Why Church?

IMG_1277Why church?

I’ve asked myself that for much of the last year. Personally and professionally, change abounds. I’ve expanded my work from home and married the man I love. It’s been a good but busy time, with plenty for my hands and heart to do. For the past six months, I’ve found myself often at home with family, attention focused tightly at a time where that seems the most appropriate action.

Church has changed, too. The UU community I’ve called home for the past seven years has also gone through wrenching changes, with a loss of our minister last summer and a moderate loss of congregation in the process. Initially, part of church leadership, I sat through meetings and contributed to email discussions, watching conflict and division grow and wondering just what was right. Gradually, I pulled back, first leaving my committee chair position and then attending services only sporadically. During winter and spring, I dropped my son for his OWL classes (Our Whole Lives — a human sexuality series offered in Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ churches) and spent services in the church gathering area, where I could tune in and out as desired. This summer, I’ve attended rarely, excusing my absences to travel and family consolidation time.

I’ve started to more deeply consider the question underneath my avoidance. Why church? Why should I get up each Sunday morning, the one day no one needs to otherwise dress and leave the house, and go to church? Why not stay home with my coffee, New York Times, NPR, and pajama-clad loved ones? Why drive twenty minutes to sit for sixty, sip coffee for fifteen, and drive another twenty home? Why do I go?

Seven years back, I had reasons, the first being a hole I couldn’t fill at home.  A life-long member of some Christian denomination or another, I was, seven years back, rather new to saying aloud that I didn’t see any evidence of a god. A reluctant agnostic, mostly closeted because I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the safety of a personal god, I was feeling loss. Holidays deepened the sense of loss, with Lent and Advent leaving me unmoored. Finding a congregation that was fine with my increasingly faithless status and offered a touch of ceremony to the big liturgical holidays relieved a bit of the chasm that came with jumping theistic ship. At least I was somewhere doing something vaguely familiar.

I came to that UU congregation with several searching friends. In my socially slow-moving, introverted style, I gradually found new friends and acquaintances.  I’d spent the previous decade and a half moving from parish to parish, never feeling settled. At one, I’d come to know a few families well enough to make coffee hour more than a dash for a donut for each kid, but I never found friends. I certainly didn’t experience the supportive relationships my parents had known and continue to know in their places of worship. At this church, I’ve had true friends, the sort where coffee hour can’t contain the conversations. The sort  that spread to the other six days of the week.

And the sort of friends that can sop up some of the sorrow of a slowly imploding marriage and soften a bit of the disaster of divorce. New friends and old held me when I cried. Sunday mornings because a refuge, a time and place I could let down and feel, for just a bit, cocooned from a reality I couldn’t believe was mine. I don’t believe in fate or a god that directs our lives, but I do believe in the power of two or more people gathered in love and in the balm of friendship. I imagine I’d have found a way through those terrible years without that place and those people, but I’m not sure I’d have made it through with much of my sense of self and dignity intact.

Of course there were the kids. Boys, young boys then, not the type to share their grief and confusion over bagels and fair trade coffee but old enough to feel a sense of community. I considered Sunday morning church and religious education to be a social as well as learning opportunity for my introverted boys. Over the years, I came to deeply appreciate the UU approach to children’s religious education. It’s respectful and thoughtful, and my children blossomed in that environment. Questioning was welcomed, the quiet, thoughtful sort as well as the more outspoken and even challenging type. My boys have done well there, learning lessons about respect, dignity, worth, and love, lessons that came through the members who taught them regardless of what the curriculum of the day was. As they’ve matured, they’ve taken on responsibilities that serve the congregation, learning that belonging to community means participating in the work of the community.

That’s good stuff. But, still, I’m asking the question.

Why church now?

I’ve settled comfortably and confidently into my agnostic, humanist view of the world. Holidays no longer echo emptily. We’ve largely left Easter behind, and Christmas has become a time for family. I don’t wake up the first Sunday of Advent longing for “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel,” and I often find Fat Tuesday takes me by surprise and leaves with no pierogi or other indulgence, let alone a vice to give up. I don’t go to church to fill that hole. It’s filled itself with time.

My life’s settled down (for now) and with that calm, my need for sanctuary seems less urgent. I’ve found more peace within myself, although that’s still a peace that takes work, as I’m prone to angst and anxiety. Over the years, I’ve found more of that peace at home, in no small part because I’m sharing that home with a supportive and loving partner. I have friends, some from church, some from other communities, friends I mostly keep up with outside of the confines of Sunday mornings. And my boys? As the church has aged and the number of families with children has dropped, even with jobs they enjoy and adults who care for them, church isn’t offering them the companionship it once did.

Why church?

I’ve let that question flit in and out of my mind for a year. I’ve pondered it more seriously for the last several months. And for nearly a week, I’ve written and rewritten this piece, hoping to sort through that question a bit more. A sermon a week back, given by a long-time member who’s seen the place through many ministers and countless changes, provided me with a longer view. After a lifetime of mostly Catholic church experience, I’m new to the leadership and political engagement that many other churches require. I’d never watched a congregation grumble and feud. I’d never seen a member cry because of changes in ministry. I’d never sat at the meeting table, seeing how painful and divisive disagreement can be. Frankly, I’ve wanted to flee, missing my ignorance about the hard work it takes to build a church. I’ve wanted to return to the outside, where lack of engagement in process allowed me to keep my rose-colored glasses on or simply leave when things didn’t feel good anymore.

But this longer view makes me think yet again about my question: Why church?

  • Church, because it is a place where others who value religious freedom gather.
  • Church, because values of inclusion, equality, and justice always need a voice.
  • Church, because supportive community is built over time, not just used when in need.
  • Church, because working through pain, anger, and disappointment in community deepens understanding.
  • Church, because children thrive in an environment of thinking, caring adults who see them as competent and valuable.
  • Church, because stumbling and falling aren’t ends if we help each other off, address our hurts, and work together to heal.
  • Church, because it reminds us that community is larger than any one person, idea, or belief.

So I’m finding my way back to church. I can’t say my energy or enthusiasm is high, but seeing the place from a longer view nudges me to have more patience with the time we’re in. So I’ll show up on most Sunday mornings. I’ll ease into participation beyond that, parking my cloak of disappointment and reluctance on the hangers in the hall. I’ll have the hard conversations, listening to others and mulling over ideas. I’ll also look to the past, learning about what it takes to make a community last over a century and a half and perhaps helping to build that community’s future.

Love Lessons from Lilacs

IMG_1064In eleven days, I’ll vow to my partner to seek love with him wherever life takes us. We’ve spent the last several weeks looking through boxes at his past, a past that includes the chasm of a loved one lost, his first wife.  I’ve peered over his shoulder trying to see through his eyes, trying to see her but mostly seeing his love for her, raw and fierce and yet fully aware of her human nature. He’s loved intensely before, and, somehow, he can do it again. We sort through boxes of poems, bills, photos, knickknacks, and a thousand items that make a life, but still I can’t really see her, this woman whom he lost and will always love, because why wouldn’t he? I can just see him and the abundant love he has for both of us.

IMG_1148Last night, I sorted through the details of my children’s lives with my first husband, their father. Sometimes we navigate these with ease, and sometimes not. Somewhere between the ordinary (the driver’s license not yet had, the courses for next term, the funds available for college payments that hover closer than ever) we derailed the way people who once loved each other but now clearly do not tend to derail. I’ve spent the twenty-four hours since then ruminating, crying, cursing, crying more, and writing emails desperately trying to assert my view of what is best for the two beings I love more than anyone or anything else, my boys. Closer to hate or at least intense dislike than to love, I’ve spent a day and night without sleep filled with a venom that appalls me, a ferocity had by a mother for her young. It’s all mixed with the sense of the failure of the love that created these imperfect yet perfect beings, my sons. I don’t ever seem to fully adjust to loving the two while struggling so mightily with the one who also contributed to their DNA.

So, tired of crying in the house, fatigued from lack of sleep and a plenitude of arguments that get nowhere except to a lower level of Dante’s hell, one occupied by ex-partners inflamed by their love for their young and ignited by their vitriol that can’t seem to permanently be doused by any substance or reason, I went for a walk. That’s on the calm-down checklist, a walk, so accompanied by a playlist that reminds me of love and truth, I set out to find at least a moment’s reprieve from my distress.

So much for exercise and fresh air soothing the soul. I cried the whole way, almost aborting the walk after a block for fear of drawing the attention of neighbors. I arrived home without answers or comfort and with a rather drippy nose and blotchy face. I wandered to the backyard, where my older and I have been planting a newly expanded garden that’s part wedding gift from my mom and part therapy. The peonies, buds clenched and covered with the persistent ants enjoying the nectar of the fetal flower stopped my tears. Watching ants is a pleasure I learned from my father, who made them his study towards the end of his tenure as a Biology professor. “Watch one ant,” he says. “Watch how it moves and where it goes. It’s hard, but watch.”

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So I watched. There were two, but given the size of a peony bud, it wasn’t too challenging to keep track of their separate treks across the ball of petals-to-be. Contrary to gardeners’ tales, ants don’t help open the peonies. They hedonistic and hungry, drawn to the intoxicating sweetness of the plant’s carbohydrate-laden sap that coats the petals. It’s a feast, and watching them walk their drunken circles tugged me from my ruminating about the pains of loving and then losing. I pull out my phone-cum-camera and lose myself in the bud-planet and it’s two armored inhabitants.

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And somehow my mind is quieter than it has been in days. After I get my fill of the ants getting theirs, I look at my garden from the ant’s perspective. I search out the small and find instead the singularity. Infinity exists in the ant and its peony, the golden ratio in the spiral begonia, life and death in the decapitated I-don’t-know-what that our bunny friend/foe rejected for lunch and discarded in the dirt. I’m lost in a peace I’ve not known for weeks, a silence of the mind and heart that soothes me in a way my macroscopic way of seeing the world has not. Heart rate slowed, I amble across the yard, bending over and under to see what is small and forgotten.

IMG_1124Then I find the lilac. It’s buds are tight, but the intoxicating scent somehow escapes the clamped bundles of pink. Attuned to the small as one becomes when one wakes up to what is within plain sight but hard to find for roar of the bigger picture, I finally see it: a single open flower. Coins in a purse, poems in a box, and this, a single flower open on a lilac bush. This woman whom my soon-to-be husband loved is remembered in so many ways, but one is via a lilac bush on the other side of the state, at the home of her parents who can grieve her while loving me. While I’m not one for signs, I am partial to reminders and metaphor.

In eleven days, my partner and I make vows of tightly wrapped petals. The love we know now, as strong as it may be, is but a small start of what’s to come. It’s that peony bud, that first lilac bloom. Universe willing, we’ll have a long season to bloom together, lasting past the spring bleeding hearts and fickle tulips and enduring until some bunny or just a sudden and late frost returns us to that same universe. And as we travel this journey together, we carry those we’ve loved. His first love and wife. My sons. Even my ex-husband. From what was very good and what was very bad, along with the vast experiences that are somewhere in between, we have learned some small bit of what love is. We’re filled with snapshots of moments of what it means to love and what it means to let loved ones go, with all the in-between blurring in the motion of the years past. With all of that experience, we start again. Together. A bud. Perhaps with ants, drinking what sweetness we produce, learning that love can happen even after loss. And so we begin to open.

My love to you always, my partner, my friend, my fellow traveler. 

 

 

Out of the Ruts

IMG_0906Michigan weather and a county with little remaining plowing budget have found me driving in ruts. My street, a narrow slip that, with a car parked at the edge, allows only single-file traffic, is covered with several inches of ice. Two tire-sized ruts provide the only path, and transferring a vehicle from those ruts to a driveway or the other way ’round takes intention and precision if one doesn’t want to skate into another car or simply spin one’s wheels. Those ruts hold the car tight, however, albeit with a fair amount of jostling within them. There’s safety in the ruts, even with the daily morning glaze of ice. The nausea-inducing ride in them is far from pleasant, but while in these ruts, you’re not apt to end up sideswiping a car or ending up in a snow bank.

Driving in these physical ruts led me to think about the metaphorical type, the kind that we say we want out of yet not badly enough to risk the leap; the one that may leave us skidding into the unknown or simply spinning our wheels in frustration. There can be an odd comfort in even our most painful ruts, perhaps because we know the jostling they bring, which can sometimes seem more comforting than whatever road might lay beyond those well-worn grooves.

Six years ago tonight, my rather messy disaster of a marriage turned far more chaotic. Years of worsening arguments and other insanity came to a head, and by the end of March 2, 2008, I lived alone with two children. I’d like to say that I never looked back after that day. The episodes that led to the shrinking of our household should likely never open one’s mind to reconciliation, and I’m still uncertain why, that for almost another year, I fought for that chance to return to healthy married life. It was, as they say, likely desired for the children, although children are always better off away from violence and deception. It took me almost a year for me to realize that the loss on March 2nd was best accepted and better for all.

Every February since, starting somewhere in the middle of the month, I feel the downward pull. It’s a tug towards some wintery mix of sadness and anger, tinged with a bit of guilt and touched with disbelief that the whole nightmare — years of it — was mine. I don’t blink at our anniversary and can’t even recall the date of our divorce, but that Sunday night in March, along with the weeks preceding it, are still hard to bear. While my grief takes different forms different years, at some point, I find myself in the ruts of revisiting that past — the day itself, then the weeks around it, then the years that came before. It’s a nausea-inducing ride of pain and sadness, yet I fall into those grooves each winter.

Last year, happily enjoying the first year of love with the peaceful, honest, and faithful man whom I’ll soon call my husband, I almost missed it. Mid-February found me thinking about the date, but little emotion came. For the first time, I felt some detachment, some ability to not let those memories play over and over, with all the emotions returning during the reruns. The actual date caught me off guard. I’d actually forgotten, until, at some point near the end of the day, I remembered. Into the ruts I fell.  I cried with company, and the sorrow left more quickly. I started to think those ruts had passed for good or at least that their hold on me had loosened.

This year, the heaviness started over a week before the date. I felt the familiar grooves after landing with a thud, and drove along their familiar path. It’s been a long season, and, like many of us who are suffering cabin fever in what is truly the worst winter many of us have ever seen, I’ve had some dip of mood. Perhaps my upcoming nuptials contributed to my mind’s unexpected plunge into the darkness of six years earlier. While I’ve largely concluded I’m capable of being part of a healthy marriage, of loving someone deeply without losing myself (a self only really found in the past dozen years), of being loved deeply and without reservation, I’m prone to worry that at points borders on panic.

I don’t question whether I had a role in my marriage’s slide into disaster. I know myself when I’m anxious — grasping, afraid, demanding of answers to all that confuses and scares me, angry, wordy — and those last years found me anxious beyond what I’d known previously. I also know what most of us know about making relationships better: I could have listened more and talked less. I could have sat with my anxieties before throwing them at another. I could have let go just when I most want to grasp tightly. In a million ways, I  know I could have loved better. Couldn’t we all?  I don’t, however, take all the blame for the nightmare that was the years before that particular March 2nd, nor any for what happened that night. I did many things over many years that didn’t help, but ultimately, we are responsible only for what we choose to do with our hands and hearts. We are sovereign that way.

Somewhere in the past few days, the dread and deafening doubts tiptoed away enough to let me get through some days without crying. The relief, similar to when the ice finally starts to melt, was barely perceptible until I looked back and saw I hadn’t cried that particular day. I scheduled a massage for Saturday, washing myself in tender and healing touch. I mentioned my blues to my massage therapist, telling her the date that had been bothering me. Her response made little impact at the time: Do something special that day, something that rewrites that day in my memory. Fat chance, I silently figured. What could happen that could push away that darkness of that single and dreadful day? How could I escape those ruts?

The answer came hours later, after the mail had failed (again!) to bring my copy of UUWorld, the quarterly print and online publication of the Unitarian Universalist Association. By no effort of my own, I had a piece in both editions, a piece I’d written last fall — Questions of Comfort, a musing about the need for meaning in tragedy. An editor at UU World contacted me, a writer who rarely submits anything to anyone anywhere since that keeps the rejection monster from visiting too often. He asked if they could use the piece, and I, eager to be in print, elatedly agreed. While I’d seen the piece online, my copy had yet to arrive. Over the previous days, friends send messages saying theirs had arrived, one kindly sending a picture of the first page, providing the proof I needed that this was real. But I wanted my own.

Stalked mail carriers rarely deliver, however, and Saturday’s delivery was notably without my copy of the magazine. As I headed to bed after a marvelous day with my intended, it came to me that perhaps I’d found a way out of the ruts March 2nd had held for me these past six years. March 2nd fell on Sunday again this year, and friends, knowing I’d not yet held the magazine that contained proof that I was indeed a published writer, promised to bring that proof to church. Sunday, I’d see my words published in a small yet not invisible magazine that often contains pieces on the hardest parts of life as well as the seemingly small wonders it brings every day.

And so I find myself on a new road, one where March 2nd isn’t a day of recalling pain and reliving disaster and returning to thoughts of failure. March 2nd can be the day I first saw my work in print in a made-of-paper, read-by-people-who-aren’t-obligated-to-do-so magazine. It’s small, this success, but it’s a start down a road I’ve yearned to travel: The road of the published writer.

I don’t know what will happen come the end of February 2015. Habits are hard to break, and some memories are more challenging to manage than others. It’s not in the remembering that the ruts wreak their havoc, however. It’s in the emotions and thought patterns that we dig deeply, either by intention or accident, and it’s what we miss by assuming that once we fall in that we can’t find our way out. There’s nothing wrong with remembering and learning from our most painful memories, but when they steal so much of our present, they need some adjusting. They are ruts to ride over and out of, in search of more open road. Who knows where that might lead?

Counting on my Fingers

IMG_0352I count the months off on my fingers, like a small child waiting for a birthday. It’s not that I can’t mentally figure the time from early February to sometime in May. I can. There is something in feeling the months, each with a finger to itself, and as each month goes by, needing one less finger to make the count. It’s closer, I tell myself, as I click off only three.

In three months, spring will have fully arrived. In three months, seeds in the garden will be thinking of sprouting, the ones bringing hardy greens at least. In three months, the crocuses, the tulips, and the daffodils will have come and gone, or at least mostly gone. In three months, there will be dirt to turn over, weeds to pull, and grass to mow. In three months, I’ll be the parent of a seventeen year old, a high school senior. And in three months, plus a few weeks, I’ll be sharing this home with my partner.

It will be here before I blink. That’s how time goes now, in blinks and changes. Children grow up when you look away for a moment. Trees you planted just last spring, or so it seems, have leaves above the second-story bedroom window. But even at this age, when waiting for something so anticipated, so desired, the blink-and-change trick doesn’t seem to work so well. I’m reduced to counting on my fingers, waiting for the morning when I wake up with my beloved beside me, knowing that we have not just the day, or, more often, just a hours to drink up every detail each other’s faces, exchange a week’s worth of minutiae, and express a love so large it brings me to tears.

I’m irritated at my impatience and embarrassed by my inability to wait with equanimity. I’m anxious, even, that I’m missing part of the present, these last three months with just my children. They’re certainly not counting with the same impatience as I, or possibly counting with some concern about change or maybe (most likely) not counting at all. As much as they like him, watching a parent remarry results in mixed emotions, something I know from experience. I’ve no doubt their count and associated emotions are far different from mine.

And then it comes to me. I feel guilt at my impatience. These boys are settled with this change that comes in three fingers, but I know we have hard work and likely some challenging times ahead of us. It’s inevitable, the struggles that happen when families change size and shape. My memories of my father’s remarriage when I was seventeen are ones of profoundly extreme emotions. I was delighted to see him happy and partnered, a condition that suits him, and yet his dating and newfound love were awkward for me to watch, the way it is for all teens seeing their parents fall in love when they themselves are dabbling in the same strong emotion. It was also disorienting, the changes in the years before and after his second marriage. It was exhausting, moving from mom, dad, and me; to dad and me; to dad, stepmom, step-sister and me in just a span of two years, all while trying to figure out myself my world of teen relationships. It produced a slew of emotions that left me wrung out and desperate for stability. And, at the same time, his remarriage offered some of that stability, that sense of family, the happy kind.

It wasn’t that easy, of course, and we all blundered at points. I’d been, to some extent, impatient back then, wanting to be part of that new family because it seemed so normal and whole, wanting to belong to something before I left for college, needing to find my place in new family before I was only a summer and Christmas visitor in a house that wasn’t mine. It wasn’t, I found, that easy. Family doesn’t occur instantly, even when all involved want to be a family. Love doesn’t conquer all, it seems, and that year, the last one I spent at home, was hard in ways different from the ways the preceding two had been hard. When I look back, I recall very few bad moments but far more loneliness and loss than I’d known at any point earlier. Forming family isn’t easy.

And yet I’m so impatient now. It’s selfish, that impatience to share, in the same day, a morning coffee and an evening meal with my partner, with the time between dinner and the next coffee beginning with good night and not goodbye. I’m uncomfortable with that selfishness, especially knowing that no matter our intentions and efforts, this will be hard for my children, this change that they both say is fine and desirable, and, if they are like I was at seventeen, this change they also don’t entirely want and find somewhat disturbing. Wanting it, at least in my experience, feels like betrayal of the family you had before the new family. It betrays the vows made the first time, the ones that brought you into being, the ones that crumbled not because of you but while you watched. It betrays what you find after that, the profound intimacy between a solo parent and his or her children, an intimacy borne out of enduring pain of loss and some shift in relationships that shouldn’t likely occur but do. No matter how tightly boundaries are held, children become confidants and companions and take somewhat different roles when the parent number drops from two to one.

So remarriage shifts the roles again. A good deal of this shift is a relief, as part of being a child of a parent who’s experienced loss is seeing parental pain and having no power to fix it. Enter the new spouse, someone who, you learn later, can’t fix hurt either but can relieve some of your burden of noticing parental pain and feeling helpless. It’s no one’s fault, this pain borne to kids after divorce or death. It’s just part of the package, the helpless responsibility tinged with points of worry. I’ve parented this way, solo with short breaks each week, for nearly six years, and we have some sort of rhythm, the three of us. We have countless inside phrases and jokes along with ways of being, three to the house, one adult and two boys. And my children, especially my older, likely know this helplessness and sense of responsibility. They are, I imagine, of mixed minds about what happens in May.

Yes, it’s some guilt I feel as this deeply desired change approaches. I’ve this sense of betraying them and somehow negating what we’ve built these past six years while knowing neither are true. It’s more than countered by the joy of entering partnership with the man I love, a man who loves me fully and deeply while appreciating my children for who they are and respecting that our enthusiasm may not be mirrored by them. But it’s there, paired with my remembering of my own experience with my dad’s remarriage and the emotional challenges that surprised me in the year that followed.

Perhaps that’s where the tears come from, the tears that sometimes fall after our goodbyes as a weekend visit ends. (Distance compounded by snow prohibit more than weekend visits this winter.) They’re not perhaps as much about the missing (although, oh, I do so miss him through the week) as from the guilt over my impatience that the missing end sooner than it will.

But still I count on my fingers. Three months plus a bit. There are walls to paint, furniture to move, a kitchen to rearrange, and a new being to welcome. And there is so much more. I’m confident my partner and I are approaching this new road with sufficient love, friendship, and compassion to weather what will come our way. I’m certain we’ll blunder as we adjust to shared space and shifting roles. I’m hoping we find a sense of family, the four of us together, and a feeling that change can be good even when it is hard.

So I count on my fingers again.

One. Two. Three. Go.

Vows

DSCN0349When I married who’d become my children’s father, I read my vows from an index card held by the priest. They weren’t my words or my first husband’s words. They were standard vows: love, honor, and cherish as long as we both may live, all the usual minus the “obey” lines. I’d written them out for both of us to avoid the stutter-step repetition of vows given line by line, which seemed awkward. It turns out reading them from an index card held by someone else when you’re a bit keyed up and a 100 people are watching is awkward. A few lines in, and I understood why people either just repeated vows, simply said “I do,” or held the darn card themselves.

As I look forward to marrying my partner this June, I’ve thought a good deal about vows. I briefly entertained the idea that we’d write our own, an idea suggested by our celebrant but already on my mind. Conversation about variable feelings about saying that much in public (even a tiny public) has brought us to the more traditional “I do” path (nothing to memorize, forget, or read off of tiny index cards with older eyes). That’s fine. The wedding is a moment in time, something to ponder a bit and plan, but not the main dish — the rest of our lives. How we maneuver through that event has little bearing on what happens after the last “I do.”

When I read those vows nearly twenty years ago, I meant what I said. I don’t promise lightly, and I figured that commitment was binding. Fast forward thirteen years, and I found that they held nothing unless we both held to them. Holding to vows alone, which I did for the last painful years of that marriage, yielded nothing but disappointment, frustration, and tears. However, it was for the best, that divorce, the one I didn’t want and that felt like a personal failure (I’d committed, after all), the one that I needed to remember that I had worth and dignity, whether divorced or married.

Six years later, and I’ve long regained that worth and dignity as well as a far stronger sense of self. I like to think I have a better idea about how love works after receiving love in a way that preserves that worth and dignity. I like to believe I’ve found more of myself, uncovered more confidence that I’m whole on my own and yet more so when paired with one who loves and respects me in that wholeness. I’m ready to commit. I have committed. This wedding is a formality for an assortment of reasons, as we’ve made our vows aloud and in the silence between the spoken promises.

So given the partnership was sealed some time ago, what’s the fuss about vows? It’s likely the writer in me, or maybe just my predilection for finding words for all occasions, even when they’re not needed. Or maybe I just want to express a bit of what, when I think of loving this man for the rest of our days, brings joy tinged with tears. What follows won’t likely appear in our tiny, short ceremony in June. But they are, in part what will be bound up in the words that precede whatever “I do’s” I profess.

I promise to continue to love you even though I have only a sliver of an idea of how to do that well. It’s a lifetime’s work, learning how to love, and I commit to faithful study, learning from my errors and successes and asking for assistance when I’m not sure how to proceed. This will be my life’s work, loving you more completely. 

I promise to let you be you, and I’ll encourage you as you seek for what makes you whole and happy. I’ll grow, too, next to you, near you, wholly my own person and yet ever with you as well. 

I promise to be your companion and safe hold when life finds you sad, lonely, ill, or discouraged, knowing that I don’t fully comprehend the depth sorrow, loneliness, illness, or discouragement can reach and possess no balm of comfort other than love and presence. May that offering be sufficient. 

I promise you laughter, the low chuckles of a private joke in the dark and the rolling belly laughs of shared delight. Love is fun, and life is sometimes hilariously absurd, and I will be with you to laugh even when it’s only to bring us back from tears. 

I promise you tears, tears of joy and sadness, disappointment and hope. I promise to hold you through yours, offering my presence. I promise to trust you with mine, for sharing tears is an intimacy like little else. 

I promise to trust you, for without trust, we have nothing else. I will trust you to love me dearly, like me even more, and care for me without reservation. I’ll trust you to share your worries and fears as well as your joys and delights. I trust you to tell me what’s working and what’s not — what hurts or chafes — and I’ll trust you to hear my concerns, because that’s how we learn to love each other better. 

Today and for all our tomorrows, these are my promises. You and our love is sacred to me, something within and between and beyond us. With you, I belong and will ever reside. 

The Darkest Day

IMG_0144Today is the winter solstice. This means that the Northern Hemisphere has its shortest period of daylight today (nine hours, 4 minutes, and 23 seconds where I live), with the sun reaching its lowest altitude of the year. Starting tomorrow, our days become longer, with what often seems like imperceptible increases in our daily allotment of natural light. We gain three seconds of daylight tomorrow. I’ll take it.

Winter is the rebound season, cold in these northern climes but offering more light with every earlier sunrise and later sunset. Therefore, the start of winter should bring hope. Honestly, I find that hope hard to find. I struggle with the holiday season, finding the period from Halloween through New Year’s Day to be filled with reminders of the rifts in my family of origin and family of choice. Divorce times two resonates loudest during these last months of fall and first days of winter, as I juggle those families, anticipating their absences to the point of missing the time I have in their presence if I don’t watch myself.  Healing continues, but I’ve still not adjusted to having my children away for part of each holiday.

Holidays are hard on my younger son, whose autistic way of being in the world makes breaks in routine akin to tossing him overboard in a leaky dinghy. Just when I’m wrung out from a semester of teaching my own and the children of others, when I’m ready to curl up with a good book and a beverage appropriate to the time of day, he’s losing his moorings. Between the surprises, gatherings, and laxity of the holiday season, he’s forever struggling to find the safety of a schedule. I’d like to say I do my best to make that schedule, but I can’t find my own rhythm during this time, and, frankly, I enjoy the directionless days this time of year offers. I provide some support, of course, charting individual days as they come, discussing what social events he feels he can manage while seeking a bit of form to our general formlessness. I could be more helpful, but the darkness of these days sucks me under.

The hope of the solstice takes some seeking out. This time of year, from now until the warmth of the sun brings us to spring, are hard for me. It’s easy to pull into an existential darkness that comes more swiftly the older I grow. It’s somewhere between an anxiety and depression, helped by exercise, light therapy, and just the right balance of social contact and solitude. (Some days it’s hard to know which I crave more, such is the indecisiveness that lurks with my winter darkness.)

It’s heavy, the blanket of winter. While my residual sadness about family divisions fuels the intermittent funk of late October through Christmas, the pull toward introspection draws stronger during these long nights of deep winter. I don’t know how much is influenced by the increased darkness of late fall, but it seems the lack of light outside encourages much scouting about into my interior. The older I become, the more willing I am to dig around in there, but come winter, my ability to look with equanimity decreases. It’s all too easy to see only the shadows, the failings, the humanness that without the light seems full of flaws.

I see the hurts I’ve inflicted on others, the good I’ve failed to do, all while hearing the roar of the endless motion I maintain to keep away from the silence which makes these wrongs scream their loudest. I keep moving, busy even when there is no busy to really be had, avoiding even a moment of stillness for fear that the sadness that descends with I think too much will just be too much. It’s a restless feeling, that undercurrent, rarely affecting my day-to-day duties but undoubtedly coloring my encounters with loved ones and strangers.

Ironically, perhaps, peace and hope can only be found in those silences. That’s the hope of the solstice. I spent much of this last semester feeling bombarded with busyness. What quiet I had I squandered with online Scrabble, Facebook, tasks that didn’t need doing, at least at that time, and other purposeless pursuits. I’ve rarely ever just been doing one thing, which is undoubtedly part of the problem. I model multitasking and the poor outcomes it produces. Mindfulness? Not even when I brush my teeth.

In an attempt to escape my daily patter, I scoured my bookshelves for some light fiction. Not wanting to reread, given the phenomenal number of unread books around here, I reached into my closet to a shelf holding marginal fiction that I might someday be desperate enough to read. (Yes, my shelving habits are that specific.) And thus Breakfast with Buddha, by Roland Merullo, came to bed with me several weeks back. This is not an amazing read. It is an easy read, however, about a man who takes a cross-country trip with a monk and the changes in that man as he makes that journey. He’s flawed, humans always are, and initially resistant to change. As he journeys, he finds awareness of that something is missing and discovers that stillness — meditation and mindfulness — fill what he did not previously know was empty.

Predictable? Yes. But it reminded me that I’d once tried to reach a more mindful way of being. Some years back, when I was more actively searching for meaning and solace, I reached toward a number of authors on meditation and Buddhist thought, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, and others. After a scene where Otto, the ordinary man, attempts to meditate with Rinpoche, his traveling monk companion, I returned to my closet. This time, I reached for Pema Chödrön ‘s When Things Fall Apart, a book I’d read years back during my separation. This collection of talks explores, from a Buddhist perspective, how we tend to miss happiness in our rush to escape pain and suffering. Chödrön advocates staying in those fearful places rather than backing away, learning from them while being compassionate to one’s self. Of course, she advocates meditation as a tool to this end.

And so I started, in the darkness of my quietest time of day, that point just before sleep. I read some of Otto’s path and a chapter of When Things Fall Apart.  Or I reread the previous chapter, as Chödrön’s words sometimes need more time to seep in to my distracted mind. And then one night I tried what I’d not really tried for years: meditation. I’m embarrassed to say how unwilling I was to try again what I’ve often felt I’ve failed so miserably in the past. Yes, I know one doesn’t fail meditation, but I’m harder on no one than myself, and I’d left the practice I’d barely begun because I felt I’d failed at it. Starting again, watching my mind wander after a single breath, the greatest challenge has been not giving up at the first hint of perceived failure. It’s hard. It’s a noisy place, up there in my head, filled with ideas, judgements, plans, worries, desires, joys, passions, fears, anger, disappointment, and a good deal of random noise. The silent seconds (nanoseconds?) where it all silences are rare at this point, but I’m hopeful that they will gradually lengthen and become more frequent.

So I’ve started to use the darkness of winter to find some hope. I will sit in its silence and listen to my breath, letting thoughts go and finding what it is just to be. I’ll read from what feeds me and seek out a bit more mindfulness in my day, decreasing the chatter I’ve been using to push away my darkness within. Perhaps there I’ll find the light promised by the solstice.

Informed by Faith

I gave this sermon at UU Farmington on November 17, 2013. 

Reading:  Impassioned Clay, by Raph N Helverson (Singing the Living Tradition, #654)

Deep in ourselves reside the religious impulse

Out of the passions of our clay it rises.

We have religion when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient, self-sustaining, or self-derived.

We have religion when we hold some hope beyond the present, some self-respect beyond our failures.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the heart.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the hears.

We have religion when we have an abiding gratitude for all that we have received.

We have religions when we look upon people with all their failings and sill find them good; when we look beyond people to the grandeur of nature and the purpose in our own heart.

My memory begins with church.  Specifically, it begins in 1970 in a Baptist church in Madison, Wisconsin.  It goes like this: From the center of a braided rug in what seemed to be an immense space, I see my parents in the doorway.  My father, in a dark coat and suit pants smiles while my mother, dressed for Sunday service, holds out her arms and beams.  Decades ago, my parents deciphered that memory for me.  In our Baptist church’s nursery, at ten months of age, I took my first steps across that rug towards my parents.

Millions of steps and countless of memories later, I have stepped into dozens of churches. I’ve called about ten of those my spiritual home, some for only months, most for at least a few years, and a few for over a decade.   From Baptist to Methodist to Catholic to Episcopal, I toured a slice of Christianity.  It was a generally liberal and entirely Midwest journey, and it ended in my late thirties when I left the theistic traditions.

I was born in the last months of the sixties  to pacifist parents in Madison, Wisconsin,.  The Baptist church of my birth, memorable to me only because of those first steps, did not baptize infants, so I began life unclaimed by any one denomination. I recall little more about my second spiritual home, the liberal  and Catholic St. Paul’s Church associated with the University of Wisconsin.  Aside from long legs, towering above me as I sat or sprawled on the pew, my main memory of this time is one exciting moment yelling, “But I want to go to church!” while being carried by my father into the vestibule. I doubt the veracity of that exclamation, and it says more about my tendency toward the dramatic than my spiritual yearnings.

More informative memories start later. When I was four, we moved to Michigan.  We settled in Warren, where liberal Christianity meant the local Methodist church. For seven years, I spent most Sunday morning in a classroom, learning about the Golden Rule, Jesus’ compassion, and the Bible, earning my own copy of the latter after memorizing the Lord’s Prayer. Services, seldom attended by children, were dull to me, with their the long prayers and a longer sermon, interrupted by hymns and choral pieces accompanied by the organ.

During those same years, noontime found us at the University of Detroit’s chapel,  liberally bent and Jesuit run. Yes. I went to church twice almost every Sunday. The chapel was in the university’s Commerce and Finance Building, a large classroom, really, with colored panes of glass where clear would have been. We sat in molded plastic chairs. There were no kneelers and no kneeling, and while I knew when to sit and stand, throughout the rest of my Catholicism, I couldn’t figure out when to kneel.  As in other Catholic churches, children attended services with the adults.  Sermons were shorter and more comprehensible than in the Methodist church, at least they were when I paid attention. Jesus’ love and messages of social justice and peace were perhaps just more accessible to my child-self than the more scripture-based preachings of my mornings.   Folk tunes accompanied by acoustic guitar punctuated the shorter, livelier services. The song’s lyrics and tunes echoed the music in my home, with many being the same folk tunes my father sang, guitar hand,  in the evenings at home with my mom and I. Themes of justice and love and peace filled this ordinary appearing space. This Land is Your Land. This Little Light of Mine. ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple.

While aesthetically and experientially quite different, my Methodist and Catholic experiences professed similar messages about the love and compassion of Jesus and social justice while providing supportive community. Potlucks. Informal meetings in people’s homes. Accessible, human clergy whom my parents called by first name. Few rules and prohibitions. Plenty of community.

At home, Christianity whispered.  We said grace at meals, put out the crèche and Advent wreath each December, and attended at least one religious institution each weekend.  I don’t recall bedtime prayers, petitions to God for wants or needs, references to heaven or hell, or biblical bedtime stories. I do recall boycotts on lettuce and green grapes (and I mourned the loss of the latter) and intentionally being raised within the city of Detroit . I grew up with clergy in my home for meals.  I saw women in the (Catholic) pulpit. I grew up without much sense of mystery in or fear of  God.  Without a sense that religion prohibited much of anything other than hate and discrimination.  With a choice of what path to follow when I decided I wanted to choose.  Free thinking started early and was encouraged often. Like my father says of his youth, I have nothing to unlearn from that time.

Somewhere along the way, my parents made it clear that I was to choose my own faith when ready.  I spent my elementary school years gathering a scorecard of sorts, noting the differences and similarities between the two places, unaware that neither were the only version of Methodist or Catholic life. Grape juice instead of wine for communion? Check for the Methodists. Shorter services with better music? Check for the Catholics. But junior high found me in a Catholic school, unable to participate in communion because of my non-Catholic status. The sense of being outside of fold was subtle but present. The mystery of ritual and faith of my Catholic school –and a desire to be like my friends –swayed me to, by twelve, become sacramentally and spiritually Catholic.

Or at least to become a liberal, 1980’s Catholic. That’s the only version of Catholic I knew until eleventh grade. Tumbling and reeling from my parents’ divorce and searching to define myself as myself, I  stumbled upon group of charismatic high school and college-aged Catholics. I was intrigued at this more tangible spirituality, far more alive and life-permeating than my previous church experience. For three years, as youth and then adult leader, I explored Catholicism from a more intimate, energetic, personal angle.  The mystical end of the faith spoke to me, bringing energy to my spiritual life and relief from my angst.  But by twenty, the mismatch between that conservative and close-minded bent of that arm of the church and my less emotive but more accepting and socially active upbringing led me to leave, returning my focus to the Jesuit Catholicism I’d been raised with.  Attending the University of Detroit for undergrad and grad school allowed me to remain in that church of my youth, albeit at the student version. I was active in Campus Ministry and sang with the guitar group for weekly Mass.  I  left school a practicing Catholic looking for a good fit.

Catholicism outside those Jesuit institution walls and in the ever-more conservative larger world was a disappointment.  My then-husband and I attended a handful of churches over the next dozen years, some for several years.  My boys were baptized Catholic, each in a different church.  Shifting buildings failed to ease the increasing discomfort I felt with the walls of Catholicism with its patriarchy, tightening rules, and increasing conservatism. God wasn’t the question yet. Catholicism itself was.

What transpired in my heart and mind over the next several years was informed by the fluidity of faith taught by the example of my parents. First, we moved to an Episcopal church in an attempt to find a more welcoming, liberal spiritual home. ( I simply asked my Episcopal friend what the most liberal Episcopal church around here was. She pointed me in towards the one headed by an openly lesbian minister, which seemed like as good an indicator as any. ) That held us for a few years, but during that holding period, I went through an intense time of change in spiritual thought.  First, my mother converted from Catholicism to Reform Judaism.  This played no small influence on my decision to leave Christianity.  Her fluidity modeled what religious choice should be — personal searches made freely and with great thought.  Second, and definitely a story for another day, my belief in God was rapidly dropping away. I started to allow the questions that had, like a leaking faucet,  become the background of my thoughts. Prayer, God, rules, religion. With sadness and relief and absolutely no idea what would come next, I left church.

A few years later, my boys and I found a Unitarian Universalist community.  It asked for no commitment to God or creed;  it preached love and acceptance, spoke cautiously about Jesus, resonated with messages of justice and equality, and encouraged reason and pondering. It became home.

Soon after we found our Sunday morning spot, life heaved unexpectedly the way life does.  As my marriage exploded, my new-found community held me tight.  Pondering the divine, questioning the nature of love, and wandering into a new life with my two children and without my spouse, I had found a place to work out and through the difficulties of  life out in a religious community which embraced free thought, spiritual search, and human dignity.  I found a home.

Today, I identify as an agnostic Unitarian Universalist. I don’t believe in a god or divine force. I hold to laws of science and trust science to continue to unravel the mysteries of the universe but am comfortable with them unexplained.  I am content with an understanding of my existence as temporal, bound by my birth and death, and I don’t find myself worried about the purpose of our existence. Instead, I focus on the world in front of me, seeking unity, compassion, love, peace, and acceptance.

Agnostic as I am — unbeliever I am — I remain informed by the faith of my first thirty-some years of life. While God has dropped away, I still find the language of my religious upbringing useful for my agnostic living. Reverence. Ritual. Sacrament. Even Jesus. These religiously rooted concepts anchor my agnosticism and Unitarian Universalism..

Reverence.  Reverence, according to Paul Woodruff, a humanities professor at the University of Texas in Austin and author of Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, states that “reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations (and) from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside of our control — God, truth, justice, nature, even death.” Reverence is one of those words that is hard to define but easy to identify. Reverence can generate respect, but it is not respect alone. Reverence certainly contains awe and wonder as well, although it is still something more.

The reverence of my youth was wrapped up with God’s role in the natural world. Every summer, I attended an Episcopal summer camp in Ortonville, Michigan. For a week or two,  this urban child  lived a bit closer to nature, with woods and water, fields and flowers surrounding me. The chapel we used for services, choir practice, and movies held a wall of windows behind the altar, granting a view of nature’s grandeur. At ten or so, I connected the two, awestruck by the nature outside the window framed by the building created for the worship of God. Reverence was born.

It is certainly within the purview of the rational person to be reverent. Reverence requires no god. There’s no need to suspend the rational when staring in awe at the moon, realizing the smallness of oneself in the grandeur of the Universe while understanding the moon’s physical makeup and relationship to the Earth. My reverence is just as profound  when I catch the profile of my younger son, still child-like but on the cusp of adolescence. The accompanying catch in my throat is from the wonder of a world that entrusts us with the lives of the helpless, certain we’ll figure it out. And it’s reverence when I meet my partner’s eyes and am reminded that love and joy are not limited to those who’ve never known pain or fear,  but rather something fully available even when we hurt and fear the most.

It is reverence I feel when I sit here on Sunday morning in a room of people on their own journeys. Not reverence for something outside of us but rather for something among us. It is reverence for our strength together and for the power in community that should only be used to bring more love, compassion, and justice to the world. It is reverence for the freedom I have to believe or not to believe in whatever God, spirit, or presence that speaks to me. It is the reverence for the individuals in that space, each coming with his or her own view of what sacred and what brings meaning. It is reverence for what makes us different and what makes us the same. Reverence remains.

Ritual. I was a child drawn to routine, the mundane cousin of ritual. I thrived on a regular bedtime, a predictable breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the rhythm of school. Routine comforted me. Ritual fed me, offering focus and meaning and a sense of purpose. The Catholic church provided plenty of ritual, what between the sign of the cross, the prayers and responses during Mass, and the sacraments.. These were soothing elements of my Catholicism, sometimes the nidus of my reflection of sense of purpose and meaning and sometimes simply mindful and mantra-like. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its most basic level, provided solace during those times where “going through the motions” was all I could manage. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its peak, allowed transcendence of self and ego, raising awareness of truth beyond my mind.

Leaving Catholicism meant leaving those rituals. The hole was vast, with no go-to prayers to quiet the chaos in my head and no communion to remind me that I belonged to a larger body of believers as well as to a god.  I tried prayer beads without the prayers, meditation with mantra, chant, and other rituals that shadowed those that had comforted me in my theistic days. Mindful meditation and mantra in time of stress provided the greatest comfort, allowing an anchor when I needed one most.

As a family, we’d long performed the ritual of grace before dinner, a practice carried from my family of origin to family of choice. While I was theistic, we’d used the same stock prayers of my youth:

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blest.

and

God is great; God is good. Let us thank him for our food.

Seeking anchors for myself and my boys,  I worked to take a ritual that was quickly losing meaning (and seeing hypocritical, given all of our agnostic/atheist views) and form it into something meaningful. We cast aside the theistic prayers, made a chalice with a candle, and bought a book of prayers and words of wisdom from the world’s many traditions. And so we gathered, the three of us, all needing some tethering, each evening to light the chalice and find a reading. I know I found — and find — solace in the ritual, small as it is. Ritual remains.

Soul. Throughout my Christian upbringing, my ideas of what happened after death were fuzzy. When my grandfather died, I can’t recall anyone saying anything about where he went.  Heaven seemed vague and frankly boring. Eternity with God held no allure, and Hell was never a concept that made any sense in the context of a loving God. With no afterlife idea firmly in mind, the soul wasn’t ever about existence beyond the boundaries of my body. It was a piece of language without firm definition until I started thinking about just what I did and didn’t believe.

Soul, or the essence of one’s being as I call it now, informs my relationships with myself and others.  It’s the “me” under me, what’s left when I strip off my ego defenses, upbringing, wants, desires, and all that I’ve always identified as me.  My soul’s been with me since my start and will continue to accompany me on this journey of life.  It’s not the part of me that’s UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, homeschooling mom, divorced, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, or introverted-yet-sociable.  It is what is both before and beyond all that.  It’s the part of me capable of great compassion and love for those my egoic-self finds hard to love and feel compassion for, a list  of people who often includes myself. It’s the part that yearns for peace for all, not because I want it to be so but because it’s what humans should have.  It’s unselfish, kind, patient, undemanding, unassuming, endlessly loving, and deeply in touch with humanity.  It’s me with all the “me” left behind.

Soul, or essence, is not immortal or otherworldly. It can be buried under all the stuff that we identify as self — UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, divorced, homeschooling, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, and introverted-yet-social.   It’s a risky thing to expose. The more I work to let my soul lead, the more tender I become:  the more I risk in this world. It’s a vulnerable way to live, soul exposed, and I know I’m only living there a small fraction of my life, although I’m working on increasing that time.  It’s living with the soul that leaves me most fulfilled as human, most compassionate and loving of life around me.  And that’s worth some pain. Soul — or essence –gains definition.

Jesus. I was raised a Christian. My memories of kindergarten Sunday School include an episode of soggy tights due to hesitancy to use the church restroom and songs about Jesus:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, we are weak but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.

The song mystified me, much as heaven did. Jesus, a long-haired white guy, according to the picture on the classroom wall, was dead, but not. Human, but God. He loved me but had never met me. As years of Sunday School passed, I developed more sense of the man Jesus — the compassionate, generally patient, loving, and forgiving man said to be the son of God. And he seemed like a good guy. My Jesuit Catholic experience added a social justice component to the man — Jesus cared for the poor, the lost, the imprisoned, the hungry. He was unimpressed by money and power. He loved people. Yes, he seems like a good guy. And, at that point, filled with faith that this whole triune God thing worked somehow, he was real — human and divine.

When the divinity of Jesus fell away — when my faith left leaving reason as my main way of seeing the world — I started to like Jesus even more. How much of the life of Jesus portrayed in the Christian New Testament is real isn’t important to me. Whether the stories of Jesus’ compassion, acceptance, and activism are created to make a historical figure more appealing or to simply spread a way of thinking is immaterial to me. I like the guy. He’s a fine role model for how to move in the world and human enough to relate to (Recall the tantrum in the temple when he turned over the tables of the sellers and money changers? A man who struggles with anger and disappointment. I can relate to that.). He loved deeply. He acted boldly. Myth or man, the ideals professed in the Gospels carry with me today. If we lived in a world where those values were practiced, I can only imagine the difference in the lives of all of us.  Jesus man or myth, remains.

Jesus. Soul or essence. Ritual.  Reverence. I walk with these today. These are the remnants of the religions of my first (almost) four decades. I have followed in my parents’ footsteps, choosing a path that speaks to the truth to me at the time, changing paths when needed. I’ve come to forks in the path, wandered down one for a bit, then turned back.  I’ve stood at forks and looked backward and from side to side, awaiting the inspiration or courage to choose a way. As I’ve walked, I’ve picked up God and love and compassion. Justice and peace. Jesus and awe and reverence. Hope and humility. Divinity and everlasting life. Rules and prohibition. Joy and community. Requirements and reconciliation.

But at my last fork, I stared long and hard into the unknown. I set down prayer and God and promises of everlasting life. I set down rules more complicated than Jesus’ exhortation to love one another. I set down restrictions on gender in religion. And I took my first step on the wide path that is Unitarian Universalism, where I was free to carry what I chose to carry.  I remain informed by the religions of my youth as I  step forward with what remains: reverence, ritual, compassion, community, love, justice, equity, soul, Jesus (and a host of others), reason, and free thought. It is these I carry as I walk down this path and wander toward the next inevitable fork in the road.  When I get there, I’ll stop and again set down what no longer serves me, consider what still does, and take the next step.

Fragmented

Mom. Homeschooling parent. Physician Assistant. Teacher. Friend. Companion. Housecleaner. Ombudsman. Taxi driver. Cook. Handy(wo)man. Obtainer of All Things Needed. Finder of What is Misplaced, Gardener. Problem solver.

I feel fragmented.

Perhaps it’s the change in weather. The days are shorter. Many are cold and wet. It’s dark when I used to take my walks, the walks that assured me time to regroup and recoup.

Perhaps it’s the season. Holidays loom large. I’m starting to flounder with these days needing preparation: shopping, cooking, decorations, plans. Thanksgiving, just a month away, and this year the kind of Thanksgiving that doesn’t include my boys, a reminder that divorce splits families for good. They are, after all, what I’m most thankful for. And Christmas. With my Christianity gone, I’m struggling with the celebration we continue to do, which I say is for the boys but is really for all of us, ritual we need and want while wondering what means what.

Perhaps it’s struggles of my younger. He’s having a hard time, what with oncoming puberty stacked atop his Aspergers and plenty of anxiety on the side. I’ve been pulled in closer as support and stability, jobs a mom expects, yet to a level not anticipated at this age. And to see a child in such a state of hurt… It pulls me in and under, leaving me gasping for breath and wondering where that oxygen mask is. I can’t put it on if I can’t find it.

Perhaps it’s time, cut in too many tiny pieces to do anything but play Scrabble online, check Facebook, read the shortest articles in the New York Times (days after it comes), answer another question about another math problem, watch my younger closely –again or still — for signs of stress, check my email, and make lists of things that will never get done.

I like my jobs, both paid and unpaid. I feel generally competent at them, and I enjoy the interaction with my children, other people’s children, and the adults whom make up my friends and co-workers. I feel respected professionally, cared for by friends, and often appreciated by my children.  I’m less enamored with the tasks that keep us in food, clothing, and a relatively clean house, of course. But each task is entirely manageable. Together, they seem impossible. 

It’s not just the tasks at hand. It’s all the ones that need attention but aren’t getting it, little and big. The call to the university my older son likes, the one to schedule a day-long visit complete with classes. The presentation for church that will happen in just over two weeks whether it’s written or not. The writing that just isn’t happening because I’m never sure when I’ll be interrupted or because I can’t maintain concentration for more than a few minutes. The books on my nightstand that go unread because I can’t pay attention to them, either. The book that I’m trying to assemble, the one that requires a few hours — or even just an hour — each day of undivided attention I just don’t seem to be able to find.

I’m in pieces. I’m not depressed or anxious or otherwise suffering from existential despair. I’m just in pieces. And most of the pieces are good in themselves. While it’s a hard job, homeschooling my sons is a choice I’m glad to have made, to have continued to make, year after year. I enjoy (most parts) of my relationships with them, and while the stakes seem astronomically high when homeschooling an eleventh grader on the cusp of full-time college, it’s overall a good ride to share.

My professional endeavors — medicine and teaching/editing — feed me deeply. Some of that food is straight ego-stroking — the patient who tells me I am the one who truly listens to her or the young student who stops me mid-class to thank me for teaching him to write, noting he really likes our time together. But some of the professional satisfaction is the challenges of the work itself. Both require close attention to the person I’m with at the time. Both require dropping my own agenda at points, attuning to the patient or student and letting the rest drop away.

The personal encounters — those with my friends and fiancé — feed and sustain me when I’m struggling the most. But even these meetings seem smashed between What Comes Next — classes, cleaning, cooking, calming, driving duty, bills, calls, and chaos management. Too often, they are the punctuation marks more than the paragraphs in my daily essay. This fragmentation (repaired somewhat come next spring, when my dearest companion becomes my spouse) is perhaps the most painful. I love my children, and I enjoy and appreciate their company. But a homeschooling mom in her forties who also teaches the children of others starts to get a bit twitchy when days go by without substantive contact with those over the age of 30. I want conversation about things other than Minecraft, computers, comma placement, and tropical fish. (The last is interesting for a while, until the lists of fish are repeated.)  I love my children, and my older is learning to be a somewhat empathetic listener who actually asks how I am and listens for the answer. But still…

So tonight I’m writing, (almost) alone in my home, enjoying the peace sustained attention brings. The presentation/sermon is nearly done, needing only an hour or so of polishing and (likely) shortening. This cathartic piece, almost complete, reminds me of the threads upon which the beads of my life rest connect what can seem broken and unbound.  When I can connect those pieces and roles, seeing them as cohesive wholes and not tiny pieces of me, I’m more settled and more likely to find the time to finish the book, edit the essays, or even veg in front of a show (scandalous!). This sense of quiet and wholeness may not last even another half-hour, but for now, it is here. So I sit with it, feel the connections, and just breathe.

What I’m Thinking

IMG_0600“What are you thinking?” you asked, breaking our silence.

My mind had wandered during the previous minutes of mental solitude. Close enough to feel each other’s breath, eye to eye, my mind had time traveled forward and backward through time.

We are not children nor even young adults. We’re in the middle of life, or, more likely, a bit past the middle.  Still, we let out only occasional groans and grimaces when sitting too oddly for too long. Our hair still has more color than grey, although the ratio is moving in only one direction. Our faces are gently lined,  more from smiling than from tears, although we’ve both been washed in sorrow and concerns enough to know deep sadness.

“I was thinking about growing old with you,” I replied.

My right eye caught your right eye, holding contact briefly before I returned my gaze to a picture of my sons from either ten years or a lifetime ago. Given the changes from then to now, it could be either. Ten years back I was married to my children’s father, sure I’d grow old with him. My older son went to school each day, and I was certain his brother would do the same, so I’d return to work part-time like people do. I was Catholic, or at least still Christian, praying for peace, for my children, for my world, and somewhat certain that someone was listening.

Aside from those two boys and this house, very little seems the same. The boys’ father is a million miles away, or six block, depending on your math.  I’m at home, working two tiny part-time jobs, educating my children, and trying to build a writer’s life. My supplications are cries to a universe that isn’t going hear or answer, but I can’t stop making them when the going gets tough.

And then there is you.

I’m thinking about growing old with you. I am hoping to know you when our hair turns white and our faces are etched with decades more love and laughter and, because this is life, sorrow. My father says all marriages end. Whether by divorce or death, they end. He’s not generally the gloomy type, but the Eeyore-esque comment reminds me of the impermanence of our day-to-day lives as well as our very existence as well. Marriage ends. Life ends. And still, I think about growing old with you.

The boys. My eye shifts to their picture. Young boys don’t grow grey and wrinkly in ten years. Instead they grow adult teeth, larger and smellier bodies, fears and anxieties, and more ingrained ways of being in the world. These boys endured the pains of parents arguing, a mother crying, a father leaving, and a new family quickly reforming. I’ve been their rock through these changes, albeit a rock that sometimes yells and weeps and makes countless mistakes in the most important job she could ever hold. Growing old with you, even a year older, is not a journey we’ll make without passengers. They’re willing passengers, but this is not the journey they’d have chosen. But that’s the lot of children, to be passengers on their parent’s journeys.

My boys. The loves of my life. At my lowest times, the reasons I get out of bed in the morning. Most days, the source of my smiles and laughter. They are also often the nidus of my worry, these boys who’ve suffered through the mistakes of their parents. I want to grow old with you, and I want my boys to be okay along the way. Supplication to the universe brings the usual deafening silence followed by a whisper from my depths that they are stronger than I know, that loving you does not betray them.

And you. You’ve had your own seasons of darkness and pain, and you’ve had your own loss. It’s etched into you (as  greatest loves and losses are for all of us), evident only sometimes, but indelibly stamped on your being. My loss is etched on me, too, but it’s less pure, my fading scar of sadness mixed with anger and tinged with resentment. Yours seems all sadness, all love. And that’s sometimes my undoing. It is never far from my mind that I’d not know your love but for those losses, yours and mine. I ascribe no purpose to either of our losses nor divine plan for our uniting. It’s how life moves, I suppose. We live, we love, we suffer, we lose, and when we can bear the thought of repeating the cycle, we start again, accumulating what wisdom we can from what we’ve loved and lost.

You. Me. My boys.  I dare to think about growing old with you. I let my heart wander decades down the road, wondering at the gift of your presence over time while sitting with the truth that all unions end because our lives are finite, and that endings can be messy. I don’t know the path from here to there. I don’t know how our two passengers will fare as we walk together. What I don’t know astounds me.

So I meet your eye again. I don’t find answers, but I do find courage, compassion, and love. I find commitment and honesty. I find pain and sorrow, joy and hope. I find the willingness to forgive and humility to admit mistakes. I find wisdom and trust. I find room for my two fellow passengers. I find a partner with whom to share this journey.

That’s what I’m thinking.

Questions of Comfort

IMG_0392“But if you don’t believe in God or some greater purpose to the universe, how do you find comfort in times of trouble?”

That was the question from a congregant on a recent Sunday morning after a sermon on knowledge and belief at my Unitarian Universalist church. Palpable concern tinged with emotion filled the asker’s voice as she spoke: How could one manage the pain and suffering that goes with life without something greater than oneself along for the ride? Or at least how could one see one’s way through travesty without a sense of it being part of a greater purpose?

After the speaker worked away at his answer, I turned to my pew mate who had lost her husband to cancer not too long ago. Before I could form the question, she answered, her eyes wide: “If there had been a purpose, that would have been worse!”

I agree. I cannot reconcile a greater purpose in the traumas and suffering of this world, a purpose that requires, for instance, someone young to die to do what? Teach patience? Persistence? True love? Endurance? A tolerance for suffering? Can’t most of those be learned in our more ordinary moments, such as while in line at the post office or during a bout of the flu? Questions about the source of a greater force or divinity aside, the thought that a greater source or being would have a purpose to putting a father through cancer, a mother through the suicide of a child, whole countries through famine or war is just, well, unfathomable and, frankly cruel.

But back to the asker’s question: Where do you find comfort in times of suffering if you don’t believe the suffering has a greater purpose? My comfort comes from three sources. First, I ascribe to this Buddhist view: Life is suffering. That’s not a miserable thought designed to depress and defeat but rather a reminder that feeling unsatisfied — suffering — is reality. We all feel pain and distress, making the Buddhist view a realistic look at the world. We come into the imperfect world with our imperfect selves and, to no surprise, live imperfect lives. The Buddhist answer to this suffering is to embrace impermanence and to avoid attachment to what is and to what we wish could be.

Am I good at this? Not really, but remembering that life happens — that suffering and discomfort are part of life — help me out when I’m uncomfortable with a twist life’s thrown me. Sure, I try to control what I can. I get my flu shots, wear my seat belt, know where my kids are, save for a rainy day, and otherwise take the precautions I can against the ways of the universe and the wiles of human nature. But in the end, I work hard to remember that control only gets me so far and so safe and that I can’t protect everyone within my reach. There is comfort in knowing my limits, differentiating what is my responsibility from what is beyond my grasp.

My second source of solace in calamity is knowledge. Comfort in fact, in science, in knowing brings me to peace about some of the suffering life passes my way. Comprehending more about the way the world works helps me ascribe cause where there is cause and ponder where there isn’t. Understanding probability and what randomness truly is removes a good deal of finger-pointing at what is fair and what is not. Storms and sickness know no “fair.” Sure, where you live and your behaviors may move you closer to hurricanes or further from heart disease, but “fairness” suggests an outside arbiter, making decisions about where to place that maelstrom or blood clot. That would be unfair. And cruel. I’ll take comfort in the equanimity of randomness, thank you.

There are, of course, events that are unfair and not random. War. Famine. Terrorist attacks. I’ve been spared these traumas, and I’m grateful. They do confound and pain me, but I don’t question their purpose in the greater scheme of things. They have causes, certainly, but that is quite different from purpose. And how to find comfort through them? As someone who has only observed these through the newspaper, radio, and TV, I simply don’t know, but I’m fairly certain searching for purpose of the purposeless wouldn’t help me.

My fellow travelers provide my third source of comfort in a world of suffering. I am not alone in my suffering. The travelers I know by name comfort me most often, with willing ears and caring words when I’m most troubled. Sharing suffering lightens me a bit, and when commiseration follows a sharing, I’m reminded that very few if any of our pains are unique. We all get sick, become disappointed, lose heart, lose love, lose sleep, lose hope, ponder the place we have in the world, and worry about those closest to us as well as those nameless ones thousands of miles away. So we don’t suffer alone even when we are alone. I’ve many times taken comfort in that reality. With seven billion other humans on the planet, I’m likely not the only one experiencing anything. And somehow that helps.

Years ago, when my beliefs included a God, I prayed when suffering or upon seeing another in distress. And about a decade ago, I started questioning that process. My questions started with source and purpose: How could a relevant force in the world, greater than ourselves, omnipotent and omniscient, exist in the face of suffering? How could a god desire — even demand — praise, petition, and thanksgiving while letting horrific happenings occur despite that praise, petition, and thanksgiving? And if God did none of that — if free will reigned and all hands are off — then what was the point of all that praying?

And thus the comfort of prayer and context of purpose gradually left. Losing that easy comfort in just the conversation with a source was initially both unnerving and liberating. It took time to find that a touch of Buddhist thought, knowledge, and companions could relieve some of the inevitable suffering of life. Truth is that I still find myself starting to pray at odd moments, stopping after the invocation of the divine. “Dear God,” I begin. And end. There just is no more comfort there.

So I sit, without a sense of a greater purpose to the rain that falls other than that rain falls. I’ve not been faced with the truly horrific, so one could say I’ve not been truly tested by suffering, but I’ve had my own traumas in my forty-four years. In the past decade or so, I’ve met with greater adversity than in the previous three combined, and yet, finding comfort has been far easier. I don’t ask the question of the greater purpose to suffering anymore. I suffer. I will continue to suffer. So will all others. With knowledge of this, a thirst for knowledge and appreciation of fact, and the community of 7 billion with whom I hurl through space, I am comforted.