habits

“Writing is a way of life: a trust nourished by practice. It is a habit. A person who writes has the habit of writing. The word habit refers to a routine, but also to a stole, to a costume befitting a calling. In the same way that a monk puts on a traditional habit, so the writer puts on a traditional habit. As writers we find where we are comfortable and with a stole over our shoulders, we write” .-Susan Tiberghien

Historically, many women religious made the choice to join the convent because it was one place where they were able to be free of the cultural gender conventions of the day. In a religious community, women might be afforded the opportunity for education (at least, for literacy) and also access to roles not available to them in the larger society, where they would’ve been forced to marry (into often appalling circumstances) in order to merely survive. Monasticism was for many an escape from a life of one-dimensional drudgery.

As a child growing up, I must’ve somehow learned that such a life was a great sacrifice, a waste of a life, and an aberration from what was ‘normal’. I was carefully taught that a fulfilled life meant marrying and having children, a life lived in the service of others.   I could not imagine why anyone would willingly choose what I believed to be a barren existence.

Those women instead chose to wear the habit, to intentionally choose ‘barrenness’,  de-sexualizing their identity from one defined by service to another …as husband or mother… to one in service to the soul. Not at all to say that relationships cannot be profoundly in service to the soul, but for many women relationships have historically tended to be solely other -focused, other-centered,  other-directed and accommodated. From this vantage point in my life today, I am struck by what can feel like barrenness of another sort, a life spent but unblossomed. I am not merely my body…an object of a man’s desire and pleasure, not merely a receptacle, bearer, and nurturer of children….although each of these things is also very good  (I am seeking to steer clear of either/or dichotomies, but to decry the elevation of one at the expense of the other). I am that, and so much more.

I have heard some muslim women, who choose to wear the veils and hijabs, the burquas and dupattas of their culture, express their feeling that their dress is more respectful to women than that of the western culture. They feel they are not on display as objects and sexualized in the same way that we are. I have had that feeling too, when I pull a shawl up over my head, of inward safety in a covering that allows me to remain contained within myself while gazing outward to receive through eyes of love. There is something about that which feels deeply honoring of my humanity to me. And, of course, that is what I seek to do when I write.

I am struck by the way in which the word habit also means a regular discipline. How donning a habit then is in fact a way of creating a boundary around oneself in which one is freed from certain constraints and expectations, certain projections and identifications so that there is space given for something from within, from the soul perhaps, to emerge.

If I am to don a habit, I also must discover a way to create such a boundary around myself, protecting the sacredness of the conversation that is occurring between the sacred and myself, between the silence and myself. I must hold such space as inviolable, wrap myself up in its protection and its embracing comfort.

So many women I know, even today in our ‘progressive’ culture, live lives in which their natural rhythms are usurped by the needs and expectations of others. I had lunch yesterday with an intelligent and compassionate woman whose life has become so small, so usurped by her husband’s preferences and ideologies that she dreams of moving into a ‘tiny’ house in order to find space to breathe. Another woman friend of mine recently packed up her entire life (of 30 years) in order to follow her husband’s call across the country. Not that her move has not been in many ways a gift to her, but it was his agency not her own rhythm that inspired it. Another woman, whose husband has recently retired, has lost the sense of autonomy to her days, her flowing rhythms too often prescribed by the presence of another and his agenda in her day, playing catchup with herself as she did when the children’s schedules were her defining force.  These noticings are not intended to be man-bashing, but to be woman-lamenting. Why do we still struggle so with finding the freedom to follow our own callings?

Or perhaps it is just me, projecting.

I recently read a quote by William Wordsworth, “How does the Meadow flower its bloom unfold? Because the lovely little flower is free down to its root, and in that freedom bold.”

This winter I had the opportunity to wrap myself in a habit (even if it felt like I was stealing time to do so) in which something in me blossomed. It was a great revelation for me, as I found something in myself that I have known all along was there, waiting for me to show up, but had not found permission or the space to enter. The experience of bounded space, dedicated to self-nurture and practice, affirmed for me the deep intuition I have had for so many years that I need such a space. Time and again I have denied that instinct , settled for something less than I knew I needed, put many other’s needs above and before my own, talked myself into and out of, and been made to believe it was an excuse.

Perhaps a turtle shell is a great habit, after all.  Protecting what is valuable and vulnerable, it creates a boundary that is inviolable. I do not wish to be hard, but claiming space as inviolable might just allow me to remain soft inside. Otherwise, this sacred gift that I am just might die unrealized.

Of course, I know and I believe that this cannot ever be true, that this very life I lead in the midst of this everyday is sacred, blessed and enfleshed with the holy, including my presence in it even in the midst of my feeling unfulfilled, but I cannot always see that. We never really can. Bidden or unbidden, intentional or unconscious, the holiness of our lives plays out. But I also know and so believe that it does our bodies good to consecrate our lives. It uplifts and affirms, imbues with meaning,  opens the mysterious two directional line of communication between what is visible and what is hidden.

A good habit can provide that visceral reminder, lending a quality of integrity, intentionality and visibility to our lives, while subscribing and providing an inwardness  to those of us, often women, who cannot seem to keep the external expectations and demands, accommodations and accessibility from diluting our very essence. Within that kind of self-containment, our lives are claimed as holy.

light

One of the great things about walking with a camera in hand is that it slows you down. A lot. Nothing can be more important than seeing. Not getting to your destination, nor getting your words in edgewise. Not being stuck in your head, nor worrying, planning, or regretting. A lot like taking a walk with a child, a camera forces you to simply pay attention.

Prayer is that way too, also giving you a lens for seeing more clearly what you may walk right past without it

The earth really is quite spectacular.  One small step can fill your lens with delight if your eyes are open… a flower tucked up next to a water access pipe, a tiny rock propped up against it just so, an ocean of green blades with tiny blue eyes peeping out over the waves, the tiniest of seedlings in the dark of a woodpecker hole.

This evening, I was so lucky to step outside just before twilight, in order to go for the mail. The air was clear and quite brisk and, as I walked along, I began to notice that there was something else in it too, something quite magical. The light was dancing, at play with the earth. That’s the other wonderful thing about walking with a camera, you train yourself to look for the light.

Here, a tiny white blossom drinks in the last drop of sunlight. There, an ordinary robin’s chest, aglow like the great orange ball of a setting sun. The end buds of so many trees, ready to burst, seem to pop in the twilight like kernels in oil. And a tiny white pine, so lit by the golden rays that I am certain there are remnants of Christmas tinsel fluttering in its needles. Have to walk close to her side to determine the truth.

And I think to myself, how perfect this simple walk to the post office and back. How perfect, THIS particular moment to step outside, this impromptu choice to stroll east away from the sun, these tiny pine boughs. And I am filled with simple gratitude. The proper lens can do that too.

I suspect each of us here is gilded like that tiny pine tree when we catch the light just right.  And I suspect that it takes eyes attentive and softened ‘just so’ to see the gold in each other. How often, I wonder, do we walk right by it. Perhaps we just need to drop our agenda.. our judgment and fears, worry and regret… to don a new lens.

Look for the light.

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Celebration

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Rising early to put the easter ham into the oven, I am blessed by the quiet, the peace inside and out. The oven door gingerly closed, I move softly with a warm mug of coffee into the invitation, out onto the porch.

Slowly light dawns, not in a vivid flash of color but in a subtle movement from black through the grays, and so also begins the similarly subtle chorus of song, like a slowly building concerto drawing me in. First, there arrives at my ear the faint remnants of owl softly hooting, like a mother shushing her child into the nest, even as I settle myself onto the rocker, wrap up in my grandmother’s afghans.  Somewhere in the distance, woodpecker drills his percussive beat beneath the constant and haunting broken chord of conversing mourning doves. A skuttle of squirrels in dry leaves draws my attention closer and a pair of Canada geese greeting the day do the same, this time overhead. Finally, the crows announce with their raucous arrival that it is officially morning at last.

High and melodious, but easily unnoticed unless one is paying attention,  the songbirds  in the treetops, warbling and whistling their sweet serenade.  I rest my head on the high back of the chair, closing my eyes to breathe in the resonance. Few human sounds are present at this hour on a holiday morning, the occasional rush of a car on the winding road below, but not so much as is more typical. A thud somewhere down the street feels like a heavy door closing.

The flutter of robins enacting their inelegant ritual of celebration, leaping and flapping and bumping their chests, captures my ears. I open my eyes to witness their odd mating dance. Closer now, a Tweedle-tweedle-tweedle-tweedle-tweedle, though I know not his name. A jay and a nuthatch, a chickadee  a finch, companions too often taken for granted, take turns swooping into the feeder for breakfast. It is the beating of their wings as they sweep in and out that calls me to acknowledge their ever-presence. A hairy woodpecker now, his crimson sideburns flashing, stops by the insect ridden hemlock.  Soon a  female cardinal replaces him on the perch.  Someone scurries now on the porch roof overhead, scratching its way through the leavings of winter.

I rise slowly, move softly indoors, where my husband is sleeping. Not wanting to disturb this morning peace, I begin, in sacred silence, my own morning ritual this easter morning. Peeling potatoes, preparing for my own flock to arrive.

Soon I am in a frenzy, there’s much less time and much more to do than I envisioned, but climbing the stairs a few hours later to pull a colorful dress over my head and down across my skin, I remember the birds of the dawn. Pause for a moment to breathe, inhaling deeply before the crescendo.

It comes in a flurry of sons and granddaughters, daughters-in-law bearing blessings. In vivids and pastels, the little ones bring in the light, their chorus of voices exuberant. In a whirlwind, the brood swoops in and out, feasting on potatoes and asparagus, strawberries and spinach, crooning their light-hearted chatter of stories and memories. The children enact the age-old spring ritual of celebrating spring, this hunting for eggs, and I wonder if their ancestors might have once performed such an act out of necessity each spring, passing along the legacy of survival and renewal.

And then they are gone, like a flock in synchrony, one makes a motion and soon the others take off in fanciful flight, gathering the strewn, packing the remnants. Then, kisses and hugs. Car doors and silence.

I turn to survey the disarray, begin the long work of cleanup.

Weary at last, I return to my perch on the porch. The Canada geese return to their steady, rhythmic honking… or were they at it perhaps all the while?  The pileated laughs above, a male flashes his cardinal red colors below, squirrels scurry and chase. Closing the concerto, as it began. I sit and await the closing refrains, yearning for mother owl’s song. The grays darken to charcoal, soon will be black, the day’s celebration softening slowly but surely into the comfort of night.

Another day in paradise.

wait

DSCF0023 (3)The lake has drawn down by this time to a small pool, stranded from the stream that now carves its way through the silt and muck. My friend informed me with much delight that she had spotted a dozen or so small turtles in that murky, algae laden pool, their heads poking out of the water, so I wandered that way late this afternoon to see if I might also spot them.

There is something, of course, about spring itself that delights. Each day now seems to bring something to life that wasn’t just yesterday. A blossom, a bird, a bud. An egg sack erupting with caterpillars, gelatinous mounds of fertile  frog eggs. Greenness itself pushing up through the soil, life poking its head through the water.

It has been six weeks since I began this practice. Half a season has passed! When I began the earth was buried in snow, a white unfolded blossom. This practice of paying attention each day and recording what I have seen has helped me to notice more keenly what takes place always, beneath my awareness, with or without my notice. Transformation is continually occurring. One day does not look like the next. Nor does one hour, one moment, one breath.

Sometimes I believe that nothing is changing, that I am stuck in this sameness, just waiting.  The word , wait,  conjures up images of no movement. However, for me, it also brings to mind remembrances of pregnancy. For so many months, day in and day out, especially in the beginning,  it can appear that nothing is happening,  even as the child in the womb, like the earth, is becoming new life. You can’t see it, hear it, touch it, feel it, it occurs in the dark. You must trust the mysterious processes of this earth body to make of the very air that it breathes and the the food that it eats, a child. Both beneath and outside of your conscious control, you can’t make the child grow faster, nor decide even how the child will be put together.

Impatience is not the same thing as waiting. Impatience implies frustration. And waiting is not the same thing as standing still, although stillness can help. Too often I distract myself from the miracle, unable to trust it or to stay with its constant truth, simply because I can’t see it. That is not waiting, either, for I think that waiting, though it doesn’t have to ‘do’ anything, trusts deeply that all is well.

Tomorrow, the head may emerge like the crown of a child, and if I am lucky, awake and  still watching, I’ll catch a glimpse before it dives back beneath the surface of my awareness again. That glimpse can be enough to fill me with delight, and with the assurance that this constant rebirthing/remaking/becoming is once again taking place within me…even if the stream of life seems to be passing me by in this silt laden, stagnant pool.

 

 

remember

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There’s something about these words-of -the-day that I have both loved and hated…. the days when I wake with a song and the word given is ‘grief’, for instance, or the feeling of ‘ugh, not again’ when a word is repeated. And yet, each word somehow inhabits my being, not just for the day it is given, but dwells within me on some level always. Perhaps it is true, that human life is word made flesh. We are so richly textured and fluid as one word is knit and flows into the next.

And so today’s word, Remember, on the heels of yesterday’s grief, found me, even before I knew it was the word-of-the-day, in the attic searching out boxes and boxes of journals for a rudimentary memoir I’d penned twelve years ago. Compelling and raw, I sunk into the sea of memories it held, not merely the memories recorded there, but the memory of where I was when I wrote it, having just come out of that terrible darkness. Beginning with Chapter one, I felt a great tenderness towards the one who recorded those vulnerable words.

Memories are fluid too, it seems. I heard a neuropsychiatrist speak last summer on the current understanding of how the brain processes information and stores memories. I recall him explaining that we actually change a memory when we take it out and look at it some time later in life. It is (re)colored by our current emotions and experiences. I am less consumed by shame than I was then. Words, hidden away, that felt too unsafe to share then, from some emotional distance are words I can now simply love, relieving her of her shame.

Then there were snippets of poems in several notebooks that I have no recollection of penning at all. Like this one…

'with hushed whispers in the hallways of her mind
and sideways glances in the classrooms
she discovers that they know.
Somehow they saw
the teacher's hand upon her breast
or sliding up beneath her skirt
in darkened auditoriums
Somehow they heard
although she held her breath
in library's silence, as he
unshelved and exposed her
Somehow they heard
in the vacuum of her soul, the infant cry
beneath the sheet of death
drawn up o'er her form
like wedding dresses white
 to conceal shame.
and yet the infants die
Though she pulls her sleeves down 
taut about her wrists, somehow they see
the depravity of her despair
pain received for love
punishment for mercy
and yet the infants die
beneath their whispers cruel
and yet the infants die
behind averted eyes
and yet the infants die

 

How does a person forget that? Do we tuck things away when we are finished with them, so that we don’t have to keep revisiting them over and over again? Do we also push them into the recesses when to remember them is too difficult?

My favorite understanding of the word ‘remember’ is to break it open, to re-member. I think of all of these parts of my life, all of these parts of me, disjointed and unfamiliar with each other. What gifts I can give to the one who wrote those words by greeting them with the tender compassion of an older and wiser self, less-fearful of judgment, more embracing of humanity, more understanding of the ways we respond to our pain. I can let her come into the fold, be a full-fledged member of vicki, of emma (remember the dream of wholeness that gave me the name of this blog?).

I am sometimes wise. I am foolish. I am arrogant and afraid. I am compassionate and tender. I cover my fears with unattractive defenses. I am beautiful and brave and strong. I am full of grief and sorrow, shame and despair. I am hopeful, broken, empty, joyful, free. Each word of humanity’s song is my own. Each member allowed to belong.

 

grief

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For twenty years, these documents were tucked away in a fireproof box at the back of the closet. I knew they were there, of course, as I knew where the tiny bodies, whose secrets they told, were laid, but I never revisited either. Too intense, I buried my emotions alongside them and covered them both with soil.

Survived.

Last weekend, I viewed the film, Room, and there was this moment when the young mother, who has been held captive for seven years, and survived only because of her love for her child, is suddenly freed. Able to cope with years of harsh deprivation, somehow she falls apart when her life is returned to ‘normalcy’ and safety. There is a scene where she looks back on her high school yearbooks (for me it was an old prom dress) at the life she once had…and by extrapolation, the future life she may have had had it not been interrupted so violently, in an instant.  Unable to cope with the grief of what has been lost, and the unreality of the world she has reentered, she attempts suicide.

That scene was like a missing piece of self-compassion for me. I have long judged myself harshly, considered myself weak, for falling so utterly apart in the wake of the dismantling of my first marriage. I mean persons get divorced all the time, and it is a deeply painful, shame and grief-filled time for most, but most don’t come so completely undone as I did. I recall hearing the diagnosis of PTSD and thinking, “who me?”

I also recall standing in the shower shortly after he walked out, that soil washing away. Images flashing before my eyes that I hadn’t remembered for twenty years, I sobbed, ‘Why? Why me?’. So many memories… a predatory teacher’s hand reaching for my 12 year old breast,the numbing sounds of a vacuum aspirator, the image of my mother’s back turning away from, abandoning me, long slender fingers of yet another tiny stillborn baby girl, a doctor swearing under his breath below my hips, propped on a bedpan, as he struggled to loosen the placenta from its hold,  young residents peering with curiosity at my anomaly.

Years of suspicion-possession-coldness-diminishment-control-rejection-shame accepted as love, the burn of the ropes that bound.

Bargains with God, abandonment by God, shamed before God, punished by God, anger at God, betrayal by God, darkness of God.

Fierce love for my children. Fierce determination. Fierce proving God wrong. Fierce striving to make myself worthy.

Survived.

When grief comes rushing at once like that, it can be almost impossible to stay afloat in the torrent that bursts through that dam. It is too much for a body to bear and I almost didn’t

survive.

But I did. I crawled to the sanctuary of safe harbors, sometimes to be safe from myself. Other times I was carried there by angels when the pain carried me over the edge.

It’s been fifteen years now. The waters are calm. I have visited their graves, laid their spirits to rest, found a love that honors, enlarges, uplifts, found a God that does the same. But still there rises from time to time an urgent call from somewhere beneath that still surface, for 35 years ago I made a promise to come back for her one day and she is still buried in the rubble at the bottom of that sea.

 

 

 

Solitude

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An evening walk in fading light,

a weary traveler pulls aside

a drained and thirsty lake.

 

Miles from home, she’s lost

now on this winding road to

nowhere, looks like beauty

to her, but she cannot stay.

 

I find myself

helpless

to allay her loneliness

though I sit and listen

I do not know the way

for I have come myself

for bearing and understanding.

 

When all is said, we are alone,

the road long into night,

I trod more slowly than before.

In darkness, windows beckon

their tranquil lamplight soothes

as I recall the way to turn

inside

for solace in the angst

we find our way to peace.

 

 

 

 

 

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