Spirituality & the Weight of Words

“Don’t move the way fear makes you move. Move the way love makes you move. Move the way joy makes you move.”

—Osho

Starting back to university after several years away, I find myself in an awkward social position. I am too old to be a typical university student and too young to be classified as an older, returning student. In addition to the issue of age, I am now married and the mother of a young child. As much as I want to be able to focus exclusively on my renewed studies, I also hope to find a few close friends among my new classmates.

Providence rewards my hope with a friend in the design studio, who is both my peer in age and who is also in a committed relationship.

Spirituality

Joan is from the Coast and was reared in an academic family. Thus, she is well bred and well spoken. We share artistic and intellectual exchanges full of wit and humor. And, because some of my time away from university was spent studying in the region of Joan’s upbringing, we share certain place references, which are not shared with anyone else in the art department. The commonalities that are part of our friendship also extend, to a certain degree, to our individual aesthetic preferences.

A number of semesters, a few dinner parties and several outings later, Joan and I find ourselves together in yet another class, when a new woman, Sarah, in her early forties joins our class.

Although completely untrained as an artist or designer, Sarah has been working as a paid, freelance graphic designer in the community. In terms of temperament, she is hesitant and quite insecure about her innate gifts as a designer and draughtsman, even though she clearly has the hand of a skilled, untrained draughtsman with an eye for design. Sarah creates simple, pleasing brochures which include her own drawings. Her return to school for more training is spurred on by a handful of clients who have been requesting more advanced work from her. She hopes that some additional training will help her grow her confidence and her innate artistic skills.

As the content of Sarah’s portfolio becomes known within the department, the rift between fine art and commercial art is laid bare. And, socially, a certain amount of distancing occurs between Sarah and the main body of traditional students.

For an already insecure soul, this not-so-subtle distancing can be acutely painful. In an attempt to close the growing space around this woman, I offer Sarah several olive-branch conversations, remembering how I felt when I first returned to university with no real sense of place. But, what I do not anticipate is the painful, under-the-breath verbal sniping that Joan is soon engaging in, as Joan and I sit working next to one another in the same class as Sarah.

My intellect understands that in many respects these women are experiential worlds apart, yet my heart is injured with each uncharitable statement, about Sarah or her work, issuing from Joan’s mouth. Finally, after two weeks of silence toward Joan’s uncharitable speech, I turn to face her—knowing that my stand may cost me a precious friendship.

“Open your heart, Joan,” I murmur emphatically. It is all that I can think to say. And, with this one statement, the verbal sniping comes to a complete stop.

For several weeks, there is a quiet between Joan and myself as I cocoon myself in my studio work and wonder how everything is going to work itself out. Then, as we near the end of semester, I learn that Joan has extended not only an olive branch, but an entire olive bough to Sarah.  After several weeks of getting to know one another and finding common ground, Joan has committed to looking after Sarah’s family pets while Sarah is on vacation with her family.

Words have weight, meaning and impact, whether words are directed toward us, at a situation, coming from us toward someone else or being applied by us to an external set of circumstances. Choosing our words with care shapes the manner in which we enter into a dialogue with the world around us—to mend relationships, take down barriers or change the course of someone’s life. All of us need to continue the practice choosing our words with an ear to our hearts and supreme care.

Without Mediator or Veil

“Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those most sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Spirituality

There is a space in our consciousness, an avenue of Light, where—when the traffic is at a complete standstill—a receptive soul is able to converse with the Holy Spirit. It is so difficult to find that hour when the traffic of our minds is stopped long enough for us to listen.

And, when we do try to listen, it can be challenging—especially initially—to discern whether or not we are hearing voices from our upbringing, shadows from our past, the growing pains of Spirit reaching for the Light or the hum of Grace itself offering us gentle guidance to move in a direction which may seem untoward and daunting.

Then, there are the concerns of well-meaning friends, family or other spiritual advisors who feel they may know best how to allocate or reallocate our precious energy.

Yet, the only person capable of coming to know our Truth sits not beside us at the table, stands not in front of us at a lectern nor does he or she even share a plot with us in some future graveyard. You and I must travel toward our Truth alone…in the stillness of our hearts and find the strength and bravery to walk our singular path.

The Poor Will Always be with You

Over tea one day, a friend tells me a story about visiting a fiscally conservative Christian church. During the sermon at this particular church, the piece of scripture where Jesus says “the poor will always be with you” is used to support the argument that Christians really need not concern themselves with delivering charity to those who are economically disadvantaged because such charity would not effect a substantial change around the broader and ongoing issue of poverty.

My friend’s story reminds me how far we, as individuals, are capable of straying from the Grace of our shared humanity in an effort to protect, defend or uphold our sometimes selfish comforts, myopic philosophical positions or even personal idiosyncrasies.

Spirituality

When sacred scripture is taken out of context, misread or interpreted solely to support our comfortable social positions and views, it can cloud the very Light which binds us as One. (I would note here that such attitudes toward scriptural interpretation(s) are not unique to Christians, but that this phenomenon exists among peoples of a wide variety of religious and philosophical traditions, where individuals or select groups desire to safeguard certain of their habits, decisions and/or lifestyle traits.)

Looking at the larger context in which Jesus makes this statement about the poor, we learn that Jesus is receiving the gift of an anointing from a woman, who clearly wishes to honor Jesus’ work through her generous ritual, physical act.  The perfumed oil she uses on Jesus’ body is expensive. The disciples do not give voice to discontent regarding the act of anointing, but to the discontent they feel about the use of an expensive gift of perfume. From the disciples’ perspective, such an expensive commodity could have been resold; and, then, the money from that sale could have been used to alleviate suffering among the poor.

It is only after the woman and, indirectly, Jesus are admonished by the disciples that Jesus, in turn, admonishes the disciples themselves by stating, “Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.” [Mark 14: 3-9]

There are a great number of interpretive readings or lessons that might be derived from this piece of scripture.

Jesus may be reminding us that working for “social justice” is an ongoing task and that those doing this work need to take care of themselves—physically. (Remember that the anointing is not the issue here.)

In another interpretive reading, Jesus may be asking us to honor each other as individuals, because none of us knows how long we have on this earth, even as we concern ourselves with issues of deep social concern in our Grace-centered lives.

Another aspect of this narrative is Jesus’ reminder to receive gifts graciously and humbly from those who wish to give from the seat of their open and generous hearts, because God alone knows about the timing and leadings which precede an individual’s actions of compassionate generosity.

In the gospel according to Mark, Jesus concludes, “She hath done what she could: she is coming aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.  Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel is preached throughout the world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.”

God knows us by our mitzvahs.

Using the more complete scriptural context, the greater lesson may be that we, as individuals, will be remembered for the selfless acts of kindness we perform and that those outside of said acts should not judge them for being extravagant or out of place.

However this narrative in its various interpretations may speak to us on a given day or in a given moment, this reader cannot find anything in the text to support the idea that we should abandon caring for one another or that consistent, conscious and kind acts of charity should be denied to anyone–poor or not.

There will always be a need in this realm for social action which acknowledges the sacred nature of the physical frame, through which we may choose to serve the Light, and that of Grace which resides in each of our hearts.

See also Matthew 26: 6-13 and John 12: 2-8.

Slurp, Culture & Context

“Those men do not have any manners,” staring wide-eyed at a large, round table of men lifting their bowls to finish slurping the last of their soup course, I comment to my mother in my overly loud, four-year-old and most self-assured voice.

In response to my comment, a long finger comes to rest perpendicular to my lips, telling me to hold my tongue in this very public context. My extended family and I have been on the road for days. We are stopping briefly at a large, family-style restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Our road trip includes touring the Redwood forest, a snow-covered visit to the Painted Desert, a stop at the Petrified Forest, as well as a careful viewing of the expansive vistas of the Grand Canyon from the canyon’s south rim.

I grow up eating soup and avoiding slurping, even after one of my first experiences of manners, culture and context invite me to do otherwise.

Years after my first trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown for dinner and days before one of my birthdays, a package from two dear friends arrives in the mail. The note inside says, “We wanted to take you to the movies for your birthday, so we sent you this film. XOXO”

Unwrapping the package, a Japanese film, Tampopo, reveals itself—a self-styled “Japanese Noodle Western.” From among the film’s many plot turns and twists, my favorite scene involves the “re-education” of a group of young Japanese women who are relearning the art of eating noodles in the context of an Italian restaurant in Tokyo—without slurping. (In traditional Japanese culture, it is considered a compliment to the food  when a person eats her soup or noodles with an appropriate food-relishing slurp.)

Spirituality

The cultural instructor in the film is preparing her students to follow the non-slurping, noodle- and soup-eating etiquette the students will encounter overseas. As the older Japanese woman is modeling the silent, eating etiquette that her students will need to follow and the students themselves are doing their very best at eating their own dishes quietly, a mischievous foreigner begins drawing noodles up from his own full plate of pasta with grand, relishing, smacking and slurping sounds, thoroughly disrupting the cultural instructor’s lesson.

Yet, even after watching Tampopo, I do not even attempt the practice of slurping, but I continue the practice of spooning liquids into my mouth and twirling my noodles on my fork with great care, just as I was taught. I also continue “growing up.”

Then, many years later and by complete chance, on one fall day when I am facing a particularly deep, hot bowl of soup after working in the yard all afternoon—in my hunger—I draw the steaming liquid through my parted lips in an understated slurp, hoping to cool the soup (politely) on its way through my mouth and into my gullet.

Cool the soup I do. But, more important than cooling the soup is what happens as the flavorful vapors from the hot, fresh soup pass over my tongue to travel through to my pharynx and on up into my nasal passages until my unsuspecting olfactory lobes become involved. Finally, I understand.

We, the non-slurping soup-eaters of the West, have this soup and noodle etiquette thing all wrong.  If we were really committed to embracing the whole gift of having sacred food on our tables at each meal, we would need to learn how to bask in foods’ full flavors and be willing to relish subtle taste experiences by taking some social cues from the cultures who know best how to embrace their brothy dishes—with just a little more noise allowed at the dinner table.

Spiritual Presence

As an intermittent visitor at a local church once, I was hoping to remember who I am and recall notions about where I might be going.

Spirituality

In undulating waves, comforting and inclusive words came from across the pulpit. Among the parishioners, kind and welcoming gestures extended themselves freely. And, during midweek gatherings, participants were able to affirm and acknowledge the Light that abides in each of our hearts. Yet, the sum of this composite collection of “a luminescent record” was outshone one fortuitous evening by a brief exchange I happened to witness after the close of a weekly gathering.

In the room of the gathering, where I was collecting my things to leave, I observed a child—of perhaps six or seven—coming into address the senior pastor who was also in the process of collecting his things.

In the unhurried manner that demarcates spiritual time and with the fullness of his Light, the pastor turned his undivided attention toward the child, having left his things on the desk. Then, he leaned forward, with complete presence, to hear the girl speak.

It is rare to see an example of full, spiritual presence and such a poetically beautiful scene. Still, it does happen. Be aware of the distractions, gadgets and Light-fracturing options the world sometimes offers; and, in their stead, choose full presence.

Agent of Grace

“I’ll call the pizza in,” I announce. We have agreed on a medium, cheese-and-onion, something small to celebrate the two-person “girls’ night in.” Our conversation has revolved around listening to the heart and bringing the heart around to becoming a willing and reliable agent of Grace.

“Self-care is imperative,” I continue the thread of our conversation, after the pizza has been ordered. “Don’t think that self-care needs to suffer in order to serve from the heart. But, what does happen is that our definitions of what we consider solid self-care begin to shift.

Spirituality

“For example,” I continue, “where we once thought of self-care as a shopping expedition to purchase a new blouse, blazer or a bit of random bling may shift to revolve around our desiring more quiet, personal time in nature. Or, if shopping is truly a joyful, must-have experience, we may elect to shift our shopping desires toward the purchase of  life necessities for another person, who is in need, choosing to work through a charitable organization.”

My friend breaks in,  “But, how do you know when you are receiving reliable guidance?”

“It should feel right in the heart. There may be a sense of Stillness or Peace around the proposed action or around an idea,” I explain. “It may also feel like it is perennially Christmas Eve–almost everyday. And, genuine guidance from Holy Mother does not injure or harm; it heals.

“Finally,” I explain, “There comes a phase where Holy Mother seems to step in, in order to care for you, in seemingly minor yet very meaningful ways. I’ll explain more later.” Our conversation stops so that I may run to pick up our take-out pizza.

At the pizza place, as the clerk hands me the box for a large pizza, he explains that he “messed up,” adding, “But, don’t worry. I’ll only charge you for the medium.”

It feels like Christmas Eve again–in my heart.

Walking through the door at home, I explain what happened to our pizza order to my friend.

“So, is this the type of care you were talking about?” my friend asks. “Large pizzas at no additional charge, even though you clearly ordered a medium?” Then, in a teasing tone, my friend says through a bite of hot, fresh pizza, “I would like to meet this Holy Mother of yours.”

Practicing Trust III

After several months of missing my classical guitar, I receive a nudge to stop by a local music store, which houses a large, humidified room packed with a wide variety of both new and used stringed instruments—ukuleles, guitars, banjos, dulcimers, basses and mandolins.

Once at the music store, I begin milling about the specially humidified room carefully selecting five or six classical guitars for sampling. Amazingly, one of the used guitars which I have selected carries almost the same full, warm tone I found so appealing in my previous instrument. The only other guitar in the room to match this instrument’s tone is new and almost seven times as expensive as this particular used instrument.

Spirituality

Wanting to make sure that I am on the right track, I hold off in purchasing the instrument. Waiting a full week and sitting through several rounds of meditation to make inquiries about the appropriate application of my energy, I finally ask my husband to go with me to verify that I have made, potentially, the appropriate selection.

After we have arrived in the humidified showroom, I begin pulling the instruments in question. My husband, for his part, goes through them, fine-tuning each. After playing parallel chords on every one of the guitars, we come down to the same pairing that I had come to on the previous week.

“Yes, you are right,” my husband acknowledges. “This used guitar sounds almost identical in tone to that of the other new and more expensive instrument.” We decide to purchase the used instrument.

At the cashier’s counter, the clerk handling our sale’s transaction announces cheerfully, “You’re in luck. This instrument comes with its own case.” Leaving us to retrieve the case, she soon emerges from the storage room with the case in hand.  Back at the counter, she rejoins guitar and case, and we make our way out of the store.

Opening the music shop’s door onto the late-afternoon sunshine outside, I feel a renewed gratitude for the care and support Grace has extended to me—not only for this day, but—when I choose to listen—every day.

Practicing Trust II

At some point into the third year of my intermittent guitar practice, I realize I will neither morph into Carlos Santana nor will I ever make the Rolling Stone’s top-fifty guitarists’ list.  Regrettably, this realization dampens my inclination to pick up and practice guitar rather than causing me to redouble my efforts.

Soon, the fine dust, which sifts through every room of active living, begins to collect on the curvaceous edges of my old friend’s body and her polished surfaces. The only time my old friend is dusted off is when we have our irregular dates which tend to fall on three-day weekends and during the holiday season, when I still like to muddle through several of my favorite Christmas carols.  

Spirituality

Less guitar practice produces more time for devotional meditation. Almost daily, during my devotional practice, I sit in silence waiting for some type of assignment to arise—whether it is an errand of selfless service or something having to do with selfcare. And, as these nudges regarding the directions of my time arise, I attempt to fulfill them.

Devotional work produces a tremendous amount of joy—whether it is handing-off a burrito to a homeless man, opening a door for someone with overly full arms or simply working in my yard to plant flowers. And, life experience has taught me to heed the wisdom of the timing, direction and instructions provide by Grace over my own limited and short-sighted sense.

Then, on one Christmas day while I am taking a quiet, solo walk through our neighborhood—five or six years and three states away from the time and place of my guitar’s acquisition, I happen upon two Latino men who are hard at work, putting the finishing touches on a front porch of intricately laid stone masonry.  

The neighbors and neighborhood are tucked in and out of the cold, while enjoying friends and relatives-either here or afar. Thus, it is amazingly silent. My connectivity to the Universal Thread remains undisturbed amid the silence and what feels like an open channel, without a trace of static.

I wonder to myself whether or not I should return home to fetch these men some of the scones I have just baked, when another directive comes through quite clearly, “Go get your guitar.”

In terms of Divine guidance, this is one of those instances where my Adam’s apple does an actual chin up and a large cartoon bubble appears above my head with the word G-U-L-P spelled out in all caps. Stunned by the relative magnitude of the request, I decide to walk home quickly and follow through on my leading, before I can over think it. On the way home, I remember that earlier this morning I asked God to help me become a reliable agent of Christ’s Grace. If handing my guitar off to these men causes me to fulfill my own request, then this is what I must do.

At home, I dust off my guitar and place my old friend in her case. With the guitar and case in hand, I walk briskly back to the house where the men have been working during their off hours, laboriously rehabilitating this once damaged structure over the past several months. Without almost any words, the guitar is handed off. I watch as one of the men places my old friend in the semi-heated shell of the house. Then, walking more slowly, I make my way back home.

After reentering our front door, I peel off my coat so that I may return to my meditation cushion. I need and want to understand what has happened.  

Intellectually, I know that the guitar is technically only an object. And, my guitar had certainly become an under-used and much neglected object. Yet, the degree of attachment that I had to the guitar was far more profound than I had anticipated, given the emotions I am dealing with upon its relinquishment. In working through some of my heart’s emotional discomfort, I remind myself about the importance of needing to trust—of practicing Trust.

Then, in a sliver of space between my milling thoughts, the Divine reassurance that I need comes, “The guitar will keep someone from seeking comfort in drugs or alcohol.”

With this reassurance, everything becomes a little brighter and my Spirit finally settles down. Happy Christmas to All!

Practicing Trust

After finishing my US-Census shift, I happen into a pawnshop on my way to teaching yoga across town. The store has what I have come to recognize as the typical line-up of pawnshop merchandise: tools, electronics, used jewelry—a multitude of stunning ring sets, which may be the undesirable byproducts of once promising relationships, select media and a respectable array of musical instruments—both acoustic and electric—as well as a range of amps. Many of these items are wish-list things which can be traded for quick cash in a pinch or bought back when a person’s finances restabilize.

Pawnshops and pawnshop browsing were not part of my childhood culture—nor are they actually part of my adult culture—except that my father-in-law once remarked, “You can usually find a good deal on a fairly decent instrument in a pawnshop.” The regulation bugle, hanging by a red cord on a wall in our house, was just such a gift—from father to son and a pawnshop buy—many years and miles ago. So, I am walking through this shop for, perhaps, the second or third time trying to find an appropriate, gently used guitar.

Spirituality

There are a myriad of guitars available. Yet, one guitar in particular seems most appropriate. It possesses a glossy, black finish with mother-of-pearl inlay on its fretboard, as well as another circular inlay of mother-of-pearl around the sound hole. The edging on the instrument’s main body are piped, in an off-white plastic material which mimics the look of ivory.  When I ask the salesman to take the instrument down for me to test, the sound is full and smooth, though I do not really know what I am doing—as I do not actually play guitar. What I do know is that the warm hum which the instrument produces when I strum it, while it is held against the midriff of my body, makes me feel whole.

Today is a special sale day. So, I decide to purchase this guitar and its matching case. Still not knowing exactly what I will be doing with it, my only plan is to strum it occasionally so that I might feel that hum against my body which makes me feel whole.

A trip to the library and several books later, I learn that I have purchased a classical guitar. Classical guitars have slightly wider fret boards than do modern, acoustic guitars which are better designed for chord playing. I now know how to tune it and name most of its component parts. (Life Rule # Whatever: You can only talk about things that you know how to name.) Oddly enough, I do not end up doing a lot of bold cord strumming. Instead, I spend most of my time laboriously plucking out tunes to melodies I already know, some of which date back to my early, piano-study years.

A few months into my self-designed six-stringed-instrument melody-rediscovery “course,” I fervently hope Grace will accept my husband for musical-patience sainthood because two to three hours spent on deciphering one melody seems like some twisted form of rare torture for a person as musically gifted as he. For his part, he keeps my new guitar properly tuned and maintains a heroic level of unflagging encouragement, by repeatedly explaining that he was never bothered by his younger sisters’ instrumental practice sessions when they were both studying Suzuki method.

As an academically trained school teacher, at some point I become concerned that the cranky, unused guitar-playing portion of my brain is not gaining in plasticity or skill at the rate that it should be. Quietly, I wonder whether or not that dry, brittle region of my brain has already ossified to the point of no return. Then finally, after a few months, something gives. I observe myself plucking out melodies within twenty to forty minutes until, eventually, I am able to rediscover a tune in less than ten or twelve minutes. Guitar practice has proven to be serious calisthenics for my grey matter.

With the lesson of time and the application of focused energy fresh in my mind, I wonder how many times I have walked away from a soon-to-be-reached plateau of progress after I did not apply myself long enough “to arrive.”