4/10/2016

off highway 36



The waxing gibbous moon smiled in a dark California sky. Beneath it I journeyed quickly up a damp, tree-lined path to my "cell". This was a monastic apartment, one of four in a cabin honoring four apostles. Mine was named for John, who is remembered as an evangelist and theologian. I lay down on the cot provided by four dear women monastics for my weekend pilgrimage and snuggled in under many blankets (not living monastically at all, really, in this comfort, except for having more time to enter into prayer than I usually receive).

It was my final night of three at St. Xenia's Skete near Wildwood, off Highway 36. There'd been abundant variations of March clouds, downpours, wind, and sun (and there would be snow the next morning). Inside a crimson, forest church the prayers began early, the last ones ending past dusk. I'd been fed abundant portions of simple, healthy food. I had met beautiful hens, a mellow rooster, and a rescue dog of shepardish parentage named Noble. Noble likes to guide hiking pilgrims up a hill on the logging road, and he appreciates a carrot for a treat on the way home.




Three nights I'd lain on my cot in wonder. The moon peered in the window. Two women friends in their own apostolic cells breathed evenly at rest.

Partly I slept, partly I marveled. There was space here which was a sensation. With surprise I recognized it as one I first experienced last summer, the day of my surgery in the hospital in Oregon. That July Monday our priest, Fr. Daniel, came to my room before the orderlies arrived to take me. Fr. Daniel prayed the Orthodox prayers for a Monday (which address angels, those beings circling the throne of heaven ever hymning God), and he listened to my confession to God of my sins.

Now I was fully recovered from anesthesia and fluid drains, my stitches were long ago absorbed and my scar had faded to pink. I lay on a cot in moonlit March hours before Monday prayers, in my forest cell named for John the apostle, in joyous recognition. I recognized that same sensation from July, from, actually, during my surgery: one of extreme donation toward mankind, of identity yet of pure self-lessness, of love in amazing abundance. That's the closest I can come to description, and it doesn't scratch the surface.

Many people might explain this as my fantasy. How can I blame them? I am, most obviously, not an apostle, evangelist, or theologian. The longer I live the more uncool I become. A simple-eating rescue creature, one who meanders ahead, falls behind. I'm scared in the moonlight and grateful for shelter.



It is good that Thou hast humbled me. It is very good. In the instant of surprise, of recognition of heretofore unimagined beauty, a brush with kindness, the breath of angels.

4/01/2016

from an unsafe practice


I like to think of myself as kind and pleasant and safe to be around. Certainly sometimes I am, but also sometimes I'm not. Just ask my family.

A few weeks ago I blogged about Tim's and my friend who is staying in Victoria's old room. At the time I thought of myself as expressing something uncomfortable fairly pleasantly, but thinking back on it I've recognized I was criticizing this man we've known a long while.

He did act strangely at first, but after three weeks he suddenly came out of it and was his old self. Of course, if he'd been developing Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, improvement wouldn't have happened. We three have gone along now, with little ups and downs, pretty well. But nagging at the back of my mind has been my talking to people about my friend without his knowing. This wasn't kind or pleasant or safe. I was ignorant of how things would develop, but that really isn't an excuse. One recent morning I faced into my need to repent to God and apologize to our friend.

I told him I had talked to people and blogged about this stuff behind his back. He took my request for forgiveness very kindly. He mentioned that another friend had worried about his trouble speaking there for a while. He said he was ultra-focused at the time on several things. (I wouldn't be surprised, though he didn't say it, that he was somewhat anxious about coming to live in our Orthodox home. He may have worried Tim and I would try to coerce him to convert.)

This friend is a musician; he belongs to a symphonic band. Now that we're past this awkward phase in our household with him, I listen gratefully of an evening to scales and arpeggios escaping beneath the guest bedroom door. I'm grateful for his ability to focus and to forgive. I hope we'll dwell harmoniously, despite missed notes, a little while longer.


3/04/2016

there you were


I stopped in my tracks. You'd found an interesting landing.

Earlier we sparred (as in my imagination many birds and I do; taunting me along the river path, they dare my switching camera on, just so they can flip a tail and skedaddle). You passed above me, youthful wings outstretched, intent, it turned out, on napping.

I spotted you--the rest of my kind oblivious, but they hadn't seen your earlier searching, I suppose; they missed your invitation--you settled back. You tucked one leg out of sight. You yawned.

I didn't think I captured that. What fun, checking later, to see I did.

You're funny. Drainpipe neck; teardrop body; scissor bill. Yet I love every cascading feather. Did you know one of your forerunners--a female, I like to think--used to fly over my house (this was years and years ago), used to meet me on my jogs (when still I did such things), used to encourage me raising my children? Such an inspiration. A gift.

I pattered closer. You looked my direction and then continued posing. I sidled up to pause underneath the tall lamp. I don't have the greatest camera, so thanks for allowing better access.

The battery warning light flashed on my camera. Of course. The camera turned off, chiding me to replace the AAs. I'd forgotten to bring more along.

But I've learned you can turn the camera back on and it will have forgotten, for now, the warning it just proclaimed. I resumed our photo shoot, grateful.

You remained in nap mode, half asleep. I tiptoed beneath you, the rest of my walk awaiting. I turned back to find you silhouetted against our bright orb now visible. I drew near again.

You made a few pebbly statements. "Hello," I replied, using the same bright inflection I give my kitty, and also my grandson. Those innocents in this world who grant me access.

Thanks for your inspiration.


2/19/2016

proud


On a walk the other day I thought about why I like spring best. Spring comes slowly, from "nothing." From the brown, the gray and lifeless. It begins to peek through, to clarify the surroundings.

Not that there isn't beauty in empty, gnarled branches reaching skyward. Even without spring we're never left orphans.

Reality is interesting in its feast and famine aspects. Seasons aren't distributed in micro-balance, with a layer of winter, spring, summer, and fall for each day. Nope. We receive a time for this, a time for that. Now is the time when green begins to stir.


In other areas, those amid the world of humanity, now is a time in our land for posturing and speeches. We don't receive, politically-speaking, a daily balance of governance and changes in such. We get seasons. Some of us (probably most of us at different times) feel orphaned and almost never see beauty in these.

I can only imagine the courage needed to put oneself out there and run for office, seeking to serve our country's people. As with many other types of career, this one demands (so people say) a voice that is confident, fearless, proud. Let us have no peeking through the brambles in order to clarify.

I'm just not so sure being proud is the best way to serve the people.


Almost home the other day, I walked into a blustery moment. The wind grasped dead leaves that had clung all winter to trees along River Road, tossing them past my blowing hair and into swirls above. The rustle, the swish, the decaying leaf-scent, each of these spoke beauty. Even though they lacked a flash of color -- even while only the temperature hinted spring.

2/12/2016

objections, observance, and odd things

This week I notice first flowers granting spots of color to winter. The fig out back has plumpy bits atop its branches, promising green.

A friend of Tim's and mine is staying in Victoria's old room. We talk about this being temporary, but I'm thinking this friend, this man our age, may need an extended visit. I noticed the day he moved in that he has changed (I hadn't spoken with him in person for at least a year). He obviously has developed some sort of condition -- maybe neurological. When I brought up with him my concern that he's unable to form sentences correctly, he said he hadn't noticed; then later he described his sense of blame toward someone else for these frequent occurrences. Today (nearly two weeks in) I'm recognizing his behavior in some ways as that of a child. I wish to continue treating him as the adult he still is (being functional in most things), but I guess I'm writing this for my "blog bottle" because I know my post won't trouble him in his present state. Rather than following blogs, he's trying to stay afloat (whether consciously or unconsciously).

I have to admit, I prefer his personality now. He has become meeker and milder than the man I knew. But sometimes I have to shadow him and make sure he's not throwing garbage in the recycling bin. Will Tim and I convince him to see a doctor? We shall see.

Early Thursday I drove to appointments in Portland (and Vancouver, the one across the Columbia from Portland). Kimi fed me scrambled eggs in her and James' lovely new apartment. We three could have visited all day, if not for her work shift starting at 11:00 and my need to make it home.

James and Kimi's new place
Now I can fully picture the apartments of both of my children and their dear ones. This is important, despite our easy creation and posting of pictures. (By the way, my camera's kind of wonky at present and so is not my constant companion. The second picture in this post was taken by someone from my church.)

Back in June, observing life at Victoria, Alex, and Edmund's home, I pondered the difference between seeing the whole of a place and trying to piece it together via images. Pictures help me learn about certain spaces, but to truly understand them, to learn of them in fullness, I must enter and inhabit them as I can. This concept applies to other realities -- you probably know where I'm taking this...

When I first came to Orthodox services, I carried ideas about this church's "space" from my snapshot-like experiences with it, and (especially) from my lifetime of experience in church. I had put everything together and was settled on what the Orthodox "denomination" must look like. Then, just as on my first night in Victoria and Alex's real place, I began discovering differences. I began to gain the true perspective of life here.

At my daughter's apartment it was simple. I contrasted within myself what I had expected with what I saw. Easy. At St. John the Wonderworker Serbian Orthodox Church I began -- rather than with eager expectations -- with a set of assumptions which were objections. I objected to everything. Very difficult.

And yet, today I'm happy I came into this church with my objections. While, as I said in my last post, I have recognized myself as the criticizer (not so good), I have also recognized my friends and family's objections -- which I naturally shared, coming from them -- as granting me critical thinking skills (better). I would, therefore, approach an aspect of Orthodox practice, such as the central example of believing communion to be truly the body and blood of Jesus, with healthy objections (wait a minute; don't you know this sounds crazy to Protestants?).

I took on the project of observing this practice of particular beliefs, without dismissing my objections, but at the same time granting the Orthodox the benefit of the doubt, as though reading them in a book. Suspending my disbelief on many subjects (and on a few subjects, I still do), I began to enter and inhabit their actual spaces, seeking to truly understand them.


There's too much to write on what I've found so far regarding communion. There have been many interesting moments. One morning the words of the apostle Paul bubbled up in a new way: Paul wrote about there being two kinds of human bodies: the natural and the spiritual. I'd never before considered "receiving" Jesus' flesh and blood to be partaking of the as-yet-unseen-by-most reality of himself as spiritual. And yet this is what Jesus himself spoke of on the subject in John 6. How could I have missed this? How could I have never imagined that maybe one can interact with spiritual flesh and spiritual blood in a very unusual way.

Well, of course it was because I hadn't yet dwelt in a place where they do business with the possibility, where they believe this is the understanding the first Christians inhabited as they studied and reflected on Christ's teachings.

I can't come close to saying I fully picture or understand the Orthodox Church yet, but living in it is becoming my life. Even when I'm startled by unexpected revelations: I haven't been speaking complete sentences; I'm in many ways a child; I need with all my being a hospital, a haven, and a home.

2/02/2016

criticism and confession

One evening a couple weeks ago, Tim and I relaxed in front of a recent sci fi movie (which I won't name -- but spoiler alert for reading further). Afterward, Tim categorized it as belonging to a trend. This trend involves people seeking aliens, but the twist is the aliens are us. I noticed the same feature in the new X Files series (we just saw the first episode), only, the movie we'd watched made the idea positive, while in X Files the revelation of humanity carrying out alien activity was a dark development.

How like my pondering journey this is. As obsessed with truth-seeking as Agent Mulder, ready to lift off into space if ever I could (yet I'd likely lose my lunch in orbit), I've been alternately enraptured and enraged by recognizing we are not (nobody is) alone. Something views me from a different plane of existence. Is this dimension of which I'm so ignorant the natural world of plants, animals, earth/space/time? Is it the chambers of angels, the dominion of God? Perhaps somehow it's all of these. I wish to understand.


But I'm engaged here and now, in traffic and on the computer, with the broken blindness of mankind. From early childhood, my psychology has found a way to cope with other humans. I fear them picking, probing, bullying, ramming me -- and of course it's been only rarely that someone has physically or even verbally abused me, seeing as I grew up in a grove of kindness -- but those outside my shelter; well, I've experienced hurt myself, or I've watched those I love maimed by some of their thoughts and internalizations. These dark inner ideas mainly have come out as criticisms, words that are supposed to never hurt me but are only another form of hurled sticks and stones.

I learned a way to cope, analogous to Jack London's "law of the wild": Eat or be Eaten. I learned to criticize first. Mostly inside myself rather than out loud. But mostly all the time and with everyone.

This way of reacting to other human beings, this learned (and imitated) defense system, takes a lot of time and energy. A lot. First I must analyze the other person crossing my path and imagine what they've done, are doing, or may do that offends me. Then I have to deal with my whole self in reaction, often in justifying blame. This habitual process may be instantaneous or drawn out, but it's always draining.

No wonder I lose out on what I'd much rather be doing: studying reality; putting the evidence I've discovered/been given to the test; seeking to draw near to the Ultimate.


As clearly as I'm seeing my criticalness today, I have only begun to become aware of it due to an amazing gift: the Orthodox Christian mystery of confession. For nearly five years I've practiced speaking my failures aloud to God in the presence of an ordained witness, my priest. And it's really something.

Like the Old Testament practice of animal sacrifice which prefigured New Testament confession, I have "killed" the bull (I've first repented in my heart), and now I drag its carcass to offer up. Like the old sacrifices, this practice isn't for God's benefit; it's for mine. Over time in confession I hear myself repeating things, such as anger and more anger. I yelled...I swore...I criticized.

Five years in, I can finally see something new regarding my sudden choice to study the Orthodox (made during a prayer I breathed, repenting of -- what do you know -- anger, in which I was flabbergasted to recognize this church might contain something real). The new thing involves my grief over losing my friends, the people I shared ideas in common with for eleven years. I've felt like they rejected me -- not because anybody said anything to me about what I chose, but because I imagined their rejection, their criticism of me as a person.

But today I recognize the alien, the criticizer, and it is me. Before I became Orthodox, I thought critical things about people who, becoming Orthodox, deviated from my views. When I took that same turn, I was hurt by my assumption that others were thinking the same negative things about me. Whether anybody was or not doesn't matter now; I forgive them if they were. It's easier to forgive the complexities in another person than to be cleansed of self-inflicted pain, the soul-destroying type.

This pain is eased at last, though, by help (and, so help me, I believe this fully now) from another dimension: the creative space of goodness where hearts and minds are revealed; a Personal, rescuing reality comprised of love and freedom.

12/26/2015

entering in: a birthday story


Probably to my daughter's relief, I'm not writing this post about her. Victoria is in it, she's a significant character, certainly, and today is her birthday. But there's more I'd like to tell, all of which I've told before, though not quite in this fashion.

Thirty years as a parent is a milestone, the thought of which doesn't slumber easily at 4:00 a.m., even though the cat whose meowing woke me is already curled by my feet snoring. Memories dance past of that Christmas morning on which I felt the first, real tuggy twinge and knew this was it. Tim drove me in his 1966 Ford Falcon (the same one he'll drive later this morning to work on things at the church), under brilliant blue skies, from Vancouver to the Portland hospital. Later there would arrive my parents and brother, we'd open presents in the birthing room, and then my labor would become intense, while Dad blasted Space Invaders via Tim's Atari in the waiting room and while Tim's three-inch TV on the bedside table played Barney Miller's theme.

This all came about, I ponder now, not because I invented an adulthood of marriage and family exploits, but because I entered into commitment and struggle, pain and process.

I couldn't have done any of it alone. There's never been a doubt I had help from above. The regular, ordinary doubt about what occurred has remained pretty constant -- doubt of myself, of my interpretation which is faulty at best. But that which made itself known to this failing being is that which comprises faith -- the acceptance of what is not yet seen and the surety of what is coming.

In purely human terms, however, I had help from the man I married, the man with whom I signed divorce papers before our fourth anniversary. The day we signed, we hadn't yet had children. I already lived with someone else. As divorces go it was more tidy than some.

But then it didn't happen. We couldn't make our divorce work, because that day we signed the papers we prayed. Tim asked me to. I grudgingly granted his request (I suppose I decided I'd give him a last gift). And then I was quietly amazed. Astounded. That afternoon I told the man I'd been living with I had to leave him, and I did, never seeing him again. I went home to my parents. Later that summer, Tim and I were back together.

I knew that while praying with Tim I'd been invited into something. I gained the strongest sense God considered our marriage a living thing, and He didn't want it to die. I'm aware I may have had a psycho/emotional reaction to something. There are likely a million possibilities. But the facts of the story remain: I had tried to do the "right" thing a thousand times before this, and I failed. Finally, firmly, I had left my husband, and that was that. It was, anyway, right up until the moment, two years before I gave birth to our daughter, when I accepted the invitation to enter in.

On Victoria's birth day (three minutes past midnight, December 26th), I still hadn't learned the whole story. I knew Tim was convinced throughout my pregnancy that we'd have a girl (no ultrasound confirmation back then). He had never wavered. When our baby was a couple months old he told me more about his doings the year I left him.

For a few months Tim stayed near Portland with his aunt and uncle (he'd just been hired by KPTV). I was out of the picture, back in Coos Bay with someone else. At first, Tim was stoic. All right, leave me, I don't care, this has been more mess than I asked for, anyway. Then he started praying. One time, as he prayed, he "saw" me pregnant. He knew then that if we got back together I would have a daughter. He was given no guarantee we could work things out. But he was encouraged to try.


I tell this story, this time, because I've been coming to see reality as something each person is invited to enter into (each in wonderfully differing ways), for the benefit of all. The most genuine stuff, of which tree-boughs sigh and bullfrogs croak and incoming tides thunder, is really all one story. Its endless variations sing repeated hardship and trial, but they encourage the sufferer to undergo them, to discover the surprising interactions. Like a gift on Christmas neither Tim nor I could have imagined, a daughter who would bless our lives. She would grow up to discover an odd church with onion domes and bells, a foreign land, and she'd invite us to visit. And the rest is another chapter, another verse, in a single tale, continuing.

12/17/2015

gifts


For years we paid a little each month for secondary health insurance. My primary plan has a high deductible, so I hoped the secondary, supplemental policy would give me great help to pay my bills. While hospitalized I'd sensed those dollar amounts mounting with each blood draw and electrocardiogram.

The supplemental plan didn't offer me a cent. The evening I read the company's denial I groaned. I tried not to resent the people I'd talked to on the phone and worked so hard to please with all my gathered statements and doctor's notes. "Just send everything," they'd told me. "That's the only way we can determine your eligibility."

I did resent them, though they were only doing their job. All I could do was send a cancellation letter and try the next option, the messier one: dealing with every billing office, while applying for the hospital's financial assistance program.

We had received many promises of prayer from people far and wide, especially from our church friends, and this gave me real comfort. As church treasurer, I've observed generous, sacrificial amounts given by parishioners after they dedicated time to prayer for the needy.

For this reason, I wasn't super worried. I think, though, that I shrank from the reality of being needy; I preferred figuring a way out of trouble myself. And so I applied for jobs, being interviewed by the post office for holiday work. I wasn't hired. (Now, as rain pours and parts of Eugene flood, I wonder how long it would have taken me, had I been hired, to end up back in the hospital.)

Surprisingly, I enjoyed almost every conversation with medical office bookkeepers. Their work's not so different from mine, and I could commiserate when their computers did strange things. I managed to complete the hospital application, and then we simply had to wait to learn whether or not they'd reduce my bill. In the meantime, one church friend offered to organize a bake sale. I baked gluten-free brownies and brought them that Sunday, expecting a few other goodies would arrive and we might receive a few dollars. Every bit would help, so I was grateful.

People actually made a big deal of the sale, even auctioning off two pies. Money came in. More came from people just giving us checks. Just because. It added up fast. I was (still am) overwhelmed.

At Tim's parents' for our usual Sunday evening shared dinner, Mom H. told an involved story about how they'd been planning to help Tim's sister with a substantial bill. It turned out the bill was cancelled, and since they'd already subtracted the amount from their checkbook...She handed me a check. More overwhelm.


As you may have guessed, the hospital helped, too, reducing my bills by 40%. Most recently we learned that an Orthodox group's benevolent fund is granting me $2000.

My bills are pretty much covered. My heart, squeezed a few months ago by excessive fluid, now sings a merry, dark day tune. Slipping through puddles to the church bookstore for my volunteer shift, I anticipate strange things my computer may do as I enter numbers. I listen to volunteers working hard on the nave's messy renovation, and I compliment them on how great the church is really starting to look. They glance at the floor and shrug and tell me, "Well, it's all a process."

11/14/2015

open the file

My father-in-law bought me a laptop. I've said I'd never own one, because I wished to leave the demanding internet at home. But I'm not complaining now.

I'm actually learning that having the laptop close by -- at the kitchen table, or, like this past week, with me while keeping my mother-in-law company -- I am given many more chances to work on my memoir. It's easy to open the file, since it's right there. The internet commands my attention sometimes, but it gets old fast, and anyway I'm kind of on a writing roll. Whoop.

A year ago I attended Bob Welch's writing workshop and found a focus for my book. My three words stating this focus became "My theology changed." Which has happened throughout my life and in a fairly dramatic way in 2011. But the problem, I realized as I wrote about it, involved interest. Who, besides me, might care that my theology changed? A better aspect of the subject could possibly be my expression of why my theology changed. Especially when it was likely to provide echoes of others' experiences. A lot of people in our culture have recognized within themselves soul quakes, the shifting of their understanding. This has led many to leave traditional churches. This, I'm thinking, is the meat of the story of my faith journey.


I stayed with my mother-in-law this week and was startled by early morning quackings of mallards. They happily promenaded in the rain; I happily clicked my keyboard. In fact, a few times I meant to do other work but was compelled by the urge to open the file, so I did. Now my first chapter is completed. Not finished, of course -- not reworked and polished and mulled over ad nauseum -- and chapter two is in tatters, but the first one sounds pretty good.

I would so like to accomplish this effort. Especially when we're threatened with collection agencies by medical groups (we've also had people give us money to help pay bills, bless their hearts), but, hey, this is good impetus to sit down once again and open the file.

10/28/2015

working along

This year's autumn has consoled me.


It's amazing once in a while to recall nights and days in the hospital, just three months ago. Wondering if I would survive, and then whether or not life would return to normal. Well, at this point, it pretty much has. Thank God. I can walk and sing and even go for job interviews. Which I'm doing. Must pay the dear hospital.

There's always something going on, construction of the soul. At our church, renovation continues within the walls.


We're gaining a more beautiful space for prayer. But dust must settle, and it's a long haul getting there.

I ponder in wonder the spaces inside of me where dust gets kicked up all the time. Thanks in a very large part to prayer. I never knew what prayers were, really, until I came to this church. Yet the path of prayer, of stillness in quiet, dusty spaces, has shown itself in glimpses throughout my life. Since I was a wee thing.

Lately I've thought again about my memoir, which I never stopped writing. I also thought about an episode from my wee life, and I recognized the moment, in 1963, when I entered into church-ness and discovered I loved church. It wasn't during a service. I was, actually, trapped inside the church we went to. Night had fallen. Silence gently settled, and I sang a hymn, waiting for my father.

So now I'm writing a book with the subtitle "My Heart's Journey Back to Church." It will likely contain pieces of all the work I've done up to now, but it has a destination: the readership of those interested in our "unchurched" times. A lot is written about people who've left churches but who are Christian. I'm definitely one of these people, though now I'm someone journeying within walls being fashioned in the shape, perhaps, of identities in God-space.

I'll blog more later about my job hunt. Or if I don't post for a while, you can guess I'm doing something, for once, that earns money.