Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Long, Loving Look at the Real

My first spiritual director talked about contemplation as “a long, loving look at the real.” It’s a quotation from the Jesuit Walter Burghardt. It has taken me years to begin to unpack its meaning. 

It is in scuba diving that I am truly able to take long loving looks at the real. The picture above is of two nudibranchs, about 3/4s of an inch long. Nudies, as they are fondly referred to, are gastropod mollusks: snails and slugs. These are animals that on terra firma I tend to turn up my nose in disgust, particularly those slugs. Underwater, that’s another story.
Nudies have an interesting body: their gills are outside their bodies. That lovely tangle of tentacles waving in the surge are really the animal’s gills. 

Divers I have found are like people on the earth. Most fin their feet as fast as possible to see the next big thing. The bigger, the better. A hammerhead! A school of thousands of silverly jack circling to protect themselves from the white tip reef shark lying in wait for its next meal.! A turtle swimming to the surface for a gulp of air! These are indeed fantastical sights not to be missed. But, in grasping for the huge, divers miss the miraculous tiny. 

Nudibranchs are not common. One of their defenses against being eaten is to blend into to the surrounding colorful coral. And they are tiny, rarely larger than an inch in length. Seeing them takes slow swimming, drifting along as slowly as the current will allow, moving as little as possible. 

Surprisingly they move. They may raise their heads, the end with the two feelers and stretch their bodies along the surface of the coral head. They have a rear foot which extends, though I’ve never seen exactly how that moves. The frill around their body can flare up and down, to what end mystifies me. 

In a cubic meter of coral reef, there is more life and more diversity of life than anywhere else on earth. Microscopic plankton feed the animals, algae inhabit the coral, producing food for the coral and giving it color. Soft corals sway in the current, imitating the plants they are not. Tiny fish dart exhibiting odd behaviors. And of course larger and larger fish swim and eat in that one cubic meter. 

All this wonder escapes the diver when she is interested only in the next big thing. Wonder appears when we slow down, breath as easily as possible, hang in the water suspended, and open our eyes to what is in front of us.

On earth as it is in the water.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Reflections on The Fault in Our Stars (the movie)

I haven’t read the book, though I have owned it since it was first published. I wound up at the movie, not because I wanted to see it but because a friend wanted to see it and asked me to go with her. After I bought my ticket, I told her I had a lot of trepedation about seeing it. She responded that she hadn’t thought about that. The great unspoken that. CANCER.

Gus, the boyfriend Hazel meets at a recovery group meeting, Gus who lost a leg to cancer, but has an 85% chance of being cancer free, relapses at the end of the movie and dies. Gus, the one who wanted to make his mark on the world, to be remembered. Gus dies before he is 20. 

For me, Gus is the reminder of the randomness of cancer. That is the awfulness of cancer. It is totally random. People who have never smoked die of lung cancer (the least funded of the cancers because people assume if you have lung cancer, it’s your fault). People who do all the right things die of ovarian cancer. Even the wealthy, smart can’t escape--Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer. 

For me, cancer was random. I was in great health. I wasn’t concerned about cancer because there was none in my family, except “old age cancers”--those that hit because well something has to kill you. No, I knew that heart disease was a much greater risk for women than cancer. So, I was eating a healthy diet. I had started running. I felt great. Until I didn’t. 

I struggled with randomness. I learned that life is fragile. All life. Mine. Yours. Life is uncertain. It’s not the way most people live though. I read how you can reduce your chances of getting cancer by doing, well, all the things I was doing when I was diagnosed. 

Cancer told me that nothing is in my control. Life can be taken away without warning. 

But, few who haven’t had cancer or some other devastating random loss believe this. I watch them do, as I used to do, justify why it always happens to the other person. I watch them go through life as if it is infinite, wasting time, ignoring friends, family, spouses for work. 

And I struggle with the ease of not living each moment, with wasting time on meaningless stuff. I want to experience each moment of my “one wild and precious life” but it is so easy to choose death in life: trashy TV and novels, computer games, eating to dull the pain of loneliness. 

“...That we but mortals be.” The truth so hard to grasp, to live into. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

"And there was no one in need among them."

As I walked to church this morning, I saw him outside the doughnut store, sitting, reading, studying in fact, papers crammed with cramped writing. He looked as if he were studying for an exam. The unusual thing was he was perched on a shopping cart. I could see a clean duffel bag stuffed with what I assumed were his belongings. He leaned his back agains it, reclining a bit atop his shopping card.

Like the Pharisee and the Rabbi in the parable we call the Good Samaritan, I hurried past him. As I continued my walk, I thought of the report I had heard on NRP. People walked right by their husbands, wives, sisters, brothers and even children, not recognizing them because they were dressed as homeless people. I thought too of the time when I had preached at this church at the service preceding the meal prepared and served for the homeless, actually anyone who wanted to eat. Several of us had talked about the fact that almost no one from the congregation joined in eating the meal. And so after the service, I joined those eating. I sat at the table as a young woman served me. I remembered my surprise at being treated as if I were homeless. I remember my guilt as I thought about this. “Wait a minute,” I wanted to scream, “I am not one of them. I am important. I matter.” I was shocked at how much I wanted to distance myself from the others at my table.
Today, I sat through the sermon, listening as the preacher talked of the account of the early church in Acts: how the people worshiped together daily, shared a meal and shared what they had so that there was no one in need among them. I knew if the man was still there at the doughnut shop, I would have to stop and talk with him. I prayed he would have moved on by the time the service was over. 

I walked out the side door and around the corner. I breathed a sigh of relief when I didn’t see him, but he was still there, hidden behind a car. I stopped and asked if he would tell me his story. I had not idea how to begin a conversation and had come up this this lame request. He said he’d be glad to if I had the time. He put his glazed yeast doughnut back in the paper bag and nestled it next to his coffee. 

He was fairly well dressed in a red polo shirt and slacks. He work a jacket even though the temperature was climbing into the 80s. I noticed one of the lenses was missing from his glasses. 

He had, he said, been transferred to Memphis by the IRS. He had no family here. And then Dr. King was assassinated. I didn’t quite follow the story but it seemed he was following leads to the assassin, leads that led to Klansmen with political connections. He had gotten caught up in a conspiracy and a government cover-up. The government owed him money that he never received. He traveled to Chicago where he had friends who would not take him in. He had been injured but the VA refused to treat him. I listened for about half an hour, wondering what I could possibly to do help him, and coming up with absolutely nothing. By his language and demeanor he could have been a lawyer or an IRS agent. There was enough of what I think is reality in what he said, but also a bit of unreality, at least what I think of as unreality.

I have no idea how to help this man, or any other homeless person. It is easy to say it’s a systemic issue and it is. It is also easy to say that you can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it. But you can, or rather, we can. In the 1960s (if I recall the timing correctly) poverty rates among the elderly were appalling. Social security benefits were raised and stories of grandmothers and grandfathers eating cat food for dinner have disappeared.

“And there was no one in need among them.” The early church lived out an ethic of taking care of each other, not just visiting the sick, but making sure everyone had something to eat, a place to sleep. We have lost that. I am as guilty as everyone else of wanting to make sure I have enough, and not just enough but more so that I can do what I want to do.

As I had not solutions for the homeless man, I have no solution for either homelessness or our idea that resources are scarce and we must protect what we have. I only know that this is not God’s vision for the world.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Liminal Space

When a person stands at a threshold, a doorway, she has a choice: she can enter the house or turn her back and walk away. She can join the party or go home. When we stand at a threshold of a stage in our lives, we have no choice--we much enter the next stage. Oh, there are always the exceptions--the 50 year old matron plays the adolescent flirt; the 45 year old man who buys the red Porsche Carrera. But for most of us, willing or not, pass through those thresholds, moving from baby, to toddler, to student to teenager and to adulthood.

At the Meeman Center the other night, the group assembled discussed Place Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. The professor leading the group reiterated the setting of the novel in liminal space: in the family at the center of the story, two sons and two daughters were moving to adulthood. Egypt, the setting for the novel was itself in liminal space: on the verge of independence. It is a coming of age story for the young people and for the country.

The professor had invited four Rhodes seniors who had studied the book with him this semester to attend and share their insights and perspectives on the novel. These students were in liminal space: in 26 days they would graduate from Rhodes. The professor emphasized their place on this threshold.

I looked around the table at the participants. We, too, were in liminal space. We are all on the verge of old age.

Few write of this liminal space, this coming of age, of old age. It is ignored, just as the old in our culture are ignored. We celebrate youth and energy. We ignore the wisdom and creativity that comes with age and the time to reflect and explore.

The liminal space between adolesence and adulthood is open, wide, bright, full of possibilities. The liminal space at the other end of adulthood, that between robust adulthood and old age is closed, narrow, dark with diminishing possiblities. 

Old ages is a time of loss--of health, of firends, of ability, of agility, of mind and finally of life itself.
I stand at that threshold. I cannot turn away, say “No, this is a door I choose not to enter.” I do not have a choice. The door is there and I must enter.

I want to be able to choose, to embrace what life remains: to embrace change, to embrace creativity, to embrace beauty. I do not want to become like so many old women I know. These bitter women full of resentment, anger. These women who impede change. I do not want to cling to a past that no longer exists, that is no longer possible.

I want finally to go with joy through the final threshold, into that good night.

April 15, 2014