On the final day of the 30-poems-in-30-days challenge it seems fitting to close my month-long spasm of creativity with a poem that mirrors the opening. My first, light-hearted little offering described a morning wake-up in the soft surroundings of my sunlit bed. At the close of this adventure I am offering another haiku that also deals with my bed – or rather, the missing of it in the late hours of the night. Considering how many hours of sleep I have donated to this poetic outpouring, it could end no other way.
must you so often visit
after my bedtime?
(Note – this post was a bit delayed by a bout of food poisoning, but I will go ahead a share it anyhow, despite it having absolutely nothing to do with Christmas Eve).
On Sunday my little family made the annual 350 mile Christmas trek from Mountain View, in the Silicon Valley, to Thousand Oaks, nestled in the calm Southern California suburbs. The seven hour trip is a fixture in our late December because the grandparents’ homes span nearly half of the vast length of the Golden State (That’s right, Italian friends, this single state is significantly longer than the entire, beautiful country of Italy).
We generally try to work a few stops into this day-long journey (to stretch our legs and preempt excessive back seat whining from the littlest Rices), and this trip we set the beach at Santa Claus lane as our penultimate destination. Not only is the name for this little bit of beachy bliss holiday appropriate; it is also just outside the gates of the lovely garden where Tyler and I were married over 13 years ago, and we like to come visit occasionally to steep in happy reminiscences.
We arrived a little before sunset to be greeted by a scene that comes close to my ideal for natural beauty. The long stretch of soft, pale sand curved in a lazy embrace around the gently rushing movement of the ocean waters, welcoming the playful pull on scattered shells, and rocks, and seaweed with an indulgent smile across to the dipping sun, as it cast warm golden rays in a low trajectory to dance lightly across the aquatic surface, leaving little sparkling footprints as evidence of reciprocal appreciation for the playful Pacific. I took a deep breath and tried to release the tension that has been digging icy claws into my back and shoulders for the past few months.
The children had no such need for intentional relaxation. They were all wiggly exuberance to dispense with shoes and socks and jump into a squealing game of tag with the encroaching waves. Their effortless play was pure joy and I bit my tongue when the inevitable wetting of clothing occurred. Just let them play, I told myself. It’s not a tragedy if they make the rest of the trip bare-legged.
Tyler shares the children’s enviable ability to shake off cares and dive into moments of pure pleasure (what a joy to be married to a man like that!). He happily joined in the romp, shrugging at the icy chill of the December water and laughing at the antics of the little ones. Then, his face glowing from the exercise and the simple joy of playing with his children in such an idyllic context, he tossed a light question to me as though it were a ball that I could toss back just as easily. “Can’t you just imagine writing here? You’d be so inspired!”
The simple answer to that question, of course, is “Yes!” It would be a fulfillment of so many dreams to settle on the Santa Barbara coast, to be able to bring our children to play in the waves any time we wished, and (most of all?) to be able to factor the inspiration of a given context into our decision about where to live, because that would mean I was actually able to contribute to the family income with my writing. That thought, however, reclenched the anxious claws of worry that I had been trying to shrug off.
What am I going to do for work, now that we are back in the States?
The busy-ness of the move has largely shoved this question to the back of my consciousness in the last weeks. I have to get through the move first — packing, travelling, Christmas, settling the kids in school, unpacking at the New Jersey house — I have enough to worry about right now. I’ll work on the big, blank question of WORK once I manage the rest of my tasks. Still, the question is there, and now that we have landed in my homeland I am finding it harder and harder to push it into the shadows.
Now it intruded into the peace and beauty of my sunset on the beach. I tried to ignore the nagging tug of uncertainty about my future, but it stubbornly clung to my feet, dragging behind me as we trudged across the sand for a peek at our wedding garden then back to the car. I tried to call to the waves to pull it away. I tuned my ear to their rushing voice, willing them to wash my soul with peace. Then I raised my eyes to see a striking image of that peace half-crouched on the sand in front of me. A man of approximately middle age was practicing tai chi. In preparation for his practice he had built for himself a sacred space, dragging his foot or a thick piece of driftwood through the sand to dig out circles of ever-decreasing circumference until he stood alone at the center.
I directed the Gigglemonster’s feet in an arching path to avoid the sacred circles and of course drew from him a query about “what the man is doing?” I didn’t really think about my response; it rose unbidden to my lips, perhaps called forth by the very waves I had been calling to. “That’s his was to talk to God, Honey.”
I don’t know whether he would have in fact embrace that simple summary, but it spoke truth to me. The natural beauty of this place was not self-enclosing; it did not speak to me with its own voice. Rather, it echoed a far deeper voice, the voice of the Creator. And, as I looked through the sunset to the Light that ignites it, the waves pulled a poem from my soul to answer my questions and offer me peace.
Tai Chi and Ocean Listening
Concentric circles in the sand
connecting dance with earth and sky.
“That is his way to talk to God,”
I answer my son’s perpetual why?
Can nature also help me hear?
Can waves and sunset stir my soul?
If I stand still to listen here,
will God’s voice speak to make me whole?
The rush of life is not a lie.
There’s need for my quotidian pace,
but rushing sound can also calm
and blinding light caress my face.
The ocean waves they call to me.
With crash and pull the cadence breathes,
“Awake to rest! You have come home,
your fears to still, your cares to ease.”
They speak in memories of youth,
of carefree frolics in the waves.
My grown eyes watch my children dance
my steps of glee from yesterday.
I danced so free upon a time
when future was just as unknown.
For trust defined my childhood life.
Why, with blessed life, has trust not grown?
Now can I learn such faith again?
Can advent teach the peace and hope
that till the ground for love and joy?
Can my feet step out on that rope?
The still small voice finds in this place
a way to break through stress and fear:
“The One who sings the ocean tides
can speak a path your soul will hear.”
Apparently, the emotional turmoil of moving inspires poetic rather than prose responses in my soul.
There are so many things that I could say about my impending return to my home country. Even more that I could say about the consequent departure from the city and country that have become my loved, if sometimes uncomfortable, home. I could reflect on the sometimes humorous, sometimes hand-wringing challenges of culture-crossing. I could expound on the idiosyncrasies of the Italian language that continues to enchant and frustrate me. I could reminisce over sweet memories and mourn the imminent changes to dear friendships. I have feelings and thoughts on all of these elements of this incredible experience, but these are not the truths that welled in my soul as I walked to the kids’ school this afternoon (for one of the last times).
Instead I reflected on the ways this experience has changed me, and as often happens these thoughts brought me back to the faith that is at the core of the “me” who has changed. There has been a lot of change in me, that is clear, at least to me. And I suppose my faith has changed as well, but not in some linear sense of conversion from one form to another. Rather, these years have brought a new sense of synthesis. This is not a direct consequence of one or another element of my experience. My years in Europe have, on the one hand exposed me to much more variety within Christianity than even my seminary years, at least in terms of lived experience. But on the other hand they have in some ways left me on a spiritual island – isolated from the friendships where I feel most free to talk honestly and openly about my faith, marooned with my faith and my God to try to work out for myself what I really believe.
And I am emerging from this experience with a new sense of balance, an appreciation for the life of “the now and the not yet” that was academic in seminary, but is now experiential. In describing this, however, my prose escapes me. Instead, I share the poem that evolved from a prayer walking through the rare autumn sunlight of a crisp November Milan afternoon.
Love in the Balance
Constancy that’s ever changing
as I shift my point of view.
Your face can ever bring me wonder,
every morn Your love is new.
First I knew You as a savior,
hung for me up on that tree.
Oh, the breathless love of sinner
called by One who welcomes me.
Then I knew You as a Father
firm, though loving, in command.
My call, I knew, must be obedience
always submit to Your demand.
I’ve also known You as my Abba:
Daddy, dear, who holds me close.
Nestled in Your sweet protection
perhaps this face I love the most.
A mother’s longing You have shown me
when I hold my children near;
a love that yearns toward my potential
balanced between hope and fear.
In blessed moments I have known You
as the Lover of my soul,
igniting passion for Your presence,
for only in You am I whole.
More often You’re the still small voice,
so hard to hear amid the din
of life that presses with demands
so urgent, as I am worn thin.
But other times Your voice seems absent
even when I call in pain.
Your silence deafens me from shouting
leaves me hopeless, Spirit drained.
Until I learn to sit in patience,
let the silence fill my soul,
find the peace of true surrender,
choose my faith despite the toll.
Your words are sometimes those of comfort,
sometimes challenge, sometimes call,
hope, rebuke, forgiveness, wisdom.
At different times I’ve needed all.
Such contrast can all seem disjointed,
“Who is the true Word hid beneath?”
But Truth can hold them all in tension,
each is true, just incomplete.
This will be a short one, I promise. It is basically just an introduction and then a short piece of writing I completed for a completely different purpose, that has since been hanging with me.
So, first the introduction. I have previously mentioned my small but wonderful Thursday morning bible study group, which has become a source of learning, inspiration, and friendship over the last 8 months. The format is fairly standard, but for those for whom this form of religious practice is not familiar I will briefly summarize its two elements. First, each participant completes the study preparation, which includes reading the text for the week and answering a number of questions about it that range from basic summarizing to deeper interpretation to personal application. Second, the group meets to share and discuss their responses, as well as to pray and just share our lives. It is an enriching part of my weekly routine, but nothing very unusual for those in church circles.
Last week, however, there was an unusual task included in the preparation section. We were reading Acts chapter 27, which tells the dramatic story of the shipwreck experienced by the Apostle Paul and over 270 other people during his transportation as a prisoner from Caesarea to Rome (If you’re interested in the context, here’s a link to the online text http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%2027&version=NIV). As part of our reflection on this story, the study participants were asked to write a description of the emotional experience of one of Paul’s companions on the ship during the more than 2 weeks that they spent buffeted by a hurricane before being marooned on the island of Malta.
At first I hesitated at this task. In past reading I have thoroughly enjoyed some imaginative retelling of pieces of the Biblical narrative (The Red Tent comes to mind as a wonderful exploration of the feminine world that lies mostly obscured by the Biblical account of the patriarchs). I think it can be appropriate and illuminating to start from the limited information provided in Bible accounts and then try to “flesh out” the story with the human experiences and emotions that can sometimes be difficult to find in the theologically driven original texts. Nevertheless, I quail at the thought of attempting such an exploration myself. While I thoroughly enjoy the process of character development in my fiction, to engage in this process with actual historical events, and more than that with events that are part of the revelation of God, seems too far beyond my ken. How could I endeavor to achieve the necessary truth in such an enterprise?
And yet, the assignment was there, and after initial hesitation I couldn’t just completely rebel (I am a consummate rule-follower, after all). Once I capitulated I found that there were actually several points of contact to help with my engagement. The fact that the scene involved a ship-wreck helped provide a sense of background. I know from my seminary studies how in ancient middle eastern cultures the sea was associated with primordial chaos: the ultimate evil that is contained or restrained in creation, but which always threatens to break free. That would have possibly given a special terror to the prospect of death at sea. My own personal experiences of sea sickness also offered an entry point for my imagination. If I don’t take chemical aids to fight it, I am bent double within 20 minutes of riding even the gentlest swells — even the thought of two weeks of being buffeted by a hurricane makes me nauseous.
I had those two concepts in my brain as I set pen to paper, but not much more. Unlike my normal writing process I had no outline, no sense of where I was going. I just started writing. The result stunned me. It also reawakened in me a sense of awe about the power and deliverance in my faith; an awe that can sometimes be hard to hold on to in the tides of daily life. I hope it can offer a sense of anchor for you as well, or perhaps offer a sense of the screaming of the wind. So, with no further adieu…
This is worse than a nightmare, because it just goes on. Day after night, night after day, week after week. It starts to feel like this is the only reality there is, and all memory of land, of stillness, of quiet, of happiness, were all just a delusion.
I have vomited so much that I feel utterly empty inside. The smell of my own bile is part of my skin now; eating at my teeth; matted in my hair; I cannot imagine ever being clean again. The sickness is so painful I begin to long for death… until I look over into the water and I recoil back from its churning, gaping mouth. The salt stings my eyes as the wind lashes a wave into my face, and something in me screams, NO! I don’t want to be eaten up by that bottomless chaos!
The power of the smashing waves terrifies me, but it is the icy stillness beneath that grips my heart with a fear deeper and more paralyzing than I have ever known. How deep will I sink? Will I die before I am pulled out of reach of all light? Or will my last moments be the terror of total darkness and the scaly touch of unseen creatures as my lungs fight helplessly to draw oxygen from the water filling them? Even this current hell of sickness and fear is better than that fate.
Then I see Paul, that prisoner who somehow seems to gain respect even from his captor, the centurion, Julius. He has… peace. Somehow in this chaos of howling wind and biting rain… somehow despite the incessant creak of the boat’s timbers that cackle to my fears of the imminent cracking and tearing that will throw us all into the sea… somehow none of it affects him. He even smiles at me as he moves past and reaches out a hand to stroke the vomit-flecked hair out of my face.
His touch is miraculous. My stomach quiets. For the first time in weeks pain is not pulling my insides into a riotous ball. I turn and follow him, captivated, and see him take up a loaf of bread before turning to the mass of hopeless men strewn across the deck.
He doesn’t have to yell. Despite the despair that pulls each man in on himself, gnawing on his own misery and fear; despite the cracking, crashing noise that had battered our ears for days without end; when he speaks we all can hear. He speaks with total confidence of reassurance, of the promise of his God to save not just himself but all of us. It is unbelievable.
But I believe him. I feel myself mysteriously filled with the same stillness I see in him as he breaks bread and tells us to eat. I have seen him and his friends do this before, speaking words about remembrance of this Christ they follow. As I take a hunk of bread from Paul’s hand the words come back to me. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
I don’t yet know what I am remembering. But I will find out.
Although my relative blog silence may not indicate it to most of my readers, the past two months have been very busy for me. Much of this business has involved very prosaic activities (laundry, errands, carnevale & Easter goody bags for the kids’ classes). Of course, the unique context of my current sojourn in Italy colors even these day-to-day activities with unusual challenges and rewards, and it also offers amazing opportunities to otherwise fill my time (ski weekends in the Alps, school field trip to the Triennale Design Museum, shopping day-trip to Venice — I’ll stop before you all stop reading out of pique!)
The particular business of the last two months, however, has involved a few longer-term commitments that have combined into a lesson I didn’t realize I needed to learn. The first part of that lesson is just a reminder of something I already knew about myself: I am the kind of person who likes clear, concrete, defined goals, especially when said goals offer specific deadlines against which I can track my progress. Aficionados of psychological testing will nod their heads sagely when I reveal that my dominant personality trait all three times I have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test has been “judging.” This doesn’t mean that I am judgmental (I hasten to explain, since we “Js” highly dislike both ineffective communication and mis-categorization). What it does mean is this: while at different points of my life my score for my source of energy has slid across the line between introversion and extraversion, and my preference for making decisions has tended to balance nearly equally between thinking and feeling, there is no doubt that my lifestyle is governed by a preference for structure and organization.
This controlling preference has expressed itself directly, as I said, in a few longer-term commitments that have been dominating much of my time in recent months. The first such commitment is my writing. No, not my blog, I know. This particular medium of expression has been consistent only for its infrequency and its failure to meet even my modest self-imposed deadline of one entry per month. I’m referring instead to my commitment that before I leave Italy I will complete a long-term dream: to write a novel. I first dreamed this dream when I was 8 or 9 years old and tried my hand at penning a fantasy adventure story (that particular effort petered out after three or four chapters and is now lying in repose in my mom’s garage, if it hasn’t ended its sad little life in the recycle bin). My more mature effort, however, has been germinating for over a year and a half, and is the proud owner of an entire notebook filled with plot outline and character sketches, snatches of dialogue and random draft scenes. Until January of this year, however, the translation of all this planning into sequential written prose was going very slowly. While I love to write, there always seemed to be dishes to wash, or groceries to buy, or friends to meet for coffee, or blog entries to write, and I found it very difficult to carve out the time demanded by this serious ambition.
Then, one of those cappuccino-loving friends challenged me to start setting deadlines for myself. Not the vague, future goal of “finish before I leave Italy,” but a week-by-week schedule of chapter completion that would get me to my goal with a little room to spare. What a difference a deadline makes! The novel has transformed from an idea to an actual story, with nearly eighty pages and 8 1/2 chapters of substance stored on my hard drive. Granted, the schedule of completion charted in the margins of my calendar had me completing chapter 10 by April 5, but considering that I was only part way through chapter 2 in late-January (after 6 months of work) I will celebrate this page-count as a practical victory.
I am all the more inclined to revel in this progress because of the other goal that absorbed a lot of my time in the last two months – training for my first 10K race. Unlike the novel, this achievement had never been a long-cherished desire. Before February of this year I had never even run 5 kilometers at a go in my life and I have never considered myself an athlete. At another January coffee date, however, another friend suggested that I try to run the Stramilano of the 50,000 with her in March. That evening, just to see if it was even plausible, I went surfing the internet for a 10K training schedule for first-time racers. Of course, once I had that clear, beautiful schedule beaming off my computer screen, with the first two training runs fatefully set at the exact distance I was already running twice a week, I was hooked. This wasn’t just the gratifying structure of regular deadlines. This was a professionally constructed schedule of deadlines specifically prepared for runners in my exact situation. I organized my daily routine around that schedule — never scheduling coffee for Tuesdays or Thursday so that I could do my runs; trading my vacation morning of watching the kids (so that Tyler could ski) for an hour to run on the hotel treadmill; scheduling a babysitter on the weekend that Tyler was away so that I wouldn’t miss my first 3 mile training run. As the race day approached and my fitness improved I added a bonus incentive: the measurable goal of a run time. This system of deadlines, goals, and measurable results was magic. On the 24th of March even a sudden bout of vomiting minutes before the race did not dissuade me (note to other novice runners – don’t add an orange to your breakfast on race day, too much acid). When the loudspeaker boomed our “Via” and the hundreds of red balloons released into the sky above the Duomo, I was off: dodging race walkers (it’s a very non-competitive race), puddles (it rained the entire morning), and real runners coming up from the rear (a few of whom I gratifyingly re-passed later on once they ran out of steam). I certainly didn’t set any records, but at 68 minutes I beat my goal time by 2 minutes and felt the rush of a goal achieved.
So much for the affirmation of a character trait that 36 years has firmly established in the understanding of anyone who knows me at all well. The real point of this entry in the caveat that I must now add to my assertion that my soul yearns for structure, and organization, and deadlines: deadlines don’t work for lifelines. You see, the last two months have also contained the season of the Christian church year termed lent, and this year I tried to impose a deadline schedule on my spiritual practice for observing this season. Although the practice of “giving up” something for lent is relatively unusual in the generally evangelical branch of Christianity to which I belong, I have come to deeply appreciate this discipline in the past 7 or 8 years. It provides a chance to temporarily eliminate some small thing from my daily life that it not intrinsically bad, but that can be more fruitfully replaced with prayer or meditation. So, for example, when I gave up chocolate for the span between Ash Wednesday and Easter, my predictable daily yearnings for that sweet, rich confection provided a dependable reminder to re-center my awareness on gratitude to the God who gave up so very much more to reestablish a bridge for direct relationship with human beings, myself included.
So, this year my spiritual “fast” was from Facebook. I don’t think there is anything wrong with Facebook. To the contrary, since my move to Italy it has become a valued point of contact with “home” that allows me to know what is happening in the lives of my friends and to keep them informed about my European adventures without spending hours on the phone or e-mail, or composing generic mass letters. All the same, this useful tool can be a wasteful time drain and a distraction from precious moments with my children and husband. So, I committed to abstain from the little blue app on my phone for 46 days. The negative side of fasting, however, the “giving up” is not the full purpose of lent. Rather, the Lenten practice is aimed at replacing the denied pleasure with one that is spiritual in nature. And so, before signing off from Facebook on February 13 I made a list of all my Facebook “friends” and committed to pray for each of them at least twice during lent. Thus was born my Lenten schedule of deadlines. What a wonderful plan for my organizer’s soul. I could stay indirectly connected to all those distant friends and family in a spiritually vital way, and redeem some of that lost time I had been wasting clicking on electronic posters proclaiming familiar truisms as though they were the newest idea since the iphone5. This might be my best Lenten practice ever!
Well, yes and no. It was certainly good to pray for my friends and extended family, although this practice brought with it the uncomfortable realization of just how infrequently I do this except when I am aware of moments of crisis in their lives. It was also both good and uncomfortable to shine a spotlight on my inconsistency with prayer in general. While I aim for a daily time of prayer, early wake-up from kids and unplanned phone calls or class e-mails often disrupt these plans, and I was not aware of quite how often I miss my goal until I had a daily schedule. Planning to pray for 6 friends a day suddenly makes missing “a day or two” much more concrete when that list grows to 24 the next time I actually sit down with it.
Unfortunately, this spotlight was not very motivating. It turns out that prayer is really not much like running. When illness or travel temporarily derailed my training schedule I would sit down with my calendar and schedule out a shift to avoid getting behind in my progress toward my goal. When the Gigglemonster started his morning yell for “Mommy!” 45 minutes early, however, I would write myself a bleary mental note about doing my prayer time later that day, and then forget about it until the next day, when my reaction to “reading” that mental note was a mumbled “Oh crud, I only have 20 minutes, how am I going to get through 12 people plus reading scripture?” That’s not how I want to feel about prayer. I expect to have to drag myself to lace up my running shoes — that’s why I need a training schedule — but my prayer schedule seemed to work in reverse: it made into a burden what should have been a source of joy and renewal.
Now I want to be clear, even in my organizationally-obsessed mind prayer is not subject to formula; it is not a magical incantation that needs to be said just perfectly in order to “work.” Just the opposite, I experience prayer as a conversation that only “works” in the sense of the relationship it builds. The effectiveness of prayer thus depends upon the conversation partners, and in this relationship I have no illusions about where the problems come from. The God I pray to is no baal – he does need to be woken up, or called back from a journey, or interrupted in the midst of relieving bodily functions. God is always present and is always worth talking to, if I can get my head into the space where I can actually engage. And this is where my prayer schedule ran me into trouble. This Lenten journey has brought me to the realization that despite my type A, organization-loving, schedule-dependent nature, deadlines are limited in their utility. Deadlines are for things that you need to do despite the fact that they aren’t always fun — important, good for you, even necessary, but things that you are tempted to put off when there are competing options for how to spend your time. Problems come when I apply this model of motivating myself to activities that offer their own intrinsic motivation, because the deadline mentality replaces this motivation.
This pattern applies not just to prayer. The same danger arises when I start evaluating and calculating the minutes I spend in “quality time” interacting with my children (“Oh no! we haven’t done any art projects this week – quick, pull out the paints even if Princess Imagination would rather play let’s pretend and the Gigglemonster is screaming for the Wii”), or connecting with my husband (the compulsion to try to force a substantive conversation rather than another night of cuddling in front of the TV — regardless of how physically and mentally exhausted we both feel). When I start thinking in terms of quantifiable goals or benchmarks of adequate achievement the joy of the interaction gets lost in the task-nature of creating it. When I apply the patterns and structures of work to my sources of meaning and joy, then they become work. But while work is important for life, and I do sometimes need to put work into these sources of life’s meaning, I also need to remember the difference between life and work. The most important relationships in my life, with my God and with my family, are my lifelines to an existence that means more than a series of schedules and goals.
And so, as I embark on my 37th year of life, I have a new goal: to distinguish my lifelines from my deadlines, and to put them in their proper order. I can get satisfaction from meeting deadlines and achieving goals, but that is not what makes my life alive, and no deadline is more important that making sure that I really live each day.
(A few of the things that have been filling my time, and bringing me joy:)