Saturday, January 31, 2009

A bit of midwinter color

Wow. I've just noticed something. I started this blog thinking I'd be using a lot of images rather than words, and I was under the impression that I had put a lot of images in it since starting out in September, but I've just looked back and counted a grand total of eight images of paintings or drawings. Nowhere near as many as I thought. 

So, before we all (or especially I) get buried under too many words--and there are plenty more of those!--how about another image or two. I don't even know when I drew these dahlias, actually...they're not dahlias, they are gerbera daisies that I bought back in the fall (October? November?) to brighten up our dining room table. (Well, really, I bought the gerbera daisies because I felt like buying some gerbera daisies for myself, but at least I decided to share them.) And I did this drawing when I wanted to play with color and not get tied up in knots about painting styles and composition and all those things that being in a painting class causes me to fuss about. Really I just wanted to have some fun. Fun with a pen and some watercolor crayons, and of course a brush and some water. And some gerbera daisies.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Salvation by Facebook

I don't do a lot on Facebook--a little Scrabble, a little wall-to-wall stuff. And I don't have many friends on Facebook, at least not yet. But sometimes Facebook really comes through and delivers. Last year about this time Facebook got me over my fear of meeting with the bishop to discuss renouncing my ordination vows. Facebook did that by making me laugh. It made me laugh when I got an email inviting me to be friends with the bishop on Facebook about six days before my appointment to meet with her. Being new on Facebook myself, I was a bit surprised that she was on it, too. But that's not the whole story.
You know how, when you get an email inviting you to be someone's friend on Facebook, there's a link to open, and then the text says: "Please confirm that you are in fact So-and-so's friend"? So imagine that the name mentioned is someone you're not sure you really are friends with, someone with whom communication has been slim to non-existent for over a year. And beyond that, that you remember very vividly in your gut that the last time you had a two-way conversation, you ended up curled in a fetal position afterwards shaking and weeping. And so Facebook's insistence that you confirm you are in fact friends with this person presents what feels like an ethical dilemma: you kind of feel as if you should be friends with this person, but you honestly don't know if you want to be friends with this person, or even if you can be friends with this person. 

So you hedge, and decide to wait a while, take some deep breaths while you think about it. And in the meantime, because you're curious, you open the next link offered. And that link declares in no uncertain terms: "You and So-and-so have no friends in common." 

"Duh...I could have told you that" seems an appropriate response. And laughter. Lots of laughter. Tears, too. You start to think that maybe you could call yourself this person's friend on Facebook just for the heck of it, just because this seems like quite a funny joke the universe has offered up just when you needed to lighten up. But not wanting to be too hasty about such an important decision, you close up the email until later, when you can share it with one or two trusted friends. And they too are at first incredulous, next totally skeptical that this person is on Facebook and that such a friendship might be possible or desirable, and then they too dissolve in restorative laughter. One of them is talking to you on her cell phone as she walks, and after letting out her trademark whooping laugh that turns heads in restaurants and libraries, she has to stop and lean against a tree because she's laughing so hard. 

So in the end, it just seems like no big deal to be friends with the person on Facebook and to meet with her six days later. And you chalk one up to Facebook, and you are also very happy when your daughter shows you how to give this person only limited access to your profile.

"Tired of Speaking Sweetly"

A friend gave me the snippet of a poem by Hafiz the other day, and I've found the whole thing. Here it is. From what I've read, Hafiz probably didn't put titles on his poems, particularly since most were probably not even written down but spoken. But this one seems to have the title of "Tired of Speaking Sweetly." Which is, as you'll see, a line from the poem, and which just might become my mantra when I write.

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.
If you had the courage and 
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room 
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.
Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly
And wants to rip to shreds 
All your erroneous notions of truth
That make you fight within yourself, dear one,
And with others,
Causing the world to weep
On too many fine days.
God wants to manhandle us,
Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself
And practice His dropkick.
The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:
Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.
But when we hear
He is in such a "playful drunken mood"
Most everyone I know
Quickly packs their bags and hightails it
Out of town.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Meanwhile, back at the Mall...

Not the Maine Mall or any other shopping mall, I mean THE MALL in Washington, DC. The "people's mall" where millions are packing themselves in like sardines this morning to hear (and probably not see) Obama's inauguration. Bekah and her friends headed out around 4 am and stood in line to get through a security gate until at least 7:30. 

As of 9:30 she called to say that somehow--and she truly does not know how--they ended up on the Mall at 4th Street, which is the point nearest the Capitol that any "ordinary people" are allowed to be! I encouraged her to notice as much as she can, to remember everything, and to write it all down as soon as she gets home so that she will have it forever. Her own slice of this amazing piece of history.

What a hopeful, wide-open kind of day, full of the energy of newness and possibility.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday morning: some thoughts on faith

So what is faith anyway? Today on a Sunday morning, David has brushed off the car and headed into Portland through thickly-falling snow in order to be at the Cathedral for the Eucharist. As often, I thought about going with him, kind of liked the idea of going with him, but in the end, he was leaving so early due to the weather, I just didn't feel ready to go, to give up so much time. I am slipping on my "due celebration of Sundays" thing. But I'm not worried; I trust I will go again soon. And I've put in my time, after all. Besides, I don't think it's something God loses any sleep over. If there is an objective reality called God, she/he/it probably doesn't sleep anyway. And clearly there are way, way, way more important matters of concern than whether or not I (or anyone else for that matter) go to church.

I ask the question about faith because when I look back, especially over the past year, or two years or three, I see so many perfectly-times gifts, arrivals and departures, threads and images, stories handed to me as if on a platter. As if someone were saying to me, you want to recover your voice?  Here. Here's another story. You want to tell you story, to sing you own "song of yourself"? Here. Here's another good one almost too amazing to be true! One could almost be forgiven for imaging a force-for-good at work behind it all. And yet it's equally clear that we're not simply passive recipients of such things, but active participants, however unconsciously or even "passively active," collaborators in it all.

Here's a partial list of perfectly-timed gifts, just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I suppose it's my hope that this list will pique your curiosity for more. There was the "inspired" last-minute trip to Ireland in which David and I ended up in a B & B affording us the literal keys to the Oughtmama churches and even to Corcomroe Abbey (though that one wasn't needed); the walk with John Connolly and his questions at the well; and nearly being run into by David Whyte driving a van full of "new age-ish" pilgrims! There was much that was magical about that trip. More than anything it gave David and me some space, some breathing space, geographical and psychological distance from home, and some good questions to ponder. And it gave us a chance to talk more freely and to imagine more clearly our eventual leave-taking from the parish where we had lived and worked and loved many for almost fifteen years.

To be continued...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

All is well, safely rest, God is nigh

I attended a memorial service yesterday for my oldest brother's father-in-law, who, like my own late father-in-law, had served in the Navy during World War II. Two members of the Navy Honor Guard were at Bob's memorial service to present his widow with an American flag. Before they did so, they played a recorded bugle call of "Taps." 

Before I knew it as "Taps" or knew anything of its association with military protocol and military funerals, I knew its melody as something my father sang every time he tucked me into bed as a small child. My mother would sing a children's song about springtime (I think it may have come from one of those Concord Song Book volumes that were ubiquitous in my childhood, at school and elsewhere).  My father would sing to the melody of Taps: "Day is done, gone the sun, from the lake, from the hills, from the sky, all is well, safely rest, God is nigh." After which he would recite the Lord's Prayer, and then a short list of blessings: "God bless Mummy and Daddy and Dicky and David and Jonny and Peggy and Sukie and everybody. Amen." Dicky was my "ghost brother," my parents' first child who died before I was born. It was both utterly ordinary and yet also a little disconcerting to hear the name of my dead brother recited right there in proper birth order along with the rest of us. 

Sitting in yesterday's memorial service, letting the melody of Taps wash over me while tears ran down my cheeks, I thought about my father at bedtime, so many bedtimes over so many years. Just how long this tradition was continued, I have no idea. And I thought of those basic seeds of religious faith handed on in that bedtime ritual: the Lord's Prayer, the asking of God to bless each member of my family, including the brother who had died, and the singing of that song: "All is well, safely rest, God is nigh." These days that's more than ample a declaration of faith for me. No fancy theology needed. Just the basics: All is well. God is nigh. And while we're at it, God bless everybody.

Monday, January 12, 2009

No Disguises

David is sometimes right; actually, David is often right, especially when it comes to my psyche's well-loved traps. After being married to me for 21 years, he can sniff out my favorite traps from quite a distance and warn me when he thinks I'm walking right into one. Sometimes I listen, and sometimes I don't. (And after all, he may want to spare me the agony of learning the hard way for the 99th time, but at some point I really do need to figure things out for myself, although God knows most of us need all the help we can get from people who love us!).

The most recent example in question concerns my writing and this blog. From time to time I make noises about wanting to write an honest, unvarnished account of the journey that brought me to renounce my ordination vows last April, after 24 years as an Episcopal priest, the only "professional identity" I've ever had. And David has said things like, "Why make it so big? why tell yourself you have to write a book? No one should write a book unless they absolutely MUST! Why don't you just start to write about it in your blog? Why make your blog one thing and your "book writing" another?"

Well, I have my days when I think he's absolutely right, and then I have my days when the public exposure side of a blog makes me a little bit queasy. I love the fact that on any given day, I might hear from SOMEONE who has read my blog and gives me quick feedback. It is wonderful to know that people are actually reading it and getting something out of it. But I also worry that if I started writing a truly honest account of my journey, I might start getting some negative feedback, might start shocking some people and losing my fledgeling readership, and that would convince me to stop writing. Or at least that even imagining that I could stir up some really negative feedback might make me less honest and bold in my writing. (Hmmm, sounds like a garden variety voice of fear, with maybe a little valorous discretion mixed in...)

I had a wee small breakthrough last week that is prompting me to just go ahead and blog it all anyway. I was rehearsing in my head the two most feared and anticipated criticisms I have of my writing (besides that it might be considered blasphemous, or something--but hey, what can they do to me? I'm not a priest any more!). I really really don't want people to think my writing is either BORING or SELF-INDULGENT. Especially the "self-indulgent" one...somehow that one really gets its claws into me. Partly because I know two or three people who have leveled that charge against Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. (I found Under the Tuscan Sun to be kind of whiny and self-indulgent; I found Eat, Pray, Love to be honest. Maybe it's because one was fussing about a house in Tuscany--such a "problem"--and the other was talking about big internal issues in ways I found helpful.)

Back to my breakthrough: So I have these twin fears: that people will think my writing is "boring and/or self-indulgent" and that I might fail. And it occurred to me that if some people find Eat, Pray, Love to be self-indulgent and I liked Eat, Pray, Love (and clearly a lot of other people do too; more on that another time), then perhaps having my writing considered "self-indulgent" was not such a bad thing! Maybe it could even be seen as a hidden compliment! And boring? The surest way to be boring is not to tell the truth, to pretty things up too much. There are way, way, way too many pretty-sounding (and holy-sounding) books and blogs out there. The last thing I want to do is to write another!

And then it also occurred to me that if I'm simply setting out to write and to tell my story, then the only way to fail is NOT TO WRITE IT. I never said anything about writing a runaway best-seller that sits atop the New York Times list for weeks on end, although maybe that's not such a bad idea. I just said I want to write and to tell my story. 

And just so you know, that means I want to write it down, at least most of it, and I also hope to be able to speak it, in public, in a variety of venues. (After all, I do have 24 years of public speaking practice.) And I'd love for any and all ideas of where to do so as things unfold.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Here's to Happiness

OK. I'd like to begin the new year with a confession: about a month ago while browsing the website of Martha Beck, a best-selling author and life coach, I followed a link to a Martha Beck-certified coach who was offering free "Happiness Lessons" ( ). In a playful and curious mood, I signed myself up, and eventually two of my old friends (whose names are my safe with me) signed up too. 

"Happiness lessons?" you may be asking yourself. "Has Sukie gone totally off her rocker?" (Or perhaps you're thinking, as the neighbors say of Mr. Plumbean in Daniel Pinkwater's book, The Big Orange Splot,  she has "popped her cork, flipped her wig, blown her stack, and dropped her stopper. . . gushed her mush, lost her marbles, and slipped her hawser.") Perhaps I'm overplaying this a bit, but I couldn't pass up a chance to quote Daniel Pinkwater.

What occurred to me as I signed up for "happiness lessons" was how truly against the grain of my upbringing  it was--that is, within the context of good old New England, Anglo-Saxon, stiff upper lip, always put others before yourself, being and doing good are more important than being happy ways of thinking and being. And that doesn't even begin to touch on some of the more painful contributions of the Judeo-Christian tradition in general and of Christian theology in particular to the topic of happiness and suffering. 

Let me say simply that it felt almost dangerous to consider taking happiness lessons, as if I might be putting my soul in mortal danger (even though that's more of a Roman Catholic sort of category than a Unitarian Universalist-turned-Episcopalian one). At the very least it seemed somehow borderline shameful, shadowy, a little bit "New Agey," flaky, and without doubt self-serving or self-centered or self-indulgent or some other self-word-combination. As if that's about as bad as bad can be! 

In an act of extreme courage (which is often hard to distinguish from craziness), I even put myself out there cyber-wise as the leader of a local "happiness hub," not having a clue what that might mean, but thinking it might gain me access to some kind of bonus lesson or something. What it did gain me was an inquiry from another area resident who turns out to be a master certified Martha Beck life coach--so I really did get "some kind of bonus lesson" in a form I never could have anticipated. More on that another time.

Not long after, I was continuing to read Martha Beck's book Finding your own North Star and came across the following paragraphs:

"I once gave a speech to a group of devoutly religious women in which I stated my belief that all God really wants from us is an unshakable commitment to our own happiness. I could tell the audience was shocked by this comment. After the speech, several women commented that I'd gone a bit too far, and one said I should be 'dragged away in chains.' These women seemed to share a religious belief that suffering is the way to paradise, while the road to Hell is paved with happy times.
"If you believe the same thing, I encourage you to put down this book and pick up one of those cute little whips with razors embedded in them, because you're not going to find any support for your world-view in these pages. I don't believe in suffering for its own sake. Enduring a thankless, painful life doesn't mean that you deserve happiness as a kind of recompense; it just means you're enduring a thankless, painful life. If I'm going to suffer, it better be for a damn good reason. It better yield me more joy than it costs. If not, I will do anything I can to avoid it, and I advise all my clients to do the same.
"This is a profound sacrifice for the martyrs among us."

Clearly this is a large topic, and one that I believe to be worth unraveling fully in due time. But for now, I want to state that I hereby declare, for 2009 and beyond, my own "unshakable commitment to my own happiness." To be committed to my own happiness means, among other things, that I am not expecting or passively hoping that someone else will take care of that for me. It means giving up trying to manipulate someone else into doing that, guilting someone else into doing that, or otherwise, through all sorts of well-tried, devious and indirect means, roping someone else (or Someone Else, e.g, "God") into being responsible for my happiness. 

And on the positive side, it means continuing to learn and to practice (and practice,  and practice, and practice again) paying attention to what's going on in my head and in my body. To afford my body some much overdue respect and honor and affection as my most trustworthy, God-given teller of the truth about what delights me and what drags me down; about when I need to rest, when to eat, when to get outside and breathe fresh air; when I need to be alone, and when to join the party; when I want to laugh, when to weep, when to dance, when to sing. And then to dare to follow its instructions! And usually that means noticing and then ignoring or hushing up a lot of prim, judging, fearful, cautious,  and sometimes downright nasty "voices" in my head telling me why I should do just the opposite.

So here's to happiness! My own, and yours, and to the increasing happiness of an increasing number of people around the planet. 

P.S. In case you're still really worried that "claiming happiness" is brazenly and unforgivably selfish,  or that a commitment to your own happiness will turn you into a self-centered brat with no thought for others, I have two suggestions. First, if the word "happiness" makes you flinch, (as I'm afraid I still do sometimes when I hear someone say, "the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness"), try substituting "contentment." Maybe contentment sounds like a deeper, more grounded, less happy-in-a-bouncy-kind-of-way state of being, and maybe that makes it a little easier for you to contemplate. Second, look at the Dalai Lama: he sure looks like a happy guy to me, and yet he is clearly anything but a self-centered brat lacking in compassion or concern for others. And he is the author of that conviction I alluded to above, "that the very purpose of life is to seek happiness." 

Well, how 'bout that! 

Happy 2009.