A Good Week

There are small mysteries in this world, such as why no one seems capable of producing a generic band-aid that sticks to your skin for more than an hour.

Then there are larger mysteries, such as why right when you are feeling hopeless about the writing business, you win a contest, as I did this week. I won the Peter K. Hixson Memorial Award—$1800 of services from Writer’s Relief, a company that handles submissions for authors. They will submit excerpts of my novel to seventy-five magazines for me for free. That’s a rather fabulous number of magazines, and I am ever so slightly excited. (Check it out—my name appears on someone else’s website!)

The day before this happened, I said to God, “OK, I know I’m supposed to be trusting you, and I can see that when it comes to getting things done and to writing, I’m not. Nothing else is working, though, so I will.” I guess God enjoys a good spectacle now and then—parting the Red Sea, smiting folks, the Transfiguration, and winning writing contests.

I don’t think you need to be someone who talks to God for this kind of thing to happen to you.  Grace—“that blind benevolent side of even the fiercest world”—happens to everyone (“Grace Abounding,” William Stafford). Sometimes it comes when we are at our lowest and have done nothing to invite its presence except perhaps needing it.

But I think oftentimes, trust creates a crack in our doubt, our routine, our self-sufficiency—whatever it is that needs cracking—for grace to sneak in through. Sometimes trust might feel more like letting go or giving up, not resignation, but relaxing our death grip on having to do it ourselves or needing events to resolve in a certain way.

So keep the faith, whatever your faith happens to be, and may we all learn “that floating, that immensity waiting to receive whatever arrives with trust” (“Afterwards,” Stafford again).

Note: I will be at a writing workshop next week, and so the blog will be on vacation. Yes, I realize there is a certain irony in not writing because I’ll be writing.

Why Wait?

My life would be a lot easier if impatience were a virtue. Or if I could learn patience faster.

Recently, I’ve been telling myself to buckle down and do more of approximately everything. Myself and I have had this conversation often with no discernible results. So for Advent I decided to stop trying to figure things out and wait and listen instead. This may be what some people refer to as praying.

Our culture doesn’t particularly value waiting, and after two weeks of practicing it, I understand why. The first couple of days you can feel all la-dee-da and enlightened about it, but beginning day three it’s just not fun. The subtitle on the Advent reader they handed out at church says, “Waiting in joyful hope.” I’m not sure where the joyful hope people are, but I’m hanging out in the annoyed get-it-over-with-already camp.

Today I decided that two weeks is quite enough time for God/the universe/whatever to have straightened out my life and revealed at least the next few steps in a clear, concise road map. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, God/the universe/whatever doesn’t appear to be on my timeline, despite my having told her/him/it very sternly in the car on the way home that I’d had about enough of waiting.

But here’s the thing, the point of these four weeks is for people to make a straight path for God, not the other way around. We’re getting ready to celebrate a birth, and though I don’t have any kids, I’ve attended enough baby showers to know that requires a lot of preparation.

Once it happens, your life, as I understand it, does not get easier. Suddenly your time is no longer you own, and this tiny being has the power to disrupt your sleeping and eating and showering in ways previously unimagined. It also has the power to open up a richness and a depth of love that little else can provide.

So that’s what we’re preparing to celebrate, that opening of love in our lives. I suppose it might be worth waiting for.

Help Matters

Sometimes crappy things just happen. I did not come up with this idea. Someone has made millions of dollars marketing products espousing various forms of that sentiment.

I recently watched a Zulu language film called Yesterday about a woman in a tribal village in South Africa who contracts AIDS. Though not based on any one person’s true story, I’m sure it’s a true story many times over.

The main character, Yesterday, is patient and wonderful and gets this disease that entails more suffering than those of us with access to hospitals and morphine will ever guess at. It’s hard not to wonder why the world is not more justly constructed after watching this story.

As the priest Anne Lamott quotes in one of her essays says, why is not a useful question, though I still want to know the answer. Seeing as I am not likely to get it, I decided to review what I think I know.

Here are some things I don’t believe:

  • God tests us.
  • God gives us trials to strengthen us.
  • Bad things happen so that good things can come from them.
  • We attract—through our attitudes, beliefs, or ways of living—everything that happens to us. Some things, sure, but not everything.

Here are some things I do believe:

  • Grace happens.
  • There are things that help.
  • These things are extremely important even though they appear small.

It helps to cry or yell or beat the pillow. It helps to lay all the crappiness before God and say, “What the hell? Would you do something about this please?” It helps to eat a hot fudge sundae with a friend or go for a hike.

Help doesn’t mean that the situation changes, that a miraculous healing occurs, that the next day a job offer arrives out of the blue. Those things may happen, but a lot of the time they don’t. More often, we feel less alone and more able to keep going.

That seems insufficient in the face of the AIDS epidemic in Africa or any number of other global disasters, but an epidemic is composed of individuals. In the movie, one person stands by Yesterday. When they are together the awfulness lifts a little. Bring on the hot fudge.

“There Must Come a Time – 70”

Seventy is far closer to the end of life than I want to contemplate, but my mom plans to enjoy the entire decade.

Mom is one of the only people I know who has rejoiced at getting older. At some point in her mid-sixties she said to me with great delight, “I’m a crone!” By which she didn’t mean the shriveled up old woman who lives in the scary house, but a wisdom figure, an elder who may choose to live in a scary house for fun if she so desires.

When we say, “She looks good for her age” we mean “She looks younger than she is.” I’m as attached as the next person to being mistaken for a student, but I can also already tell where the spots on the back of my hands will be—at least the first round. Without Mom’s example of aging gracefully, that might freak me out more than it already does. She has given me a priceless alternative to clinging to the appearance of youth or mourning its loss.

I have a friend who is ninety, and the last year has been difficult for her. I understand—as much as anyone still in the first half of her life can—that aging is not easy. But in our culture we so rarely celebrate the joys of getting older: learning that so few situations are do or die, worrying less about what people think, gaining wisdom from having seen your successes and your failures fade, finding depths in yourself when those you love die. Not everyone learns these with age, but I’m not sure anyone can learn them without it.

When I was organizing Mom’s birthday party recently, many invitees said to me, “I thought she was younger than that.” I don’t think a drop of moisturizer has ever touched my mom’s face, so either she has really good skin or something else accounts for true youthfulness.

It might have something to do with elasticity of spirit and willingness to hope. And it may be what we need to enjoy life regardless of the number of years we’ve accumulated. Whatever it is, you’ll find it in my favorite seventy-year-old. Happy birthday, Mom.

Stop Thinking So Much

If I had stuffed the ballot box at the Academy Awards, Hugo would have won best picture. It reminded me of all the things that matter: magic, dreams, love, belonging, persistence, hope, purpose, creativity. All in two hours.

I have recently spent a lot of time thinking really hard about complicated stuff. It can be fun. It sometimes makes my brain hurt and hopefully helps someone in some way. But I don’t believe even the clearest thinking will ever cause the type of transformation that happens in Hugo.

A brief synopsis without spoiling the plot: a young boy’s tenacious search for love renews several lives and brings some magic back into the world, the kind of magic that helps us understand why kids need to believe in Santa Claus or convinces us to clap to save Tinkerbell’s life.

It’s difficult to believe in fairies as an adult and even more difficult to admit it. Growing up is a tricky business. Real things like mortgage payments and having enough to eat take a lot of our time and energy. Bigger real things like war and global warming can dwarf stories and imagination, which may then seem so small as to be not real, especially if we rely on logic alone.

The movie works because it takes you out of thinking and into a world where dreams come true if you hold on tightly enough to what is important to you. I think this world is as real as any other, but sometimes it slips our mind because dreams often don’t come true and many people never become what they were meant to be, or at least so it appears.

I forget all the time, like when I arrive at work on Monday morning and realize it is only five weeks until The Visit that follows The Report, or when I have, for the umpteenth time, let taxes, sleep, procrastination impinge on my writing schedule. But our forgetting something doesn’t mean it’s not there.

So go see this movie. Because when you leave the theater or turn off the DVD player, you’ll remember what lifts your heart up, and whatever that is will cause greater change and more joy than all the thinking in the world.

Where Peace Comes From

World peace is difficult precisely because I couldn’t resist spending half an hour at the Calvin Klein 70% off sale this evening. I wanted to forego Calvin Klein not because they make their clothes in Asia or Latin America but because I need to get some sleep tonight to avoid imploding. Yet there I was.

We cannot create something we cannot imagine, and we have so little experience with peace. At a conference last spring, a presenter spoke about the connections our brains are and are not capable of making. She put the word “apple” up on the screen and asked the audience to get a mental picture of the word. She then showed a red apple, a green apple, and the Apple logo and asked the audience which image they had in mind. About half the audience, myself included, had pictured the Apple logo. “That result was not possible 20 years ago,” she said.

Twenty years ago we couldn’t have connected an existing concept—apple—to something that didn’t exist yet, the current Apple logo. And pre-iPod, pre-commercial Internet almost, only a handful of members from a 1991 audience would have pictured the Apple logo of the time—most of them hadn’t practiced that connection.

We imagine war every day. We build monuments to it. We watch movies about it. We play it in games. Enter Calvin Klein. How can we imagine peace if we can’t feel it within ourselves? And how can I feel it when I continue to do things I know don’t make me peaceful?

The amount of time I spend fighting myself—not wanting to get up, not wanting to go to work, not feeling I’ve gotten enough done—is much greater than the amount of time I spend at peace with myself—admiring a scarlet leaf shot through with sunlight, sitting still long enough for the cat to crawl up on my lap, feeling pride in an accomplishment. I suspect I am not unique in this internal war/peace ratio, yet we haven’t completely destroyed each other yet.

I think humanity has survived because peace is tremendously powerful. Ten seconds of peace must count for at least ten hours of strife. Which means even in our human-ness, in our infinite capacity for making mistakes, in our resistance to change, in our succumbing to the temptation of the fancy jacket reduced to $30, even in the midst of all that, if we spend just a few more moments breathing or appreciating, thanking or complimenting, being still or being astounded, we will add not drops but bucketfuls of peace to the world.

No one can say whether it will be enough, but let’s imagine what life will be like when it is.

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation next week. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, and joyous celebrations of whatever other holidays you honor at this time of light growing out of the darkness.

Communing with Crabs

Nature often saves me. The trees outside my office building catch infinite shades of light; hummingbirds zip by improbably close; hawks redefine effortless. The non-human-created gets me out of myself in a way nothing else does.

Last weekend I found a new-to-me park with a trail that led past the “Hazard: Unsafe Bluffs” sign down to the collection of rocks that served as a beach. It was one of those glassy ocean days when it looks as if you could skim sunlight off the water’s surface. The sea was receding, leaving tide pools in its wake.

sea anemoneI squatted down to look at one of the pools, little more than a puddle really, and was initially unimpressed: some wavy pink plant, a lot of snail shells, a few closed up anemones. I stayed, though, and after a time previously inanimate objects began to move, first only a few and eventually most of what had been stationary.

Crabs ranging from small to borderline microscopic stood up underneath those supposed snail shells and started scuttling about with them. What I’d thought were pebbles encrusted on the outside of the anemones sprouted tiny legs and joined them. Some sort of mini lizard-fish made short, intermittent darts here and there. A many-legged creepy-crawly that resembled those you don’t enjoy finding in your bathtub appeared and moved in random, short bursts, miraculously never running into the lizard-fish. And finally some creature who resembled nothing more than a few grains of sand stuck together began bobbing about.

The tide pool couldn’t have held more than a few gallons of water, and yet it supported this exquisite and astonishing abundance of life. As I’ve said before, I sometimes worry we’re going to wipe out ourselves and the rest of the world through various forms of stupidity or inattention. I understand the scientific delicacy of ecosystems. But the sheer amount of life in this splash the ocean left behind gave me hope that creation is bigger than our stupidity and inattention and not likely, however improbable it seems, to be overcome by the likes of us.

Mama Told Me There’d Be Days Like This

Sunday was one of those days most sane people prefer to skip. You may know the kind, the ones when some Monster of Gunk deep inside you decides to rise up and disgorge purplish-black sludge all over the otherwise harmless world. Though absolutely no outside circumstance has changed, you know as soon as you open your eyes that the only possible way to survive the day is to never get out of bed.

gunk monsterPerhaps the uber-sane among us find some use in these days. Maybe the Dalai Lama wakes up, spies the gunk monster, and says, “Ah, another opportunity for instruction!” But I like to think he wakes up, bangs the heel of his hand against his forehead, and says, “Oy!” (Because everyone knows the Dalai Lama is secretly Jewish.)

I don’t know of a way to enjoy these days. I’m not particularly sure how to be grateful for them. I am certain they exist, for some more often than for others, and I know it’s important to recognize and share that existence. Otherwise we start to think everyone else’s insides are full of daffodils and butterflies and we alone are capable of spewing such ugliness for so little reason.

These days do end. On Tuesday, I spent the evening joyfully eating steak and drinking very good wine with my aunt and uncle. On Sunday, I could neither feel joy nor quite believe in its possibility. The best I could do was to remember that nothing lasts; this too shall pass, and God, though obviously absent and clearly inept, is in charge. Remembering does not yield great comfort during gunk monster and me bonding time, but it keeps the bottom from falling out of things. Comfort comes only later, when the world has righted itself through no effort of my own and the blue sky and sunshine seem once again to have some relation to me.

What Lies Beneath

Hope can be difficult to locate. Our destruction of the environment often appears insuperable to me: global warming, overpopulation, impending lack of fresh water, and to top it all off my own propensity to drive too much and use too many paper towels.

My Spirit Play group recently visited Piedras Blancas Light Station, a 136-year-old lighthouse on the California coast  (Spirit Play group: women who gather to do playful things that feed our spirit). We thought the point of the trip was to see the lighthouse, but the highlight turned out to be the surrounding bluffs, which put forth a dazzling display of fuzzy yellow flowers—aptly named wooly yarrow—interspersed with clumps of an unusual white lupine and spurts of purple seaside daisies.

In 2001, a heartbeat ago geologically speaking, non-native iceplant covered the entire area. A group of dedicated volunteers cleared nineteen acres by hand, a little over fourteen football fields’ worth.

Today, native vegetation has made a complete recovery, and, as our guide said, the critters have returned. The volunteers didn’t replant or bus in brush bunnies from the surrounding hills. As soon as they removed the iceplant, the native grasses and flowers began to grow. When the wooly yarrow, dune buckwheat, and others had taken sufficient hold, the animals followed.

I don’t understand this resurgence any more than I understand where fruit flies come from. There are no flies in my house; some fruit rots; voila, fruit flies, as if they spontaneously create themselves or pop through a wormhole. Though bunnies and bobcats seem too solid to explode fully formed into existence, the revival of an ecosystem in such a short time gives the feel of the miraculous.

I find this transformation heartening. We don’t have to fix it all. If we clear away what we’ve allowed to grow over our earth—or our hearts or relationships—the natural beauty already waiting beneath will spring up and amaze us.