Tag Archives: lent

Butterfly, Emergent

8 May

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The sun is shining brightly in sharp lemon beams. Like too green an apple, the air has the covering of unripe spring. The last gasps of a winter that just won’t die flows over the streets of the Holy City, Charleston S.C. On my stroll out of the building they call “The Slave Market”, an African American boy approaches me. His four foot frame is covered in red, white, and blue polyester basketball jersey. He is so dark his eyes shine like stars as he looks up at me through long lashes.

“Would you like to buy a rose for my basketball team?” he asks me. “Four for twenty…three for fifteen? “

I don’t even think. An automatic response tumbles out like the well worn message on an answering machine.

“No,” I say “…I don’t have it.”

He places the rose woven of palm frond in my hand.

“Here, you can have it anyway.” He turns; his small body quickly disappears into the tourists on the street.

I stand for a moment.

I begin to process what just occurred. And the realization breaks over me, sending my stomach down into my knees.

Why is this child here on a school day?

Where is the chaperone that would supervise such a fundraiser?

Where are the other children with the same bundles of woven flowers and matching jerseys?

The shame from my initial judgment and naiveté surfaces as I remember a trip to Washington D.C. in January, where my companion gave a destitute man in the street money when he asked for change. I had reacted so coldly to that giving gesture.

I had turned to another friend with us and said, “That’s how they get you close and then take your wallet, you know.”

I felt so “cool” walking the street that day. As if I was the paragon of safe city navigation. And now, looking back at the person I was, I feel a deep regret.

That white blonde rose, edged in green…here on this Wednesday of Holy Week,  means more than the child knows. Later in the day, I came to learn that this is how homeless people make money in Charleston, from wealthy tourists who don’t even think about spending $800.00 for a pair of shoes they wear only when the aesthetic is right.

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I took that rose home with me and placed it on my grandfather’s grave Easter Sunday morning. Gifts of the heart are worth more than the world really can measure. Placing it there with a donut and coffee seemed right in that moment. For it was Grandaddy that connected me to my first memory of darkly pigmented people. Sitting there, a memory arose in me without much prompting, all the way back to Roanoke, Virginia in 1969.

Shining plate glass windows reflect the line of bright white fiberglass hulls in the parking lot. Each angled point bows out against the next and the next and the next in this black sea of tar and asphalt. My small pink plaid tennis shoes pop against the pavement in the overwhelming heat until I tug my grandfather’s trousers and reach both sweaty arms upward. Large cushiony hands lift me to ride through the July afternoon, like the swallowtails which ride the summer swells, decorating the hot humid drifts across the tar top. As we enter the showroom, moist cool air encircles us despite the panes of cobalt blue sky through which beams of bright sun arch across the high ceiling. Grandaddy puts me down and begins to walk among the boats, talking with a man in a dark olive suit and orange tie.

Under the boat to my right, there is a shadowy space where the curve of the stern slopes up toward the black pinwheels of the outboard motor. In that space sits a dark little boy. He looks like he’s made of ginger chocolate to me. His light blue collared polyester shirt shines the light where his face holds the dark. His hair is a soft curly cushion of chocolate all around his face. I skip. I slide into the space under the boat; my hot pink psychedelic shorts revealing my knees as I slide across the cool linoleum tile floor.

     “Hi!”, I say. “Whatcha playin?”

      “I’m in the ocean!” he says. “Here, you wanna play with dis starfish?”

I take the five-pointed image from him and offer my own in return.

     “Here…take this shovel!”I say. “Let’s make a sand castle!”

      “Ok.” he says “It’s gonna be BIG!” He laughs loudly while his arms shoot upward to show me how high.

We begin to pile the grains of our imagination, scoop upon scoop into a castle.

     “Here’s the drawbridge!” he shouts.

     “Here’s the moat!” I squeal.

We giggle and squeak. My new friend begins to make the sounds of ocean waves crashing.

      “Pshooo…Pshooo.” His arms orchestrate a tiny hurricane of wind and tide..“Look!” he says, “It’s all gone….the waves done took it away.”

       “Let’s dig a hole here,” I say. “We can go to China.”

As we work together, we name all the toys we’ve carried to the beach and all the animals we’ve seen, just like the ones on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I fall in love with my new brother. For he is sweet and smiling. His skin shines with the reflections from the linoleum floor. And his color reminds me of the icing on my Krispy Kreme chocolate covered donut Grandaddy buys me every Saturday morning, the palms of his hand the color of the coffee in Grandaddy’s cup. He is my chocolate boy.

 Our beach is a fine beach. One of dunes and waves, stars and fish. Our China is a wild place full of animals and sand. All the colors of a deep ocean  in my eyes. All the dark depths of the land in his.
Suddenly, I see two toned cordovan and cream shoes on my side of the boat, and two pairs of Bass Wejuns on two sets of chocolate legs, one set smooth, one set rough on my brother’s side.

I hear granddaddy call, “Come on Cyndi, Granny’s got supper waiting on us. Let’s go!”

My brother and I freeze.
Our eyes meet.
We don’t want to leave each other.
We don’t want to leave the shore of this new world.

I grab his wrist and we scramble out from under the boat to look up at my giant grandfather, his hands on his hips, his legs like long trunks of palm, his eyes a steely blue through horn spectacles.
Suddenly, I want my new brother to come home with me. To eat macaroni and cheese at Granny’s table, while white curtains with the little bobs of cotton hanging off the trim dance in the hot summer breeze. Then, I want us to play in the backyard, catching lighting bugs in jars, until the green yellow glow is only a pin point in his dark eye. We’ll race from the backyard to the porch while dogs bark and howl from the alley and echo down the block. In our bed of muslin sheets, I want to whisper stories about pirates and flying and sea journeys on a creaking ship where the crocodile ticks and the fairies laugh like tiny bells. I don’t want my ginger chocolate brother to go. His skin calls to me like some lost color in a butterflies’ wings I have never worn.
So, I’ll ask.

Doesn’t Granddaddy buy me what I want?
Doesn’t he provide all the most delightful things?
Isn’t he the source from whom all blessings flow?
“Grandaddy…” I plaintively call. “Will you buy me a chocolate brother?”

His eyes glance upward to the two dark faces directly behind my new brother and I. Grandaddy’s face pales, but the corners of his mouth turn a funny way up.

      “No. We need to go now shuga… you can’t. . .” he hesitates,  looking over our heads, “buy a brother. Turn him a loose.”

I let go of my chocolate brother’s wrist as my butterfly body is lifted skyward to perch on Grandaddy’s arm. And as we move toward the door, I turn back to see my brother and his people round the bright white hull of the boat above our castle the waves washed away. Their feet dragging gray blue shadows toward the opposite door.

In Mother’s House

27 Apr

As I push the door open, silence hits me. Fifteen minutes before six and there is no one inside Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston S.C, the Holy City. Before my Tuesday afternoon horse and carriage tour, I didn’t know the city’s nickname, but the synchronicity is undeniable. A smiling lady, her wide face the color of dark cocoa, rounds the corner. She is puzzled until I ask about the service. She tells me its at seven since it’s Maundy Thursday.

Over an hour away. But we have dinner reservations at 8:30.

“It will last about an hour, right?” I ask.

The lady chuckles a bit, “Well, that depends on where the spirit takes Brother Singleton. Ain’t no telling how long it might be.” She turns and moves back through the sanctuary doors, leaving us to the silence of the dim vestibule.

Should I. . .shouldn’t I?

Mom asks, “Well, what do you want to do now?”

We could easily go have cheese, crackers and wine and forget this attempt to go to one of the first all African churches of the south, one in which I am sure to encounter a more physical expression of the Divine…something vocal, something physical.  In this place will be “Jesus” up close and out loud.

“Let me take some photos while the light is good”, I tell her, but really I’m buying time to decide. I take pictures in the empty church while I contemplate. Mom’s brave faced acquiescence to attend this part of my pilgrimage still evokes my guilt every time I move past the rich red cushioned pew on which she perches.

This would be so much easier if I was alone. I’d just sit and wait. I wouldn’t have her schedule to contend with.

“Maybe we should find a place to be until the service? I’ll call and see if we can delay our reservations.” I sigh irritatingly while getting the number. Being in charge of myself all the time is one thing, being in charge of others all the time can wear on a soul. A quick phone call while descending the stone stairs takes care of one reservation, but not one which is building inside me.

Maybe I should just give this up. Mom really doesn’t want to go. I have enough to do to keep her calm. 

A slow increasingly uncomfortable resentment starts to build as we brave the stiff breeze for a few blocks. Mom’s displeasure at having her hair disturbed expresses in her drawn face and tight jaw. I wish I could put her in a limousine which would deliver her in pristine condition from one location to the next, so I don’t have to solve her ever present concern for hair, lipstick, crisp dry clothes, shoes made only to adorn the feet not to walk city blocks.

Ok, that’s it…we’ll just go find a bistro. I make a quick plan to go to an A.M.E.service for Easter Sunday morning at home, until I see a biracial couple, probably in their 50’s walking directly toward us down the sidewalk.

A woman’s deep voice speaks in my head.

What did you come here for? Why are you afraid?

I stop on the sidewalk. I turn to Mom, “See them Mom? There’s the sign. We have to go back. I’m sorry. I hope that’s okay.” She sees the couple and for the first time, I think she understands.

“Ok”, she says looking at the couple as they pass by. “At least we will be out of the wind. It’s whatever you want to do.” We turn and walk back.
Once again in the sanctuary, we sit in the rich red, amber, and dark mahogany expanse quietly waiting. I’m reminded of my visit to the Ann Spencer House last April and my unexplainable love for dark people. It feels more peaceful to be among them. Somehow I feel like I belong, like I can be more me. How can a butterfly remember wings of a color she never wore? How can there be this river of memory never lived?

Sitting in the church pew waiting for the service, I think about the fact that I have to keep going, following signs until I’m not heavy in my heart any longer.  I’m tired of pretending to enjoy all this freedom. I’m tired of the journey now.  I’m tired of trying to figure everything out. I just want it to be over. I want someone else to show me what to do, how to be. Someone who will take care . . .of me. And the safest most loving place is here, in the House named after the most loving Mother of all. At this moment, I don’t have to be a mother to anyone. Not my students, not my friends, not my own mother, not even me. At this moment I get to be the child.

People begin to file in, some in feathered hats and Sunday best. Some in humble attire, wearing their modesty as suit jacket and tie.  A tall white robed man approaches the pulpit and begins the service. Brother Wayne Singleton, the music minister, is filling in for the pastor.We begin by singing, and almost immediately a sensation of peacefulness spreads over me like a well worn quilt. Comfort and familiarity spills out into my consciousness. We move through the hymns, traditional ones I remember from my childhood, but this time they produce no anger, no angst…no interior guilt. Only joy. And the call which begins from the choir loft, the “Amen” and the “Yes, Jesus!” Don’t unnerve me. They don’t make me feel uncomfortable or odd. I understand them now, this shouting to the Divine. This joy that can’t stay quiet and still. A voice that breaks the rules of proper expression.

I try to avoid looking at my mother. I don’t want to see her rigidity, the acceptable religious participation rules have been transgressed I’m sure. Because if I do look, I will slip unwillingly into the pool of her judgment, and feel responsible for her emotions once more. I will lose my focus in trying to make it right for her. To ease my sense of having done the wrong thing, I try to imagine that I’m alone.

Brother Singleton begins his sermon, a message resting on Matthew 27:22.

Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Crucify Him!”

As Brother Singleton moves through the sermon, his focus deepens on the first part of the verse; he speaks of the ways we should answer the question: What shall I do with Jesus? My own understanding of the message blooms like the blossoming limbs lining the Charleston streets.

Then what shall I do with Love?

I become increasingly aware of my mother as he speaks; the microphone is too loud it seems for his charismatic words. She holds her ears; a slight scowl descends over her brow. I notice that my belongings are lying between us. What shall I do? I move my things to the floor. I take her hand, rub my thumb across its thinning skin and give it a squeeze. I smile.

Don’t’ reason! You can’t come to the answer in your head…in your reason like Pilate tried to. You can’t figure out Jesus in your head. You gotta come to Him in your heart.

As I hold my mother’s hand I think about my new commitment to allowing. To love what is, rather than love after my preferences have been met. To hold my heart open for the coming and going of people is still too scary. To be vulnerable is to invite more pain, but now I realize a closed heart is condemned to pain permanently. Real love can only come from a genuine place, a place only visible in an allowing state. Having the courage to possibly be hurt is the only way I will be able to experience a genuine love. I must love people for who they are and the love they uniquely manifest.

You are the only one who can answer the question. No one can help you. No one can go for you. No one can tell you what to do with Him. You can’t ask somebody else to bear your cross. You gotta decide for yourself one on one what you gonna do.

I begin to nod, as the “Amens” descend from the choir loft echoing to the pulpit. The path is a single one, ultimately. It just is. I can hate it all I want, but it doesn’t change that people will come and go. The challenge is to take joy in the comings and try to take more than sorrow from the leavings. I think of my mother and how she is supervising my grandmother and maiden aunt now. Maybe her clinging to extraneous trivialities is a way of feeling stable. . .safe, feeling in control of the loss that’s surely to come.

Once you know Him, there ain’t no substitute. You wake up on Sunday sometime. You think, I got more important things to do. I got this. I got that. I feel better doing something else than be with Jesus. But I’m here to tell you even the food down at Jestine’s ain’t no substitute for Jesus.

Mom turns and smiles at me for a moment and then releases my hand She has scooted closer. Unseeing the challenge of loving others as I love myself isn’t possible now. I can’t unsee the need for kindness. I can’t unsee the need for justice or the need for empathy. Unseeing is the closest thing to “sin” I can think of. If I can’t unsee my own shortcomings, I might as well learn to live with them…for that is the only way I will have deep loving relationships. It’s the only way my closeness with Mom, the only permanent relationship of my life, will survive and grow.

And the question remains, “What shall I do with Jesus?” You won’t ever answer it in this life. You answer it every day. In every way. With everybody. You answer the question every morning and every night. You answer it when ya suffer. You answer it when ya sing. You answer the question on every step of the way. Cause the answerin leads ya right back to Him.

I ask myself.

What then shall I do with Love?

What then shall I do with Peace?

What shall I do with this heart laid open?

We rise to sing a hymn before communion; unbelievably it’s one of Mom’s favorites:

And He walks with me and He talks with me and he tells me I am his own

And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.

I slip my arm around her waist and hug her tininess. She begins to cry. It’s something to simply accept, this being there for her in ways she needs, and her being there for me the ways she can. All she has ever wanted was my happiness. Love isn’t any simpler than that.

Communion around the purple draped and lily strewn altar places us on our knees at the rail. As a part of the body of this congregation now, our lighter faces fade into the darker ones. Our eyes shine in the candles and lamplight of this century old building. Kind faces. Open hearts. Humble spirits. The ladies near us who have helped my mother to her knees, make extra space for me, but I stay on my knees on the floor behind her. It seems the right place. At the table of common love and human suffering, we are all one. It doesn’t matter that the particulars of my faith aren’t aligned with theirs. When Brother Singleton cracks a wafer and places it into my hand, I think of how I’ve been cracked open by going on this pilgrimage. Thirty seven days ago I made two decisions that changed everything. I left a relationship for the wrong reasons, but I regained focus upon a spiritual journey that began last September. Both ultimately healed me in many ways. As we pray and share this ritual meal, I think about how I would never be kneeling here, experiencing this without those decisions. Gifts come from the Universe when we least expect them; how fruitless it is to believe the unfolding of our lives is within our control.

After communion and closing benediction, Mom and I visit with folks. When they ask us about our presence, I tell them about my journey, how I felt led there, how it all seemed part of some big design. Their acceptance and understanding of my story is obvious in their hugs and “Bless you, baby’”. We are both showered with genuine affection which travels with us out of the huge wooden doors, down the stone steps and out onto the night street, wind still crisply blowing.

As Mom and I ride in the taxi to dinner, she takes my hand.

“You know, tonight reminded me a lot of growing up in the Methodist Church. I really enjoyed it hun. I’m glad we went.”

She squeezes my hand, all smiles, as the streetlights flash and fade across her face. When she begins to make small talk with the driver, I have a few moments to reflect. I think of the person who unknowingly sent me on this part of my journey. One day, I want to share with him that my leaving opened a space for something beautiful to bloom.

My challenge is to live in those lessons every day, alone or partnered. And to live in Love fiercely as much as surrender to it. For in the surrender comes the rising again of hope. . . and hope has wings.

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You got the Silver, You got the Gold

10 Apr

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Open the eyes. . .open the ears of your heart. — Imaculee Ilibagiza

It’s a Saturday afternoon in Williamsburg, Virginia.

I sit in the sun outside The Cheese Shop with a glass of Cotes du Rhone and a plate of Taleggio, Humboldt Fog , and Comte with wide crackers, dried fig, and honey. The sunshine warms the air into a comfortable springish cloud. I sit ..in reverie.  As a person who has followed signs for two years, the last 24 hours has produced a catalog of synchronicities all confirming the necessity of being in this place.

I watch for the signs now. They tell me where I need to go. They show me that indeed there is a Universal power which governs my walking. After attending the lectures of Imaculee Ilibagiza, a Rwandan genocide survivor, at St Joan of Arc Church in Yorktown, Virginia no one could persuade me that I am wrong. For sign after sign assured me…

I watch over you.

 With you, I abide.

 After two days of intense introspection, I bask in the light of consciousness and inner conviction. I want to capture this moment in a bottle. . . this intensity of love and connected emotion. I want to tell everyone as they walk down the 18th century cobblestone paths or sip their wine and nibble from their plates.

You are Love. . . beyond words.

 I am Love.

 A power exists which loves us enough to transform human suffering into gold…if we only allow.

 When we awaken …we see Her everywhere. And She is with us …always.

It seems as though I have caught “religion”, but it isn’t that simple or convenient. The conviction of love has no expression other than the witness of the believer. To those who have never experienced atonement in the truest sense of the archetype, this type of belief is a street corner proselyte, dressed in the linen and ashes of something outside of the Self.

I open my little book and begin to write and a small old man rounds my left side. His face like a dried carved apple is topped with a black French beret. His smile extends genuine warmth.

“May vee share your table?” he says.  I detect a slight accent.

“Oh, yes!” I say.

I know by now that meetings are no accident. That the connections we make in life are food for our souls.

“Vee don’t vish to disturb”, the lady says nervously.

I can tell she doesn’t want to sit here, perhaps thinking I am wrapped in my writing. But I tell her quickly that it is fine. Whatever makes her most comfortable is best. She smiles, sits, pulls a small packet of tin foil from her purse.

“Vee come here every day”, the man says. “To have tea, read…”

He waves a thin newspaper. I look at them both closely. They must be in their eighties, small and fragile. Their eyes show the letting go of years, a slow assent to inner understanding.  The man gestures to my plate.

“Is nice. . .I don’t see many people eat zis way.” He means my luncheon cheese plate and wine.

“Yes, I eat in small bits…the American way is too much.”  I know he will understand.

The man tells me that he and his wife are originally from Czechoslovakia, but have lived here for nearly 30 years. He questions whether I am from Europe and as we talk, I know this is giving me a gift yet to be unwrapped. I must be patient, listen, ask questions if I can. Be present. After two days of signs and revelation, the position of automatic gratitude comes easily.

They begin to share a small slice of pecan pie, revealed from the tinfoil packet the lady has taken from her purse.  She sees me looking.

“Vee get from farmer’s market this morning.  Is sweet… only a little bit,” she smiles. Her large chocolate brown eyes are the richest color on her face other than carmine lipstick, the stuff of a grandmother’s kiss.

As our conversation deepens, the husband reveals that they have been married 65 years.

“That is amazing!” I exclaim.  After a small hesitation, I press on, “May I ask you a question? I hope it isn’t too forward… What’s the secret?”

They look at each other and smile. The question doesn’t seem to be a new one.

“Vell,” he says,  “You must put the other person first…”. “And they…must put you first,” she says over top of him.

Their joint explanation produces more delicate chuckles.  “And vee are best friends… “,  he says.

“Do you have children?” I ask.

“No. Vee didn’t vant any…it was enough to try not to have them!” the wife says raising her eyebrows.

Her more personal comment pushes us all into hearty laughing. Their tiny frames lean together in the shaded afternoon light under the table umbrella. She places her whole arm on top of his, rubbing the navy wool of his sweater. No brothers or sisters, these two are the ends of their lines, by choice.  When I gently ask them about this, she smiles, “Vee are for each other.”

I choke up a bit. No husband, no children or siblings, I have wondered for so long who will be with me at the end. Who will care for me…bury me. Will they be kind? And here are these two connected souls . . .there for each other with no thought to any future other than what is.

The husband leans over the table toward me, “Vhen vee fell in love, it vas a Streetcar named Desire….”

I smile widely, “How so?”

“Vell”, he says . “Vee lived in Prague and on the street car, I see a pretty girl. You know, one stands and one sits, so I stand by her.”

His wife is smiling and nodding at every line.

“And vee have different accents, because I was not born there, so I say to her, ‘Do you know where is this address?’ And of course, is my home address. So she offers to help me find and of course I can’t understand, so she has to take me there herself. To my house…then I ask her for a date”. He glances back and forth between us as the story unfolds, his smile shining from his eyes.  The moments pass so slowly. A peculiar feeling begins to rise, easing the pressure in my left chest. I bask in the sun of a love that has lasted well over half a century.

“So you know vee set a date”, he says, “at square where all the young people meet. And I am to go there and wait. I think…she will be late because girls like to do that…they like to make the man more eager. And I get there and she’s there!”

I look to the wife who says, “I like to be on time!” She shakes her head, “No games…I don’t like the games.”

We talk. We eat together. The delight between us is the sweetness of a first spring afternoon. The husband asks me if I am married. My negative reply prompts his asking, “In past?”

“Yes,” I say.

“And how long?” I tell him and also reveal that it wasn’t my choice that it would be so short.

“Do you see a man now?” he asks.

His wife pats his arm as if to tell him he has gone too far, and she frowns slightly.

“Yes, I did….” I hesitate, “We are. . . apart.” My face reveals a conflict too easily seen.

Words don’t seem to form as I look into his smiling eyes full of a wise heart’s years.

“Ah. . . you want back?” he says tilting his head to look at me through a keen eye.

I nod, which slightly blends into a shake and shrug of shoulders.

This small confession feels so natural in front of him. In the last four weeks, I have slowly been peeled, layer by layer. And I see so much more clearly. This part of the journey has placed mirror after mirror in front of me and the lessons in compassion, love, allowing, being and openness have come in much needed rough waves. High surf equals the most profound ride.

“Vell,” he says, “it depends on what kind of zoup it is.”

“Zoup?” I say, half laughing.

“Yes. Some zoup is better heated up the second time…some zoup?  Eh, not so good….”

My body erupts in laughter with them. The pressure in my chest propels out into the blue and white rippled sky.

“You vill be fine”, he says. “Men…afraid sometimes. They don’t like to feel wrong.”

His words comfort me. Suddenly I can’t contain this feeling welling inside my chest. For the first time, I feel like I can see it…the part inside us that shines…the golden part that has all the love in it. That’s true goodness. We make laundry lists of qualities we think will best serve our egos in relationships, when what we really need to be looking into is the heart and soul  of the person…not our projections or expectations. But is there goodness there? Kindness? Humanity in all its imperfection? The willingness to be authentic and vulnerable. The willingness to love as we really are.

Friday night, Imaculee spoke of forgiveness for the Hutu murderers of her family and friends. She had hidden in a small bathroom with seven other women for 91 days. She learned not only that the Divine loved her even in her suffering, but that the power of this love surpasses hate.

“We cannot put people into boxes of being”, she had said.  “We judge and they judge and we don’t see how miracles come from loving people for who they are not what they do. We cannot blame those who are asleep in their souls. We can only pray that they someday wake up to their actions and then…they too, like us, will ask to be forgiven.”

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

“If you cannot pray it”, she said, “skip that part till you can.”

At the end of a day on which I finally forgave the one who sent me on this long journey, I also asked the Universe to be forgiven for being so blind to the many gifts of love I already have and those I have carelessly lost.

Love is a force we embody. We just need to be awake to it. And in every sign…there is confirmation.

Yes, I am listening.

 Yes, I am with you.

 Yes, you are on the right path. 

 You are not alone.

After finishing their pie and our nearly hour long conversation, the couple made to leave. The wife placed her hand on my shoulder and gave a squeeze.

“Vill be ok”, she said with a most glorious smile. “You are young.  Is nice to travel alone…but nicer when you share.”

She patted me and they walked slowly out of the courtyard onto the path, holding hands.

Love is so simple. This was my first lesson. I must remember that.

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Who Knows?

2 Apr

Breathe in.

My arms stretch upward, reaching for the sky, while I am trying to open a chest that feels as if it has never taken a deep breath.

And sweep down, my yoga instructor says as I hinge at hip, ignoring the pinch and pop.

Anything, I think, anything to help get rid of this heavy ache under the left side of my chest wall. Breathing, I stretch up again and know the more my lungs fill with the rhythm and sweep of wind, the better the day will be. Yoga has now made its way into my life. My left side sends the message that something more than sweating or muscle building is needed. Every posture reveals tiny knotted bundles of unreleased emotions. Anger, sadness, resistance, a multitude of memories stored in each angular curve. For a fairly fit person, I’m strung tighter than a banjo in need of tune.

My right leg extends upward and to the side, bending to the left into a star like pose. While I’m balanced, opening my hips and chest, I become aware of a song drifting from my instructor’s small sound system.

Hey lady, you got the love I need
Maybe more than enough. . .

My body feels the slow instrumental notes like the cold rain that now spots the wide glass of the studio windows filled with grey- white morning fog. In this moment, I look for a lesson, despite the painful pressure rising in my left chest wall.

–Breathe, I think. Allow. This isn’t cruelty. It’s a sign to open more.

I bend.

I breathe.

Hips rise.

Tears fall.

Rain on the glass in spatters. The singing ring of a Tibetan bowl. Namaste.

After class, self care includes warm French croissant and coffee at the Community Market. I sit at a tiny picnic table inside and watch the room filled with pods of people eating. . .talking. I wonder what else the rain will bring.

The hours pass. Its twilight now, or at least I think so in the deluge that is pouring from the sky. The road winds down through dense fog and sheets of cold rain in the diffuse evening light. And I am still allowing puddles left from the emotional shower during my morning practice to evaporate. Perhaps tonight’s Satsang service at Yogaville in Buckingham, VA will give me insight.

I enter a warm, close room in the yoga academy at the beginning of the service and pick my way through the crowd of chairs and cross-legged yogis on the carpet. On an plain dais in the front, sits a man playing drum, and two women, one a violinist, the other playing a free standing accordion. A lotus blossom opens on the wall behind them with a single crystal light on a small shelf. The accordion player sings a line which the crowd offers back in response, over and over. Several audience members jingle tiny tambourines in time with the beat. The effect is hypnotic, but merry. And suddenly, I feel my overcast spirit starting to lift. An overwhelming surge of feeling safe, simply by being in this room washes over me. Am I feeling the energy of joy? At the end of our singing, a bell intones, and the room breathes into a cascading exhalation. . .

OOOOHHHHHHMMMMMMM Saantih Saantih…OOOOOOHHHHHHHMMMMMM

The last notes drag out my breath into inner stillness.

The lights dim and a cross legged figure dressed in mango colored robes appears on screen. His voice, like a bemused grandfather begins to unlock my chest.

Always ask, he says, Who am I?”
Ko Hum. . . Ko Hum. . .Ko Hum
Who is asking the question?
Am I the body?
Am I the mind?
Who is happy? Who is unhappy?
Who is unhappy and who knows who is happy or unhappy?
…What is it they say? Know the Knower.
Be nosey about you.

As Sri Swami Satchidananda continues, I know I am meant to hear this wisdom. For he begins to discuss change and resistance to it.

I am sad. I am hungry. I am happy. I am unhappy. I… I… I, he says.
Keep an eye on that I.
The Seeker looks for the never changing one in the midst of the ever changing one.

In essence, he is gently reminding me to always look for and dwell in my higher self, to trust She will be there through constant changing conditions. She is the image of the Divine in me. Every so often in his quiet lecture, he creates an analogy that brings forth the crowd’s laughter. He reminds us of other faiths, how at times they seem too serious to be spiritual. This encourages us to enjoy our changing. And it encourages me to simply lighten up.

Changes are there for you to enjoy. You don’t want the same food every day, or wear the same clothes.
You change your hair, your clothes. That is the show. You come home and take it all off.
Changes are there for your enjoyment.
So accept them. Enjoy them.
Know that you are one who is changing while also unchanging.

And in being this Knower, this watcher connected to the greater “I”, the higher Self, I am a witness. Awareness of my actions and my response to the world is heightened. I am conscious, but also able to laugh at life’s simplicity, my own simplicity as well. As Swami Satchidananda says,

Be the eternal witness to your own life.

I scribble this down quickly. Suddenly, I see the writing of this journey in a new way. Maybe I have been looking at the “alone” thing in the wrong way. How many people get the opportunity for enormous self reflection, for self analysis? To watch their own lives rather than be continually embroiled in it. One of my friends going through intermittent empty nest plaintively tells me, “Oh what I wouldn’t do to be completely alone!” This coming to really love myself doesn’t have to be excruciating. I’ve been bracing for a tsunami and the guru tells me I just need to learn to surf.

Learn the board. Take care of it.
Learn to balance and then surf well on the sea of the world.
When you know how to surf well, you look for big waves, because you know how to enjoy them.

I never thought to look at what challenges me in life as waves to be conquered by not becoming involved. It was always head down, like a ram, tough through it and then recover from the deluge. I let conditions suck me in and affect me rather than using them to perfect my surfing. Maybe this will help to lighten me, for if I am not always battle expectant on the road of trials, I can lose some of the bracing seriousness that tends to keep me armored against allies as well as dragons.

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A new understanding about my body comes while driving home, thinking about my physical practice. The guru said, Make yourself strong to lift others. I have worked so much anger and pain into my muscles, building them as a protection and a testament to my strength. But now I’m inflexible. In building so much of an emotional wall in my recent relationship, my left side slowly locked up in response. It’s as if my body responded to the condition. . . it separated from the greatest part of the“I”. Learning to open emotionally and physically and let it all go, means to allow conditions to roll as waves. It doesn’t mean disallowing my emotions; while I am feeling them I always keep an “eye on the I”. That is my security…that never changes. My quest is to keep asking who am I…who is the Knower? The guru tells me this can actually be enjoyed. Finding the courage to love my essence could be a great relief. And isn’t love supposed to feel good?

I’m lifting.

I’m learning.

I’ve come to the first stepping stone. I’m not perfect and so I will hurt others by mistake. Not because I AM the mistake, but because I have the courage to get out on the board and be willing to fall off into the deep end. I’m worth loving. I’m worth knowing. I will keep giving myself that next chance even if I make a mess of things. In all my imperfections, I’m still pretty awesome at simply being human.

 

 

Courage

26 Mar
44x36 oil pastel

“The Greatest Gift” 44×36 oil pastel

 

I am a hole in a flute that the Beloved’s breath moves through. Listen to this music.  –Rumi

 

My friend sits in a chair across from me, her eyes an ocean of empathy.

“I’m not good”, I say. “I should be feeling better, but I’m not…in fact, every day it gets worse. I should be feeling better…what is wrong with me?”

She listens to my story of confusion and regret. For a hasty decision of mine has hurt someone I love and myself in the process. An elephant named “Loss” is squatting on my chest. Tensed from jaw to knee, my left side aches; my knee popping disturbingly every time I bend it.

“I can’t eat,” I tell her. “I’ve lost five pounds. Everything that usually works to lift me is failing.“ The pressure in my chest, like a bucket of heavy ball bearings, spills out. Their cracking on the floor is the sound of my crying. In these moments, I am completely raw…completely open…completely vulnerable.

Gently she says, “May I commend you for your authenticity at this moment? This is the bravest I’ve ever seen you.”

I nod, wiping my nose.

Waveringly I tell her, “You know, one time on the phone, I was relaying my schedule of events for the weekend down to the last hour. And he innocently said to me, ‘Gosh honey, you are the loneliest person in the world.’”

I look up at my friend through large seven year old eyes.

I catch my breath, a sudden calmness descends over me.

I whisper.

“I am, …I am. “

As we talk, I begin to unwrap the gifts that have come through this connection and begin to see the situation in a completely different light. There was an awful lot of love there I just didn’t allow. This “moment of truth” has been coming for a long time, a point where being bound in the inability to move away from the discomfort of my own soul is essential. For now I am in the most important part…the part where I surrender. What seems unforgivable in me must be forgiven and I must move past what was done to me.

In order to love, I must be willing to truly accept it, to be vulnerable, and to be grateful for whatever healing comes from the connection, however and whenever it is given. To accept myself in like manner means loving parts of me that are not so lovable…parts that are selfish…parts that are weak or judgmental. To really love, one must not connect through wounds. Wounded connections have a past which weighs them, mires them. One cannot move forward unless forgiveness of the past happens, not for the person who has wronged us, but for our own sense of wholeness and healing.

“I hope you are writing down all of this,” she says. “Do you realize what enormously important gifts you’ve been given by this person?”

In recalling moments of true authenticity in the connection I have lost, my biggest dragon wheels into view:

My own feelings of unworthiness to be loved.

Truly, I cannot receive any love, unless I acknowledge a deserving in my core Self…not my ego. In true and honoring acceptance of people, I must allow them to love me as they are, for they love me as I am. This is love without attachment.

Doing so is hard. It’s hard because I am not a patient person who is entirely comfortable being with herself. In Joe’s terms, I now face the Ultimate Ordeal, learning the true nature of forgiveness. For that is the nest of unconditional love. All the while, the Universe was giving me what I needed and I wasn’t aware, wasn’t cognizant of the gifts so freely given.

My friend hands me another tissue, “Do you understand,” she says “that you are sitting in these emotions and tolerating them? This is so important. Feel it fully and let it go on its own.”

“I know”, I sniffle. “Honestly, I don’t have anymore energy to fight.”

But knowing the end of the story helps. I know the reward for moving through this portion of the journey. So I live each moment, tolerate what needs tolerating and open myself. My soul is fully awake.

Our conversation turns and I begin to tell her of my Lenten pilgrimage. In true “Wayfarin” style I had decided to visit as many services as I could from as many different faith systems as possible. My thought was to honor them in doing so. To give homage to all of the faces of the Divine. Unconsciously, though, I have piloted myself into a crucial and necessary part of this journey.

Now I understand the lyric, “…was blind, but now I see.” And it has nothing to do with dogma nor ritual nor icon, but the truth of this human existence. . Why was I put here? To Love. And I do not know completely how, and that is why I am here…now…walking this road in pilgrimage to learn how unconditional love feels…how it is both given and received. I’m not looking for the Divine as some external entity apart from my Self. I’m looking for the Universe that is already inside of me.

I begin to cry again. This is the hardest work I have ever done, I think. It is harder than anything I’ve ever faced.

My friend smiles, her snowy white hair framing her face filled with conviction. “You are so strong. Look at the most painful parts of your life. You survived…didn’t you? You can do this.” she tells me. “See how it all is falling into place? You are getting what you need as you need it. It will come in little bits …from all over. But you see it now. Don’t you? “

I nod, wiping my eyes. To be able to learn to rely on my higher self, to be able to transcend into the joy of a moment like butterflies on the bushes at City Cemetery, or a leaf twirling downward from my backyard trees. To revel in the hush of snow in the crisp dark or let croissant and coffee on a May morning in the effortless sunshine flood my senses, I must allow. To pause in connection to the Universe in a poetic line that cups the dearest emotion in my entire frame… that is true balance. That is where I want to be.

 

What I am learning now is that when I cry to the Universe for help, there WILL be an answer and it will give me what I need. Last Friday, I attended Shabbat at Agudath Sholom Synagogue. In a small group of fifteen, I sang the Kabbalah, and in the prayers I heard the gratitude of the Israelites in each verse.

“Baruch atah, Adonai, gaal Yishrael”

Praised are You, Adonai, for redeeming Israel

I thought of the Jews and their centuries long persecution and plight. Their connections held them wrapped in the faith that they would be delivered out of bondage. I think of the massive loss of loved ones and of their personal sorrow. They have learned forgiveness as a way of transcending despair.

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Sunday, at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Stuart’s Draft with my brother Paul, I saw it in Matthew 6:26 part of the Watchtower lesson for the day.

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

On the trip to Ocracoke this past Thanksgiving, birds came into my consciousness and populated my experiences. Looking back on that post and my art from then till now, I know nothing is random. This pilgrimage is to learn forgiveness, to untie an emotional knot that threatens to strangle all that has been given in this journey. Every step of the road was leading to this point. It is the most important time of my life, I think. And summoning all the courage I have to allow whatever comes will guide the going. There is no need to “do” anything other than be awake…listen…write…cry… lean on friends if I need…do my daily work.

Driving home from my friend’s place, I think back to Ocracoke Coffee Shop in December of 2012. A woman is seated in a red cushy chair with Ryan’s café au lait and a bagel, someone who needed to find a way to heal herself. Maybe I will return there this year, maybe not. The discovery of voice there and the lessons learned since are what I needed for now. Soon, I go to Charleston SC with Clarence and my mother to  re-walk another road from last summer, the Civil War. My pilgrimage will end at St John the Baptist Cathedral. I am meant to be there. In between the then and now, stops will come along the way. Easter Sunday, I have no idea where I will see the sunrise. However, I can guess…with coffee at granddaddy’s grave, sharing with him more of what he deserves in a granddaughter. And the journey will go on …from there.

 

The Seat of the Soul

18 Mar

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We all have the same purpose: to love and be loved, to be the light that casts out darkness, wherever we are in whatever way we can -Marianne Williamson

Clar and I rise in the pre-dawn light; coffee is to be had before the drive that will take us north to West Virginia.  He yawns, stretches and looks up at me with those large soulful eyes of his. My constant companion these days, I cannot bear to leave him at home anymore. So he rides wherever I go. To the Fresh Market, to workout, even to school where I trudge out to the car three times daily to walk him. I make sure he is comfortable snuggled into my pink 1970’s Hollie Hobbie sleeping bag lying scrunched in the back seat of my car.  He’s lived a lot of his life in that car, as have I.

 Skirt, tights, scarf to cover my head, I tick off my mental dressing list in a drowsy state of numbness,  moving about my mother’s darkened hallway considering the day ahead.  This Lent I have decided to visit as many churches, from as many different faiths systems as I can because now, something in me I need to listen to is growing. Maybe, just maybe, these places will help me to hear it.  In the fall, I knew the “spiritual” part of this journey, if one can call it that, was starting. In finding a class on spirituality and launching back into another program of study, so many doors opened. I learned so much.  Mysticism, Spiritualism, Esotericism, Divine Ecstasy, Prophesy, Shamanism, Energy Work, Fields of Consciousness, I read, wrote and thought but from an external vantage. And to be honest, I knew relationships back then would be a huge part of this spiritual learning . But I didn’t know until now that the lesson wasn’t about finding a practice, nor anything practical or external. It was about what was within me, what keeps me from growing as a more enlightened person. And now the moments have come which show me how asleep I’ve been for almost five months. Looking back now to my previous post about relationships being like shoes, I wince.  How insensitive and unconscious I was.  My actions have led me to recognize elements of self which need the light. It’s time to deal with this dragon called “on my own”.

 As an esoteric person, and one most comfortable with these elements, I chose an orthodox service to attend first. Last fall, a Saturday vespers at an orthodox church here in town only yielded a slight exposure to these rituals. Something was missing, honestly perhaps a real readiness for the experience. Nonetheless, I go today to St. Mary’s Orthodox Christian Church in Bluefield, West Virginia. It is the only place I can think of to  pilgrimage right now, connecting me to memories that I struggle to put to rest. To be there may bring me the voice I’m learning to try to hear.

 In the car, winding our way up Rte. 460 through Blacksburg, the radio plays. An unidentified inspirational speaker shares the story of  an 84 year old widow who has lost her health and family. Living now in assisted care, instead of choosing to look at her situation negatively, she chooses to be grateful, to be positive.  And this attitude has helped others so much that they visit her and connect with her, sharing compassion and love. To seek joy, to let it live through the soul no matter the situation seems so difficult, but being mindful of its importance is needed now. Trusting the Universe to give me what I need is a leap of faith. Maybe that is the essence of what it’s trying to teach me.

 Clar and I pull into the parking lot of St Mary’s 20 minutes before the service, and I get him set up in his pink Holly Hobbie cocoon in the back seat. The temperature is dropping, and the skies grey over with the last lingering embrace of winter. I walk into the vestibule. Immediately, two older ladies look at me and smile. They walk over; they touch my arm and hug me.

 “Oh, welcome!” one lady says. “You are new here?” Her blue eyes extend motherly concern over silver steel rims.

The other lady in a soft white sweater fingers my hair curling out from under my white silk head covering. She says, “Oh how pretty you are.” She turns to her companion, “Look how tiny she is.”

Both ladies laugh like small tinkling bells and press me for my story; I talk with them for a few moments. Their warmth is overwhelming and their care and gentle enthusiasm as effortless as breathing. I am in the right place, I think.

 Warm golden light reflects from jewel-toned icons on the rood screen which separates the altar from the sanctuary. Large eyed eastern saints, their hands curved into mudra, stare back at me in their ancientness. I watch the parishioners kiss them and bow, lighting small beeswax candles for their intentions. The air is so heavily laced with frankincense and myrrh, it almost hurts to breathe. But I am surrounded by a pouring forth which holds the first memories of holiness for me, of the mystical nature of the Divine. I sit on a red cushioned pew alone and rest. It feels like I am breathing for the first time in many days.

 The tones of the hour blend with the intertwined voices of two gentlemen beginning to sing the Kyrie. Instantly, I tear up. To cry this longing out into this safe space of holy presence, I need to let go. Dreams and expectations. Anger and loss. Self judgment.

 “Let it all go”, an inner voice says and a tightness in my chest begins to loosen.

              Looking to my left, a dark haired young lady has risen and slides over to me. She touches my arm and smiles. Her name is Alina and she is originally from Romania. She welcomes me too, pulling a black prayer book from the rack and tracing her finger over the program to show me how to follow along.  As the liturgy progresses, I let the singing wash over me like the clouds from the brass censer. I cross myself too many times to count, breathing out the notes of  the song.  When I lose my words, I hum. I harmonize with voices and spirits. The singing never stops even when we are silent.

All who pass by me on their way to the altar smile; some touch my arm or my shoulder. A small boy of seven sitting two pews ahead turns from his mother to smile up at me. One lady touches my head wrap, “It’s so nice to see someone with this”, she says. For I am the only one in the congregation with a covered head.  I don’t mind. It’s covering my ego, something that needs to have been released for a long while now.

 When I meet Father Mark, though, I begin to struggle. I tell him I have come because another orthodox church I contacted told me I couldn’t. “They don’t take visitors”, I say. “And I am not Greek.”

  “Nonsense!” he says. “That’s ridiculous. I’ve never heard of that EVER!” He frowns at me, but welcomes me anyway. But I feel as if I have just been accused of lying.

 In the midst of the two hour mass, he gives his short homily. And that is when the lesson presents itself. Instead of speaking about love and compassion, or forgiveness and contemplation, he speaks in judgment, not only of Christians but of other faiths as well.  They do not know “The Truth”, he angrily intones.  His instructions focus on what Orthodox Christians need to be doing in their spiritual lives during Lent, but it seems to rest on the “doing” of the faith rather than the “being” of it. His angry, stressed, contemptuous tone highlights resistance and closed mind rather than allowing all lessons to come as they are intended.  I look to the Christ figure in the stained glass behind him, his hand in the Vitarka Mudra, the sign of teaching. For I am certainly being given a lesson at this moment. How many times in my life have I judged others,  those with which I have been in relationship? How many times have I selfishly thought life should be lived “one way” rather than devoting my introspection to my own journey and the lessons conscious presence with others teaches me? How many times have I seen difference without compassion and delivered impatience to those who needed understanding the most? Love, howsoever it is given, one should always be grateful for. It is love offered freely and that is the gift of the Universe.

            After the service, many members of the congregation greet me, eager to know where I am from and my story. They are gathering for lunch, where everyone has brought a hot dish. Casserole after casserole, potatoes and ham, macaroni and cheese. Coffee, in a silver percolator.  I am invited to stay more than once. . . to share, more than just food.

 It’s hard to see oneself clearly. To understand that right and wrong paths on the journey have blurred lines attached to more than just perception. And perhaps self forgiveness for shortcomings is the hardest compassion we can muster. But we must. For out of self compassion, we see others more clearly and we are able to love them as they are, even in their imperfection. Perhaps that’s what makes them most beautiful, and reveals the gift of their connection to us.  . .the realities of their own soul’s journey toward the light.

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