Archive for March, 2011

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
~ Plato

Of course, this is so much easier to remember when I am in a good mood, and when everything is going my way.  So many times, I am getting on a crowded train, and no one is “moving in,” and I have to both get in and get in fast enough for those behind me. Sometimes I say, “Can you please move in?” with an edge to my voice. Occasionally, if no one is moving, I will say, “Okay then, please let me pass by, there are others behind me.”

I feel so angry when this happens. I resent everyone taking up space around me, the young men sitting with their legs spread wide, taking up extra seat room, the people with backpacks on, the person with iPod turned up so loud everyone can hear it. I get so mad! I think very mean thoughts.

If I’m already sitting, I am happy to tuck my bookbag and fiddle under the seat, happy to scooch over and make room, happy even to get up and let another person sit. I feel happy to be part of this crowd on the train, and magnanimous.

Plato’s quote hit me really hard.  I know from teaching that even the worst, and even the quietest students have baggage I cannot imagine. I try to be aware of this, and be gentle when possible, and present and attentive always. It’s harder with strangers. It’s harder when I’m tired, when I’ve been working all day and on my way to my second or third job, carrying something uncomfortable, ankle throbbing.

And I’m mildly embarrassed to list all of those minor aches and discomforts that might somehow justify my selfish mindset.

If I wrote this quote on my hand tomorrow, and spent the rest of the day reminding myself with every human encounter, how would my movement through the world change?

I also wonder if I would have more kind self-thoughts, if had kinder thoughts for those around me. Does part of my impatient internal dialogue relate to the harsh expectations and impatience I have for myself?

I will try, for at least tomorrow, to keep in mind this:

Everyone around me is struggling in all kinds of ways, large and small, seen and unseen.

Whether I think of it as being patient with myself, or being patient with my brothers and sisters on this path… it bears reminding that my God is a God of great Mercy, and very endless Patience.  Perhaps I will find my way more easily in my daily life if I keep attuned to this.



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Janet is my oldest friend. I can remember the first time I noticed her–in 4th grade, in Mrs. Johnson’s class. We were illustrating idioms, and she did, “Go jump in a lake.” It earned praise from Mrs. Johnson, and I was jealous.
I don’t know how many sleepovers I’ve had with Janet in my life, how many hours on the phone, how many notes passed. I wore her wedding veil at my own wedding (my something borrowed) and I think about her and her family every day. I hold her in my prayers. And I thank God for her and for her friendship. When I imagine being a mother, I am inspired by her creativity, her grace, her honesty, and her love.
She shared the following with me, and it took my breath away:
“‘Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.
This is a wonderful quote I say over & over & over when feeling down or depressed or overwhelmed.
I’m pretty sure this is a Winnie the Pooh quote…maybe from Christopher Robin, maybe some woodland creature?  I don’t really know.  What I do know is that it’s true.
Every time life throws me a curve ball I come out stronger on the other end.  Like when I found out I was pregnant with twins.  Whaaat?!  I thought, ‘How will I ever survive twins and a 3 year old mentally, physically and financially with a husband out of work/in business school?’  I can’t possibly do this alone…how will I even leave the house?  But, day by day, I did.  I was braver, stronger and smarter than I thought possible.
Or, like now, we are trying to sell our tiny 2 bedroom condo and get a bigger place for this family of 6 but no one is looking at let alone buying homes in Chicago right now.  How are we going to manage?  We are so cramped and squished and getting on each other’s nerves in such a tight space.  We were stupid to buy at the worst possible/most expensive time but we only had 1 year old Olivia.  How could we have possibly known the real estate market would crash?
But, I tell myself, ‘Summer & outside play are on the horizon. We are all healthy and full of love.’  Surely someone will buy so we can move out and onward.
I also think about my mom when I read this quote.  Her mother died a very slow, very painful death to pancreatic cancer in the late 90s.  Mom was her primary caretaker.  My mom has never gotten over it…how could you?  I wish I would have been braver & stronger for her back then.
I wasn’t very smart about these types of things…is anyone at 19 years old?  But, I’ve learned from it and know I want to be there for my family like my mom was there for her mom. I talk to my parents & sister at least 4 or 5 times every week.  I make sure my kids know & are able to love their extended family.  And I use the strength and bravery I witnessed in my mom in my everyday life.  I love her & my dad and I tell them all the time.”
Oh, wow.  I am frequently overwhelmed, but I’ve never read this quote. And somehow– it’s more powerful with someone else _telling_ me: “_Remember_, you are…”  I’m going to write this out and tape it to my front door. Maybe I’ll ask Janet to write it out– to see it in a friend’s handwriting.
This also reminds me to try and reassure others. I know there are teachers in my building who could stand a word of encouragement. Even my Sunday school kids (some of them) have pressured academic and extra-curricular lives. My dad has an incredibly stressful job.
I also want to be intentional about noting when I see the bravery and strength in others. I believe in community, and I know that God intends us to be in relationship and learn from one another.  Even if I can’t be brave and strong _on my own_… I believe I can with the help of others, and with God’s help.
Sometimes, since I’m so mortal and finite, it helps to see Grace in the courage of others. (And I love how that word “courage” has the older word for “heart” in it.)
I pray that God will continue to open my eyes to the strength and grace in those around me, and help me to take heart.

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Reading true

More textual riches.  One of my brother-in-laws has been offering close readings, including careful, beautiful highlighting things I’ve never considered, on _Othello_ on his blog.

I saw _Othello_ more than ten years ago, at a summer Shakespeare festival, in Houston. I remember very little of the production: something operatic, something tragic.

I actually have a hard time reading Shakespeare’s plays on my own. Funny thing for a Performing Arts teacher to say. I’ve been spoiled by enormously rich teachers and classes where I read Shakespeare in community, and in performance. I’ve never “had” to read alone, and never wanted to. Andrew’s explication makes me want to do something I’ve never done: read _Othello_ [on my own.]

” ‘What did thy song bode, lady?

Hark, canst thou hear me? I will play the swan,
And die in music. [She sings.] “Willow, willow, willow.”
Moor, she was chaste. She loved thee, cruel Moor.
So come my soul to bliss as I speak true.
So speaking as I think, alas, I die.’
This is Emilia. She has been stabbed by her husband, Iago, for telling the truth to Othello, the tragic hero of the play. Othello killed his wife, Desdemona, because his officer, Iago, schemed against him and led him to believe Desdemona was having an affair with another officer, Cassio. Emilia had been Desdemona’s maidservant, and had picked up a handkerchief that Desdemona dropped and given it to Iago. Iago later used that evidence to convince Othello that Desdemona was unfaithful. It is Emilia who convinces Othello that what he did was wrong, and who brings her husband Iago’s treachery to light.
In contrast to Desdemona, who uses her last words to try to cover for her husband, Othello, even though he killed her, saying only she was to blame for her death, Emilia defies her husband, Iago, to tell the truth, even though Iago threatens her. And when she tells Othello that it was she who found the handkerchief and gave it to Iago, implicating Iago in the deception, Iago mortally stabs her.

Over the past few years of teaching Othello, I have been drawn to the character of Emilia in the play. She doesn’t figure very prominently in the beginning of the play. When we first meet her, she is a pitiable character.

In Act II, she gets off the boat in Cyprus and Cassio gives her a gentlemanly kiss and Iago says, ‘Sir, would she give you so much of her lips / As of her tongue she oft bestows on me, / You would have enough.’
In light of Emilia’s role in Act V, it is prophetic. She talks too much, Iago says. And he goes on to make chauvinist remarks about women, which Emilia seems to roll her eyes at, but endure, while Desdemona guffaws and banters with Iago, upholding the honor of women.
I am fascinated by this idea of a truth-teller, especially because it seems that Emilia is a lesser-known character in the play. How is it that a liar, Iago, takes more energy, and more of the audience’s attention?
In January, I was at a dinner party with a mixture of people I knew fairly well, and people I didn’t know at all. Another woman, upon being introduced to me, described her childhood. In great detail, she told of her mother, marrying young and raising her single-handedly, working long hours to provide for her daughter. She described a working-class upbringing, and an inspirational figure of a mother who always told her, “Even if we don’t have a lot, we have more than most, and you can be anything you want to be.”
I felt such a connection to this woman, and was inspired by her mother. For at least ten minutes, our end of the table was held captive by this story about her childhood.  Then, the woman said, “Oh, none of that is true.”  I was shocked. Several other people were shocked. I said, “Wait. I felt such a strong connection to your working-class background. That’s not real?”  Another man said, ore pointedly, “You didn’t grow up poor? Was you mom even a single mom??”

The woman glibly said, “That was just a story,” as if we were pitiable for having believed so easily. Her mother is actually a constitutional lawyer!  I was angry, and turned away from that side of the table, impatient with someone who would pass bold-faced, unnecessary lying as party-going charm.

The woman sensed that perhaps she had gone too far. Others gave her some ribbing throughout the evening– she’d be trying to talk about her job, or her house, and someone would assert that we couldn’t believe a word she said. She got a little frustrated; perhaps she was sorry.
At the end of the evening, she came over to sit by me, to try and explain. She said, as if to convince me or make it better, “Don’t you ever lie?”  I said that I try not to, and feel terrible when I do.  She said, “Don’t you think that lying is like prayer? You just have to practice.”
Honestly, I felt that was sick, and blasphemous, and really basically wrong on so many levels: social, relational, theological, in terms of being a healthy adult…  I could barely answer her. I actually physically turned away from her. I certainly couldn’t answer her. If that’s what one thinks about prayer, I’m not sure what I can say.
I’m not sure  what this encounter has to do with Emilia and Iago, just that I am sympathetic to the truth, and am struck by how fantastic liars are in print and on stage.  I am sure there are many dinner parties where the lying woman I met would be considered sparkling and coy, a fascinating party guest.
I note that Andrew points out that Emilia can be seen as “pitiable,” and “endure[s].” I guess she’s surrounded by deceit, and there’s not that much she can do about it–she’s not a powerful person in her time and place.
I love that phrase, “So come my soul to bliss as I speak true.” It has a kind of poignancy; at least in literature, truth-tellers aren’t always rewarded, and have to take cold comfort in being true.

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Persevering in love

From my Aunt Karen:

“A wonderful Japanese proverb says ‘Fall seven times, stand up eight.’
When we find life getting us down, then it is time to remember this proverb.

Often a daily thing in my life.  Reminding me to love those who may be harder to love.

We are challenged to love our neighbor, but not just the ones who love us, but the ones who need our love the most and are more difficult to love.”

When I looked further into this proverb, one literal translation gave it as, “stumbling seven times but recovering eight.”

I am heartened by the idea of “recovering.” Honestly, for things that are hard for me– for times when I have fallen down, getting back up can be so daunting.

When I have dealt with depression, even getting out of bed, getting my things together, getting to class– all of these are too daunting. Overwhelming.  Even considering, “stand up, get up,” seems too difficult. But the word, “recovering.” It seems more possible.

I also consider the human condition, as I understand it as a Christian. We are truly incapable of “standing up,” of our own accord. Indeed, we fall again and again, so many more times past seven or eight. And when we become aware of our shortcomings, our grave flaws: oh, the pain of realization. I am not enough. Nothing I do can be enough. I cannot stand up on my own.

And yet.  God has come into the world to recover us. God did a radical thing for a god– coming intimately into the human condition, into us like an antidote into a poison-blood wound. Changing the very possibility of our nature, linking Godself to our striving and recovering for all human time.

And so. What seemed impossible before, becomes possible. With the addition of mercy, what I can not do on my own I am able to attempt. It seems impossible that I could love my neighbor, and persevere even when human relationships seem irrevocably broken. With God’s help, with the infusion of God’s mercy, I am able to try again.

A commenter on my previous post asks, “It’s well and good to love our friends and family, but what about people who are harder to love?”  I love how Karen brings this up directly– it’s _hard_ to love our neighbor. Easy to say, easy to try, but we fail again and again.

And as Jan notes: we should consider love an action. Even if we think we can’t muster a feeling of love, we can act. With God’s help, we can act.

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My havruta practice has begun. I was blessed to find the following contribution from my mother-in-law, Jan:

‘Love is not only something you feel, it is something you do.’ — David Wilkerson

Bob and I talk a lot about the fact that ‘love is a verb’ and if you don’t do the action you won’t have the feeling.

I also think that it is something that we women tend to base a lot of what we do in our lives on.  We show love to our
family and our friends.

The one thing that I think we don’t do enough is tell those people how important they are to us and how much their love means to us and how when we do what we do we are showing them our love.”

One of my dearest friends has been going through a tough time; late on Ash Wednesday, we spoke on the phone. I got to tell her how much she means to me, and regain a feeling of closeness and warmth, even over a thousand miles distance. I think of this friend every day. I know (in my head) that I love her. But there is nothing like the action and time spent showing that, in conversation, letter, or e-mail. I am reminded to continue to look for ways to show love, in action not just word.

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Lenten Havruta

One of my favorite things is when someone grabs my arm, or presses a book into my hand, or turns to look straight into my eyes and says, “You have _got_ to read this book.”

At some point when I was younger, I decided I would make a sort of pact with myself to always read a book recommended to me.  This is no small matter: people constantly say, “Oh, I loved it, you have to read it,” or mention books during e-mails or dinner parties, and pause to say, “You would love it.”  It’s been a good pact– I’ve read many things I wouldn’t have ordinarily sought out, and often one books sets me down a chain of kinds of books. Or, a single book will give me a few days of intense pleasure.

When I was studying history, I got deep into story, and “transmission” of story. What are the most holy, sacred texts that get passed, from generation to the next, hidden in a grandmother’s trunk during Communism (for instance) and brought back out to teach the next members of the family.

I learned about the practice of havruta in January. I met two seminary presidents, one a Christian seminary, the other Jewish, you practice it every Friday morning. They have then a long-standing professional and spiritual friendship; they related that it keeps their own spiritual lives enriched, and allows them to be continually in a posture of openness and learning.

I got to try it out, and met with two other writers whom I had only recently met. We had been encouraged to think of “text” loosely, and just bring something that was deeply meaningful to us. I shared an old Gospel song that I learned as a child, the next person shared a recent hagiography of an Eastern Orthodox woman, and the third a piece from _The Brothers Karamazov._  I was so, so struck by how resonant each of the three texts became for me. I found myself getting the shivers, and tearing up, and totally in awe of grace, and the gracefulness of sharing.

As Lent approached, I thought about reading the Bible more each day, or writing each day, or setting aside time for textual study. And then I decided that what might give me most would be a kind of havruta with people I know that also appreciate words and sharing word meaning.

I imagined an online “havruta tree,” where I could reach out in pairs with my friends, share texts and our impressions, and go back and forth, like twining branches, all throughout Lent.

I felt so excited and blessed when several of my favorite people responded that they would be willing to participate with me. I look forward to listening with keen ears, and cultivating an openness this Lenten season.

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I type this from the couch–these are the books that run behind the couch, and my view as I type.

State of Formation is the Journal’s new endeavor– I am proud of this, and also daily inspired by the writing of the bloggers.

I’ve been following Your Ill-fitting Overcoat for at least a year.  I find her writing brave, forthright, thoughtful, and creative. And beautiful.  Hers is the blog that I always hope has new content.

Not Martha always, always has ideas that I bookmark for later, as well as great glimpses into MetaFilter topics.

The Hunger Games.  I spent two weeks devouring these excellent “YA” novels on my Nook. I couldn’t get enough. Suzanne Collins has created a world, a conflict, and a set of characters that I only want to know more about. I wish her books were three times as long.

Old Ethicist columns.  I haven’t really had time in the past few months to do my daily Slate/Salon/NYTimes/Jezebel round about.  In a daily way, the entertainment piece I most miss is that of the advice column. I love the Ethicist. And just as he’s retiring!  I wish, in fact, his columns weren’t so short. I love when people produce a problem or dilemma in writing, and then someone tries to figure it out. Even if I disagree with the “solution,” it’s so satisfying to think about it.

Mere Christianity. Either this or The Problem of Pain are my top C.S. Lewis faves… for giant moments of, “Oh, my goodness, I am so merely mortal and broken, and God is Mercy, and there is so little we know…” epiphany. I have read each of these at various times, and in various locations, in my life, and they are always both new and relevant.

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