Friday, May 20, 2022

"The Pause That Refreshes..."

 

There are two somewhat renowned intersections on the island.  One  is the notorious “5 Corners” and the other is the intersection of the Edgartown Road and State Road. There are no traffic  control lights.  If entrenched island custom holds, there never will be.  Drivers, especially during the height of the summer season, approach each intersection with cautious trepidation. Islanders’ conversation about summer traffic often leads to the revelation of driving strategies like taking the long way around in order to avoid making left turns across traffic.  Traffic jams are a given.

The arrival of a ferry, full of cars with drivers anxious to reach their destination after a long trip followed by a 45 minute crossing from the mainland, increases the challenge of moving through 5 Corners.  Drivers push their way through the intersection, often ignoring stop signs and creating a dangerous snarling gridlock.  Islanders know to schedule their trips into town to avoid the arrival of a boat.

But something else happens at these overloaded intersections that seems instructive for life.  With traffic backed up in several directions, a driver will simply pause and permit cars to make a turn in front to her - - perhaps allow several cars to get through the intersection before continuing on her way - - and the traffic begins to flow smoothly again. Just a brief stop to allow a few cars to make their turns and move into the flow of traffic and the potential traffic jams and delays are diffused. At the Edgartown Road and State Road intersection this often results in a kind of choreographed ballet as other drivers get the idea.   A spirit of creative cooperation prevails.

Pedestrians frequently play an unwitting role in the flow of traffic, especially at 5 Corners.   Cars have to stop to permit them to cross the busy intersections safely.  When this happens, vehicles in other lanes have a chance to make their turn into the flow of traffic and things keep moving, albeit at a snail’s pace, especially during the summer months.  The minute pauses make a difference.

Across the busy summer months, there are so any opportunities for either chaos or cooperation as   
supermarkets and restaurants and beaches fill to bursting with human energy, both positive and negative.  Every resource is taxed almost beyond its limits.  When Labor Day arrives and the crowds begin to return home, it is as though the island exhales.  The off-season “pause that refreshes” begins.  The beaches are liberated from millions of foot prints and gulls prevail once again.  Business owners challenged by too many demands and too few workers begin to breathe a little more easily. With the change of seasons and the return of a relative peace and calmness, the island heads into the winter months of rest and restoration.

Our Torah reading group focused on the portion called Behar (Leviticus 25) last evening.  It is one of the shorter portions, a mere 55 verses or so, but its emphasis on restorative balance is critical for our time.  The principle of sabbath is reiterated over and over again.  The Divine Imperative brings order and balance to the land and to people through the command to allow rest to happen.  For the health of the land and for the health of the humans who inhabit it,  a regular pause in all activity is crucial.  A sabbatical rest allows the land to recover.  There is a good reason for a sabbatical from various forms of employment so workers can rest and rejuvenate.   A sabbath rest restores a certain fundamental liberty from the pressures on the land, from the pressures of constant labor.

It may be a huge leap from a momentary pause on the part of a thoughtful driver to the notion of a generous sabbath pause for a land and for its people but there is a relationship between how we attend to the smaller details of life and how we treat one another and the planet.  

The sacred texts do not invite us to pause - - they command it.   The wisdom behind the texts is in the service of all humankind.  It is in our own best interest to slow down, to pause, to feel ourselves as part of a larger flow of life - to take time to rest and restore ourselves - and even more importantly to find ways to allow the environment around us to be left alone to rest and replenish itself as well.   

It is Friday.  At sundown Shabbat begins.  25 hours in which a great and graceful permission is given to rest.    Would that humankind could do and hear the command to pause and allow the flow of human life and the life of the planet a time of restoration.


Vicky Hanjian








Friday, May 13, 2022

"What has been lost?"

 


We returned on Saturday, about a week ago, from a lovely road trip with dear friends through parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia. In a succession of 75 degree days, the redbud was in bloom everywhere and spring was much more “there” than it was "here" when we returned to the island.

Our travel day at the end of the trip was long.  An hour long drive to the Philly airport; 5 1/2 hours on the train to Boston South Station; a 1 1/2 hour wait for the bus to Woods Hole followed by  1 1/2 hours on the bus and then the final 45 minute leg of the journey on the SS Martha’s Vineyard.  A wintry and foggy wind blew me up hill all the way to where we had parked our car for the week.   When we awoke on Sunday morning, it was clear the week of travel had caught up with us as we crawled toward breakfast in a state of weariness bordering on exhaustion.   We opted for ZOOM for morning worship and then set about unpacking and tending to the accumulated laundry.


Word of advice  - -  in a state of sleep deprivation do not attempt to do any task that requires thoughtful sorting of laundry!!   As I pulled the wet clothing out of the washer, I noticed a strange dark lump in the load.  It turned out to be my husband’s “little black book,”  the most recent iteration of the pocket calendar he has carried in his pocket for more than 60 years.  The significance of this loss will be most real to United Methodist ministers of a certain age who, in another time, before the advent of smart phones, could not live without that small pocket calendar on their person at all times.

45 minutes later, I pulled the laundry from the dryer - and discovered another strange lump,  this time in the pocket of my husband’s jeans.  His wallet was also victim to my sleep-deprived
inattention to detail.  I have joined the ranks of the money launderers!  Also the launderers of drivers’ licenses and family photos and credit cards, all of which we were able to successfully dry out.  

Not so the pocket calendar.  It sits on the kitchen counter, slowly drying, pages stuck together - accusing me every time I look at it.  

Those little pocket calendars, accumulated over 60 years, carry the skeletal bones of our lives.  Meetings, medical appointments, birthdays, deaths, family celebrations, holidays, vacations - a life history of a marriage in “shorthand.”  The loss of even one creates a hole in a store of memories that cannot be refilled, especially as we age.


My thoughts roam to the multitudes of Ukrainian families displaced by war, homes bombed and burned, making rapid departures bringing only what they could carry.  I mourn the loss of one “little black book” - which can probably be reconstructed.  I can’t begin to imagine the grief that colors all of life with the loss of precious family mementos, heirlooms from the past, beloved books, precious toys and security blankets, the sense of place and belonging that come with a stable home in a familiar community.   Even with the aspirational thoughts of making the aggressor pay reparations, there is no way to recover the irreplaceable minutiae that make up the “face” of a community’s or a family’s life.  The losses set in motion a grief that will live far into the future - - into the coming generations who will not be able to leaf through an old family album or enjoy some curious bit of memorabilia passed down through several generations.   The war is stealing the memories of families and communities, the many bits and pieces of their lives, if not their lives themselves, replacing them with trauma.

Last night over dinner our Torah study group discussed “Emor,” the prescribed reading for this week.  It occurs near the end of the Book of Leviticus.  It is full of difficult teachings that are troubling in our day - but something emerged from our discussion.  Albeit, taken out of the context of the prior verses, verses 31-33 of Chapter 22 seemed to leap off the page: I am the Lord.  And you shall keep my commands and do them. I am the Lord. And you shall not profane My holy name, and I shall be hallowed in the midst of you.  I am the Lord Who hallows you, bringing you out of the land of Egypt to be God for you.  I am the Lord.

 As I keep turning these phrases over and over in my mind, I wander back to the early chapters of Genesis where the text affirms that humankind is created in the image of God - b’tzelim elohim.
After much rumbling around, the connections are made. When we “profane” another human being, or another human community, we “profane”the image of God - - our guiding metaphor for holiness. Our own holiness as beings created in a divine image is transgressed - and that transgression tramples on Divine Holiness.

War, in all its forms, profanes the image of God as it destroys human life and the quality of human life.  It tramples Holiness in the dust.   It is unholy.

In a day or two, thanks to Amazon, another “little black book” will arrive in the mail.  It will be tedious, but we will be able to re-construct our immediate history of the last 6 months.  I wonder “What will it take to restore the memories of so many lives when the war has run its devastating course?”  “What will it require of the larger human family to serve so many families who have lost so much?”  “What kinds of memories will replace all that has been lost?”

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, May 6, 2022

Happy 80th!

 I received a “Happy Birthday” email from the High School Reunion Committee for the Class of 1960 this week.  It is the first one I have ever received.  I wondered “why now?” and then realized that this is the year when almost all of us who graduated from high school in ’60 will turn 80!  The big 8-0!

How can this be?!?  I just turned 70 yesterday!  But a quick look back reminds me that this is REAL.   My classmates and I have lived through the end of World War 2, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the AIDS epidemic, the Women’s Liberation movement, the Gay Rights movement, the assassination of a president, his younger brother, and a modern day prophet.  We lived through the “duck and cover” years, sheltering under school desks. We have lived through Watergate, through Bill and Monica, the Bush years, twice, and the election of a Black president.  We have watched in disbelief as the base of democracy has been gradually whittled away by what seem to be unstoppable obstructionists at every level of government.

On the threshold of our 9th decade of life, we now witness Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter and wonder what this means for the further degradation of our social discourse.  We witness the exercise of lethal power against innocent human beings in Ukraine.  We witness the narrow margin of victory over the far right in the French election.

No wonder I sometimes feel tired!  “World weary”  might be an apt description for many of us who turn 80 this year.



And yet…I also have witnessed our high school kids put on a stellar performance of “Les Mis” -kids committing to weeks and weeks of rehearsals to produce a very difficult musical.  I’ve witnessed a young generation of farmers working small farms with a goal of sustainability.  I’ve seen our local church grapple with racism, institutional and personal.  I’ve rejoiced at the marriage of young gay friends and watched young trans people finding their way in a community that offers them and their families support through their difficult transitioning.

I’ve witnessed my own grandchildren grow into responsible, socially conscious adults who will pick up the banner of justice and environmental concern as they pursue their chosen paths.

As I look at what I have written, I see a little more clearly that I live in  “macro” world where things seem to spin far out of control as wars are waged and election battles are fought and billionaires exert influence in frightening ways.  But I also live in a “micro” world where people care about what happens to each other; a “micro” world where volunteers glean in local farm fields in order to rescue vegetables that can be turned into  meals for people who are food insecure; a “micro” world where the church smells like baked ham on Sunday morning as food is prepared for community meals later in the week.  This “micro” world is filled with people who work hard for not enough money, who struggle to find affordable housing, who have trouble paying for medical care - - but who give generously of themselves when a neighbor’s home burns or there is a sudden and tragic death in the community.


So - when I am feeling  all of my world weary 80 years, I shift my focus to the “micro world” for a bit.  It restores my hope and faith in humankind and I feel myself humming with Louis Amstrong: “It’s a wonderful world.”

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, April 29, 2022

Are we listening?

 A small group from the local Unitarian Church is planning to do a training day for Lay Pastoral Care Associates.  The main focus for this particular gathering will be on listening, attentive, focused, compassionate listening.  In the weeks leading up to the training day, I have become increasingly aware of both the power of and the absence of deep listening in my daily interactions; of how discounted I can feel when I am speaking and the listener’s attention drifts to whoever or whatever else may pull their attention away; of how grateful I feel when I know I have been heard and understood.

I am reminded of a powerful excerpt from Nelle Morton’s book, THE JOURNEY IS HOME that I read many years ago at the beginning of my theological studies in seminary.  She wrote this:

It was in a small group of women who had come together to tell our own stories that I first received a totally new understanding of hearing and speaking.  I remember how one woman started, hesitating, awkward, trying to put the pieces of her life together. Finally she said: “I hurt…I hurt all over.”  She touched herself in various places as if feeling for the hurt before she added, “but I don’t know where to begin to cry.”  She talked on and on. Her story took on fantastic coherence.  When she reached a point of most excruciating pain no one moved.  No one interrupted.  Finally she finished.  After a silence, she looked from one woman to another. “You heard me.  You heard me all the way.”  Her eyes narrowed.  She looked directly at each woman and then said slowly: “I have a strange feeling you heard me before I started. You heard me to my own story.”

So I have been reflecting on the power of listening and hearing in the midst of a culture that is a virtual cacophony of sound that so readily distracts and drowns out the human cry.  I wonder what the power brokers in government and on Wall Street hear?  What do they listen to?  Do they hear the cry of the prophet Isaiah’s widows and orphans?  Do they hear the weeping of the enslaved and oppressed? Do they hear the moaning of families whose children have been lost to gun violence?  I wonder what I have drowned out that I need to be hearing more acutely - - where has my sense of the importance of my own presence in relationship gone missing?  Where have I missed the opportunity to “hear another human soul into speech.”

Morton reminds us that when we listen actively and deeply “we voluntarily join another human being at a particular point on their life journey for a brief space in time and that it “…is not so much a journey ahead, or a journey into space, but a journey into presence.”

Honoring the high value of the presence we bring to any human interaction is a spiritual practice.
We can actually create a space wherein a person can find their own voice, perhaps even “listen” another person into connecting with their own inner wisdom for their own life.
    
    This is a powerful gift both given and received.  Most of us have not had many experiences of being listened to and heard in such a way that our own wisdom becomes activated and we begin to “see” a direction or action we need to take - - begin to feel reassured in the midst of a challenging situation that we do, indeed, have the wisdom to move on through.  At one time or another, we all need to be “listened to or heard into speech.”


It is difficult to leave behind my ruminations on listening.  The last thing I read before drifting off to sleep last night was Nelle’s thoughts on:   “Learning to listen with one's whole body. Learning to hear with the eye and see with the ear and speak with the hearing. Knowing the Spirit in movement and not in stasis.”

It sounded to me as though there might be the promise of an encounter with Divinity in the process of full and deep listening to another human being.  Hmmmmmm.

Vicky Hanjian




Friday, April 22, 2022

Disruption

 

I’ve been asked to dust off the CCRC (Children’s Creative Response to Conflict) program. Fifty years old in 2022, the program began in New York State and gradually went global. In fact, their web site these days is crc-global.org. Their mission statement reads: “Creative Response to Conflict (CRC) is a global non-profit organization that educates individuals and groups to transform conflict into positive and constructive experiences that contribute to building a just and peaceful world.” The word “children” was dropped from the original program title as the skills    shared are relevant to any age group.

A friend and I were trained in the program back in the 80’s and took it to several S.D. schools, mainly in Sioux Falls and Todd County. We were scheduled to do other Sioux Falls schools when a new superintendent arrived and decided to send disruptive students to the National Guard armory for a behavior modification program, rather than have CCRC in the other schools. We weren’t promoting resolving conflicts by pointing a gun at someone, which seems to be the popular way in our culture. Besides, the Guard program was free, courtesy of the federal government, that saw it as a “feeder” program for recruits.

It appears that post-pandemic public education is experiencing some school conflicts and disruptions because of student behaviors. Some say it’s because they lost two years of socialization. If they are fifth graders, they are still acting like third graders. Whatever the reason, teachers are resigning in large numbers, parents are becoming more vocal and sometimes acting like teenagers, and some school board meetings have turned into conflict zones.

Given the need, we will dust off the CCRC program and offer it for educators when school ends this spring. It will certainly help! But my fear is, the reasons for the escalating unease and issues in the schools, and our rapidly rising incidents of conflict and violence in our communities, lie deeper than poor skills. Two recent experiences are revelatory for me.

The first was watching a newscast on TV. A retired general was being asked whether the $800 million in new weaponry we were sending to Ukraine would help them “win” the war. The interviewer was young, not even born when World War II was “won,” and the nuclear age was born. (My, how that age has grown!) Can we say that any war has been “won” since World War II? Was Korea “won”; or Vietnam; or Iraq; or Afghanistan?

And weren’t we seeing daily on this very same TV channel what the war in Ukraine is like: mass graves; mass destruction; masses of refugees; masses for the dead. How is it possible for any rational person to even talk about “winning” a war in our time? The whole world is impacted in negative ways.

Somalia is experiencing a terrible draught. People are hungry! There is no water for agriculture!  Ukraine provides more than 50% of their food aid. No ships of wheat are leaving the port of Odessa and any harvest there is on hold. Soon the people in Somalia (no more refugees, please) will be lying dead next to their sheep and cattle. And how will that $800 million in new funds for weaponry in Ukraine affect what’s available here at home, for human need? Like the pandemic, we’re all in this war together!

And it’s the cultural conditioning and the military-industrial economic engine, that keeps us from noticing how Denmark defeated Hitler without firing a shot; how Solidarity and the laborers in Poland threw off the Soviet stranglehold; how pots and pans helped depose Pinochet in Chile; how young people offered their bodies to integrate lunch counters in Nashville, TN; how a prisoner in Africa inspired millions to break the back of apartheid; how Gandhi sent the British packing. 

The other experience was listening to the radio and hearing the weather called breezy. Good grief; the wind gusts were 50 MPH. People on the edge of Sioux Falls were shoveling up the dirt blown around and into homes. It looked like the dust bowl days. When have we ever seem so many windy days, all in a row; and what kind of year are our farmers facing? Is there any awareness of the dangers to agriculture of a changing (and raging) climate? You wouldn’t know it by our folks in Congress!

Has anyone noticed the 1,200 scientists all over the world protesting our lack of action to stop our climate catastrophe? In London they glued their reports and their hands to the windows of a government agency. In Los Angeles one was arrested at a Chase Bank, the leading funder of new fossil fuel development, where he chained himself to a door.  

My students don’t watch the news. I don’t blame them. Somehow they still know what’s happening, and they aren’t happy about it. Actually, I’m hoping more young people will be disruptive; but in positive ways. Because the folks who are driving the train today are taking us all straight to hell and back. We need some young people with good conflict resolution skills and trained in nonviolence to help apply the brakes and turn us around.

Carl Kline


Friday, April 15, 2022

Both and...


 In a rather strenuous confluence for those of us who observe both ritual holidays, Pesach and Easter are bound up in the same weekend this year with the first night of Passover happening on Friday evening followed rapidly by the celebration of Easter on Sunday.  Many Jewish friends are engaged in the ritual of rigorous house cleaning to rid their homes chametz - any food product made from wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt that has come into contact with water and been allowed to ferment and “rise.”  No food products containing yeast or any other leavening agent are consumed during the 8 days of Passover observance.  

 What will appear on every Pesach table will be matzah.  Chametz and matzah are almost the same substance, containing the same ingredients of flour and water. The difference is that while chametz bread rises, filling itself with hot air, in the carefully watched production process, the matzah stays flat and humble. In this central symbol of the Passover seder, matzah, unleavened bread becomes a metaphor for humility, self effacement - - the diminishment of the ego in the service of a life of commitment to the liberation of humankind from the narrow, confining limitations of the many Egypts that limit the fullness of life and joy.     So - the yearly symbolic search for and elimination of whatever it is that “puffs up.”   No yeast.  No baking soda.  No Cream of Tartar.  No baking powder.  Unleavened bread.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the street, as Christians observe Easter and celebrate resurrection into new life, there will be bread on the table.  It will be risen bread.  The fragrance of yeasty Hot Cross Buns will waft from local bakeries.  Christian sacred text invites practitioners to become as yeast - as leaven - in the  loaf of human life.  In Christian tradition, yeast or leaven is a metaphor for transformation - - transformation that leads to compassion and justice - - transformation that brings the reign of God among humankind.
 

As I reflect on the two different ways of thinking about leaven - either as something to be eliminated - as symbolic of ego relinquishment or as something to be celebrated as a symbol of transformation, it is not an “either or dynamic.”  Somehow both perspectives are intimately intertwined when it comes to living a life of wholeness.
The removal of chametz becomes a  rigorous observance of the inner forces that are governed by the needs of the ego that can and do impede the progress of a life of service in the name of compassion and generosity and justice.  At the same time, the yeast of transformation plays a role in shaping a society that is continually moving toward an inclusive justice that allows for fullness of life for all human beings.
 

So - - A Pesach/Easter weekend is a strenuous time - - a time of integration of powerful central symbols from each tradition.   May it be a time of joy and rejoicing and understanding as we celebrate separately together.    Chag Sameach!  Happy Easter!

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, April 8, 2022

On The Boundary

 

 Last summer, as part of the landscaping effort to beautify his home, our neighbor cleared out all the natural growth that had created a visual boundary between his lot and ours. All of a sudden there was a gaping space between our homes.  My writing desk sits under the window that faces the neighboring yard and I feel as though I am invading the neighbor’s privacy whenever I am occupied at the desk while the neighbors are enjoying their outdoor dining area -especially during the summer months.  Our living room also serves as a guest room. With the windows open we felt like the neighbors were right in the house with us when we had overnight guests during the summer months.

Building a privacy fence seemed divisive so during the fall, we planted a few Leyland Cypress  trees along the property line to create a “soft” visual boundary on the property line between our homes.  The neighbors like them.  The solution works for all of us.

Appropriate boundaries are necessary for harmonious living.

As we have watched the horror of the invasion of Ukraine unfold, we have seen the worst of the results of boundary crossing as boundaries of sovereignty are obliterated, as the boundaries protecting the sanctity of human life are crushed, as the life sustaining boundaries created by respect and compassion and human kindness have disappeared in the service of  military aggression.  

I wonder when and how and if these boundaries can be restored.

I read about states passing laws that increasingly infringe upon and obliterate the boundaries of safety in society for the  LGBTQ community, for young people who are still figuring out who they are with regard to gender.  One step forward and two steps backward as boundaries we thought might be secure are breached in the service of fear.

I wonder when and how and if these boundaries can be strengthened and secured.
 
I shudder when I observe the systematic destruction of the boundaries of women’s sovereignty in their bodies as more and more restrictive and punitive laws limit the freedom of choice around around their reproductive rights.

I wonder when and how and if these boundaries can be strengthened and women’s freedom to choose be restored.

On Palm Sunday I am invited to speak at the island Unitarian Universalist Society on the theme of “awakening.”  The sermon is still in process.  The metaphor of Easter looms in the near future with its challenge to believers to make their way through the darkness of the tomb into the radiant light of a resurrection morning.  I ponder the notion that, often, deep darkness is required in order for an awakening to happen.

In the protective dark containment of the chrysalis, out of sight, a somewhat lowly looking caterpillar is transformed into a monarch butterfly.

As we gradually  emerge from the “cocoon” of a long pandemic, I wonder who we will be.  Will we abort the process and revert to our less illumined nature? Or will the time in the darkness  provide the transformation needed to birth ourselves into something more glorious?

The seed of hope was planted there during the most fearful times of the epidemic as kindness and compassion were lifted up in selfless sacrifice and generosity.  The seed of hope is planted in the outpouring of compassion and kindness toward the Ukrainian people.

John O’Donohue has written:  We live between the act of awakening and the act of surrender. Each morning we awaken to the light and the invitation to a new day;  each night we surrender to the dark to be taken to play in the world of dreams where time is no more.  At birth we were awakened and emerged to become visible in the world.  At death we will surrender again to the dark to become invisible.  Awakening and surrender:they frame each day and each life; between them the journey where anything can happen, the beauty and the frailty.

So, maybe that’s where we are - - on the curious boundary between sleeping and waking.  We have had our strange time in the cocoon world of the pandemic.  We have only limited vision of how the last two years may have changed us - or not.  

 I wonder on which side of the boundary we will land?


Vicky Hanjian

Friday, April 1, 2022

Grace and Patience


When despair for the world grows in me 


and I wake in the night at the least sound


in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,


I go and lie down where the wood drake
 

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.


I come into the peace of wild things 


who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. 

I come into the presence of still water.


And I feel above me the day-blind stars
 

waiting with their light.   For a time
 

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


—The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry

 




    It is not far-fetched to imagine that many of us have recently had an experience like the one described in the first three lines of the poem. We are living in difficult and challenging times fraught with injustice and inequities, with threats within and without: COVID-19, climate change, the war in Ukraine, painful losses, difficult relationships, work, finances, etc.; most characterized by uncertainty.
    The last line of the poem suggests that by resting in “the grace of the world,” one may become free, at least for the moment, of the fear and despair experienced in reaction to the uncertainty and unpredictability of the world.
    Grace, the experience of gifts freely given, is ever present; it’s the body breathing, and the heart beating, it is seeing, tasting, smelling, touching, and feeling (emotion), thinking, and it is language and speech, listening, laughter, kindness, generosity and gratitude, and it is the awareness that knows in and through all these and more. “Resting” in grace requires patience, the ability to stay and attend long enough to receive and savor what has been freely given. 

     During the winter years ago, I was asked to give the sermon at a church in Brookings, South Dakota, where I was living and working. When I came out to my car, individual ice crystals, in all their beauty and wonder, were visible on the windshield, and, for a moment, I saw them. Then I began scraping impatiently, and I realized that those incredibly beautiful crystals, which were freely given to me, in that moment were objects that were in my way, that I needed to get out of my way, so I could get on my way.
    Check yourself now, if you like, noticing any feelings of impatience that are pushing you to get through this article so you can get on to or back to what feels like it needs to be done. That’s not your fault. The demands and pace of our lives often require this attitude from us. People, emotions, conversations, eating, exercise—even vacations—become objects that are in our way, that need to be gotten out of our way, so we can get on our way. Little room is left for cultivating an attitude of wonder and curiosity, and the patience required to witness and savor the grace that makes our lives possible.

    There are practices that create conditions allowing a patient witnessing to emerge from deep within us to open and receive the gifts freely given. This attitude of patient witnessing is the antidote to the attitude that treats every something and someone as objects that are in the way, and must be gotten out of the way, so we can get on our way.
    One practice is to slow the pace of our lives whenever possible. When noticing ourselves rushing with the mind racing toward the future, we can tune into any one of our senses, e.g., feeling the breathing sensations, noticing seeing or hearing, etc., immediately anchoring us here, now. While shaping a condition that may allow the attitude of patient witnessing to emerge, this resting back in awareness of the present moment may have the added benefit of easing anxiety and balancing uncertainty. For example, when we realize that, though feeling anxious and unsafe, we actually are safe, here and now; or we realize that, though feeling helpless or powerless, we actually have some power and control in this moment because we can choose to stay and, perhaps, rest in it gracefully.
    

A second helpful practice is to look up, as I did a moment ago, above the computer, to the gray, cloudy sky, interrupting the push to complete this task, so I can get on to the next one, and the next. Instead, looking up creates a much larger context, one that, perhaps, makes room for patient witnessing of the mystery of writing, of a computer, of clouds and rain, and the seeing and the knowing and hearing, and the awareness that makes it all possible.
    Finally, allowing our face to relax into a smile may shift our attitude from impatiently pushing through to the next thing, to gently resting back in the freely given gift that is each moment. 



    The fear and despair experienced in reaction to the uncertainty and unpredictability of the world is not going away any time soon, however, it is possible to make room for and cultivate an attitude of wonder and curiosity, and the patience required to witness and savor the grace present in each moment of our lives.


 Chris Klug
 

Ed. note:  Guest blogger, Chris Klug, is a Grief Counselor, Educator and Consultant.  He is also a Mindfulness instructor.  Welcome, Chris.
This blog is re-printed with permission and may also be found at the website below.
https://mentalhealth.uiowa.edu/news/2022/03/grace-and-patience


Friday, March 25, 2022

"I was a stranger..."

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, I have been “sitting” for meditation three mornings a week with a small and diverse ZOOM sangha.  We sit together for 20 minutes practicing the nurture of the heart-mind.  I experience significant challenge in the practice of observing the flow of thoughts and distractions and emotions that flow through consciousness at any given moment.  In a 20 minute “sit” I may need to practice “returning to my breath” almost moment to moment.  “Monkey mind,” a mind that jumps from distraction to distraction, like a monkey enjoying flight in the trees, is     a  state I live in a lot of the time.
            For many years in my spiritual practice, cultivating compassion as a first response to any situation I may encounter has been my commitment and my greatest challenge.    There is often a bit of a gap between my initial (and not always compassionate) judgement, and the eventual arrival at a more loving and hospitable response.
           I was able to observe it with  much greater clarity this week - bowing with gratitude to my teacher and the teachings.    I received a call from a total stranger whose friend and mother-figure was dying. She said “Can you come?  Can you say a prayer?”  So far, so good.  Of course I can. 

        I entered a house full of physical chaos - the result of the months long downward slide of a home in the grips of a terminal illness.  There was barely a path through the clutter and debris from the front door into the bedroom where death was happening.  So far so good.  My heart broke wide open for this family who had already suffered insurmountable loss and was about to lose wife - mother -grandmother - the nuts and bolts that held the family together.
    We conversed.  We prayed blessings for her as she embarked on her final journey.  The back story was that the couple had been married 41 years ago by a priest ( the husband is Roman Catholic) and a minister (the dying woman was Protestant) in our local church.  It was of profound importance to the surviving husband that his wife’s funeral be concelebrated in the same way -with a priest and a minister in attendance.  Still, so far, so good. Compassion dictates that the comfort and care of a grieving family is paramount.

                                   Death came before midnight of that same day.

 

      I awaited the customary call from the funeral home, letting me know specifics - time, location of the funeral and burial - - but there was a glitch.  The local priest was reluctant to concelebrate a service and burial of a non-Catholic.  There goes my compassion - - like a bird in flight - - right out the window. How could a servant of God refuse the rites of the church to a grieving family?  I watched with a kind of chagrined amusement  as all my judgements and biases flooded in - - rather too embarrassing to list them here.  I stewed with my thoughts and feelings  as I tried to find my way through my resistance without doing any damage.  After several unsatisfying attempts to reach the priest, we finally managed a brief conversation and put together a “game plan” for the service and burial.  

          Compassion at a very low ebb - judgement and aversion abounding.    I kept observing.


    I sat with the sangha early on the day of the funeral and began to feel the glimmers of return to a bit of balance in my heart-mind.  
    I walked into the funeral home about 30 minutes before the service was to begin, greeted family members, sat with the grieving husband for a few minutes and went in search of the priest.  I found him contemplating a collage of photos of the deceased, sweat pouring from his forehead.  He turned to look at me when I called his name and introduced myself.  I saw a young, frightened and confused child looking at me with eyes like a deer in the headlights.  
  

 My heart cracked wide open.  Here was a priest, brand new to the island,  finding his way into our peculiar island culture - - called upon to do something his tradition was very ambivalent about - - not really knowing how to handle something for which there was no guidance or language in the prayerbook ritual.  He did not know the family nor did he know anyone else in the gathering. He did not even know me. He was a stranger.
    Gone were my judgements. Gone was my irritability. Gone was my frustration.  All replaced by a compassion that wanted to embrace him and tell him it would be OK.  I could offer my familiarity with the community’s customs, reassure him that sometimes weird situations arise and that we could just “go with it” for the sake of a suffering family, that I would handle the parts that just didn’t fit with his tradition.  I could feel compassionate love and generosity and hospitality for this stranger in our midst.  It turned out that we actually worked quite well together.
    It was a great learning experience for me.  No matter how long or how much I practice my spiritual disciplines, I am vulnerable to knee-jerk responses that are less than compassionate. I can be fearful and judgmental of the stranger  as though I had never practiced at all.  I learned that face to face encounter with the stranger can result in the awakening of compassion when the reality of his or her humanity is in full view in relationship.  I learned that the stranger is my teacher.
   Millions of strangers are in the making with the war in Ukraine.  I read a few days ago that in Poland it is not just the social service structures that are welcoming refugees so much as it is Polish families who are opening their homes and their hearts to strangers, welcoming them, clothing them, feeding them, providing a place of refuge in the maelstrom.

 



    Strangers, teachers of compassion abound in this world.  We have only to encounter them and be open to what they will teach us.
        
Vicky Hanjian
   

Friday, March 18, 2022

Couch Traveling

 There are two films this morning I can’t get out of my mind. One I watched last night on public television. Thanks to PBS, a person can travel the world from their couch. That’s not a bad idea when the globe is struggling with a pandemic and old bones don’t like 12 or 14 hours in airplanes. 

The PBS film was about Slovakia. The tour director took us to several small villages as well as two of the major cities. The villages were of most interest to me, as they revealed connections between the past and present, especially in different community events and traditions and an at-home relationship with the natural environment. People seemed comfortable in their rural environment, without the need for shopping malls and the latest in fashion and music. Traditional markets, song and dance were sufficient.

The film gave us a picture of a country of castles and churches. Some of the castles were in ruins. Others were tourist destinations with tour directors; one offered frightening theatre meant to scare and enlighten you as you explored the interior. The distant past came alive in these human creations of stone and mortar. One wondered about those who dwelled there; their passions and purpose; their loves and losses. What moved and motivated a castle dweller? What swayed their spirit?

The film also showed us some of Slovakia’s churches. Two stand out in my mind’s eye. The first is from an aerial view. The church is in the center of the town square. I mean the center! There is nothing around it except stone churchyard, at least an open football field on all sides. Only then do the dwellings of residents begin to appear. It’s not the traditional courtyard, with a courthouse and the rule of law at the center; but a churchyard, with a church and faith at the center. One gets the explicit understanding the people of this community want their faith to be at the center of their community life.

The other gripping church scenes were iconic. It was an old cathedral; constructed in the 13th. or 14th. century. There was a picture of Mary. Just looking at the artist’s rendering of her could create converts to her story. Other time-worn iconic figures, surviving the ravages of time, temperature and treachery, could make a believer out of a viewer. The intensity in those pictures, rendered so long ago, remains!

Slovakia is not just castles and churches but also forests and mountains. In the film, we go hiking on forest trails and climb high mountains. There are waterfalls and deep snow and extravagant views.  But in all of these wilderness areas there is modest but necessary human interventions, to make experience of the natural world possible; fast and sleek trains; climbing ladders; mountain top cable cars. We are offered access, but not dominance. One can hope the film will satisfy watchers and not encourage Slovakian travel, that overwhelms their capacity to provide that natural setting.

Increased tourism to Slovakia would fit with our modern mentality of “more is better.” We would want Slovakia to have more trains to carry more tourists to visit more castles and churches to boost the economy and in the process, forget the songs and dances of the past (except for show), the beauty and timelessness of the forests and the mountains, (except as they draw more tourists).

The second film I can’t get out of my mind is, “Don’t Look Up.” It first came to my attention in a message from the Sunrise Movement. If you haven’t seen it, you must! It also investigates the “more is better” theme and the result of ignoring its consequences.

There are those in our society who don’t want us to look to the past. They are afraid we will see things there that were life-giving, but now lost. They are afraid we will see things that needed correction then, and still need correction now. They are afraid we will remember our more intense relationship with the world of living things around us, and relinquish our desire for things and more “stuff.”

They don’t want us to “look up.” They don’t want us to see the sun and the moon and the stars. They don’t want us to see a sacred pattern to the universe with everlasting messages for us. Instead, they offer us material satisfaction and spiritual starvation. As “Don’t Look Up” makes clear, we have a choice, We need to heed what religion and science tell us about our relationship to Creation and the world around us; to falling castles and iconic images; to village life and alpine forests. Two films; one choice; more or enough! 

Carl Kline

Friday, March 11, 2022

No Way Around But Through

This morning, you come downstairs to find me. You greet me in that sunny voice with which you always bless the beginning of my days.

Then you slump on the couch beside me. Your youthful face darkens to a storm. “How could Biden have done this?” you say, in dismay.


You’re talking Afghanistan. The panic at the Kabul airport. The gunfire. The mad rushes on the tarmac. The desperation of thousands to escape the Taliban. The failure of our government to plan a better evacuation.

“You’ve been reading your newsfeed,” I say.
 “It’s immoral,” you say, in soft-spoken outrage, tinged by grief.

How to console you? Your heart is as deep as the sky is high. You dream of a perfect world, even as you’re learning that “perfect” is a trap. (The Taliban, too, seek the “perfect.”)

“We could have done better!” you exclaim.

“Yes,” I reply, “and we should have. There’s no excuse … Still, there’s no clean way to end a war.” What begins with bombs will end with blood, I think to myself. “Now there’s chaos, and the threat of slaughter. No way around but through.”

* * *

No way around but through. This is one of the mantras of my life. I didn’t borrow the phrase from anyone, though others have probably said it. Rather, it emerged from my spirit as I wrestled with the lesser angels of my nature and the sorrows of this world.

Its roots run back to The Book of Isaiah:

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze. (43:2 NIV)

This imagery got seared into my mind as a girl. Back then, I sometimes thought of the speaker as God, just as the passage is written. Most often, though, I imagined myself as the speaker, promising my compassionate presence to an imperiled world. (Try reading the text this way, if you’d like. Offer it your full voice.)

Are flood waters rising all around? We have to plunge into them. No way around but through.

Are fires burning on all sides? We have to walk into them. No way around but through.

I’m not sure when I began to use these words to shore myself up (and others, too) in times of trouble. But they’ve been part of me long enough that, whenever I need them, they rise unbidden.

You heard me say these words often enough during your childhood that now, as a young adult, you say them to rally yourself; to persevere through what hurts.

I smile when you do that. You’re making my mantra your own wisdom. May it serve you well.

No way around but through. This isn’t a prayer that you and I might be spared hardship or crisis. Rather, it’s a reminder that no matter the mess we’re in, something worth striving for is waiting on the other side. We might not be able to see it from here—the floods too high, the fires too hot, the Taliban too menacing—but it’s there. Our struggle to reach it can teach us things that we didn’t understand before; things we might not have learned, had the path been easier.

No way around but through. These words work no magic. But they help us keep going when we’re tempted to turn back. Or run away. Or throw up our hands. Or bury our heads in the burning sand.

These words prepare us to be brave. To be resilient. To pay attention. To be resourceful and creative. To convert our despair into loving resolve.

You’ve heard of “tough love?” Well, I’m talking the grittiest, most tenacious, down-in-the-trenches, nobody-left-behind kind of love—a love of this world so fused with hope for this world that no amount of suffering can destroy it.

So, dear heart, I promise you, we will do better. In the disaster of Afghanistan. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. In the raging pandemic. In the plagues afflicting our democracy. In the upheaval of a changing climate … In all our trials and tribulations.

Will we get frustrated sometimes? Often.

Tired? Yep.

Broken-hearted? You’d better believe it.

But we’ll keep keepin’ on.


No way. Around. But through.

Deep peace,

Phyllis Cole Dai

This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox! 

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Friday, March 4, 2022

Puzzles

 
Now that the pandemic is in the third year and new variants continue to emerge; with the numbers of cases going up and down and up again; with continuing recommendations for masks and social distancing; with the difficulties of travel to be with family and friends; with a firm belief in vaccines and love of neighbor; my life has become considerably more monkish. A meditative and metaphorical life practice has emerged. I call it our Pandemic Puzzle Practice.


Life is a puzzle, isn’t it? Sometimes it seems that God is a puzzle maker, creating us in 300, 500, 750, 1,000 or more pieces, putting us in a package and delivering us by God’s own FedEx. Then it’s our job, hopefully with some help, to put the pieces together.

I always start a puzzle by turning over all the pieces and separating out the straight edges. Then there’s a good chance you can make the border for the puzzle and proceed to put it together. I know this isn’t the process everyone uses. My granddaughter doesn’t need a frame. When we do one together, she can start working from the inside out; perhaps because she’s young and has an artists’ eye. Either way, we all eventually create that boundary, that frame for our life; and we need it, if we are going to complete the Creators’ puzzle for us.

There can be problems! You think you’re building a solid wall, a frame, a border, a foundation for a full and satisfying life. Then you discover there’s a space, a hole, and you aren’t sure where or what the piece is that can fill it. Was it there at one point but now lost? Is it simply stuck in the midst of all the others? I always look under the near-by rug. Then I search among the waiting puzzle boxes under the table and on the floor. Sometimes it takes the help of another to locate it. Or perhaps you need a while away from the puzzle, to come back with fresh eyes for a new look. We just need to remember, when we see pieces missing, it can be a good thing. It can start a search toward eventual satisfaction. 
The worst possible problem is to have a finished puzzle (or life), with one piece missing and none to be found. It’s not under the rug, the table, the chair, the couch. We hate to pass such a puzzle box on to others, labelled “one piece missing.” Most don’t want it!

Once we finished a puzzle and there was an extra piece. Was the maker trying to fool us? Another time the picture on the box was different from the puzzle inside. Was the maker mixed up? There are a few pieces in our lost and found drawer; lonely, never used, lost to us and their origins.

Puzzle practice helps discernment. My preference is the big picture items. Just let me put all the sky pieces in one place and start to see the heavens. The light varies. The colors are bright or dim, shaded or stark, with all manner of variations. Gradually the colors reveal themselves and shapes and sizes complete the placement process.

My wife prefers the smaller puzzle items. Give her words or faces or solitary images and she’s at her best. She leaves the leaves for me. We both prefer bright colors. Puzzle practice together is a good metaphor for married life.

There are some who do puzzle practice with two puzzles in one. You need the same puzzle maker with two puzzles cut with the same saw. Then you combine them in a way that gives you a totally new picture, like twins delivered from the Divine Puzzle-Maker.


Two puzzles ago we put together some of the sacred and spectacular sites around the globe. They each had their own little box, from Yellowstone to Egyptian Pyramids to the Taj Mahal to the Eiffel Tower. It was like a pandemic trip around the globe from the space of one’s living room. The latest we finished yesterday was a Charles Wysocki puzzle, one of those that produces nostalgia for older folks. It’s a picture of the sand dunes and Cape Cottages on Nantucket from an earlier era, with women in long dresses on the dunes and kites in the sky.

One of the churches I served had a puzzle library. Anyone could borrow a puzzle and it was where folks brought them when they finished one. There was always an interesting selection and new puzzles appeared regularly. I know seniors borrowed them, as I would find them on tables and desks when I visited elders in retirement communities and care centers. There’s something meditative and contemplative about puzzle practice.

For some, the practice of puzzles could be an escape from the hard realities of their time and place. Heaven knows, we live in such times and spaces. Then again, puzzle practice could operate as a metaphor for life, offering instruction and discernment about the importance of even one small piece in the overall intention of the Creator.  

Let’s care for our life puzzle pieces, and not leave any holes in our completed picture.

Carl Kline