong spiritually to the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.

Be well.   Know that I have your back and I trust you have mine.