Archive for March, 2010

If you are in the St. Louis area, consider having a wonderful experience with two of the most talented artists I know, taking home gorgeous photos that capture your family, and supporting a very special place that serves infants and families in times of great need.

NICUs are intense places– the twins I nannied for in St. Louis started out their lives in one, so small– and grew into healthy, brilliant babies, amazing toddlers, and great little people.  I visited the NICU with them once for one of their check-ups– the walls were painted with tiny footprints, and covered with photos of the healthy children who had begun their lives there.

I started out my life at four pounds, in the preemie ward of a Navy hospital in Orlando.  Back in the 1970s, that was very small indeed, and we didn’t know as much about what preemies need as we do now. There was a very large, very burly Navy captain who was in charge of that ward of the hospital– and I was the only baby in the ward at that time.  Ahead of his time, the captain believed that babies, all babies, need human contact.  And he used to take me out of of the incubator periodically to hold me in his giant hands.

I think that the work Jodie and Kim do, photographing babies for their families in those harrowing times of tragedy, pain, and love, is holy work.  Read more about their work here, in a post Jodie wrote last year about her experience on one such shoot.


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Wide open

I continue to be a huge fan of Jodie Allen‘s photography. Not only do she and her partner Kim shoot photos of families and babies, they shoot everyday things.  Recently, I saw some images on their photography blog that made me gasp.

It has been a long, long time since I’ve seen fields wide open, open to the eye until the edge goes to sky.  It’s been so long since my eye has had nothing to see but horizon, uninterrupted by buildings upon buildings upon highways and buildings.

When I was growing up, I never thought about the landscape that surrounded me. When I saw her photos, I had an immediate rush of homesickness.  Like when your mouth waters when you see a fresh, ripe piece of fruit. Only the mouth-watering was in my memory.

She was kind enough to give me copies of my two favorite images, so I can make prints. When I no longer live in a tiny city apartment, I’ll make prints and frame and hang them, so I’ll no longer be so forgetful about spaces.

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A few weeks ago, someone dear to me asked me, “How do you experience God?”  I wrote her an e-mail, entitled, “A few initial thoughts on God.” I realize that this title makes me sound a bit like an aspiring C.S. Lewis, holding forth to Magdalen undergrads.  But– any thoughts I have, even if I spend my life thinking them, will be “initial.” I’m finite.

As I composed the e-mail, I found myself articulating things that I think about frequently, and noticed several threads of thought that influence my work, in the different work I do.  Here is what I wrote:

“I suppose I have three things I want to say, that are related to your questions, and might be helpful for you to think about.

1. I pray every day, at night, or try to. I’ve had this pattern for many years now.  For many years, and mostly, I try to use a prayer journal, so I’m writing.  A really fantastic priest, Jake, gave me a pattern I still use: Praise, Thank, Ask for Forgiveness, and Supplication (asking for blessings, other things.)

The Praise part is sometimes the most difficult, because it’s hard to put into words the joyful, ineffable, “wow-ness” that (to me) praising God is about. If I notice something during the day, like an incredible sunrise, or a great moment with my students, or some piece of text that inspires me, I’ll re-think about that, maybe mentioning it (in writing) during the praise part.

Then, I ask for forgiveness, for some general things, and then some specific things, maybe related to that day.

And finally, I just ask for everything else, specific things, prayer requests from friends, help with areas of my life.

I don’t always want to pray. I’m often tired, and just want to read, and go to bed. But a lot of CS Lewis reading has instilled in me the idea that this is a relationship, and God of course understands that I’m tired and reluctant, but that it’s valuable to put that gesture-out-towards.  That’s how I think of it: that I’m gesturing out towards God, and understanding that God will give so much to me– it’s not tit for tat, but being willing to make the gesture makes me more open, and possibly more responsive.

A huge thing for me: I believe that prayer is like breathing, an in, an out. It doesn’t _come from_ us, or from me. It comes from God.  And I am like a valve, opening, and closing. My “sending out” of prayer is one part of the reception that I get from God– the sending “to me” of God’s energy, and Grace.

So the other thing I try to remember, besides trying to pray daily, is that I’m not “doing” the prayer.  One image from Catherine of Siena that I find really helpful– she had an experience where she was granted the perception that we are like fish, swimming in God’s Grace. It is not somewhere far from us, or granted us in piecemeal, we are swimming in it– breathing it in, it is our gills, it is what we are made of.

This is worth remembering if I start to feel guilty about not praying, or not being able to access God, or thinking I’m not “doing” enough. I would do better instead to remember that image, and consider how God moves around my life, constantly, in millions of ways I will never be able to perceive or understand.

2. I’ve also found it helpful to sometimes do a practice of looking for God in the world. I had an assignment when I first came to Union, to take a subway ride to another borough, and look for evidences of religious feeling. Tattoos of religious symbols, jewelry with Christ or the Virgin Mary, religious flags, candles, graffiti, storefront temples and synagogues, buskers singing religious songs.  It was a way of seeing religion in the city, but I do it sometimes now just to open myself up to being surprised. If I set out on my commute looking for God, what will I see to jar me into noticing God?  A teenager’s huge gold Jesus pendant, and an old woman reading the New Testament in Spanish–on the train to school, I take these as reminders to remember my own beliefs, and to _notice_.

3. It can be hard, but I think it’s good to ask others to pray for us, if that feels right.  At least for me, I don’t have a lot of friends who talk about praying, and prayer circles, or chains– these all seem slightly old-fashioned, and a little embarrassing.  Except, I _do_ pray for people (have since I was a child), and others pray for me.  Once I realized this, I decided that I didn’t want to be disingenuous about it– I started to go ahead and be vocal about asking others for prayer, and to say to others, “I’m praying for you.” I’ve found some surprises among friends who, as it turns out, were comfortable with that, and it allowed some new conversations about spiritual lives to open up.

Because, really– I do think that prayer has an affect on me, and that we are all connected, like by golden threads in an immense tapestry. I cannot see or understand the pattern of the whole, but I do understand (and sometimes have amazing moments of sensing those connections) that I am connected deeply to those around me.  It is good, and a blessing, to let myself open myself to the possibility of prayer touching me, and I think that when we pray for one another… those strands of connections… (how to put it) sing with vibration down the line? Strengthen? Get imperceptibly thicker and more strong?

I guess I haven’t really answered your initial question: ‘How do you experience God?’ I’ll try to come back to it– but I’ve touched on it here– I experience God by cultivating a habit of opening myself to God, of trying to keep the habit of noticing, and by understanding that my relationships here on earth are small-scale models for my relationship (our relationships) with God.  So I experience God in all of those practices, the things I try to do, or be aware of.”

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I’m currently doing the final edits of the third issue of the journal.  These are the days when I wish I had only _one_ job, and could do this work without feeling pressure from all sides.

But, on the upside, it’s exciting to read brand-spankin-‘new scholarship, and new ideas, and to read concepts and words new to me.

Today, I had to look up the following words, either for the first time (in most cases) or for a refresher:

umma: the Arabic word used (often in Islam) to mean “community,” especially, “community of believers.” In inter-religious work, sometimes used as a Qur’annic example of the potential one nature/community that is possible in all believers. Pleasingly, the same word (אוּמָה) is “a people” in Hebrew.

tontines: hard to explain. A kind of investment, or annuity thing.

multifariousness: having great variety, diverse

metaxy: an/the in-between, or middle ground

alterity: otherness, from the Latin “alter”

imparative: “bringing together” from Panikkar, from the Latin “imparare”

chronopolitics: in a world view, overemphasizing time to the detriment of space (I think)

homoousios: same substance (especially: the holy/hard to define substance _we_ are made of)

One of my oldest habits from college is to write the words I don’t know in a reading at the top margin of my page.  Later, when I’m going over my notes, I look up all the words at once, and write definitions there in the margins.  The best days were when I used the OED.  I still write words I don’t know in the margins of articles, or in my calendar, and I’m doing it now as I go through the several hundred pages of this issue to edit.  I love that there are still so many new words. I also love how it always happens that once you learn a new word, it starts showing up everywhere.  Like, has it always been around? Where have I been, not noticing it?

Oh, I also have recently learned the word “shred” as it pertains to guitar playing. It’s hard to get a definition for that; it’s one of those, “Is this shredding?” “Is this guy shredding?” question words. I’ve been having to seek out examples and non-examples to help me refine my definition. So far, I know that Peter Buck (from R.E.M.) does _not_ shred, although he could if he wanted to.

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Two years ago, I gave up wearing make-up for Lent.  I actually blogged about it, on LiveJournal.  I also took several digital photos of myself, to see what I actually looked like.  Well, to see what I looked like not in the mirror, in something I could really look at, and then delete.

I would never ever post one of those photos.  When Jodie over at Fresh Art Photography posted a photo of herself without make-up, and criticized it, I remembered my own Lenten photos.  And I was struck at how lovely _I_ thought Jodie looked.  A blog comment and a few e-mails later, and Jodie started the Fresh Reflection, where we try to listen to the voices of other women, and believe them when they say we’re beautiful.

Jodie asked me to guest blog for the Fresh Reflection, so I wrote about my original no-make-up experience. (Interesting to re-read my LiveJournal post from 2008 after writing my post for the Fresh Reflection–I repeat a few key phrases and images.)

I attached a photo of myself without make-up, from that Lenten time, to the blog I sent Jodie.  I thought she might include it in the post.  I also thought: I believe in the Fresh Reflection, I believe that I am not my make-up, I believe I should show up bare-faced more often.

Of course, I didn’t know Jodie was going to make it the most gigantic photograph of my bare moon face ever.  I saw it fill up my computer screen, winced, and had to laugh, “Okay, Universe: I get it.  Very funny.”

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I love quotes; many people I love, they love quotes.  It’s so good to see a thumbnail sketch, a pithy rendition of something we’d considered…but had never seen come together so elegantly, in a turn of phrase.
I also love my friends. My friend Shelly is amazing.  She and her affianced Aaron were our good, best neighbors on the 2nd floor last year– and they were _good_ to me.  Fat Ladies and good stories when my bone was broken, sharing of cooking, and LOST, and babysitting, support in the hall on the way to class, introduction to some beautiful things I’d never seen before, and some strong ideas I’d never thought before.  Shelly is a powerful person. I admire her.  She’s currently an Episcopal priest serving in Vancouver, WA.  She and Aaron are two of exactly three people who I really, really missed at our wedding.
One of my favorite things on Facebook is to look through in “Info” where people have their favorite quotes. I don’t even know what I have on mine— what quotes came to mind when I was creating my page.  A few days ago, I was clicking through Shelly’s, and was just inspired and amazed by the quality of her quotes. Isn’t that a dorky thing for me to admit?  I can’t help it: I hadn’t read some of them before, and said a silent, “Amen” to a few of them, and just wanted to write them down, all of them, for myself.  I FB-e-mailed her, and asked if I could share them in their entirety on my blog.  She must love the dorky parts of me, because she agreed.
“Be careful how you interpret the world: it is like that.” – Erich Heller

“Whatever you say about God, you should be able to say standing over a pit full of burning babies.” – Elie Wiesel

“It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.” -MLK, Jr.

“A man was attacked and left bleeding in a ditch. Two sociologists passed by and one said to the other, ‘We must find the one who did this – he needs help.'”

“Along came Paul, impotent old fussbudget. He could eat like a horse, but for some reason he either couldn’t or wouldn’t function sexually, or took no pleasure in it if he did. So sex became a sin.” – Jack Woodford

“We started off trying to set up a small anarchist community, but people wouldn’t obey the rules.” – Alan Bennett

“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to the garage makes you a car.” – Laurence J. Peter

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way.

What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.”
-Fr. Pedro Arrupe

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Last week, after what I had perceived to be a really interesting, healthy, and good-thought-provoking conversation on a blog about a post, another commenter called me “a bully and a b-word.”

I’ve never been called either before.  This was on one of my long-favorite blogs, written by a woman I really admire.  I was shocked, and really hurt, when the comment thread took that turn, and later when the original blogger posted about it (referring to herself being “challenged” but not to the name-calling turn things had taken).  I’ve been thinking about the incident a lot, but it makes me upset, and also confused, and so I’ve decided not to try to write out what happened, or what was typed. (The blogger deleted the entire post, including comments, so I can’t link to show what points I made, or tried to make.)

Instead, I want to share another really wonderful blog, that really inspired me tonight.  A Thousand Cheering Strangers highlights the stories many of us know, but rarely see trumpeted.  The quiet acts of courage, the astonishing shows of strength that those near us reveal.  Since I’ve started reading the blog, I’ve also started _noticing_ how courageous many of my loved ones, my colleagues, my students, and strangers out in the world can be.  It’s a good feeling to have about the world: how many people, say, on a subway train around me, are giving their best in untenable situations?  Doing the Graceful thing under pressures I couldn’t withstand?  Choosing to be kind, when it would feel good to be self-righteous?

For Lent, I’ve given up “raising my voice” in class.  This means both hollering in general, things like, “Sit. Down. Now.” or “You are now three minutes late for lunch!” or “What are you _thinking_?!” as well as even raising it to convey urgency, or get attention.  (This is another post entirely, the giving up of voice-raising as inspired by seeing _STOMP_ and seeing non-verbal communication at its best.)  But. I’m adding a Lenten focus, this very minute, to be a cheering stranger.

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