Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Dances with Snow

What strange weather we're having! It was forty degrees earlier this morning when David and I got up. Now I look out the window and big fat flakes of snow are falling, prompting me to check the thermometer again: thirty-six.

I love watching snow fall, at least when it's not falling thickly while I'm trying to drive a car on a highway with a long way to go to reach my destination. Maybe it's that snow still triggers some childhood delight; maybe it's partly because it amazes me that a snowflake, which is so near to being weightless, still has enough "gravity" to fall earthward (though some snowflakes, probably the driest ones, drift and dawdle their way down). Maybe it's knowing a little bit about the beautiful and delightful mysteries of snow crystals--that each one is unique, although more like countless unique variations on a theme.

I once gave my father, a guy who read, really read, Scientific American for fun and did the geeky math puzzles that were toward the back of every issue (am I making that up?), a book about snowflakes. I remember finding it in the Harvard COOP and thinking it was the coolest book! After my father died, and when my mother was moving house and trimming down her belongings a bit, I brought that book back to my house, happy to have it on my shelf.

It's a collection of plates from the photographs of "Snowflake Bentley," a Vermont gentleman, self-educated farmer and photographer who invented a way of photographing snowflakes and contributed greatly to our knowledge of their multi-variant designs. He also caught a few plates of frost on window panes--another marvel! Tree branches! Fern fronds! He's now the subject of at least one children's book and maybe even a museum in Jericho, Vermont, his longtime home.

As if that weren't reason enough to be entranced by snow, there's also more recent research that suggests that the molecules of a snowflake "know" how to go about building a particular crystal by communicating with each other through vibrations, almost musically, or dancingly!

Chet Raymo's book Honey From Stone includes the following lyrical descriptions of this phenomenon:

     "Careful studies have shown that on the atomic scale the snowflake is a frenzy of activity. The molecules of  water furiously wing their hydrogen arms like dancers in a tarantella. The electronic bonds between the molecules are made a broken a million times a second. Faults in the crystal . . . jump from place to place like unruly children in a teacherless classroom. And somehow, in the midst of this atomic caprice, the snowflake acquires and retains an ordered form.

     "Some physicists think that vibrations of the crystalline lattice are the instrument of communication, vibrations that are exquisitely sensitive to the shape of the crystal. If this is so, then the growing snowflake maintains its symmetry in the same way that members of an orchestra stay in consonance, by sharing the sound of the ensemble. The snowflake's beauty, then, is orchestral! The facultas formatrix is vibration. Nature shudders in its sublimity. Atoms dance to inaudible music. The cloud jams. The rock jives. The lake's still surface boogie-woogies."

And so it seems to be--as others, inspired by quantum physics, would also claim--all matter is energy vibrating! Indeed, everything is energy vibrating! Thoughts, moods, the stories we tell ourselves, what we believe about ourselves and our lives. And if energy vibrating, then far more malleable than we're apt to think. We can change the music, the tune, the dance. We can dance with the snow.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Are Clergy Human?

Are clergy human? This is of course a completely ludicrous question. We all know that they’re not. Not really, not totally, not through and through. Not quite like the rest of us. 

If clergy were really and truly human, why would it seem so strange to us ordinary folks to see them at the grocery store? Clergy buying food is one thing, since we know Jesus ate food and did stuff with food, like multiply it, give it away, and make rituals out of it. It’s even possible that Jesus liked wine, though there aren’t any stories in scripture about him overindulging. Just some parables he told about celebrations and lavish banquets and a really weird one about a guy getting tossed from a wedding feast for wearing the wrong clothes (though some of my best and smartest friends don’t really think Jesus himself told that particular story).

But . . . clergy buying toilet paper? or tampons? There’s nothing in scripture about that! Well, actually, there is kind of a lot in the Hebrew scriptures about things related to cleanliness, menstrual blood, and proper feminine hygiene, but I don’t think we want to go there. 

And Jesus did once make a witty remark about the clear difference between your left hand (used in those days for wiping what one of those smart friends of mine calls “stern realities”) and your right hand, used for eating, and for shaking other people’s right hands, and things like that. 

God! (pardon the expression) I never thought of this before--what would you have done in those days if you were actually left-handed? How confusing!

Anyway, it’s obvious that clergy can’t really be human, or else why would so many people go a little weird and look strangely shocked if they happen upon their local minister in the grocery store in the act of choosing toilet paper? Say, between Green Forest and Seventh Generation, if they’re properly, ecologically-minded; or, if they like the thick cushy stuff, between Charmin and Cottonelle? They don’t really use that stuff, do they? They couldn’t possibly need it, right?

And the tampons--those must be for someone else, maybe for a daughter (forget for the moment how that Daughter of Clergy was conceived and came into being) or for a friend or neighbor in need. That must be it. Clergy are always doing something good and kind for someone else, right?

And that brings up the guilt thing. Seeing your priest or minister in the grocery store is an instant guilt trip. What is it about those God-people, anyway? The minute you see them you instantly know how long it has been since you last set foot in church, and the muddled and pretty pathetic excuses simply flood your brain’s language center. It’s all you can think to say. No wonder you look around to see if there’s an item you suddenly need at the other end of the aisle (or that you’re relieved when it appears that the very same thing has just happened to your minister). 

No wonder you, and others, tend to move away from clergy at concerts, school plays, and cocktail parties. That is, if they even get invited to the cocktail parties, which is rare enough, and then if they even show up, which is rarer still, especially if the parties are on Saturday nights. Clergy can be such stick-in-the-muds; real joy killers. 

I mean, you can’t even swear around them. It’s such a downer at a party. Suddenly you have to really watch your language. The only way around it is to make dumb jokes to them about fixing the weather instead, or something about them having an “in” with God.

Without a doubt the most unsettling thing about clergy is the God thing. Do they have some sort of super-human relationship with God or not? Have they actually chosen to spend all their time praying, being good, and thinking about God and talking about God, instead of say, NASCAR, diapers, money, or sex? 

Why would clergy need money or sex, anyway? They’re spiritual, right? (And super religious, too. More proof of them not really being human!)

We all know that spiritual people don’t really need money the way the rest of us do, and they certainly wouldn’t desire money, right? That would be somehow, well, unspiritual, not holy. These days some clergy have started getting a bit uppity on that topic, with denominations setting compensation guidelines and things like that. Almost like they’re a union, for Pete’s sake! That can’t be right.

You can tell that clergy really haven’t got the same kind of need or desire for money as the rest of us, though, because when they talk about money, it’s so awkward! You can tell they don’t want to be doing it. Like it really is a dirty topic for them. So they really only do it when it’s time for the congregation’s annual fundraising--oops! I mean, stewardship--campaign. And then money becomes a very spiritual topic. Although I’m still not convinced about that. It just doesn’t fit somehow.

And then there’s sex, the hottest and thorniest subject of all. I hear from the news that lots of clergy have issues with sex, especially with the wrong kinds of sex. It almost seems to break down along denominational lines. Like having sex with children is mostly a Roman Catholic clergy thing; and having sex with adult members of the congregation is more of a Protestant clergy thing; and having affairs with people outside the congregation and with prostitutes, well, maybe that’s more of a politician’s thing. Maybe I’m getting mixed up here.

I’m sure you understand why I might get mixed up. Clergy and sex is a very confusing topic. A befuddling idea. Some clergy don’t have sex because they're officially not supposed to, like when they're monks, or not married, or gay. Some are officially not supposed to but have it anyway. 

Some are officially allowed to have sex because they're married, but they don't because they spend all their best energy at work, and there’s nothing left over at the end of the day but a bona fide headache. 

Some maybe don’t have sex or much of it because they internalize all the strange messages we throw at them. First there’s Christianity’s seriously mixed messages about sex: it’s holy; it’s sinful; it’s only for making babies, not for pleasure; it’s meant to be joyful. And then there’s the stuff we ordinary folks send their way: We want them to be “normal” and like us, but then we don’t really want them to be that normal and like us at all. We want them to be different. 

You know, lots of us kind of want our clergy to be special and different, because . . . actually I don’t really know why we do. Maybe it’s because we want to think they have a better, clearer connection to God than we have (and yet the thought of that possibility also scares us, wants to push them away). Maybe we want to think they're different because that way they’ll be able to rescue us when we need rescuing. Maybe it’s because we want them to carry all our fantasies and hopes about God and our projections of our own power and our own “holiness” and wholeness, or of our guilt and hypocrisy and other stuff we'd rather not face. 

Maybe it’s because when we keep clergy special and separate, we can try to let them do the heavy lifting and let ourselves off the hook. That way, you get to imagine someone else is responsible for figuring out your own faith, and you get to imagine that some other entity, like God, is responsible for your happiness. And that you’re not really free to claim the authority of your own soul, or to fully live into your own power, or make choices every day about what would expand your life. 

I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that some more. And maybe you can think about it, too, and tell me what you decide.

All I know for sure is that it’s really easy (and not very healthy for us, for them, or for anyone else, including God) to imagine that clergy are not quite like you and me. 

I know because I used to be one of “them,” and now I’m one of “us,” that is, one of us blessedly ordinary human beings. Although I suppose I’m kind of a hybrid, a crossover of sorts. I was ordained for more than twenty-four years, more than half my life thus far, and now I’m not any more, by my own choice. 

I’m still more or less the same person now as I was when I was ordained. Although much more myself, much more free and alive, much more grateful for life. Much more committed to my own happiness. And having much more fun. What’s that all about?

So are clergy human? You tell me.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Seven Inches Before Breakfast

"Trees in Snow" c. Sukie Curtis, 2/3/09, graphite pencil

We woke to seven inches of snow--more than the predicted overnight fall--and it's still snowing thickly. I have to say I'm delighted. Just when everyone (store clerks, bank tellers, neighbors, and so on) was beginning to mumble and to speculate about a nearly snowless winter, or about whether we'd be slammed in February and March, we've got a real "snow event" on our hands.

And it's quite beautiful. I say that of course from a position of shelter, warmth, and not needing anything beyond my own house today. And for that I'm grateful.

I wasn't so totally grateful when the plow woke me up around 2:30 a.m. with its engine roaring, plow scraping on roadway, lights flashing through our meager curtains, and back-up alert beeping away as it backed at the nearby corner. And I wasn't so totally grateful when I stayed awake until close to 5 a.m. mulling over the events of the previous day and various other topics.

But images I have seen of bulldozers removing dead bodies from the streets of Port au Prince, Haiti have a way of putting things in perspective. I can even feel grateful for the loud plow in the wee hours, part of a well-oiled infrastructure that most Haitians have surely never experienced even in the best of times. I sent my best thoughts Haiti-ward when that came to my mind.

I rather enjoyed shoveling snow this morning before breakfast--not in any hurry, enjoying the relative lightness of even all that snow, just kind of getting into the rhythm of shoveling and shoving, remembering Haiti now and then, and savoring all the space that I had cleared before it seemed time to quit. I even cleared Digory a small loop of a path in the backyard, since seven inches is a few inches longer than the length of his legs.

A lovely way to start the day.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Return to Painting

Yesterday I wrote and posted something that I called "Return to Painting" and discovered as I wrote that it really wasn't about that. It started about that but ended up being about two vision boards, so I changed the title this morning and republished it.

Here's the real "Return to Painting" story. It's a simple story, really. It's about how sometimes it helps to go very slowly and gently when you are moving back into territory that you know can be a little treacherous, psychologically speaking. Since it's clear to me by now that bringing overblown, high pressure expectations to painting does me no good, I decided to approach this return to painting very very gently.

This might sound like pure timidity, but at least the other day it had a different quality--gentleness was surely part of it. Maybe there was even compassion, self-understanding, and even wisdom? A humble, everyday sort of loving wisdom, not anything fancy. Not capital "W" Wisdom.

So here's what I did: I gave myself permission to go very very slowly back toward painting, to go one small step at a time.

First, I swept the dust and sand (from people's shoes from trips to the beach as well as sanded winter roads) out of the area where I paint. I could have vacuumed but I like sweeping better.

Next, I set up my easel (a small portable "French easel") again, because it has been put away since before Christmas to make more room for comings and goings.

Third, I put the painting I was working on when I last painted back on the easel, dusted off the cat hair, etc. that has collected on its surface over the past month, and took some time to look at it--really look at it--and began to ask myself what I might want to do with it next.

That took just about all the time I had set aside for this first return to painting, so I stopped there. And because it was a gentle and pleasant experience, and because I had done what I set out to do (just take it one small step at a time), I felt good about it and look forward to the next step (opening up my paints again), and the next, and the next.

All in all a successful return to painting, thus far!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Tale of Two Vision Boards

Yesterday I moved back toward painting for the first time in quite a while, since well before Christmas. I'm not sure of all the factors involved in my choosing not to paint for so long, but I know some of them.

Getting in the rut of expecting too much from myself every time I pick up a brush is a biggie. It puts way too much pressure on the process of painting and really kills it, right then and there, except for those times when I can keep going and break through to a place of simply enjoying the process. This is not a new phenomenon for me, and I am sure it will be with me off and on for a long time to come.

Still, in addition to stuff like holiday shopping, cooking, traveling, having both daughters home from high school and college and in the house, there was another interesting development that I noticed. It has to do with my other primary means of creative expression: words, writing, language.

Here's an intriguing thing (to me, anyway, maybe not to you!). I know a little about the practice of making a "vision board" as a way to see and to hold an intention of what you wish to be or do or have in your life, a way of putting dreams, hopes, and goals into visible form. Some people make them to express dreams that they already have; some make them as a way of discovering what dreams are wanting to be claimed.

In the past year and a half, I have made two vision boards, using images and words pulled from magazines and catalogs. I honestly wasn't sure if I did it "right" either time, and until recently I wasn't so sure that the process "worked" for me, whatever that might mean.

But the two vision boards are so starkly different that I couldn't help but notice. The first one was full of images--of landscapes, windows, doors. And lots and lots of images of artwork--some snippets of famous paintings, some of lesser known ones that spoke to me when I saw them. That board had very, very few words, and the most significant two words were "Making Contact", and I included them mostly because they were inextricably connected to an image of a sculpture that I wanted to include.

The most recent vision board I made is almost ALL WORDS! Other than a central spiral image of (I think) a coral-colored chameleon's tail, and a few other pics I put in both to break up the design and to add some fun, everything on the board is a word or phrase. Without giving away all my secrets, I'll give you a sampling of the kinds of words on my board: Celebrate! Art, Joy, Color, Walking, Money, Free Expression, Home, Nature, Playing, Living Large. You get the idea.

So here's what's interesting about this, and suggestive that something about the process did work for me, perhaps on a level I couldn't fully appreciate until the second board took shape. Last year, my painting was the primary vehicle that seemed to be carrying me somewhere. It fueled my passion, my curiosity, my energy, my connection to the world around me. It has not "gone away" for the moment, but it seems to have moved into a different role, maybe one I'm still figuring out. But it makes sense that last year's vision board was all about images, and especially about painted images, brushstrokes, bold shapes, colors, and such.

Now I seem to have returned to language as my primary vehicle of creative expression. Some days, many days, in fact, I feel as if I have SO much to say that I hardly know where to start. I feel as if I have waited so long to really get to writing the story of my journey from Episcopal priest to "free-lance human being" that there's now so much wanting to pour out of me that my two hands at the keyboard can barely keep up. The old image of holding a tiny cup under a waterfall comes to mind. I can only do what I can do one chunk of time by one chunk of time, and keep on going.

And find occasions and venues to start speaking, aloud, publicly, for the first time in quite a few years. It used to be something I did on a regular basis, I remind myself from time to time. I was a "preacher" after all!

But this time I look forward to speaking without the expectations and limitations of sermons. "Outside the box" and "speak" are also on my new vision board.

Stay tuned. I have a feeling this is only just the beginning.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Wu Wei Kind of Day

This morning I had an early appointment out of the house, which meant that I enjoyed the immense gift of being in the car driving past east-facing vistas as the sun was rising. When I left home there were pink clouds strewn across the sky; that was beauty enough all by itself.

My first view of the water showed intense gold gathering along the horizon where some small clouds were clustered, right where the sun would soon appear. I'm sure you've noticed how clouds  a sunrise or sunset all the more interesting and often more beautiful. I turned off the radio and CD player so that there's be fewer distractions from the primary event of the sun's rising (and the small matter of keeping the car in the appropriate lane going about the right speed).

And then came the sunrise itself--since I was alone I greeted the sun aloud without apology or inclination to feel foolish. I thanked the sun for its energy and warmth and for making life on earth possible. The moment of sunrise wasn't particularly dramatic, nor was it any more glorious that what had come before (it was all plenty glorious). But sometimes it's good to speak to the sun directly. At least I happen to think so.

My appointment was an energizing conversation with Susan Doughty of the New England WomenCenter. Susan is a visionary women's health care practitioner whose center bridges western and alternative approaches to healing. She told me about documented (even videotaped!) evidence of the principles of quantum physics at work healing disease, even at the level of cellular repair.

What she was telling me echoes what I've been hearing and reading from a variety of sources about the power of imagination and vision to create and to change our realities (providing we loosen our energetic grip on limiting beliefs and paradigms). Even Einstein almost a century ago could see the power of the imagination to move and shift energy (and everything in the universe is composed of energy, all vibrating at differing frequencies) and to get us places that logic just can't manage.

As I was leaving, Susan shared with me some of her own experience that so often we get where we want to get not through struggle, blood, sweat, and tears (I know, I know--it's not what we grew up hearing) but rather by holding a clear, full vision of where we want to be, what we want to have accomplished, how we want to be in the world, trusting that in some corner of the universe it is already a reality, and by doing our best to stay "in the vortex" (her words for it), in the flow of energy, of the river of life, not resisting but "going with the flow". It doesn't mean that we remain passive and take no action at all, but that we take actions that are in some sense "effortless". What she was saying is closely related to the Taoist principle of "Wu Wei"--literally, without doing, without effort, sometimes expanded to "doing without doing."

So there I was, driving home again, minding my own business on the highway, when I noticed the license plate of a car that passed me. It said: WU WEI. Who am I to argue with that?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

How to Go to Church

Over on my other blog, Freedom Diaries, I've posted a new post called "How to Go to Church". Here it is below for your reading convenience and pleasure.

Bekah is in Nashville on an "Alternative Winter Break" service project with a group from George Washington University. Although the trip itself and the work to be done are neither explicitly "faith-based" nor religious in nature, the students are being housed at the Belle Meade United Methodist Church in Nashville. (Bekah tells us that Belle Meade is the part of Nashville where Al Gore lives--an affluent residential area, in other words.)

As a kind of thank you to their hosts and perhaps even as a way of enjoying the support of the Belle Meade UMC congregation, the group from GW is attending church there this morning. Bekah was relieved to know they'd be attending the "traditional service" rather than the "praise service" earlier in the day. Still, at risk of putting words in her mouth, I believe it's reasonably safe to say Bekah has at least some misgivings about attending church in the south, where even mainstream denominations like Methodists and Presbyterians are apt to have a decidedly different, often more conservative or more evangelical, flavor than what she prefers.

This morning I texted her the following suggestion: "Pretend your are a visitor from another planet, and be very very curious and very observant. Like, 'Wow, that's intriguing!' And enjoy singing."

I find that this kind of "from another planet, very very curious, semi-detached observer" stance can be very helpful when I decide to go to church. Sometimes from my observer stance I notice just how horrible a lot of the prayers and hymn texts are, even as I sing along to marvelous, beloved tunes. On All Saints' Day, for example, the hymns were so laden with images of earthly strife, struggle, pain, sadness, toil, battle, burden, and darkness associated with life here and now, while only life hereafter got joy, light, freedom, that I honestly wondered: "Who in their right mind would want to be part of THIS group?!"

As I've said in an earlier post, drawing in church, especially during the sermon, also helps. It brings out a different sort of observer in me--one that's happy to focus on some physical shapes and details in my immediate surroundings. Since drawing is an activity that often boosts my internal happiness, it puts me in a good space for enjoying what I enjoy, noticing what I don't, and letting that roll off my back as best I can.

Which relates to my best of all church-going advice to myself: to keep my expectations very very low. I feel kind of bad saying this, since I remember all too well how much I wanted to know that what I did as a priest in church, and especially what I said in my sermons, really made a significant positive difference in people's lives, and that the liturgies we offered were vehicles of grace. In addition, some of my friends are still clergy with similar hopes. But what's a blog worth if I don't tell the truth?

These days I'm happiest if I remember not to go to church needy, not to go looking for and hoping for affirmation or inspiration or inner peace or intimate community. To that end, it helps if I do my best to care for the happiness and well-being of my soul at home. And then, if I happen to glean a teeny taste of one of those aforementioned things at church (affirmation, inspiration inner peace, etc.), or even if I simply get to sing a hymn I like, or find myself amused at my inter-planetary observations, or feel a tad glad to participate in that ancient ritual of the eucharist (but really, I'd be SO much happier to eat something having more resemblance to real bread than those tasteless, wimpy, papery, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth wafers, thank you very much), and to imagine that David's glad to have my company in church for a change--any one of those circumstances might warrant being called "a good day in church"!