Doing My Homework

After this long winter of isolation, when my church offered a class on spiritual exploration, I jumped at the chance. Who knew there would be actual…homework? I haven’t done homework in years. The first assignment was to write a spiritual autobiography documenting our personal religious journey. These we would share together in class. Yikes!

Writing an autobiography of any kind would have been easier if I had taken notes along the way.  As it is, my memories are written on post-it notes, scraps of yellowing paper, and captured in photographs without location or dates…all stuffed in boxes, tucked between the pages of books, left unattended in old suitcases, and scattered across the top of my desk.  To truly make sense of all this ephemera would take much longer than the time allotted for the assigned task, but perhaps I can begin by sorting the debris into stacks and piles.

Gathering the bits together, I realized that I have forgotten a great deal of my life. That realization caused me to feel embarrassed and somehow lacking until I recalled the words of the Irish priest and poet John O’Donahue. “I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”  I think that is pretty much how I’ve lived my life… simply being carried along by the current, paddling hard through the rapids and around the rocks, enjoying the sun on my face when drifting on the quiet water, and approaching each new bend with curiosity, wonder, and courage…as well as a wee bit of trepidation and hesitancy. I haven’t spent a great deal of time looking back at the water that carried me.

The Chippewa River…Sylvan’s Solace
October 2020

Creating a lifeline and guessing where I am on it reminded me of when a new woman was invited to join Book Babes, my Vermont book club. She said that she’d like to ask three questions to get to know us.   All of them were unusual for getting acquainted questions, and I’ve forgotten two of them, but the third stuck with me.  She asked each of us in turn how long we wanted to live.  I replied that I wanted to live until I died.  My answer was in no way intended to be cheeky or flip. As I age, I realize that It’s not the length of life that concerns me. It is the loss of meaning, purpose, and joy that worries me. On the other hand, my definition of meaning, purpose, and joy are also constantly evolving.  I have had the example of women who lived…and are living…wonderful active lives well into their nineties, but I have also seen my grandmother disappear into Alzheimer’s. Yes, I definitely want quality…but then… quantity would be nice too.

There are a finite number of marbles in my jar…just so many big trips and grand adventures left.  I’m angry that the pandemic has robbed me of some of those cat-eyes and clearies…places I wanted to go and plans I wanted to make…but in some sense, living through a pandemic is a pretty big shooter as marbles go…a once in a century adventure… just not one I would have chosen.

An Unknown Number of Marbles in The Jar
Photo credit: Pixabay

 “I was going to decide whether I had a marble-worthy day based on how I felt, not based on what I did…I want to approach my time moving forward with an infinite mindset. I want to “feel” supported, loved, seen and I want to depend on my circle of truth-tellers who I’ve chosen to be there for me.”

Maria Shriver, Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper

Even with so many pieces of my spiritual journey misplaced, lost, and forgotten, I am finding the task of condensing it to a manageable size without resorting to an “and then” story very challenging.  Deciding what…or how much…I want to share is also part of the process. Then, too, as I continue my sorting, I discover with very few exceptions…people, places, and events don’t fit easily into a single category.  Most of them overlap, very few stand-alone.  The same people and places keep appearing, transforming, and reappearing. So, I continue to sort and re-sort then sort again.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

African Proverb

As I modify and alter the collection of souvenirs and guidebooks from my spiritual journey, a pattern emerges.  Throughout my entire life, I have been supported, shaped, and influenced by my relationship with people…my parents, my siblings, my husband, my children, my teachers, my long-time friends, my new friends, and even momentary connections with strangers. Together we have shared deep discussions about life, spirituality, and ethics, as well as the going rate for the tooth fairy, which way the toilet paper should hang, and jokes on the level of a Fifth-grade boy.  We have held each other in times of loss and pain and spent hours just sitting side by side in silence.

These people have joined me in my travels too. Together we have stood in awe in the mountains of Sedona, been lost inside St Basil’s Cathedral, slept in a wee cottage on the shore of Loch Fyne, watched a storm brew in the Atlantic Ocean, emerged from a 5000-year-old burial mound at Newgrange, and enjoyed countless hours in a darkened theatre in Ontario. Each experience has revealed another facet of what I recognize as sacred and divine. Through my relationships, I have understood, found meaning, and been blessed by these revelations.

“A good friend listens to your adventures. Your best friend makes them with you.”

Unknown

As I stuff all the bits and pieces back in the containers from which I gathered them, it occurs to me that perhaps we write an autobiography not so much for others as for ourselves. Through writing, we give voice to what we already know. I may leave out the twists and turns in the telling, but my path has led me to the perfect destination…the realization that human connection and traveling are spiritual practices. Talking with friends, being with my sisters, planning short jaunts and long trips are no longer inessential distractions or rewards. They are necessary, important, and sacred—what a delightful surprise.

“Do you know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are? Anchor chains, airplane motors, and train whistles.”

George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life

Of course, during this pandemic, those were the most difficult things for us to do…travel and be with others, yet we are resilient. We have discovered ways to connect and share our lives without being physically close. We read maps, make plans, and create itineraries for future adventures even as we explore new ways to make meaning and find purpose from our living rooms, dens, and kitchens. And so, the journey continues, and isn’t that an adventure in itself?

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Rumi

I completed my assignment with time to spare. It was then I remembered the second part…the additional task…write your own epitaph. If one day you stumble across a slab of granite with this one carved into it…you’ll know that it’s me.

“I told you I was sick”

Cemetery on Elm Street, Montpelier, VT

Shaking My Own Keys

What a pleasant surprise to discover that I am still learning and discovering things about myself even at my age. My latest revelation is that even if there is no one else available…which, let’s face it, for the last year, there hasn’t been…I will shake the shiny keys and amuse and distract myself. Let me give you a case in point.

Just What I Need…A Shiny Set of Keys
“delightful click-clack sound for auditory and visual stimulation” Fisher-Price
Image: Pexels

I haven’t been lying exactly, but lately, I have found that sometimes my answers are less than truthful. I suppose in the strictest definition, being less than truthful might technically be considered lying, but I prefer to think of it as responding with a fanciful answer.  I simply imagine reality as I wish it to be rather than it is. 

These days, I seldom give a completely truthful answer to the question, How are you?  I usually answer with a short, positive statement.  “I’m fine.”  “Pretty good.”  “Can’t complain.” “Couldn’t be better.” I found an online site teaching English as a second language that suggests five responses to that question…all in the affirmative.  Negative responses are in the advanced lesson. I answer that I’m fine because that’s how I’d like to be…how I’m hoping to be…how I will be…but that’s not always truthfully how I am.

“The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

When I’m asked that question, I want to say things…shout things… like… I’m really tired of this pandemic; I’m getting sick of Zoom and FaceTime; I’m weary of being alone, yet even with the vaccine, I’m still hesitant to be with others; I don’t think I even remember how to be with people; I’ve forgotten who I once was, and all these people who still refuse to wear a mask or social distance are making me crazy angry. I’m pretty certain that if I gave voice to any one of those responses that I’m holding back…assuming the person inquiring had time to recover from my rant…I’d be joined by a cacophony of other voices shouting, “Me too, me too.” 

But…I don’t.

Instead, I smile and say, “I’m fine.” “I’m doing well.” “Everything is all right.”

My Love-Hate Relationship With Zoom
Image: Pexels

In our society, the phrase, “How are you?” has been reduced to a perfunctory greeting…a simple formality…a nicety. Does anyone actually expect or even want a completely truthful reply?

“Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”

Swedish Proverb

Sharing our joy is easy…social media is filled with photos, videos, and posts expressing joy and happiness…but for many, it seems…sharing sorrow is more difficult. Problems, heartache, fears, and worry are universal. No one can escape sadness. Bearing such burdens would be easier, of course, if we reached out to each other. Instead, we stoically lift them to our shoulders and trudge on. We cover our fears, our uncertainties, our sorrows with a mask of “all-rightness.”

I suppose it is the risk of revealing our soft, tender places that prompts us to give the brief expected response. “I’m fine. How are you?” Exposing our vulnerability…sharing our pain demands a certain amount of trust and confidence. We enjoy the game, but we hold our cards close to the breast.

Years ago, when I apologized for a slight I thought I had committed, my friend, Carol, replied, “You know, you worry about the wrong things.” I know for her it was a casual, off-hand remark, but for me… an accomplished worrier…it became a challenge.

I worried about what I was worried about, and then I worried about what I should be worrying about. I suppose giving a less than sincere answer to a question as innocuous and commonplace as, “How are you?” is one of those things that come under the heading of…wrong things to worry about. Still, I must admit, I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering such things.

“One thing I can suggest is that when you start to go to a dark place, for you to consciously redirect your thoughts. Mind over mind. Make yourself think of something completely different. An image of something joyful or silly, and focus on that.” 

Sue Halpern, Summer Hours at the Robbers Library

Some people do jigsaw puzzles; some people run for miles; some people read stacks of books; apparently, I spend hours pondering the correct response to a cursory question.

Some People Make Jigsaw Puzzles
Photo Credit: Pexels

Recently, I discovered a long-forgotten, thirty-five-year-old scrap of paper that I had tucked inside a book. I had written several paragraphs comparing the benefits of showering vs. soaking in the tub. At the bottom of the page, I included a message to my future self explaining that I had spent time writing this wee document to take my mind off the troubling situation that was occupying my life at the time.

While unbidden or sudden distractions cause us to take our minds off the goal or our eyes off the road, they also invade our thoughts and lead us down paths we would rather avoid. That constant chattering monkey-mind that clutters our meditations or won’t allow us to fall asleep can be really annoying. Paradoxically, it seems to me that seeking diversions can be quite beneficial, calming, and ultimately helping us to focus. When we’re thinking about edge pieces of a 1000 piece puzzle, we have no time to think about when our children will be vaccinated, when the Canadian border will open, or if going to the grocery store in the afternoon is a wise idea.

We have filled an entire year with diversions of one sort or another. The list is long and varied. We have exhausted all our usual ways of filling time on a rainy day, and we are longing to get back outside and into the sunshine of our lives once again. We’ve helped each other through this challenging time, and we’ve discovered interesting solitary pursuits. I’ve never run a marathon, but I have the experience of long car-trips. When you have driven all night, those last couple of hours are the most difficult. That’s when you turn up the radio, roll down the windows and sing like a Rock Star.

Roll Down the Windows and Sing Like a Rock Star
Photo credit: Pexels

We’re almost there. We can make it. I’ve learned that even when there isn’t anyone else around…I can always shake those shiny keys and distract myself just a wee bit longer.

Masking Up

“Wear a mask.”

Dr. Anothny Fauci, CNN Interview, May 21, 2020
Masks Now Have Their Own Container

Almost exactly…one of my favorite oxymorons…one year ago, the entire world went into isolation. Suddenly, we could no longer visit friends and family, gather in church on Sunday morning, or cross the border into Canada. “I have a feeling we won’t be doing this for a while,” said my sister, Kelly, as we enjoyed her fabulous Friday night pizza together. That night we had no way of knowing just how prophetic her words would be. Now, just one day shy of an entire trip around the sun, we will complete the two-week wait after our second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. We’re still anticipating more guidelines from the CDC regarding what we can and cannot do after we’re vaccinated, but we know that sharing pizza and a glass of wine will be in our future once again soon.

The First Mask…Bandana and Rubber Bands
April 3rd, 2020

” He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock, That shadows a dry thirsty land; He hideth my life in the depth of His love, And covers me there with His Hand, And covers me there with His hand.”

William James Kirpatrick and Fanny Crosby, He Hideth My Soul

I grew up in a small town in central, rural Michigan. Our neighborhood, full of kids, exemplified the post World War II Baby Boom. On warm summer evenings, it was common for a large group to join in games of Hide and Go Seek or one of its variations.  The coming darkness and the element of suspense that it provided enhanced every game. The street light on the corner of our yard was often home base.  The person who was “It” would cover their eyes and count.  5, 10, 15, 20——85, 90, 95, 100 Apple, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie. Who’s not ready holler I…Ready or not.  Here I come.  The rest of us would seek a safe place to hide…to take shelter…all the time wondering if the place we had chosen was good enough.  Could we be seen?  Would we be found out?  Could we tag home without being caught?  I don’t know when I discovered it, but I found that there was the perfect hiding spot behind the shrubs beneath my parents’ bedroom window. The way into this hidey-hole was tricky, but once there it was almost impossible to be seen.  I remember the smell of the piney branches and the damp earth as I waited for the seeker to move far enough away from the base to allow me to slip out, run, and tag myself free.  I used the protection of my sanctuary over and over with great success.  One evening however one of the younger kids…they were almost all younger kids…was in a panic. 55-60-65-70. She didn’t know where to hide.  The seeker would soon turn and discover her.  I watched…but made my decision within seconds. How could I have enjoyed the safety I’d found if I’d watched her be tagged out?  I leaned out from behind the bushes far enough to be seen as I beckoned her towards my hiding place.  Not in a cleft in the rock like the old hymn, but certainly a cleft in the shrubs. There was room for both of us…85-90-95-100.…we were both safe.  We were both free.

Tie-on Style
Thanks Bettie

“I don’t want to live in the kind of world where we don’t look out for each other. Not just the people that are close to us, but anybody who needs a helping hand. I can’t change the way anybody else thinks, or what they choose to do, but I can do my bit.” 

Charles de lint

Now that I am almost fully vaccinated the chances of me contracting the virus are small and the chances of getting serious illness and dying are almost nil, but the jury is still out regarding whether or not I can spread the disease to others. I have found my place of refuge, but many family members and friends remain unprotected. Strangers on the street or pushing carts down the aisles of the grocery store are still desperately seeking the safety that I have found. So until they can tag home without being caught I continue to wear my mask, wash, sanitize and remain socially distant.

On the Dunes at Lake Michigan
August 2020

“If you’re not making someone else’s life better, then you’re wasting your time. Your life will become better by making other lives better.” 

Will Smith

Yes, I do what I can to keep others safe, but I didn’t reach this safe harbor, where I’m presently mooring my boat, completely on my own. This past year there were unnamed others taking risks…leaning out…to keep me safe. When the threat was high, others collected and delivered groceries right to my door. The mail carrier, those who provide my WiFi service, the truck drivers for UPS and Fed Ex, the magicians that keep Zoom working, and the myriad strangers who masked-up have all made it possible for me to remain behind the lines in this battle.

Standing Up for LGBTQ and Fighting Disease…a Multitasking Mask
Thanks Jen.

For me, continuing to wear the mask is simply an act of gratitude, compassion, and reciprocity. Yet, I am often overcome with an almost overwhelming feeling of connection and grace when I see others wearing masks too. It is something we do for each other. It is truly a physical manifestation of love, hope, and kindness.

“Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”

Scott Adams

On the other hand, we’re all sick of wearing these darn things and are really ready to go maskless again, even as we acknowledge that the game’s not quite over and that this isn’t the time to give them the ol’ heave-ho. 75, 80, 85, 90. After all, no one wants to be tagged out in the final minutes of the game.

A couple years ago, on a trip with my friend, Anne, we found ourselves in a small Alsatian village often frequented by tourists…which of course we were at the time. At my suggestion, we ventured into a Kathe Wohlfahrt shop. I wanted a closer look at some of the Erzgebirge folk art I had seen in the window. Inside it was jam-packed with Christmas decorations and all things German. I suppose we could have turned around and walked back out after the first quick look from the door, but once inside it was too late. We soon discovered that the store had been set up in such a way that forced patrons to wend their way past all the displays on a winding path through the entire store. Bad choice on my part. Sorry, Anne. We could only move as fast as the people in front of us and the option of a retreat was negated by the people behind us. There was no other way out, but to go through the entire store.

“Lord, how long? As long as it takes to get me there. Going down to go up, Approaching heaven via hell, No other way. The only way out is through.”

Kathy Fuson Hurt, The Way Out

Until all of us have received the gift of hope in a syringe, the only real way out of this pandemic is to keep moving forward, moving through what lies ahead, providing safety for those still waiting, and avoiding “it” until we can all tag home together.

So…In case you were wondering, I’m still masking up.