The following appeared as a guest post on Abbey of the Arts.
It’s been a difficult year. And not just for me. Too many friends and family have been put through the ringer. Marriages crumbled. People moved. Children got sick. Addictions took over. Dreams were shattered. A mother died. A sister died. A baby died.
These are just the personal tragedies I am privy to. To say nothing of the state of the nation, the wars of the world, the thousands displaced, and the too many abused.
The world is on fire.
Sometimes I think my body forgets that the trauma and stress of the first nine months of the year has passed. I left my husband. My son and I moved into a beautiful, humble town-home surrounded by towering oaks which dropped their acorns with such gusto the week we moved in that I had to keep reminding myself “it’s just acorns, no one is trying to break in.”
Sometimes I am still gripped by anxiety. I have to root around in my brain to pinpoint the monster that provoked the shaking and the fear and ask if it is true, then give it a little hug and send it on its way. Sometimes I get this sudden feeling that I am about to be swallowed by a hideous void. My ribcage swings inward, collapsing my breath. I stare wide-eyed at the black and terrifying unknown. But for the most part, I am breathing better now. For the most part my ribcage swings outward and the wings beneath my shoulder blades unfurl. Shake off dew. Get ready to fly.
In church on Sunday, the rector told a story about a man in the 1960’s who sat outside the White House everyday and lit a candle in protest of the war and violence in Vietnam. One day a man came up and asked, “Do you really think sitting here like this day after day is going to change the world?”
The man replied, “I don’t sit here to change the world. I sit so the world won’t change me.”
When I was a girl I did not understand how once bright and smiling young people could grow old and bitter and mean. I did not believe that the world was broken.
And then I grew up.
Compared to the displaced, the abused, the trafficked, my personal struggles have been very first world. But they have been significant. They have been mine. And they have broken me. Still, I don’t want to be bullied by the cynicism and bitterness I often feel when I look back on the things that didn’t work out and see them as predictors of future failure.
I’ve been fighting to keep mySelf alive ever since the day I graduated High School full of hope and optimism and as much self knowledge and esteem as an eighteen year old can muster. Each time I put on a scarf, or cut my hair, or read fiction I am sending my fist up in defiance against the onslaught of forces bent on beating it out of me. Writing time becomes a statement to my Soul that I will not abandon her.
There are lessons to be learned from this world. The oak and maple and pine around my home speak slow and deep, telling me not to worry. The world is held in an embrace and I am part of that world.
My soon to be ex-husband and I remain on good terms. The friend who lost her seven month old baby to cancer is on a healing month in New Zealand – a trip funded by an outpouring of support. The Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota won a temporary stay on the construction of an oil pipeline that would run under their water supply and along their sacred ground. Our church welcomed and helped settle three refugee families this year. My son’s godmother just sent me a picture of her newborn riding home from the hospital in our old carseat.
The rain falls. The sky remains. The trees hold down the earth, keep it from blowing away.
Last night I set my alarm. This morning I got up and practiced asana, moving my body into shape after shape with only the vaguest agenda. I breathed. I lit my candle. I sat.
A monk of the world in protest.
Of cynicism and bitterness and fear.
This world is going to change me. But I am going to choose how.
This post was written as a guest piece for Abbey of the Arts’ “Monk in the World Guest Post” series which poses the question, “How do you live as a monk in the world?”
“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”
~ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
A table was set up outside the bookstore at Kanuga, the retreat center where my family and I spent our summer vacation. As so often happens, on our final day there I felt the stirring need to purchase a little token of our time in that scared place. A slim white paperback caught my attention.
The Mockingbird is a journal, published by Mockingbird Ministries “…that seeks to connect the Christian faith with the realities of everyday life in fresh and down-to-earth ways. [They] do this primarily, but not exclusively, via publications, conferences, and online resources.”* Each volume has a theme and this volume, Volume 5, focused on forgiveness. I scanned the table of contents, flipped through the beautifully laid out pages, hesitated, and put it back.
Something larger was at work.
As I moved on, perusing the other items on the table, I felt a tug, as though the book had lassoed a rope around my body and was pulling, drawing me in.
For months I have been struggling with layers of resentment and anger. For months I have been reworking the pages of my novel unable to figure out how to fix it. For years I have been lamenting that my life has, thus far, not turned out the way I envisioned it. I am not yet a bestselling author and humanitarian—a kind of literary Bono.
“Forgive me for the expectations I had of this life.
I had very specific standards that have not been met.
Either through my own failures or those around me.
That I would be Eudora Welty-meets-Mother Theresa.
That I would write tomes of wisdom whiling away my time in an urban ministry program.
Instead I am a mother who lives in the suburbs.
I occasionally remember to donate baby formula to the food pantry…”*
This was the first piece I read (and photographed with my iPhone and texted to my mother and best friend). The anonymous author continues on with an all too familiar litany of standards she set for her life, and all the many ways she struggles with acceptance and gratitude.
Next I read an interview with “The Warden of the World’s Nicest Prison” who affirmed my thoughts about incarceration but which I felt too naive to verbalize. Then I read an essay on forgiveness in marriage. After that came Hearts and Crosses by O.Henry, a story of how we hurt each other and how we forgive.
One of the main scenes in my novel that had been giving me fits was the critical moment where the protagonist forgives herself for all the ways she blamed others for her suffering, and in doing so offers the antagonist an opportunity to do the same. The essential plot and spirit of the scene was right but the setting, the dialogue, and the actions—all the basic elements of story—felt sappy and forced.
After reading Hearts and Crosses I took out my file of magazine clippings, crayons and watercolor paper, and made some Wisdom Cards. To make Wisdom Cards write a question on three or four pieces of paper, turn them over, and mix them up. That way you don’t know which question you are working with as paste on images and drawings. Each card will have its own flavor. An image on one card just won’t work on another. The pieces hone in on each other and create a new whole. When the collages are finished, turn the cards over, and read the question your art-making has addressed. I always expect direct answers. “This is action a, now take action b.” Fortunately, art is more subtle than that.
Lying in bed that night, after reading Hearts and Crosses, after making Wisdom Cards, words and pictures churned as I faded into sleep: hearts, crosses, forgiveness; the novel, my characters… decoupage… magnolias…summer heat… photographs… an antique store… a kind gesture. And there it was, how to fix the novel.
I may never be the literary Bono I envision myself to be—though I still hold out hope for that possibility. I may never truly rid myself of anger and resentment. What I need to remember is that neither of those things is the point.
What I need to remember is that it’s the process; the movement of the soul, the diving down into the dark, painful places of the heart: the resentment, the disappointment, the selfish grasping, the shame. What I need to remember is the many ways God has, if not answered, evolved the deepest longings of my being.
How do I practice being a monk in the world? I switch on my homing beacon, and listen.
*The Confessional, Mockingbird Volume 5, Mockingbird Press, page 19.
** I highly recommend both Mockingbird and the book “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” (which has a fabulous, unabridged audio version).
Melinda Thomas Hansen is mother to a one year old, so living as a monk in the world is a bit more challenging these days. Her touchstone practices are writing, yoga–both teaching and doing–, taking walks and looking at trees. Visit her online at www.thehouseholderspath.com
It has been some time since I’ve posted. What precious writing time I have these days is devoted to my journal and to fiction. I’ve been thinking about change, about seasons and relationships and about God. So often we speak of the earth and the seasons like a romance. And we speak of God as love. But love, real love in relationship is mad. Inspired by my own journey, by Advent and the meditations in the book, “In the Sanctuary of Women” by Jan.L. Richardson in which she asks, “Just how much do I want God to know me anyway?” I present…
It begins in the dark, as all things do. It begins in the breath before a whisper; the deep, cold space between the stars. The black bones of trees lay bare against a black sky growing grey with the first light. Winter. Below the stars Earth, frozen and dormant. There’s an intelligence there, forgotten in the hard packed crystals of ice. A waiting for something not yet remembered. A sharp intake of Breath; the groan of Earth recalling some deeper warmth.
I know you, She says.
It takes some convincing for Earth to thaw. He wavers around the idea of warmth as space slides between the ice. One day, without realizing it, Spring. A whisper turned into a laugh, a song. The remembrance of a bird, a flower, a tree.
I’m alive, He says.
They flirt, this Earth and Breath. They dance and tumble and birth new animals, new songs, new skies. Their love grows, warmed by Sun. But Sun betrays them. She shines too bright and too strong. Summer. His grasses get scorched; flowers wither and die. Breath pushes rain through Air only to choke.
You almost killed me, She says.
Earth, wondering what happened to his beloved Breath turns only to see that she has found a new love. Wind. Fall. Breath and Wind merge bringing a familiar song to Earth. The ancient chant of ruin and death.
This is what I was afraid of, He says.
Leaves fall. Everything they birthed in Spring unrecognizable now.
I have to go, She says.
The rage in Breath pushing away the last of Sun. Light and warmth fade. The hard-pack of ice returns as Earth goes dormant once again.
Why did you leave me? He asks.
Breath rides Wind over Earth, searching, searching for a way back in; getting caught on the bones in the sky. After Her exhale, the dark. The deep cold space between the stars. The breath before the whisper.
I know you, She says.
I didn’t intend to write this but sometimes the words come and won’t be contained. It is born out of my philosophy as a yogi and not intended as a political statement.
Today is the 13th anniversary of the day everything changed.
I don’t know if that last statement is true for every generation or just mine. We Gen Xers and older Millenials grew up in relative peace, sheltered from the realities of mass violence and war. Yes, there was a brief period in the early 90’s when we fought in the Gulf. Yes, there was Rawanda and Bosnia and the last decade of the Cold War. But unless there was the direct deployment of a close family member, our daily lives remained largely unaffected.
That changed when planes flew into buildings on our home soil. For us this was unimaginable. But for those who lived through D’Day, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, I have a suspicion (though no proof) that it may have been all too familiar.
September 11th is one of those epoch moments. Everyone over a certain age has an answer to the question, “Where were you on September 11th?” I was taking a chemistry test when the planes hit. I heard about it while driving around the quad at the University of Alabama. Tom Clancy was being interviewed on NPR since he had imagined a similar event in one of his books. It took a few minutes before I understood that this was reality.
I went to a friend’s house and we watched the television coverage with the blinds closed. The buildings crumbled to the ground. Later, I went to work at the Olive Garden and we sang the Buona Festa song to a young man having his birthday dinner.
“Buona Festa what a joyous day. Life’s good fortune is sure to come your way. Come on sit back and just relax and fill your plate the Italian way. We’re so glad you came to celebrate with us today.”
Life is so small.
A few days later my now husband and I were sitting with a friend on the Olive Garden patio. “Everything has changed,” our friend said. I looked out at the familiar landscape, the traffic and the September sun but it didn’t make sense.
For us it was the end of innocence and the awakening to our place in the greater world. Life went on. The sun rose, the sun set. The buildings and people around us remained but the veneer was different. Like an old piece of furniture stripped of it’s varnish, waiting to see what stain will give it a different look.
Thirteen years later this day still feels different than others. Different, but also the same.
It’s true that we are in the midst of difficult times and challenging transition, but that is true of every age. On a global scale no one era is better or worse than another. Violence and war morph to fit the times; people have always been beheaded. A stake in the square is different only in that the locals get to see it. Now we have television.
A week or so ago I was leaving the Y where I had been teaching a yoga class. I had the baby on my hip, a few bags slung over my shoulder and a waterbottle in another hand. On my way out a man said, “Would you like to help out with our September 11th day of remembrance? We’re asking people to bring little treats to the first responders in our area.”
Even though I struggle with a nagging feeling that my work as a yoga teacher and writer is not enough to meet and heal the pain in the world I do believe that, as the deacon at our church said once, “Small acts done with great love can change the world.” I want my son to know this so I signed up to bring some cookies.
I was going to bake from scratch but the timing involved in cookie making and the reality of caring for an infant is a bit boggling. I bought a mix but can’t taste the finished product because it’s not gluten free. I am now afraid they will be horrible. My cookies seem too small to change the world.
I’m very good at finding ways to feel inadequate. It’s all very self-centered and lacking in gratitude.
Today we hold the polar energies of remembrance and anxiety as we partner with other countries to take out the ISIL terrorists.* I didn’t realize how much tension I was holding about this threat until I heard we were doing something about it.
I understand the arguments to leave well enough alone. People are going to do what they are going to do and we don’t have any control over that. The only control is our actions. At the same time, don’t we as a country with means have a duty to fight for those who for whatever reason can’t fight for themselves, or just need help doing so?
Do we choose to come to the rescue or sit in armed – neutrality like Switzerland? (Though perhaps without the unfortunate ties to the Third Reich)
We need people willing to fight for others. And we need passionate neutrality. Like monks, we need those who will sit in silence and hold the pain so it can be transformed into peace.
On a personal level maybe this our role. As yogis and people of spirit perhaps it is our job to sit in silence; to draw suffering into our awareness and hold it there; to feel pain without running.
Talk of love is often accompanied by talk of fire. Love burns. Burning hurts.
There’s a wood working technique where the artisan sets fire to a piece of wood to burn away the earlywood – softer grain that shows at the beginning of a season – and allow the latewood – the stronger, denser grain – to show through.
Despite the change in our country’s policy perhaps Woodrow Wilson was, on a personal level, right when he said, “We are not trying to keep out of trouble; we are trying to preserve the foundations on which peace may be rebuilt.”
Perhaps this is what we do with silence and with our small acts. Perhaps through this work we are able to burn away the violence and allow our inner work for peace to grow strong in the face or fire.
*I refuse to call them ISIS. Even though I know it’s an acronym Isis is the powerful Egyptian goddess of life and rebirth. I can’t co-opt in such a manner.