Monday, February 25, 2013

On Ashes, Mortality, and a Cheshire Moon

I have been meaning to post a little bit about Ash Wednesday.  Ash Wednesday was twelve days ago, but my mind and my heart have been contemplating that day ever since, and I think it might be helpful for me to process a bit here. 

I always look forward to the Ash Wednesday service.  The melancholy in me loves its darkness, its quietness, its solemnity.  Without fail, however, I always forget how difficult the service is for me.  This year, I didn't remember until we were walking into church.  I suddenly stopped walking and said to Matt, "Oh.  I forgot how much I hate this service."  Matt replied, "I know.  I hate it, too."  (And then we rounded the corner and saw our pastor, who I don't think heard this conversational exchange.) 

I hate Ash Wednesday because the service reminds me that I am but dust.  I will admit to you that I am terrified of death.  Terrified.  I don't tell many people this (and why I am blurting out my fear here, today, is something I don't know that I quite understand), but every year or two or three, around this season, I go through a period of time where I become convinced that I am dying. 

I get a cough that won't go away.
Or I experience heart palpitations that keep me awake at night. 
Or I start feeling weird and am sure it is a mysterious, deadly illness. 
Or fill in the blank.

It's OCD on steroids.  Quite literally.  I hate it. 

Ash Wednesday doesn't help.

I always think that I love the ritual of receiving the ashes, until I walk forward and hear the pastor say, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return," as he forms the cross on my forehead with his thumb. 

I hate that. 

I don't want to be reminded of my mortality.  I live in fear of that very thing every day. 

So this year, I sat in the pew feeling a little anxious, a little apprehensive. 

But this year, as I received the ashes, instead of being reminded of my mortality, I heard the words, "Repent, and believe the Gospel."

I do have many things from which I should repent, this is true, and I will not use my blog as my confessor. 
But more meaningful to me at that moment was the admonishment to believe the Gospel, the Good News. 

I needed that reminder.  I needed the reminder, the good news, that yes, I am made of dust, but I am being redeemed, I have been redeemed, and God can make something beautiful out of this imperfectly put together mess of dust. 

This year, I didn't leave the Ash Wednesday service with the icy tentacles of fear gripping my heart. 
I left with a bit of hope. 

And as we drove home, my son looked out the window and exclaimed, "Look!  The moon is smiling at me!" 
And so it was. 

The moon was smiling at him. 
And it was smiling at me, too.
Repent, and believe the Gospel.
Repent, and believe the Good News.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


And February was so long
That it lasted into March
And saw us walking a path alone together.
You stopped and pointed
And you said, "That's a crocus."
And I said, "What's a crocus?"
And you said, "It's a flower."
I tried to remember
But I said, "What's a flower?"
You said, "I still love you."
         ~ Dar Williams

Sunday, February 17, 2013

'Tis the (Lenten) Season

'Tis the season, the season I look forward to every year: Lent. 
It is a time of Bright Sadness.
It is a time of reflection.
It is a time of repentance.
It is a time of fragile hope.

I think I look forward to Lent so much because as a reflective, introspective introvert, the Lenten season promises time to reflect, time to meditate, time to contemplate, time to pray, time to be.  I always have romantic ideas about Lent, idealized visions of piles of books, of quiet moments, of peace.  I think peace is what my soul always longs for during Lent.  I have blogged about my romantic Lenten ideals several times (case in point). 

This year, I am no less idealistic.  I have books on hand, lots of them.  Here's a sampling:
My yearlong standby: The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime
A new book of essays: Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter
I have two books to use with my family this year: Bring Lent to Life: Activities & Reflections for Your Family and Bringing Lent Home with Mother Teresa:  Prayers, Reflections, and Activities for Families.
I am following this pdf Lenten retreat.

On Ash Wednesday evening, before we went to church, I scarfed down my food so that I could read some child-friendly Lenten reflections at the table.
I tried to have a conversation about fasting.  I tried to explain fasting, and then I asked Jack what he might want to fast from.  He thought a moment and replied, "Bad guys."
OK, so, he doesn't really get it.
Then I suggested maybe he fast from saying hurtful things to his sister, and he completely missed my point and responded in the affirmative that yes, his sister should fast from saying hurtful things to him.
In the middle of my discussion, I suddenly realized that Jack hadn't had a bath in X days and that I should throw him in the tub before leaving for church.
So much for reflection, for meditating, for contemplating, for praying, for being. 
I rushed him in the tub, rushed him out, and we rushed out the door. 
And then the rest of the week slipped by, or rather, scurried by, with no time for any of my other planned family Lenten activities.

So I mess up at Lent.  I do. 
However, I did manage to keep my personal Lenten fast Wednesday through Saturday, which was a small miracle. 

Our pastor, Eric, suggested that we not tell anyone what our fast is this year, and while I respect that idea, and while keeping that idea in my head has helped keep me in check this week when I just sort of wanted to whine to anyone within whining distance, I am going to share my fast with you.

I am fasting from caffeine. 

I am certifiably insane.
Or I will be at the end of Lent. 

It's Sunday, though, the feast day, and so today I can talk about my Lenten practice quite contentedly, because all day I have been sipping coffee out of one side of my mouth and sucking down Diet Coke with the other.
This whole fasting from coffee and Diet Coke thing--not so much.

I have found that, without caffeine, I am stripped down to the bare bones of who I am. 
It scares me a little.

Without caffeine, I am a little stupid.
Without caffeine, I think I might be a really boring person.
Without caffeine, I drove down Southwest Boulevard on the way to the symphony with only one eye open and driving 5 miles below the speed limit.
Without caffeine, I made my daughter a sandwich on non-gluten-free bread. 
Without caffeine, I have no memory of both small and large gaps of time.
Without caffeine, I think 8:30 is a perfectly reasonable bedtime. 

I'm sort of a mess. 
But I'm also praying more.  And sometimes I think I can hear God whisper since my head isn't buzzing with caffeinated chemicals.  And when I am not half-asleep I think I am listening more.  And sometimes I am less anxious (except not during my son's basketball games. I have decided that next year I need a prescription for anti-anxiety medication). 

I bet at some point I will mess up.  I will suck down Diet Coke when we go out for pizza on a Friday night.  Or I will decide at 5:00 one morning that life isn't worth living if my coffee is decaffeinated.  I might mess up.  But if I do, as my grandpa reminded me the other day as he stood in his kitchen sipping his caffeinated coffee in a most un-Christian-like way, God will love me anyway. 
And for that I am grateful. 

I am going to close today with a reminder from my blog two years ago, a reminder that Lent is lived within Life, and that neither my Lent nor my Life has to be perfect.

And now here I am, yet again, beginning Lent with the harsh reminder that Lent is lived within the mess and muck and chaos. How I long to carry out the beauty of Lent poetically. That's what my soul longs for. But then.... But then.... But then I am worshipping the poetry of Lent rather than the God of Lent. And if I can journey through this Bright Sadness with a little grace, if I can find a little more light in the shadows of my soul's chiaroscuro, and if I can carve out for myself a bit more peace, I do believe that I will find some poetry in this beautiful mess, this chiaroscuro of my soul, this bright sadness. And then I will be ready, I hope--oh, how I hope--to embrace the joy and the awakening and the new life of Easter.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen

Sunday, February 10, 2013

p.s.--pg 14 is my favorite for you

On Saturday morning Matt and I had some time to ourselves, so we decided to stop in at Prospero's on 39th Street and look for a book to take with us to our favorite coffee shop, Broadway Café
Matt said we had ten minutes. 
I said it was insulting to walk into a used bookstore and only spend ten minutes. 
He conceded and said we could take twelve minutes.
I rolled my eyes.
Since I didn't figure that I had time to browse through fiction, I hovered about the poetry section instead.  I found a copy of Mary Oliver's Dream Work.  I was planning on buying the book anyway, but then I found a scribbled note on the title page:

To Ben--
When reading this poetry, I cannot help but think of you.  The continuing theme is one of finding your spiritual self, a struggle which you have embarked upon and which I know you will find peace in. 
Much luck and love on your journey--
p.s.--pg 14 is my fav for you!

from page 14:

"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 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.
I find myself locked in the same struggle: to find my spiritual self.  It is a journey upon which I have embarked and in which I hope that I will find peace. 

Perhaps you find yourself tangled in that same struggle, yet hopeful that you, too, will find peace.

Much luck and love on your journey--
p.s.--pg 14 is my fav for you!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

praying. fasting. anxiety.

photo by Matt Clingan

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

~ Mary Oliver ~
Last week I read about praying.
This week I read about fasting. 
Studying fasting was a bit of a struggle for me.  First of all, I have never fasted, at least from food. 
I thought about fasting from food this week.
I mulled the idea over.
I obsessed a tiny bit.
I panicked a tiny, tiny bit.
The idea of fasting, I will confess, makes me sweat a bit. 
At first, I chided myself for the panic.  It isn't that big of a deal to go without a meal, or two meals, or even three.
But then I poked down a little deeper into my psyche, and I realized that fasting is a big deal for me, and I don't think it's a good idea for me to fast--from food, anyway.
You see, I was tortured by an eating disorder in college. 
For a long time I counted calories, and I allowed myself no more than 500 precious, meticulously counted calories a day. 
Later, I gorged on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of calories at a time, and then I locked myself in the bathroom, tied my hair back, bent over my porcelain god, and purged.  (Last year I wrote a semi-autobiographical story about my experience.  If you would like, you can read the story here.)
Thankfully, I am finally at a point where I relish food.  But still.  But still. 
I worry about what I eat a little too much. 
I try to avoid looking at my body.  (I would love to do this for Matt, for example.  Isn't that absolutely amazing and beautiful...for every other body but mine?)
I fight against labeling foods "good" or "bad." 
I remember all too well the rush, the high, of hunger.  
I still have issues. 
I don't want to exacerbate them. 
So, I won't fast from food. 
The most striking sentence to me in the chapter I read in Foster's Celebration of Discipline was this:
More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us (55).
What controls me? 

I am not sure.  Perhaps that is why one fasts from food, because if I were empty inside, I would probably see through the emptiness the contours of what controls me. 

I didn't know what to do.
I gave up Facebook on Friday. 
I actually didn't miss it.
Of course, Friday was one of those days when I had to pee for at least 45 minutes before I actually made it to the bathroom.  But still.  I didn't miss it.
So, then, what controls me?

Actually, I know what controls me. 
I know what eats me.
I know what chokes me as I swallow it whole. 

I am often devoured from the inside with anxiety. 
I am not my anxiety.
Yet I am my anxiety.
It eats me up in ways not dissimilar to the food that I used to eat and purge. 
How do I purge myself of anxiety?
How do I fast from anxiety? 
I wish I knew.

Matthew 6:25-34
For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.