Tag Archives: prayer

The Questions

For much of my adult life, I have been trying to figure out what I want to be “when I grow up.” Some are born knowing the answer to that question, develop a plan for achieving it, and follow the plan. For the rest of us, there is a whole self-help industry. I once had a small bookshelf devoted to the topic.

I have explored the color of my parachute; chronicled and charted successes and failures, likes and dislikes, aptitudes and attitudes; and, at one time or another, laid claim to a third of the Myers-Briggs types. Several career changes and two retirements later, I’ve come no closer to the answer than Zen-like koans to the effect that the journey itself is the destination.

But I am still a fan of the genre, particularly the underlying principle that we are born with a true self and a true purpose, and that our search for career—for vocation—is a sacred journey back to the God-given calling we have somehow lost. If I am doing “the work you have given us to do” (Book of Common Prayer, p 366), I will be energized by that work. If instead, I am dragged down by what fills my waking hours, perhaps it is not my work to do. The work may be valuable, even essential, but not mine.

Where I might differ with the find-your-true-career gurus is in the implicit assumption that a calling once found is mine for all time. That I have spent so much time in search does not mean I’ve never found the deep energizing satisfaction of knowing why I am here and what I am called to do. I have, a number of times and for extended periods. But not forever. There will be no neat summary on my tombstone.

One of the favored exercises in the self-help toolkit is to look to our earliest childhood memories—to what engaged our energies and imaginations—and to seek there the seeds of the calling we were born to. At this exercise, I am a total failure. Nancy can remember the dress she wore to her fifth birthday party. I can barely remember being a child.

I was reminded of this exercise when I encountered Courtney Martin’s March 10 On Being blog post entitled, “What Was Your First Question?” As you might expect from the title, her approach asks what the child found troubling and has spent a lifetime trying to explore or resolve. Beginning with how the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 shaped the life and work of Dorothy Day, she writes of other famous people whose early experiences led them to a life’s work devoted to questioning the status quo and healing its wounds. She then recounts her personal slow realization of a unifying thread in her own life and work.

So far, at least, I am as much a failure at this exercise as at the earlier ones. I have not found the unifying thread in my own life, nor guidance for the future. But it is an intriguing question on which I’ll continue to gnaw.

Parker Palmer, another On Being blogger, asks a different question, one more relevant to me at this stage of my life. His February 22 post, “Withering Into the Truth,” is a reflection on aging as he approaches his 78th birthday. I am less than a decade behind him, and musing about similar issues.

First, he redirects my thoughts from past to present. Quoting from his own poem, “Harrowing,” he says

I plowed to unearth last year’s reasons—
The farmer plows to plant a greening season.

Looking back is valuable, to a point. But there comes a time when plowing up the past is no longer productive, and it is time to look forward and plant something new.

Then, apropos of my own struggles with too much stuff, he rephrases the question about what to let go of and what to hang on to, replacing “hang on to” with “give myself to.” He writes, “The desire to “hang on” comes from a sense of scarcity and fear. The desire to “give myself” comes from a sense of abundance and generosity.” It seems a critical distinction, whether addressing the tools and wood scraps in my shop or the non-physical baggage of my life. And it is reminiscent of the adage of an unclutter-your-life guru that Nancy has been reading: Does it spark joy? If not, throw it out.

Back to Palmer and this particularly rich post. He claims the most important sentence he ever wrote was the single word, “Enough.” To say “enough” is to reject more. At first, I thought Palmer meant rejecting the unnecessary and unimportant tasks and burdens and detritus we allow ourselves to be weighed down by. Perhaps. But he is also saying “enough” to what is wrong in the world. “Enough” to hatred and prejudice and selfishness and exclusion, to cruelty and injustice. To say “enough” in the face of evil is not to walk away from it, but to face it with a resounding “this far and no farther.” To say “no” sometimes requires us to take on a countervailing “yes.”

This, too, I struggle with. What am I called to give myself to? In what way am I called to “show an affirming flame?” I’m still seeking the answers. And I’m grateful to Martin and Palmer and, yes, to Auden, for raising and re-phrasing the questions.

Of Chaos and Spring

Was it Luther? Somewhere I read something to the effect that he prayed for an hour each day, except on days he was especially busy—then he prayed for two hours. In that vein, perhaps I can justify taking some time to write.

My life is chaos. It is largely my own fault, and nothing that deserves your great sympathy. My desk is chaos, because of my own habits of procrastination and sloth. My shop is chaos, because (in addition to the aforementioned procrastination and sloth) in the midst of my latest project, my table saw’s blade raising and lowering mechanism failed, and I now have saw parts and tools layered over that project on the workbench and underfoot all over the floor. Our house is chaos because in selling the houses of my mother and Nancy’s parents, we have ended up with more stuff than anyone could possibly use. My “To Do” list is chaos because I have made commitments that I should have not made.

On second thought, as I look at the list, I do not regret any of the voluntary commitments. It is, for the most part, an exciting and life-affirming list. The To-Do’s I dread are involuntary, chief among them being the annual income tax flagellation.

The table saw has been a major setback. After scanning the on-line forums and evaluating my choices, I opted for an epoxy called J-B Weld. I knew that if I screwed up, there’d be hell to pay, but I was careful and as thorough as I knew to be. After applying the epoxy, I tested that the parts that needed to slide against each other would still slide, then laid everything aside for the epoxy to cure overnight. Alas! This morning when I tried to re-assemble, I couldn’t even jam the parts together, much less expect them to slide freely. Does J-B Weld expand on curing? Everything looks just as I had left it last evening, but I have lost a critical few thousandths of an inch in clearance. I will have to remove that from the polished aluminum casting with an abrasive. More delay in getting back to my projects. More tasks I have never done before and must learn on the fly. More opportunity to screw up and ruin what was a pretty good saw.

I need an attitude adjustment. Writing helps. Sitting here helps—sitting in a comfortable chair, watching my dog watching the life just outside our dining room window. Earlier this morning, that life included a flock of goldfinches splashing in the pond. Two days ago, the pond hosted a frenzied flock of robins (and a lone mourning dove) taking a post-winter bath. Bluebirds are nesting in the bluebird house. The upland chorus frogs are looking for love again—they’ve been sounding off for the past two nights. Spring is coming.

Snow Day Redux

It’s a snowy day, the first of the season. I was up early, doing my morning pages and watching the snow and wondering if I’d venture out for my usual Wednesday morning men’s group session. And then I remembered another snowy day, almost 18 years ago. I dug out what I’d written that day. So much changes over two decades, but then again, not much.

Snow Day

At 5 am, the rain is laced with sleet.  On a normal day, I treasure the stillness and solitude of 5 am.  I’ve been known to choke the pendulum on the Regulator clock into silence and pull the plug on our tabletop fountain, their tick, tock, drip, and splash too garish in the early morning calm; I’ve strained to hear tranquil rain above the hum of refrigerator in the next room and jetliner six miles up.  Today, with the weather on the fence, curiosity outweighs my need for solitude, and I admit muted TV weather watchers into my journaling and prayer time.  I watch the growing list of school closings and let Doppler images compete with Nehemiah, fasting in captivity, mourning his beloved Jerusalem.  I contemplate how I will spend the day, if the weather breaks my way.

By 6:30, rain and sleet give way to snow, and white accumulates on lawn and street.  Local schools are closed, and I intercept my teenage son on his way to the shower.  I go back to bed.  Snow is a gift, not least for the chance of extra sleep.

At 8, I wake again.  The world is white—every trunk and branch and twig.  My youngest is awake.  He turns four today and already has two unplanned presents: a snow day, and a big brother to share it with.  If he were older and self-entertaining, my love and I might stay in bed till noon.  I fantasize, but not for long.

How will I spend this snow day?  I could brave the slippery streets and clump around the office in hiking boots and jeans and bulky sweater, one of the male majority who consider ourselves essential to the economy and our driving skills well above average.  I could stay home and chafe at the inconvenience, trapped in childcare and domesticity.  I’ve done both.

Or I can accept this day as a gift, six-pointed grace.  I call the office and say I’m staying home.  “Call if you need me.”  They won’t, and I won’t mind.

In all honesty, I should confess that I’m underemployed right now and would have had to take a day or so off anyway.  But I’d stay home even if it were a busy week.

The snow took out a pine tree, laid it neatly on the path that switchbacks down to the kids’ fort.  Most of the pines in my oak woods lean and droop on a good day, and this giant’s snow heavy top got the better of its roots.  An oak, itself an affront to gravity leaning 40 degrees off plumb, snagged the top 15 feet off the pine on its way down.  That lethal widowmaker hangs 30 feet in the air, its 8” diameter butt-end a jagged warning flag of yellow against black bark, green needles, and gray sky.  Come spring, we’ll have to build a new stretch of trail through the poison ivy, briars, and deadfall.  Come spring, we’ll have muddy shoes and pants to clean as the four-year-old climbs the newly formed mountain of roots and explores the crater they once occupied.

The snow makes disappointing sledding.  We tromp through the woods to explore the downed tree, bombarded by soggy tufts of slush from the canopy.  Wet cold hands soon bring us inside.  We make cake and cookies for the birthday celebration.  I do a workout, some writing, some housework, enjoying the slow pace of a snow day.

I’ve had a lot of snow days in the past two years, though few with real snow.  Leave without pay.  Not enough work.  Days when I stayed home and played with my son or took him to the zoo.  Days when I painted the house.  Days when I wrote.  A long Gulf Coast vacation.

Those days are joy; I relish the re-creating freedom and opportunity.  Loss of income is a serious downside, to be sure.  But the nights of waking in dry-mouthed, heart-pounding fear of unemployment have been rare.  I more often feel on the threshold of something exciting.

Chronologically, I’m on the threshold of Modern Maturity, which will be arriving in my mailbox any day now.  But my snow days are not about withdrawal and winding down.  They are days of discovery—that I have creative gifts, healing gifts, spiritual gifts to be nurtured and used.

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis says of his fellow bus travelers, “They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities, but of impossibilities.”  That is the face I see in the mirror that scares and haunts me.  Gaunt, tight, sunken cheeked, steeled against the world, seeing only today and an endless string of todays.  

More than most, I’ve resisted change and run from risk.  Once I wore a mustache for 21 years; having grown it to spite my father, I forgot what I looked like underneath and couldn’t make the leap to rediscover myself or him.  I count my life as two decades of childhood, two of stagnation, and one of belated climbing out of ruts.  Snow days are for climbing out of ruts.

And what of my next decade?  Where will it take me?  Patching up my dis-integrated life is a priority.  I am tired of this piecemeal life in which the way I earn a living interferes with the way I find fulfillment.  With Frost, “My goal in living is to unite my avocation and my vocation…”  To write, to serve and heal hurt children, to love, to worship and pray—that is the description of my dream vocation.  Snow days are experiments and practice for my next career, whose outlines I barely discern and whose details I have not yet imagined.

The next day, streets are clear, schools open, and life back to routine.  In separate casual conversations, two people I barely know ask if I made it in to work the day before.  The first seems shocked and dismayed when I say I could have, but didn’t; with the precision of a practiced commuter, she details for me her route, the road conditions, and just how many extra minutes her trip had taken.  The other, like me, had voluntarily stayed home and enjoyed every minute.  Her face is all smile as she recounts telling her husband she might just quit work and stay home for good.  Yeah!

A Reading Fast

For a variety of reasons, I have an uncommonly high stack of books and magazines waiting to be read. All recent acquisitions, all personal choices I look forward to savoring. And it’s the perfect time of year to spend days in a good book. Weather is iffy, garden is sleeping, and holidays are for kicking back.

What timing, then, to be assigned a week of no reading! No books, no magazines, no morning paper. No NPR. No books on tape or listening to the news.

“If you feel stuck in your life or in your art, few jump starts are more effective than a week of reading deprivation.” So says Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. I had been following her program for a few weeks, and came onto this assignment just as Christmas preparation was settling down enough for me to tackle my book pile.

Why reading deprivation? “The nasty bottom line is this: sooner or later, if you are not reading, you will run out of work and be forced to play.” Or, I would add, you will run out of excuses not to write and be forced to “show up at the page.” Play, dream, refill the creative well from which you draw. And then show up at the page, or the canvas, or the forge.

Reading deprivation is a form of fasting. I recall that Lauren Winner (Girl Meets God) describes a reading fast assigned to her one Lent. Six weeks is a long time; surely I can do a week.

On Sunday, Deacon John came down from the pulpit during his sermon on gratitude and wandered the aisle to give parishioners the opportunity to express their gratitudes. Grandchildren, children, spouses, the church community or particular members of it. As I listened to, and seconded, these and others, I was trying to articulate another thought. Only later did I get the words in place. One of the post-eucharistic prayers has the clause, “send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” I am grateful for that work, in all its many forms.

I will not try to explain the “how” of The Artist’s Way (TAW). I must try, however, to explain the “why.” Because if you go to the website, you will come away with the mistaken impression that TAW is another self-help program—a formula for pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps of will and determination. But if you read the book carefully, you will see that the program and its disciplines are founded not on will but on submission; on a belief that creativity is an ongoing act by the Creator, and that we are, once the blocks are cleared away, participants in this creative process. The disciplines—morning pages and artist dates and reading deprivation—like any spiritual disciplines, help to place us in the way of grace so that we can recognize and respond to it. They open us up so that we become channels for God’s creativity to flow through us.

And with that understanding of creativity, we see that it is not limited to “the creative arts.” This creative energy flows through all “the work you have given us to do.” Through my gardening and singing and child care. Through playing with my grandchildren, selecting Christmas gifts for my children, caring for an elderly parent. Through attending to the needs of my family and myself. Through housework and the work of being in relationship. Through improving this website and writing this blog.

So, how was my week of reading deprivation? I am happy to report that I only cheated a tiny bit; I took a few brief internet research excursions and glanced at a few headlines, but left my reading pile untouched and my news feeds unread. I did play; discovering some lovely music by local singer-songwriter, Jennifer Niceley. And I did “show up at the page” more often.  One prayer in the book goes, Great Creator, I will take care of the quantity, you take care of the quality.