Tag Archives: grace

Remembering Who We Are

Leaving the house in search of some downtime, I take a chance on spending part of the late afternoon at a charitable thrift store.

Pulling into the parking lot of one of this area’s largest stores, I find only two spaces remaining. Balloons and special signs tell me today is a serious sale day. People are everywhere, arriving, leaving and milling about.

Over the years I have lived here, I have come to recognize a few of this community’s most serious secondhand shoppers-not by name but by appearance. And, when I begin to bump into any one of them frequently, it is a signal that I need a few months off from my own charitable-thrift-store “ministry.”

Spirituality
Spirituality

This afternoon’s trip is about getting out of the house to regroup, ground and center, rather than being about hunting for something in particular. Walking into the warehouse-sized store, oldies blare through the PA. My mood, which is upbeat, elevates even more. And, though the store is very busy, the racks are full enough for the methodical shifting of garments in front of my chasséing body. I will be able to regain center amid the chaos of people.

Moving through one section of the store, I notice a mother-daughter pair, whom I have not seen in a long while. The daughter is a mature woman, and her mother looks more frail than she did the last time I saw them bargain hunting. More frail or not, the mother maintains her general sparkle—a sparkliness of countenance which I love seeing.

Two sections later and with a one-half-hour between us, all three of us end up in the same area. To bypass the lines at the dressing rooms, I use a full-length mirror to try a dress on over my clothing.

Setting her frail body down on a steam trunk which is for sale, the mother glances my way. “It looks like a fit!” she announces. (Supportive, team shopping is not uncommon in this area.)

Struggling to release the hem of the garment from the grip of my blue jeans, I answer, “Well, almost. I need to drop the hem to make sure.”

We talk a little more—idle chit chat of the girl variety. I am reminded that this type of banter is a luxury, a gift representing a certain amount of leisure time. We are fortunate. Having finally dropped the hem, I zip the dress up. It fits in a lumpy manner over my clothing, but it is good enough to take home and retry. Unzipping the garment, I slip it over my head and fold it, placing it on the small stack of items I have.

Readying myself to leave, I stop briefly in front of the elderly mother, with whom I have been conversing.

“Where have you been?” I ask frankly. “I have not seen you or your daughter out for a long while.”

“Oh, I have had such adventures this year,” she replies. “First I had a mild heart attack, then, a mild stroke. After that, I was mending.”

Worn into her daughter’s face are the lines of an exceptional care-giver. Every new line has been translated.

“Oh, my. You have had quite a year,” I respond simply.

Then, reaching for my hand, she takes it into the smooth cradle of both of her soft-skinned arthritic hands, saying, “You look like a praying woman. Please pray for me. Pray for my health.”

She has granted me a blessing. The blessing of being seen.

As she releases my hand, I assure her that I will add her to my prayers.

Spiritual Errand

Through the front windshield of the bus, I watch the painted white lines on the black pavement of the road passing alongside in mesmerizing, rhythmic order. Thwop, thwop, thwop, thwop, my mind lays down a soundtrack to accompany the hypnotic visuals of the center-line’s fragmented glow under the low beams of the bus’ headlights.

With almost everyone else asleep, I remain awake as we travel through one of the least populated and most desolately beautiful regions of the Four-Corners area of the American Southwest. The time is closing in on midnight, and the highway is relatively deserted. No moon is visible. And, although the interior of the bus is dimly lit, the world immediately around me is bright, filled with spiritual Light.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Sitting quietly, as I review events from the trip, I remain in a state of heightened gratitude for the Grace extended during this excursion of spiritual errand—the Light needed to be reaffirmed in myself and among those whom I visited. Travelling for such a purpose is always humbling. With the aid of Grace, the best and sometimes most unexpected doors open with simple ease.

Sitting in my own bubble of spiritual reverie, I hear the man next to me shift in his seat. The bus is almost full. Then, turning toward me, he leans over to ask a simple question—something about current events. It is an election year. Not wanting to disrupt the thread of connection that is part of the larger picture and my heightened sight, I politely change the subject. Then, after regrouping, he redirects his own conversational energy, asking a series of questions about my religious affiliation.

After a few minutes of polite exchange, where I try to ascertain the general purpose of his line of inquiry, I finally ask him outright, “Are you needing me to pray for you?”

“Yes,” he answers in a hesitant affirmative. Then, with more conviction, “I need you to pray for me.”

The man appears to be Native American.  He may be Navajo, Hopi or from another First-Nation group native to this region. One of the things I learned while living in the Southwest is that most Native-American Peoples, who are still in a state of receptive connectivity, understand the Way. They know how Grace flows and moves and are respectful of the nature of sacred contracts.

“Do you know this song?” the man asks me, beginning to hum quietly—slowly—as he adds a few lyrics.

“Yes,” I answer. “I remember that song. It has been a long while since I have heard it.”

“Yes, it is an old song. I only need you to pray for me when you hear that song, that will be your cue that I need you to pray.”

We lean back again into our individual seats. I am amazed at how respectfully he has put forth his request. The parameters of our agreement are clear, tidy and not overly demanding. I find myself filling with gratitude again; this time it is for this man’s respectful politeness toward my own manifestation of the Light.

Stuff It

One table away, at the Indian restaurant where I am dining, a little boy is crying. He is not crying loudly, though he has come to the dry, hiccuping phase in his tears which indicates it has been a long road to arrive at this stage of his demonstrated upset or grief.

Spirituality

As I sit down to eat, I notice that he and his mother are part of a larger family gathering. Buffet days at this restaurant are consistently busy because the buffet offerings are of enough variety to satisfy even the most persnickety of eaters.

“If you can’t stop crying, we’ll have to leave the restaurant,” the boy’s mother leans over to inform him. “Do you want that?” she questions him in a threatening tone.

Internally I sigh and, while taking a deeper breath, wonder why she has not asked him about the source of his tears, reminding myself that I am coming into the situation late. Sometimes the intellectual-emotional exercise of asking children about why they are crying is enough to stop the deluge, if only for a moment.

Finally, out of sheer exasperation, I overhear the mother tell the boy to stuff it, using the old maxim, “Big boys don’t cry.”

I cringe. I contemplate the antiquated maxim, “Big boys don’t cry.” And, ofttimes big boys—that is grown men—can neither identify their own feelings as adults nor can they draw up plausible cause-effect relationships between their personal experiences and those of their internal, emotional world. In this last scenario, grief, fear, abandonment, being slighted or otherwise hurt by life circumstances may end up being channeled into anger or rage—two of the more culturally “acceptable” emotions for men to exhibit.

Returning my attentions to the beautiful plate of food in front of me, I say a short prayer for the gift of my food, as well as a short prayer for this mother and child, while recalling—with profound regret—the less-than-optimal parenting skills I exhibited in my own youthful, child-rearing days. We are a work, are we not? And all of us are “in progress.”

Dear God, please let this small boy come to know that it is okay to cry.

Putting the Pieces Together

This is a story of a story of a story…*

With no advance notice, one day the uncle of a young boy was asked to look after his nephew for a few hours.

Spirituality

While thoughtfully considering a quiet activity to keep his nephew busy during the afternoon, the uncle paged through a magazine featuring a photograph of the earth from space. The image was taken from a new perspective, as it was a recent NASA photograph captured during one of the space missions.

Removing the page from the magazine with the earth’s image, the uncle decided to make an impromptu puzzle of the photograph by carefully tearing the page into manageable puzzle-size pieces. Then, placing the pieces in a random order on a table with a roll of clear tape, he thought to himself, “That should keep him busy.”

When the man’s nephew arrived, the boy was given the impromptu puzzle to work. Retreating to another room to attend to yet another project, the uncle was surprised to see his nephew appear about a quarter-hour later. The boy showed him the fully restored photo of the earth from space.

“How did you put that together so quickly?” the uncle asked.

Turning the puzzle over, the boy revealed another image—that of a person. The nephew explained, “I turned the pieces over and found the picture of a person. I knew that if I could get the person together, I could get the world together.”

And so it is. Blessed be.

*Thank you, Martin Hill, for passing this story along.

Do You Need a Ride?

Moving into the city, where we currently reside, my husband and I were initially amazed by the generosity and open kindness of the local people. Whether we needed directions or help finding a phone number, complete strangers were more than willing to assist us, proving to be extremely patient and generous with their time. While walking our dogs, strangers have not been afraid to slow or stop their vehicles to shower compliments on our canine companions—for good behavior, glossy coats or general demeanor. And, among our closest neighbors, we were and are often treated to shared produce, jams, jellies and helpful local information.

Spirituality

Thus, when I first started my regular and extra-long walks in order to spend the afternoon writing in some of our community’s best coffeehouses, I was not overly surprised by the occasional vehicle that would pause, with the driver turning to address me directly and ask politely, “Do you need a ride?”

As a writer, I always decline these polite offers because I do not know these individuals and my long walks are designed to balance out the time I spend seated. Still, when this first started happening, I would think to myself, “Wow, the people here are so considerate.”

Then, one hot afternoon in mid-July or mid-August, after we had lived here for a few years, I am walking through a neighborhood between our own and the one where that day’s coffeehouse is situated. Across the street from me, two or three small groups of men are sitting outside of a not-so-large manufacturing complex, taking their mid-afternoon breaks in the outdoor heat. The temperatures inside of the buildings must be sweltering.

Suddenly, someone from among these men wolf whistles. Loudly. The whistle is jarring enough that I stop thinking about the book issues I have been mulling over in my mind and shift my focus back to the present moment and into the context of my body. Glancing about, I look for, perhaps, a new car, a custom truck or another situation or person who might warrant such vocal attention. There is nothing and no one else around.

Then, gazing down at my summer garb, I notice the jumper I am wearing. The linen or light cotton jumper is a practical, fashion nod to the day’s incredibly high heat index. In that moment, I also realize that with my being across the street, the man who has whistled probably cannot see my face and most certainly does not realize that I—in terms of age—could have easily be his mother.

“Hmmm. Odd,” I think to myself. My mind clicks and whirs. That wolf whistle grants me something of a non-spiritual epiphany regarding the probable nature of those previously “kind” offers for “a ride” which may have been code for something else entirely different.

Our postal carrier likes to refer to our small section of his route as “The Ritz.” In order to walk to the many coffeehouses I frequent to complete my book projects, I often pass through three, four or five distinct micro-neighborhoods, each with its own flavor, challenges and/or expectations. Interestingly enough, the offers for “rides” which I have received do not come in the evenings, as might be expected, but usually during the early afternoon—somewhere between one and four. So, it is not as though I am inviting this potentially questionable contact into my life by walking at “inappropriate” hours of the day.

After the wolf-whistle event, I return home to sort through my clothing, donating any potentially “questionable” skirts, jumpers and dresses to a local charitable organization for resale. I do not want to experience further future miscommunications due to wardrobe content. A tall stack of stylish, fun clothing in neutral to light colors is traded in for a stack of somber-colored capris, slacks and practical short—all in an effort to prevent confusion.

I wonder about clothing signals specific to this region. Still, even after the change in wardrobe, a few vehicles do pause, on occasion, stopping long enough to ask me whether or not I need “a ride.”

Over the years I have lived here, I have looked in the faces of men ages twenty-five to seventy-five, searching to fill the void of loneliness inside of themselves with the specter of love which commercialized, sexually intimate touch attempts to provide. Yet, Grace is the only thing capable of filling that chasm of emptiness which forms when we experience long periods of unwanted soul solitude. And, so, for now—I continue to pray that the hearts of these passersby become filled with God’s unremitting Light.

Going Mobile

Honky-tonk oldies play over a battery-operated radio strapped to a neighborhood man’s indoor/outdoor scooter. The twang of the tunes announce and accompany him on one of his daily “walks.” While steering his scooter deftly around me and my two dogs, he thumbs his well-loved VFW baseball cap to gesture, “Hello.” He does this whenever he sees us approaching.

Spirituality

Because the tires on his scooter are wide, getting out into the weather is not much of an issue. We both pass one another without talking almost daily—wanting to feel the fresh air on our faces, the thrust of the sun when it is out, or otherwise enjoy the spitting moisture of an early morning—a gift from the sun-obliterating clouds above.

Once past us, I watch the long plastic stick with the small fluorescent-orange flag attached to it sway and flutter in the violent wind. Today, the man in the scooter is bent in his seat leaning into the chill of this morning’s headwind with the flaps down on his billed, winter hat. Yet, the weather does not keep him from dancing in his seat. I wonder what steps and with whom, in his mind, he is taking the polished floor.

The music playing in my head is audible only to me. Sometimes, I wonder whether or not I would ever have the gumption to share the music I play as liberally as he shares his. Maybe. Maybe not. What his free-wheeling passing teaches me is that whether we are running, walking or rolling, we all need to carry music inside (or outside) of ourselves which causes us to sway with joy in all manner of weather.

Turning to Salt

“But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” –Genesis 19: 26

Prior to the destruction of the city of Sodom, Lot, his wife and his two daughters are led out of the city by two insistent, visiting angels.

As Sodom is being destroyed behind Lot and his escaping family, Lot’s wife turns to look back. Perhaps the noise or the heat from the destruction proved too seductive, pulling her attention away from the present and future Grace was so graciously paving for the family as they fled.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Whatever the reason  or reasons for Lot’s wife’s backward glance, the narrative shows us the need to remain focused on the ever-present, loving and guiding hand of Grace because, when we divert our attention away from Grace by looking back, we turn away from the immediacy and warmth of God’s clasp in the present moment. And we also, potentially, lose sight of the future places Grace is inviting us to go, grow into and otherwise BE, while Grace accompanies us.

The very act of looking back toward “what was” causes us to  lose forward momentum in relationship to what might be during that moment when God first takes us by the hand. And, in turning to salt, we may dissappear with the very next rain storm, dissolving into the sands of our own, private desert.

A Tale of Two Women

Walking into the Children’s Center entryway to drop my son off at preschool, I run into a new aide. She is an older women, impeccably dressed, whose pacing seems out of step with the general energy of pandemonium pervading the Center. I watch her guarded movements as she maneuvers her way through a throng of low, bobbling heads.

Internally, I catch myself wondering what her story is. There is not a trace of joy in countenance, nothing that says, “I am glad to be here.”

Across campus and across the studio from me in Advanced Life Drawing, paint is flying at a large sheet of hand-made paper from France. Above the rakish tilt of Betty Schneider’s large drafting table, I can just barely see her salt-n-pepper head bobbing as she works to capture the essence of the live model’s pose in abstract. Hers is a Pollack-esque dance which is difficult to confine to one cramped corner of the studio. Betty’s vigorous application of pigment to paper leaves a history of telltale red marks spattered across the model’s walled changing station, as well as giving measles to the room’s painted cinder-block walls in insitutional green.   

Spirituality

Without breaking the continuity of the room’s informal drawing circle, Betty’s neighbors have carefully tilted, shifted and otherwise distanced their own drafting tables as far from hers as is possible. Spattered paint aside, I think of them as shrinking from her creative exuberance.

Four weeks into her new role as a preschool-teacher’s aide, I find the older woman who is a new hire standing alone outside of a classroom. With a few words from me, her story spills forth. The narrative rolls out of her in a series of sorrowful sentences impregnated with the shock of fresh bitterness.

Her husband is on faculty. He found a new, young thing. She gave up her education and potential career to bear and raise four children. Her tiny studio apartment, which she can barely afford, is nothing like her former home—a rolling ranch affair with a large yard. Taking care of children is all she really knows how to do. Now there is no time for grandchildren. All of this after forty years of marriage.

Her heart has been broken. Her former dreams have died. And, her adjustment to her new socioeconomic circumstances is neither smooth nor easy. Then, the classroom door opens. I leave the scene in a stunned but unsurprised silence.

Betty Schneider is one of the most innovative and prolific students in the art department—middle-aged or not. Betty returned to the university to mend, after a nonamicable divorce and the recent loss of her beloved mother. Her method is Gestalt. What she creates has a one-of-a-kind strength in design. Yet, nothing she makes looks like anything recognizable. The art faculty actually fall silent in group critiques when approaching her engaging work.

Betty wins a major award during spring semester from a nationally recognized visual artist who has been brought in to curate and judge a regional art show. The entrants include local professionals, faculty members, as well as students.

Unreleased grief can cause a person to drown. Bitterness over past circumstances can lay like so many weeds under life’s moving waters—entangling even the most advanced of swimmers.

Even the natural joy that abounds in the Children’s Center seems to be passed over by the new aide. She is not managing to awaken to the gift that is each new day.

Betty Schneider has made up her mind. She is changing her name to Claire Shakti. Claire is for clarity and Shakti embodies the divine, feminine power which she IS. Claire has let go of all but a few of her personal belongings. Chicago awaits. After thirty years as a stay-at-home mother, she is going to work at the Chicago Art Institute as a guard. During her free time, Claire will be studying the French horn, taking the music lessons she has always wanted.

Spiritual Silence

Outside of a large, indoor flea market, near the metal railings around the expansive entryway, I stop unlocking my bicycle to look up. A middle-aged man is approaching, climbing a steep grade up from the lower-level parking lot. He is accompanied by three, young adult children. Everyone is fresh from church and dressed to the nines.

It is Sunday afternoon. My bicycle trip is a spontaneous break from the intensive gardening I was about all morning, designed to help me get the kinks out of my overworked arms, legs and spine.

Spirituality

Walking about four to five feet apart from one another, the family that is approaching me is so replete with the Light of God’s Grace that the space about them is suffused with a brightness akin to the light of the sun. My mouth opens involuntarily as I observe the spectacle of so much Light gathered about this one family.

Then, I watch as the protector of this group of amazing souls stiffens at the intensity of my gaping gaze, sure that my unkempt gardening clothes, mode of transportation and the dissimilarity of our backgrounds, our ethnicities, may also be putting him on edge.

I want to tell him about what I am seeing, so much Light; the love that each child holds; the radiant Grace present in their family; and, most especially, that his children are blessed and will be further blessed.

But, I say nothing.

Our physicality gets in the way. The physicality of our apparent dissimilarities shuts my mouth. The hurdle of inequitable social treatment silences my voice. Instead of inviting direct contact, I say a prayer of protection for this man and his children, asking God to keep these individuals out of harms way and to help them fulfill their holy blueprint.

Readings

Sacred scripture—no matter the tradition—usually counsels its readers to become more self-aware, generous and respectful toward humanity by means of teaching some form of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Yet, the cultural and historical details of certain scriptural narratives often feature nuances which lead to a great deal of discomfort and/or interpretive hurdles in terms of deriving a “modern” lesson for current application.

Spirituality

The other day, the story of Hagar came up in a reading from Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament in The Bible. Hagar is one of Sarah’s handmaids, an Egyptian slave-girl.  At Sarah’s suggestion, Hagar is used by Abraham to produce a male heir (this is prior to Sarah’s own unexpectedly late conception and birthing of her only son, Isaac).

For most modern audiences, there are aspects of this story which are highly problematic, especially in cultures where respect for an individual’s life, sense of personal choice and the sanctity of one’s volition with regard to the body are given priority. Still, in rereading the excerpt, what strikes me the most is that Hagar’s relationship with God is equal to that of Abraham’s and Sarah’s.

God does not forsake Hagar eventhough her worth and life, in the society of that time, are of little to no consequence or value. She and her body may be a means to Sarah’s and Abraham’s end, yet her relationship with God is equal–in terms of protection and guidance.

God listens to Hagar. God talks to Hagar. God reveals to Hagar her unique place in the grand plan. And, ultimately, Grace places an umbrella of protection over Hagar and her son, Ishmael, after they are cast out into the desert.

What I have learned is this: Even as the sands of a social circumstance may become like quicksand and threaten to swallow a person up, Grace is the one surety, toward which we may turn and upon which we may rely.

So, remember to get quiet, open your heart and listen, because cultivating a connection with the Light provides protection and support.