Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Need Help?"

(I found this draft for a blog post of mine while I was cleaning out some files. Enjoy!)

“Need help?”  Responding to that little voice, I turn around and see Amy sitting in the snow, her blue snowsuit keeping her 2 ½ year old body warm, her skies splayed out to one side.  She is calmly looking up at me, knowing I will momentarily reach down and pull her to her feet.  

I love this little girl.  Amy is a child who will wiggle her way deep into your heart faster than it takes her to choose a book and wiggle into your lap.  She is bright, articulate, affectionate, and adventurous. She is a delight.  Since she was born, her parents take her on “adventures”- swimming adventures, snow adventures, library adventures, among many others.  Her first hiking adventure came at six weeks old and she has been on the trails ever since.

This winter, Amy’s mom Melody and I have taken her on several snow adventures complete with little skis that strap onto Amy’s feet.  Unlike nearly every other child I know, Amy is content to sit in her car seat and look at books for hours of driving, or just look out the windows.  Arriving at the snow, Melody and I strap snowshoes to our feet and the skis to hers.  When we first started teaching Amy to ski, Melody and I each held one of her mittened hands and pulled her along, sliding her along in the snow.  We then taught her how to “poke-poke” with her poles for balance but as she has gained experience, she now prefers not to use them and can even slide downhill a little bit.  For rests, Melody pulls behind her a little sled but Amy usually prefers not to use it, she would rather be on her skis or walking in the snow, taking “deep snow breaks” periodically.  We ask her if she wants help once in a while and she replies, “Ski by myself?”  She is not asking for permission.  She ends her sentence in an upward inflection but we know she is quite determined in her decision.

Periodically, Amy falls and we hear her say, “Need help?”  Leaning over or walking back, one of us cheerfully takes a hold of her snowsuit and pulls her back to her feet.  I have learned so much from these two words of Amy’s and our response to them, that it has made me see myself and God in a new way.  When Amy falls, we never hear her say, “Idiot?  I keep falling?  I’m a bad skier!”  Nor do we ever tell her, “Amy!  Why can you not stay on your feet!  You are a terrible skier!  I am not picking you up again!  You are on your own!”  Once in a while, we do encourage her to try getting up on her own and she is learning she can do this at times but we never reject her or refuse to be there when she needs us.  We delight in her learning process, we delight in her joy.  Cameras in hand, we tell her, “Good job!” CLICK CLICK.  Falling doesn’t bother us.  Melody and I don’t see it as a bad thing, it’s simply a part of learning how to ski.    

Monday, October 21, 2013

Just Say No to the Phone

A few weeks ago there was a needle that broke the camel's back. I had been thinking I was becoming  addicted to checking Facebook or looking to see if anyone had sent me a text message, but one final phone call induced me to leave my phone off and in my desk drawer. I have been far happier since.

Have you been sitting at a table with friends who all have their phones out sending texts or checking their Facebook accounts? You might have even been one of those people yourself. I have been in that position many times and I can tell you from personal experience, it makes me feel unimportant to them, that whatever random think being posted on Facebook or whatever texts sent, are more important to them than the person sitting right across the table. We spend more time looking at screens than at faces. It feels like we have traded gold, our relationships with each other, for a cheap imitation, silly updates we can always check later instead of invested time with another soul.

For myself, I realized I live on an edge, subconsciously wondering if anyone sent me something on Facebook or  wondering when the phone is going to ring. I also realized how much time I waste on Facebook checking updates when I could be doing something far healthier for myself such as writing, reading or designing a book, or taking care of household chores. I also realized this is not the kind of life I want.

Ever since I started leaving my phone at home a lot of the time, I have noticed how many people walk around looking at their phones or who neglect to turn their phones off during a meeting. We let technology overtake our waking lives before stopping to think if we wanted it to.

Ask yourself, are there really that many phone calls coming through you would need to take right away? If you are truly honest with yourself, the answer would be no. Think back to what we did before cell phones, before Facebook, before text messages. We called our friends to see how they were, we wrote out our maps, we planned more time together, we even wrote letters. When is the last time you wrote someone a letter and mailed it? When is the last time you went out with someone and turned your phone completely off or better yet, left it at home? We miss so much when our attention is divided. What is going on around you is more important than what is possibly going on online.

Leaving my phone at home in my desk is still a struggle sometimes and sometimes I do need to take my phone with me. But I'm working on not picking it up so often, remembering to pay attention to the world immediately around me, and not being so attuned to Facebook. I'm learning to just say no to the phone.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Nowhere Else to Be

My grandmother is dying. Normally, something so personal to my family would not come up in my public writing but I feel the need to write about it today. This afternoon, I sat by my grandmother's chair holding her hand. I didn't understand a word she said midst her groans and I don't even know if she knew who I was but she gripped my hand like a vice. She looked at me through half closed eyes and I told her she looked good in yellow. Did she know I was the same person as the baby pictured above her bed? To me, it didn't matter but it did matter to me and perhaps to her that someone, whoever she thought they were, cared enough to sit beside her and give her affectionate touch. And though she couldn't ask for it, I thought it would be alright to send her soul the feeling of peace and of being loved. It is all I can really give to her - my presence and a sense of peace as she lives how many ever days she has left on earth.

I got "the call," you know the kind, about seven months ago last spring when my mom told me my grandmother had suffered a stroke. I visited her at the hospital and then a nursing center. She tried being at home with care but that didn't work out, so my mom and older sister found a great assisted living home for her close to my mom. Since she started there, we have had to keep moving her to higher and higher levels of care to where she is now in the memory unit. Over the summer, we went through her whole house and sold what we could via garage sales and advertisements. The rest is spread out between my mom, older sister, and I.

Eight months ago my grandmother was living independently in her own home and still driving. Now she is in a memory unit unable to really speak or do anything for herself. It still blows me away. Two visits ago, I showed her the video of me on the flying trapeze in Seattle. She could still carry on a bit of a conversation at that point and she asked  me, "What was it like?" I'd never heard my grandmother ask that question before and for a moment, we got to connect on a genuine level, a level we hadn't connected on since I was a little girl, if ever. It felt like a break in the clouds of blue sky on an extraordinarily rainy day. Such a little thing, a short conversation, but to me, it's a memory of gold I will always treasure.

I know that next call, the final one, can come any day now. We suspect her fast decline is due to a series of small strokes and you just never know with those. This might sound unfeeling, but I'm thankful her decline has been fast. I used to work in nursing homes and saw first-hand how lingering in this state for a long period of time can truly be worse than death. It is not the kind of death I would wish for myself and I do not wish it for her. Death can be a release. Still, I cry to think of it.

Up to the age of thirty-two, there hadn't been a lot of death in my immediate family. I remember my mom and grandparents going through my great-grandfather's house when I was a child though I don't remember him and I have a scrap of memory of my great-grandmother for whom I'm named, but as a child, the only other close death was my great-uncle, my grandmother's brother. He died when I was a teenager. At nineteen, I lost my most beloved cat, Emily. She came into our backyard when I was four and I was instantly in love. We were connected in a deep way from that point on and I still believe she was an "angel" sent by God to be with me. It wasn't until I was twenty-four I lost a grandparent. My grandpa, the one I was closest to, the one I look so much like, died at the Veteran's home. Going through all the things at his and my grandmother's house this last summer brought much of that grief back to the surface for me. Then, just over a year and a half ago when I was thirty-two, my step-grandfather died. Nine months later, my paternal grandfather died. Five months after that, my great-great-aunt died (I'm friends with her son, my cousin). Aunt Grace's funeral was the last time I saw my grandmother outside of a hospital or nursing home. Weeks after that, she had her stroke. Two months after that, my step-mother's mom died. During this time, I've also experienced loss in other ways: loss of relationships, loss of trust, loss of old beliefs and ways of thinking. In short, it's been a lot of loss in a short amount of time.

I have a question I answer every month: "What image, piece of music, word or two, or color, describes what life has been like lately?" This month, I think my answer is going to be sitting in front of a gravestone. I've been digging a lot of graves lately and burying a lot of what was once precious to me. It's the season of loss. I'm letting go, pulling roots out of the ground, standing beside a funeral pyre watching the flames rise to the stars, knowing that the empty feeling inside is exactly what it's supposed to be. In a strange way, those strands of loss around my soul are even comforting. Like a good cry, such loss empties you out and you are left by the riverbank with the rain falling on your face and nowhere else to be.

Post Script: My Grandma died this morning, September 24, 2013, two and a half days after this post was originally published. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Gift

I reacted without even thinking – jumping up and down, squealing with delight, amazed someone had gone out of their way to do something that generous for me, that they had really heard me and did something about it.

It all started two days before at a dinner party where several friends and I were talking while we cooked. I don't remember the context of the conversation, but I confessed to them something I had never told anyone before: that for years I had wanted a basketball of my own so I could shoot hoops. I loved trying to make the basket and letting my mind just think and ponder over whatever was going on in my life. It was my way to meditate but I only got to do it when I was on my own somewhere with a basketball and something to put it through – a rare occurrence.

I had forgotten about the conversation by the time I walked into our aerial class the following Monday night when my friend suddenly pointed at me and shouted, "You!" I wondered what I had done or what she wanted me for when my eyes followed her pointed finger now directed at the desk where sat a brand new basketball still in its box. My reaction was immediate and involved my whole body as I squealed and jumped around – enthusiasm personified. My wide grin lasted the entire class. She even lent me a sharpie so I could write my name on the ball, not that I'll let it far out of my sight when playing with it. I even took it in with me to proudly share with friends at a Mary Kay party after class. Even now, that grin has just not gone away.

Though I thanked my friend profusely for this wonderful gift, the best way to thank her was to actually take the ball out and use it. The basketball would still mean something to me if it sat at home, but that is not what the basketball was for. If I really wanted to appreciate her thoughtfulness, I needed to go out, play with it, and live my dream.

Thus the ball got "baptized" at a friend's house – I was so excited to put it through a hoop! I then looked around for a basketball court near my apartment and found one close by that's rarely busy. Tonight I headed there to really break it in. It was everything I've dreamed of! I shot hoops, made some baskets, ran after the ball, pondered, thought, enjoyed being outside, enjoyed the time alone just thinking and playing and being. It was bliss.

But what if I hadn't taken it outside to play with it? What if I had left it in my apartment and didn't use it? What if I decided that even though my friend gave me this gift, she had not actually meant for me to use it? That sounds ridiculous, I know, but isn't that what we do with some of the gifts God gives us? God gave us each a human life and we spend it being angry and afraid, fearful and timid, unforgiving and bull-headed. We don't take risks. We play it safe. God gave us each a body and instead of fully living and expressing ourselves in it, we detest our bodies, find all kinds of faults in them, park it on the couch and feed it crap. Is that the way to treat a gift? To not only neglect the gift but abuse it, ignore it, be afraid of it? We are meant to live the lives God gave us, to delight in our bodies! We are meant to take chances, leaps of faith, to challenge ourselves, and do things we never thought we could! We are meant to exercise and play, to respect our bodies, treasure them, and care for our bodies with love. Instead of sitting around, we need to get out and enjoy what God gives us! I think it breaks God's heart when we take the gifts he gives us, the ones he meant for us to enjoy, and we hide them away or ignore the gifts, doing anything but delighting in the joy she/he means for us to have.

There are also gifts in our own souls we don't fully understand; times when we discover things about ourselves that don't fit with our preconceived notions of the world, our beliefs, or our own sense of self. A gift or an ability, a characteristic or thought, rises to the surface into the light of day and our immediate reaction is to ignore it or run away from it, condemning this gift as a bad thing simply because it doesn't fit with the boxes we've known.

Is it possible we could step back for a moment away from those boxes of belief and theology, take in the view of the larger picture, remember we actually know only a tiny fraction of what is in this world, and take a risk with the Gift Giver? Can we acknowledge that just because a gift is beyond our comfort zone, that it could still be a gift given by God who is calling us to stretch and grow? Can God call us to let go of what we've known before so we can embrace a new thing and transform? If we truly believe God is greater than all created things, then we must also acknowledge we do not know or understand everything. We have to be willing to be taught even when that teaching might be unacceptable to what we and our friends have known before. Following God's voice, trusting his gift and the way he leads us on, we need to understand the gift of who we are is given for a reason, that the Creator does not make mistakes and that if this is who you are, you need to learn how to live out that gift in the most loving way possible.

Whatever your gift is, you need to learn to live it out. Whoever God has created you to be, dance it in love and joy! God does not make mistakes and if God created you that way, you are going to have a much easier time with yourself if you simply accept who you are and learn to flow with the gift instead of trying to squelch it down. These gifts of ourselves are meant to be enjoyed, played with, delighted in, and used. God did not give you that gift if he/she did not mean for you to live it out.

My basketball now has a special place in my living room where it constantly reminds me how much I love taking it out and using it. It is harder to remember to use the gifts inside myself, the ones God gave me, but I have learned they are a part of who I am and to be truly at peace with myself, I must accept them and learn to use these gifts as well in the most loving ways possible.

Being true to yourself and who God created you to be won't always make the people around you happy, sometimes quite the opposite. Even so, living out who you truly are will release you in ways you never thought possible. Once you get a taste of that freedom, that inner peace, staying inside the boxes no longer matters once you know what it's like outside of them where your soul has room to breathe and play and live. Then, you in turn become a gift God opens and gives to the world. Live the gift.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Tell Me Your Story

Tonight on NPR, there was a show on people being isolated. I loved a quote from it, "When hearts don't have a place to break, they become harder." The man's words brought to my mind a scene that happened last Tuesday at Playback. Dena had told a story about some of her kids not being willing to see her. We know Dena well, she has told many stories to us that have formed a larger story we treasure hearing. We know all the regular troupe members pretty well as we share with each other a lot of things most groups of friends never tell each other for years. It has formed us into a tight knit group. We are accustomed to tears. We share in our laughter.

After listening to Dena tell us her struggles, we played back her story. She cried. Crying turned to weeping, weeping turned to wailing, and an intimate moment even beyond our normal intimacy occurred. The six others of us walked over to Dena where she sat on the stool and wrapped our arms all around her. Held in the middle of our hug, Dena wept into our arms. From where I knelt in front of her, I could feel her tears falling on my skin. It was a real moment. A moment of genuine love and openness, of a naked soul unafraid to let us see her and the honor of getting that look at who she is.

We are rarely so honest with each other in our culture. We hide away our deepest thoughts and emotions in fear that those around us will not embrace us in our mess, in our pain, in our struggles. We are afraid of falling and finding there is no one there to catch us. We are afraid to find out what we ourselves fear, that we are indeed, in our truest selves, not worth knowing. And so we hide. People don't see who we truly are. We are even afraid to let ourselves see who we truly are. Our hearts don't have a place to break and we harden. But that night at Playback, I learned a different lesson in a very experiential, very physical way. When we take a risk, and share ourselves, wisely, with people who love us, they don't just see the mess. They don't dismiss us because we're in pain. They see the beautiful, the shining light, the immeasurable worth of our souls. They see us as we are - absolute love - and they move closer.

Holding Dena while she wept didn't repulse me one iota. Quite the opposite happened, I was deeply humbled to be entrusted with such an intimate moment with her soul and with the souls of our friends also surrounding us. The divine in me held the divine in her. And though we did not speak of God, it was a moment when we stood face to face with her, with him. Any time such raw love is freely given, we feel God's presence most keenly. We know we are standing on holy ground. It touches us, it wheels us around and shows us what real love is like. If I could give a gift to the world, I would give every person such a community where they feel so comfortable, that they can go in and share their real selves week after week. You don't have to have the story together or even understand it yourself. You just have to share it. The power of the story is beyond you. It touches you, moves through you and sets you free. The fact we deeply listen and honor each person's story is a huge part of that power. You feel heard. You feel that those deep places within you are in fact beautiful and worthy of being heard. Over time, I have learned that if I simply share something that's on my mind with someone I trust, that burden is lightened, even lifted. It normalizes me.

A large part of the power of pain is the fact we hide it away and are afraid of what it really looks like. If we pull it out, face it, bring it into the light, and share a hard or embarrassing thing with another person, we find it's not as awful as we thought it was. We might even be able to pick it up and start taking it apart to work through it. Seeing another looking at our pain and declaring it and us worth loving, we react as we would toward the warm sun, we turn our faces to the light and begin to agree, yes, perhaps we are loved and we begin to love ourselves.

Most of the time, it is hard to see God as we imagine God to be. But we are made of God. When we love on someone, God is there showing herself. When we hold someone in pain, God has wrapped them in his arms. When we deeply listen to someone else's story, God's ears are open. We can be that light, we are God's love. The experience in communing in that endless love gave me a glimpse of how much power really is in God's love and how much power there is in us. While we must let each person walk their own journey, we can each live as a light of love, a being of light reflecting back to them the light of who they are. We can encourage them to share their stories, we hold them with gentleness and grace, we look at them in divine love. We are the hands and feet of God and being so, we find this mystical force reflects back on ourselves, that the love we extended to the other came back and embraced us.

Thank you Dena and Salem Playback Theatre for giving me your blessing to post such an intimate moment between us. You are an amazing tribe. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

How Does This Come Out of You?

Though I cannot say for sure, I think what she was asking was how do all these deep questions, thoughts, and writing come out of someone she didn't know in that way. We danced and performed together in countless tap shows over the years but rarely got into such topics of conversation so I could easily dismiss this as a singular case if she was the only one to have asked such a question but she's not. I've had this question asked of me in many different ways over the years.

As we live our lives, we naturally grow and change and become different people as we explore new parts of ourselves. We don't always stop and look at the ways we are changing much less ask if this is the healthiest way to be. At our Quaker yearly meeting this year, I took a workshop on Teaching Adults. Part of our time together was spent looking at our teaching style. There were four types and while two of them described me in part, one being goal oriented and the other the dynamic leader, two others described me extraordinarily well. One used words such as playful, funny, enthusiastic, lively, creative, and engaging. The other was tender hearted, a comforter, accepting of all, sensitive, caring, and a good listener. They are both me – both parts of me that have been in my soul since before the day I was born. I was a character as a young child and very caring and sympathetic. But over the years as I grew up, the sensitive side overtook the playful side. I got hurt and it was painful. Then, as I went through a deeply transformative period in my mid-twenties (two books in at this point), that inner class clown was at last free to come out and throw a party. I learned to be funny. I learned the gift of play. I learned to enjoy things with the child-like innocence I believe we all need to have. I learned to laugh again with all of my soul. People liked it and I was overjoyed to find that beautiful part of me I had let go for so long. I let her have center stage and my writing became something I did at home.

For quite some time I have been happy this way. That is, until my friend asked her question and I realized there was a whole part of me most of my friends don't know very well as they have only known me for the last few years and they see the funny side first. Whereas I used to only tease and be funny after I became comfortable around someone, now it's the other way around. As most of my friends have only know me for a couple of years or less, they might only know that more sensitive side of me if they are particularly astute because it's not one I share quickly. It can take a long time. I fully realize this is ironic for a published author to confess – that people who know her face-to-face don't realize what is so publicly shared. But they don't. It's safer to share it in print and it is safer still to share such writing in a form that is time protected. You don't know when a poem was written that I've included in a book but you usually have a much better idea what someone is thinking in person or on a blog such as this. It is a far riskier way to share oneself and for the last few years, I usually haven't.

But now that funny side is getting me into trouble. Times when I say something just to be funny is taken seriously when they don't realize I'm only joking. Oops. I've realized I need to be far more careful in ways I let the class clown play. She needs the balance of the tender hearted woman I so fiercely protect. They have to learn to live together in tandem. They have to be integrated. The serious, quiet side I treasure so highly, the person I am when I'm home alone or talking with a close friend, needs to get out and provide some ballast to the class clown and that class clown needs to teach that sympathetic side how to laugh at herself.

There are multiple sides to every person and we all have private and public parts of ourselves. For example, I'm sure I'll always be more serious when I'm alone, but unless those parts are integrated, we are taking away the gift of who we truly are from those who need our genuine presence. My prayer for myself is that I can learn well how to integrate all the parts of myself so the only reason someone will ask, "How does this come out of you?" will be because I look younger than I really am and there is nothing I want to do about that.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The 2013 QUIP Report - Connecting Our Legacy to the Future

It was a pleasure to write the 2013 QUIP Report on our conference in April. We talked a great deal about our future as an organization and the current struggles in the publishing world. Thus, instead of writing a report outlining the conference, I talked about the themes, the heart of our words. I wrote an article I, myself, would be interested in reading. I hope you will be too.

As a group founded when the printing press was in full swing, and printed material was the communication medium of choice, Quakers have had a rich history of the written word. Whether through pamphlets, journals, or printed tracts, the spirit of Quaker faith has been fed by the word for generations. The forms may be changing, new voices emerging and our audience shifting, but the word is still precious in whatever form it takes. 

Quakers Uniting in Publications (QUIP) has been at the helm of this work among Friends for the past thirty years. Dedicated to writing, publishing, editing and distributing, we have a deep passion for providing a place where we can talk about God and ask hard questions. Whether in the form of printed books, journals, online articles, or discussions via social media, the Light shared one with another, is the same Divine light; each word is a step in the journey we are taking together. 

As we continue to take these steps, however, we are asking the question generation upon generation has asked before us: how do we take what is valuable from our past, share it in the present, and make sure it is in a form that generations after us can recreate into new words of their own? God spoke to our predecessors, God is speaking to us today, and we are quite sure God will be speaking in new ways to Friends we do not yet know. How do we share our discussions with God and each other, in a form people will be able to access today and tomorrow? 
Printing on paper is no longer the only way to share our thoughts – now there are numerous possibilities including e-books, blogs, and online discussions, and no doubt, options previously unknown to us will emerge in the future. Each tool opens up creative ways to share our stories. What can we learn about how we’ve published in the past that can guide us as we look for relevant ways to share our words in the present, and in the future? In addition, we are asking how can we ensure the ministry of the written word is supported – in whatever form it takes – so Friends called to this work can continue on.

The answers that once spoke to these questions are no longer as applicable. The culture continues to change as it always has, and we are helping each other find new ways of being publishers of the word. We feel a broader perspective is needed from a wider variety of Friends. As each person brings with them a bit of divine wisdom, we can accomplish far more together than we can apart. QUIP wants to reach out to musicians, artists, Friends who speak and work in radio, to bring them into the discussion. We wish to share our struggles, where we can improve, our joys and our concerns, with all publishers of Truth. By coming together, combining our experience, we will be able to come up with answers and ideas one group could not come up with on their own. We need to hear each other’s words first in order to spread them.

Each year’s QUIP conference is a chance to hear these words and to ask these questions. This year, by reviewing our history and our work in publishing, we rediscovered the value of our community as we supported and encouraged one other. We find great value in regularly meeting together: to educate; to converse about what is going on; to hear about new projects; and to make a difference by sharing our diversity and wide-ranging skills.

We understand these are not easy questions, but ones we need to ask and ones we need to keep seeking answers for, if we are going to continue providing a place where people can verbally explore their relationship with God, and learn how to love each other. By teaching each other new ways of sharing our Light, whether through e-books, Quaker Quest, academic online learning, or a fresh look at memoir, we learned new skills. By celebrating the legacy of over fifty years of Quaker Religious Thought, and listening to and asking questions of author Jennifer Kavanagh, we celebrated the footsteps of others, and learned from their insights. We asked what mediums are relevant today, how are people hearing the word in 2013? But more than that, we learned that relationships and relevance are key, and we agreed that meeting together face-to-face on a regular basis is vitally important. We love our conversations, hearing about what is going on, who is working on what, who needs support, and which projects are embracing the theological diversity of Quakers – a diversity we treasure.

Jennifer Kavanagh, quoting an article in The Friend, The Legacy of the Written Word, shared with us that “writing is an expression of ministry and a profound engagement of the Spirit”. It is a ministry in which we passionately believe. The written word speaks deeply into our lives – we know this personally as well as corporately – and we want to do whatever it takes to make sure this gift is passed on to future generations so they have the same foundation we were given to engage with the Spirit.

The next QUIP conference is at Woolman Hill Quaker Center in western Massachusetts, May 1-4, 2014. Our theme is The Tools of Communicating. To better familiarize ourselves in current ways of sharing our words, we will hold workshops on the tools and mechanics of the trade, such as social media, graphic design, layout, and e-publishing. We ask you to please join with us, share time together in discussion, and ask your questions. We want to hear your voice and hear the words you have to say. 

We would love for you to join our conversation at Quakerquip.org.