Category Archives: Life in the Balance

Silent Gift

“How Silently, How Silently the Wondrous Gift is Given . . .”

Isaac is getting anxious.  No tree, no lights, no wrapping paper, no presents . . . we haven’t yet begun to stir the dust on the boxes of Christmas stuff in our basement.  Last year around this time, part of me was explaining that we were waiting for our daughter Katy to make it home from her Americorps assignment out in Nevada—she’d want to be part of the preparation for Christmas, right?

(But she’s home this year, so that excuse won’t work again.)

Another part of me is saying simply:  it’s not yet Christmas.  It’s not time . . . . shhhhhhhh.

 What happened to Advent?

The sad truth is, there is very little room in our busy December schedules for an Advent quiet.  Marching bands, parades, an endless supply of commercials and sales and invitations to parties . . . all of it begins to trumpet CHRISTMAS, LOUD AND PROUD! right after Halloween, with barely a breath taken for Thanksgiving.  winter-silence

The truth is, what my heart yearns for most is to be quiet in December—to remember and observe the forgotten season of Advent, that season in the church when we prepare our hearts for the promised Messiah to be born there.

What was in Mary’s heart, all those quiet nights alone with her growing belly, feeling this unknown and unexpected child kicking inside her?  Did she feel the weight of the world?  Worry for the birth to come?  Holy wonder, holy confusion at the prospect of Yeshua Meshiach coming into the world through the most obscure (and messiest) means possible:  into human flesh, through the womb of an unknown peasant girl?  What work was being accomplished even then by the Creator of the Universe, curled in silence in the secret places of Mary’s body?

I want time to consider those questions—to find where they connect to my own heart.

Wasn’t it in the silence of my own messy heart that Jesus was born so many years ago? 

When was your heart last silent enough to hear the still small voice of the Holy Child . . . or the Savior?

In the midst of the overscheduled, overcooked, busy doings and goings of December, please remember to make room for silence.  To make room for the Christ Child.  To await His coming in your heart.

To prepare ye the way of the Lord.

(If you want to read another perspective on the overscheduled Christmas, please go to my good friend Karen Austin’s blogpost on Segullah.)

(Full disclosure:  an earlier version was written for the December 2011 newsletter of the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia Walk to Emmaus community:  www.westvirginiaemmaus.org)

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Filed under Life in the Balance, Spirituality

The Space Between the Lines

I have a pair of pants–faded brown jeans, nothing special or big-name-brand or anything about them. My husband HATES them.

I love them.

He hates them for almost the same reason I love them: they are about three sizes too big. Baggy at the hips, rear, and thighs, slipping off the waist, riding dangerously low on my hips, they look like I’m wearing my dad’s pants. They would have made great hobo pants for the most popular poor-kid Halloween costume when I was a kid. He just rolls his eyes when I come out of the room wearing them. I get it. But I keep wearing them! I’m wearing them at this moment, in fact.

I remember when I bought these jeans.

I was on my way UP in sizes, and these jeans were my next step up the rack of sizes. I hated clothes shopping, because every trip to the store reminded me of how big I was, and getting bigger all the time. There were usually tears involved in these purchases, which had become inevitable as I continued to inch my way up the scale, making the last ‘biggest-ever’ skirt or blouse (or jeans, in this case) the next to go in the pile of ‘when I lose weight again’ clothes.

These jeans, mercifully for me, were made by a brand that employs generous sizing guidelines, so even though they were my next-step jeans, I reasoned, they would remain comfortable for a while (see how, long-ingrained in my thought process, was my sense of the inevitability of getting bigger?).

And for a while that was the case, until at the top of my weight gain , I found that I had popped an outside seam here on my left thigh. Climbing into my SUV eventually became a tortuous kind of guessing game: will the button hold? Will the rest of the seam give way? Will I be able to breathe?!

(Confession: it is embarrassing beyond measure to admit these things, but to do so as open-eyed and transparently as I can is part of my journey–part of owning and embracing it, understanding and feeling compassion for the person I was, and for those who are even now living this life.  You are not alone, and you are not without hope, or help!)

Which brings me to where I am: swimming, now, in these very same jeans. Why, when they serve as a reminder of the ugly place I was, do I not only hang onto them, but continue to wear them? In public?!

There has been grace, friends, in the space between the dark place where I was, and where I am now. The daylight in my pants reminds me of that grace. That’s even what I call them–my Daylight Pants!–because when I pull out the waistband, I can look all the way down my legs to my feet and the floor below.

Daylight. My feet are in a sure and solid place, and it is a new day.  The line where I was, the line where I am now, each a kind of starting line for a race, a leap–a journey. I am blessed to live in the free space in between.

An artist I heard this weekend at a bluegrass festival, Tim O’Brien, sang of a kind of quiet grace that finds and holds us “in the space between the lines“. (music begins around 1:22)

Enjoy this song, friends, and may you go strong today, in grace and light.

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Final Week . . . HKC Pittsburgh bound, baby!

It’s here.

In the busy-ness of the end of summer/beginning of the semester, I turned around, and it’s here.  HKC Pittsburgh, coming this Saturday.

I’m trying not to panic.  I think I’m ready.  All along this road, I’ve been learning to trust that feeling–and the evidence–instead of the panic.

Here’s my evidence:

  • I’m getting used to snatching the 16k (35-lb) kettlebell.  HKC certification doesn’t even test on the snatch, so in that sense I’m actually ahead of the game.  In my final work session with Cruel Jamie– awesome RKC trainer–she had me do sets of 5 16k snatches with each arm “until they fall off”.  I might be paraphrasing.
  • I’m routinely swinging the 26k (56-lb) kettlebell.  Between these two, my strength is good (and growing) on the ballistic moves.  (I’m still wonky on my feet with swings, according to Jamie, even though otherwise they’re strong.  This might get noted and corrected at HKC, but she’s not worried about it, so I won’t either.)
  • I’m good on the flexed arm hang (as long as I don’t have to retest over and over).
  • My goblet squats are golden.  Must be the mommy hips . . .
  • Turkish Get-Ups are still one of my favorites–usually my warm-up, whatever else I’m doing–and I’ve made them the framework of my HKC prep training, after the RKC Deep 6 pattern (thank you, Coach Engum!).
  • My conditioning is improving more and more:  I can go for looong stretches of heavy swings, swing ladders (increasing numbers of reps each cycle within a training session), and “pain chains” (moving up through increasing bell weights in one session).  Though I’m a frizzy, hot-mess puddle of sweat by the end of it, the fact that I consider these awesome fun instead of hellish torture must be a good sign, right?
  • THIS IS IMPORTANT.  Remember the skirt?  The one that stayed sitting when I stood up at the end of a committee meeting?  The skirt I bought to replace it–my first single-digit-sized clothing purchase in 20 years, probably!–is now beginning to slide down my hips in the same way.  I’m wearing it today at work, in fact, and I’m a leetle worried.

Note, if you will, that none of this evidence involves the scale.  Increasing strength and the resulting body changes are for me a better, more positive, LESS OBSESSIVE-MAKING barometer of my progress.

This, too, is a good sign.

I am completely rocked to have one Janelle Pica, none other than Primal Burgher Herself, as my HKC partner this weekend!!  She’s been a

partner all along–in strength development and general encouragement and awesomeness as we’ve connected online–so it’s

wonderful that we can see this thing through together.  By the way, she’s roughly half my age and twice my strength!   But

somehow the math works, as it’s added up to a great friendship as well as a mutual goal.

We got this, chica!

I want to say what a great encourager my own Sweet Baboo has been–not just putting up with this slightly daft, not-sure-what-I’ll-do-with-it-once-I-get-it goal of mine, but cheering me on along the way.  Thanks, Dear.  I’ll try not to break anything while I’m there. (>_<)

And on that note–what will I do with the certification once earned?–we’ll see.  I’m connecting with the Wellness Center folks–with the Jefferson County Parks and Recreation Center–some other fitness places already equipped with kettlebells–and with individuals who’ve seen the work I’ve been doing and the progress, and who are interested in discovering what training with kettlebells can do for them.  If you’re one of these folks, let me know!  I’m here for ya.

Heading out Friday morning for the ‘Burgh.  Watch out!

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Filed under Kettlebells, strength training, Life in the Balance

Stand Up!

So I had a day off.

This is a relatively rare occurence, not because I am a workaholic (well, OK, I am), but because I know that the work stacking up for me while I’m gone will make my return to work a miserable slog–which stresses me out no end just anticipating it. Which negates the good of a day off! So I generally just keep my head down and shoulder to the wheel, you know? Easier that way.

[Insert long sad story about Plan A, then Plan B, then Plan C for my semi-historic day off being cancelled . . . Sigh. This is the story of my Crazyplate life.]

I could’ve just taken the cancellations as a sign from the universe to pack it in and go to work already, but you know what?  I was *determined* to have a real day off, daddurnit!

To the rescue! Comes this tweet from River Riders, a local outfitter and adventure company:

@riverriders: This weekend is perfect for a water adventure! Visit our website http://t.co/NXK2m3ot or Call 800-326-7238 to book…

So’s I did.

For the past couple of years kayaking on our rivers, we had been seeing more and more folks on stand-up paddleboards. Every time I’d see one, I’d suck in my breath, ooooooooh, and declare that I’d have to try this one day!  And then, just this summer, River Riders announced that they were adding stand-up paddleboarding to their activities, including a lesson!  I knew the day was getting closer.

That day, as it turned out, was Friday, August 3, 2012. Which JUST SO HAPPENED to coincide with my one single, stubborn Day Off That Refused To Die.  So let me tell you about my great experience with this company. Local WV and DC-area folks, you need to know about River Riders!

First of all, I love that River Riders makes such great use of social media.  And why wouldn’t they? They hire some of the best and brightest young adults in the area, who are all tech-savvy and no doubt keep the online interaction with locals and clients (or potential clients) immediate, current, and responsive.

So when I jumped over to their Facebook page to find the parallel posting (also good social media practice) and to get some additional info, I was pleased but not all surprised when I got a response right back. Yes, they had openings for stand-up paddleboarding (and then they gave me more information than I had initially asked for–prices and times, anticipating my inevitable next questions).

Then, when I called and found out that not only were there openings for stand-up paddleboarding, but that my son and I would be the only two to sign up all day long–they did not cancel or waffle or charge us more.  We would have a lesson and a river guide all to ourselves for three entire hours! There was an additional transportation fee they generally charge when shuttling such a small group, since fuel prices are so high, but Amanda (the helpful person behind the phone, and a Shepherd alum!) readily waived it, since SUP was a new activity and not well-known yet. (She just asked that I write a review up–which I’m doing!)

The reservation and payment was all handled by phone, pretty straightforward, and then Isaac and I loaded up and headed out. We needed to be there an hour ahead of time for legal paperwork (waivers for participating in dangerous activities–we won’t sue them, in other words), and the required water safety video briefing (wear shoes, don’t drink alcohol, don’t be stupid–I might be paraphrasing).

The place was packed, and while I was happy that a local business was doing so well,  the one concern I had (job-related eyeballs on operations wherever I go) was that it was unclear to us whether there was a line to get into, or a specific place along the counter for folks with reservations to report to. So people milled about, and I totally missed a spontaneous line formation, and ended up behind people who had come in *after* we had arrived.  I was not going to waste my day off being upset, but I could see how, say, a mom with five kids to manage might get pretty exercised about that. Just a thought from an office management perspective . . . Maybe some signage to help direct people, or separate areas of the counter for different kinds of customers (Got Reservations? Check In Here). That sort of thing.

Once we got through all of that, and the shuttle was loaded (another couple was being transported to the same place for a different activity, so it had full usage), and we were on our way.

We put in at the River Riders campground, one of their several new offerings–great work, folks!–on a wide, deep stretch of the Potomac.  It looked like a lake instead of a river! The sun was out, the sky was clear, and it wasn’t too awfully hot–a perfect day to be on the water with my boy.

Our personal guide, John, gave us some verbal instructions about the paddleboards, then waded with us into the river to demonstrate and teach us the “onloading” procedures.  We waded through a couple of feet of pretty deep river muck, but THIS IS WHY YOU WEAR SHOES (and preferably water shoes that will not be sucked off your feet by swift currents or deep goo, both realities of river life).  A belly-flop onto the board, a kneel, pivot, a squat, and a careful straightening (hey, kettlebell training coming in handy already! This is part of a Turkish get-up!) and I was standing on the water. Isaac did fine, too–neither of us ended up face-first on the board (or in the water).  Paddling strokes and turns came next while we were in shallower water–and then we were off.

We headed upstream, away (thankfully) from the noisier crowds in tubes.  The river got very quiet, disturbed only by the happy shrieks of people on the zip line canopy tour, yet another part of River Rider’s expansion of adventures this summer.

And the jet skis.  Sigh.  I suspect I might end up alienating a good portion of fellow water-lovers whose enjoyment of the outdoors involves revving up gas-powered engines at high volumes and speeds, scaring (if not injuring) the wildlife, and ruining the peace and quiet for everyone else.  But it’s a risk I’m willing to take.  I also suspect they’re not busy reading blogs like these.

Despite the jet skis–who have a perfect right, probably guaranteed in the Constitution somewhere, to be as obnoxious as they wanna be–it was beautiful.  I loved the view I had into the water from the standing position, seeing to the bottom, seeing the limestone ridges that form the spine of both river and mountain.  I loved the view of the Blue Ridge against the sky. I loved that my son was with me. I was happy, and quiet, and happy to be quiet.

[I didn’t love that I had forgotten the sunscreen, or water to drink.  I think those were in the safety video, which clearly I should have watched *before* we left the house. Duh.  That sun was pretty strong, despite the breeze and cooler temps. I was schvitzin’, lemme tell you. And both of us were pretty crispy the next day.]

We paddled for about an hour and a half, trying the different positions on the board that John suggested, and demonstrated, for when our legs felt fatigued–and they did, believe me! Every muscle, big and small, from my feet up to my core, was working hard to find stability on an inherently unstable surface:  the ever-moving surface of a river. Great workout, but I needed to take breaks–so I learned to kneel-down paddle just fine, and Isaac enjoyed sit-down paddling and even bellyboarding for a time!

The turnaround trip, going back downstream to the campground, was much faster with the current assisting us, although the wind kicked up a bit and supplied some chop just to keep things interesting. We were ready for lunch, and cold water, and naps, but couldn’t help feeling a little twinge of regret when we saw the campground come into view.

The whole time, John treated us with great professionalism and good humor. I was surprised to learn that this was his very first summer with the outfit! This speaks highly of the caliber of employee the company hires, and the training it provides.

Will I stand-up paddle again? I’d like to, so that I can move beyond my first-timer tentativeness, start to build confidence in finding my balance (there’s that word again, so important to this blog!). I do think in the end that I’ll prefer kayaking for a couple of reasons: you can stow stuff in a kayak, and you can go fast!  I like some wind in my hair, and I just seem to be at the wrong angle to generate leverage or speed on the SUP.  And though I like the view from higher up (just like when we bought my first SUV), I like the stability provided by the lower center of gravity of a kayak. It’s all a trade-off in the end.

So, another adventure, another toy, another good thing on the Crazyplate that is my life–and many thanks to the good people of River Riders for making it happen on such short notice!  We’ll be back!

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Filed under Kayaking, Life in the Balance

The Dogs Do Howl . . .

I don’t remember much of my first 10 years, spent in a little white house with black trim on the corner of the block in a little town in central Texas.  I remember helping to scrape the house every year when Dad mobilized his junior army of painters–my six siblings and I–to freshen the trim.  I remember all of us, at some point, being banished to the back yard to pull weeds as punishment for one transgression or another.  I remember hordes of scab-kneed, sunburned children massing in the street for hours-long games of dodgeball, scattering for the occasional car bringing its owner home from work.

I remember walking to and from school, waiting for the day that a pomegranate growing on the other side of some unknown neighbor’s fence got big enough and red enough and close enough . . . just a little closer . . . to snag it and break open the rough skin to get at the ruby sweet inside.

And I remember dogs.

Our “backdoor neighbor” had two big lanky dogs–they might have been greyhounds, for all I know or remember–that had run a barren, dusty track around the perimeter of the chainlink fence that enclosed their yard. For hours in Texas sun these dogs would race, stopping only to drink or eat or occasionally snap and wrestle each other to the ground.

And as they ran in circles . . . I remember that they barked and howled, almost as if it was hurting them. But they couldn’t seem to stop–they just kept running, and howling.  Even worse, their ruckus would get the neighbors’ dogs going on either side, and then they would upset the dogs next to them–and soon the entire block was in full roar. Worse, each new contingent of doggie madness would enter the fray at a higher volume, more shrill and frantic than the others.

For hours.

I also remember that Dad was always mad; but now that I think about it, I don’t blame him, if he had to listen to those damn dogs all day long.  I could block my ears and run inside the house to escape the maddening clamor when it got going, but Dad was a gardener and outdoorsman, and the back yard was his refuge. He couldn’t escape.

I’m remembering all this today, because lately I’m getting the same feeling that I remember from being a little kid: wanting to put my fingers in my ears and crawl away from all of it.

The ridiculous Chick-Fil-A posture-fest. The political games and one-ups-manship.  Faith, government, education, work, the environment–in every circle, it seems as though the best we can offer each other is an extended howl of outrage about the latest sound bite–which invites someone else’s bellow in return, ad infinitum, until we’re whirling around each other, snapping, surrounded by cloud of noise and dust and hate.

It’s not just the noise, then, that spiraling competition to out-bark the other dogs. It’s the bared teeth. The hate. The reduction of our brothers and sisters, neighbors and co-workers to ‘them’–whatever the group is currently under fire.  There’s a violence there–violence in and to the spirit– just as surely as in the streets of war half a world away.

I stopped watching broadcast news because I hated this growing tendency (and because of the atrocious grammar); and then had to give up reading online news because of the trolls frequenting the comment section.  Everywhere I turned I saw the worst of people, no matter the issue or which side, yammering away and not changing anyone’s mind–not even trying to change opinions, really.  Just get the skewer in. Reach for the throat.  Get the dig in.  Wrestle them down to the dirt.

I didn’t want to feed that particular dog anymore.

And I’m about to give up on Facebook, too.  One of my sisters already has, and I don’t blame her a darn bit. She reports being happier and having more time for real reading and other essentials–and who wouldn’t want those things?

So here’s my howl for the day:

I’m one of the last Timeline holdouts–shhhhh, FB hasn’t found me yet.  But when it does find me and slap that monstrosity on me–I’m outta there. It’s just one of the howling dog tracks, but it’s a way to start turning the volume down somewhere. Shut the dogs of war up already.

Pax vobiscum.

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Filed under Life in the Balance, Spirituality, Writing

“You are also a creature of spirit”: Notes from a Podcast

Last summer, I was honored to be asked to help with an extensive podcast series on wellness, being developed by Shanan Spencer in our university’s Counseling Center.  My topic, specifically, was to be “Spirituality and Wellness for College Students”–cool beans!  It took a while to work through the list of topics, so Shanan didn’t have a chance to interview me until June of this year.

Just this week, I got word that the podcast had been released to our internal network, Sakai.  While it’s not publicly available yet–eventually they’ll move the series out to their website, and then to iTunes University–I’m able to share here some of the questions and the conversation that developed.  I think it was a great conversation.  Well done, Shanan!

What struck me as I was listening to the recording was how pertinent the discussion was not just for college life, but for much of what we crazyplate people still wrestle with, post-college:  getting life into balance, trying to juggle all of our competing responsibilities and joys, trying to connect to something real.  In a sense, the conversation finds its extension in this blog–I think I even quote myself in the first posting!–and so offer here some excerpts from the transcript.

Go strong today.

SS:  What is your interest in spirituality?

  • It is part of what keeps me grounded, keeps me sane.  It is what keeps me well. . . it is part of who we are, this element of spirituality; and so in the process of becoming who we are as full human beings, and growing and learning through the college experience, exploring this part of ourselves is not to be neglected.

SS:  I’m curious as to how you see spirituality contributing to wellness?

  • If you think of wellness as balance . . . NCAA Division II Athletics [has as its motto] for student-athletes, “Life in the Balance” . . . and that is for me the essence of wellness.  It is often the first thing that goes out the window when you go off to college!  [Whether a young student or a non-traditional student], their ability to find that balance . . . is the most difficult thing to do, and yet it is the most essential thing to do.  Understanding that I am not just my job, I am not just my GPA . . . you are not just the job you may get in the future, or your major . . .you are not just your mind, you’re not just your body.  You are also a creature of spirit, and recognizing those things as equal and valid parts, and nourishing those things equally, finding opportunity to express and strengthen those things equally, is all part of finding Life in the Balance.

SS:  What do you see as the difference between spirituality and religion?

  • For me, religion provides the context, the structure within which spirituality can have a full and meaningful expression.  Spirituality without structure can be loosey-goosey, very me-centered, it’s all about me . . . on the other hand, religion for its own sake can become very rule-bound . . . and lose its connection to the larger community outside that faith tradition. 
  • Very often, students will come to college from within a faith tradition, and begin the process of examining that tradition, and asking uncomfortable questions. . . . faith communities struggle with this.  The truth is, many of those same college students still connect to the hunger for spiritual things. They may connect to it through a different tradition, a different faith community . . . and I don’t see that as an unhealthy thing, as long as they are not neglecting that part of themselves.  I believe that things of the spirit allow for this kind of exploration.

SS:  What is the importance of taking care of the spirit?

  • What happens when one leg of a bridge gives way?  What happens when one corner of your house falls down?  The rest of it will stay up for a while, but it weakens . . . we all lose as a community, the individual loses  opportunity for the growth that might be there, that feeds all of the other areas.  All of those things that are part of Life in the Balance, they tend to support each other; so that when I nurture and strengthen my body, my mind works better; and when my spirit is satisfied and I feel whole inside myself, my body functions better and my mind is good to go in the classroom.  All of those things function together . . . We forget to our detriment that these are not separate things that we can kind of pigeonhole . . . they all work together, and we neglect them and keep them separate to our own disadvantage.

SS:  What are some of the ways that students can practice and engage in spirituality?

  • There is always a spectrum, a range of ways to explore and express spirituality . . . from the individual to the communal.  Something as simple as getting up 15 minutes before your roommate gets up, or before your family gets up, and simply sitting in silence.  Don’t turn the screens on. Don’t turn the radio on.  Leave the iPod off–just sit in silence with your own counsel . . . Nan Merrill is a wonderful writer who talks about this connection to the spirit in silence as being connected to The Beloved.  And it didn’t matter what faith tradition, or no tradition, you came from–when you were in silence, you were in connection with The Beloved.  To be in silence and to listen–sometimes we have to shut up in order to hear what we need to hear!  We have to learn to listen. 
  • That’s one end of the spectrum . . . [at the other end] there are local churches and organizations who want to connect and create community for our college students. . . . I see signs that say, “Are you hungry?”–and they’re talking about feeding you actual food, they want to cook for you!–but they’re talking about that other hunger, too.
  • Our students are so creative, and you may not have thought that your own skills and abilities [can be] part of your spiritual expression.  I sing with the Masterworks Chorus, and have done so since I came here, since 2003; and for me, being part of that great big sound, 100 voices or more, is part of my spiritual expression, winging to heaven a big I LOVE YOU that I can’t produce on my own, you know?  But you might be an artist, or a musician with an instrument, or an athlete . . . do what you do, but do it for a purpose. 
  • Ultimately, wellness is about building you up as an individual and making you stronger, but it’s making you stronger for a purpose: to connect you to a greater world that needs your strength and service.  That also is what your education is about . . . so if you are developing your spiritual side, let that connect to service as well.

SS:  One of the things you do as part of our Meditation Mondays is to give people an opportunity to participate in the labyrinth.  Will you tell us about that?

  • It’s one of my loves.  It is an ancient construction–not a maze, which is  a different creature altogether, intended to confuse and confound.  The labyrinth is a single path spiraling into a  center, and out again, and is intended to connect us to some kind of spiritual journey.  I use it in teaching a class to first-year students as a way of connecting them to some of the larger questions they’re beginning to deal with as they enter this new path, this new stage of their journey.
  • This past spring [in the Meditation Mondays] we did a silent labyrinth, a traditional quiet labyrinth.  We used little electric candles, in silence, to walk and commune with their own spirits.  But then I changed it up a little, to allow people to have different experiences of the labyrinth:  we used drums one Monday in conjunction with the labyrinth . . . I brought in  my collection of hand drums, and they walked to a drum heartbeat, and then were invited to participate in that heartbeat.
  • [Another Monday] I used handchimes borrowed from the Music department–we used the tones for “Simple Gifts” . . .do you know that song?  When I walk the labyrinth, that song is often the soundtrack in my head because of the refrain:  “When true simplicity is gained/To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed/To turn, turn will be our delight/Til by turning, turning we come round right.”  For a labyrinth with its turning paths, where there’s no getting lost, you always end up home, you always end up coming round right . . . it’s an important reassurance to a college student, because there are so many times that the path takes the unexpected turn, and we have to reassure them: “Hang in there.  One step in front of the other.  Hang in there.  It will turn round right.” We did that one just before finals, and it was just perfect.  As they walked this path, there were handchimes laid along the path, and as they encountered a handchime, they’d ring it.  It sounded random at first but eventually this beautiful music just rose up–it was just phenomenal.
  • Even if they don’t have anything but a beautiful moment that nourishes them for an hour, and the rest of their day is crap–you know, sometimes that’s just enough to get you through–I’m satisfied.  But if there’s a moment of truth that they can connect with in their spirit, that feeds them for longer–then I’ve done my job.

Do you have anything else you’d like to share?

  • Two things:  not to make the mistake of being afraid to ask questions about your spirituality or other people’s.  Doubt is not the absence of faith. Doubt is part of it.  Questioning is part of it.  And whatever is your experience of spirituality, it is big enough and strong enough to stand up to your questions.  It will not crumble, it will not fall; the world will not end if you ask the questions.  So ask the questions.
  • Don’t neglect [your spirit]. Don’t ignore [your spirit].  Because then we are all impoverished.

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Filed under Life in the Balance, Music, Spirituality, Writing

Insight from the Path

My family is blessed to live in a wonderful riverside neighborhood, and often walk its roads–a good 5k or more loop, with or without kettlebells!

Even more than the exercise, the time being in good company, or quiet together in nature, often brings with it a sudden glimmer–a glimpse of something that catches my attention in a deeper way, that nudges me later, keeps me awake at night to say, “Look at me again, turn me over, see what curves and depths are here, what gems are hidden in these hollows.”

A flock of crows.  Blackberry canes. Summer on the Blue Ridge.  Almost Heaven indeed, in West By God Virginia.

Messenger

Three crows, flying low across my path.  Once, walking south in twilight
along the river’s edge; twice, driving north in morning sun.  Same river.
Same road.  Same crows.  Same sun gleaming blackwing.

What augur do they bring?  The mountains tell us:  illness in the house?
Rain, or the unexpected guest?   That guest most unwanted, except when–
at the end of all pain—death appears as heaven’s most welcomed kindness?

Or perhaps, just this:  the bright lift of wings into air, canes arching over
the path,

berry’s darkling tumble into my palm,  summer burst ecstatic on my tongue?
If I may choose between messengers, my heart says yes:  let this sweetness in
at the door.

tls-2012

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Filed under Life in the Balance, Spirituality, Writing

I Believe in Rivers

(Another lovely slice from my crazyplate, about kayaking on our rivers:  from an essay submitted for NPR’s This I Believe project, and for our university’s 2011 Common Reading of the same.)

I have always lived near rivers:  as a child, standing ankle-deep and cool in Lampasas River moss outside Killeen, Texas; as a teenager running wild with my even wilder brothers down Brown’s Creek to the Spring River in Arkansas.  In my college and early married years, I got busy, got employed, got babies—but always the rivers,  more distant perhaps but ever-present:  the White River in Arkansas, the James River in Williamsburg, the Main River in Aschaffenburg, Germany.  Rivers have been for me beautiful backdrop and boundary.

It wasn’t until we moved to West Virginia—living on the banks of the Shenandoah, working on the banks of the Potomac—that I became aware of a kind of internal itch, a growing discontent with living with these rivers as mere scenery.  Something compelled me to risk, one day in May some years back, committing my middle-aged insomniac desk-bound mess to the tender fiberglass embrace of a fire-engine red kayak, a Mother’s Day gift from my husband.

I told him he was crazy—made him take the maiden voyage out to prove I wouldn’t be swept downstream—but then I gathered my courage, took a deep breath, and stepped in.

Setting out, stretching long-unused muscles and breathing in the slightly froggy air, I remembered the wildness of those children, sensed the muttering monkeymind—the constant soundtrack of my busy days—begin to fade into the hushed ripple and drip of river and paddle.  For the first time in—years?—I was needed nowhere, needed to be nowhere, needed nothing and no one but the paddle in my hand and the river flowing beneath me.  I had found that rarity, for me:  a perfect and sufficient moment.

Positive psychology offers the idea of flowwhen the activity of the present moment fully absorbs and engages one’s attention, fully and perfectly utilizes all one’s skills.  It delights me—but does not surprise me–that psychologists would use a river metaphor to describe what the river brought to me that day—what our rivers bring to me every time I set out in my kayak.

Fully engaged, fully sufficient for the moment, I can trust them to flow exactly where I need to be carried:  into necessary and welcome solitude some days—other days into growing and beloved community.  They show me in one breathtaking moment the variety, beauty, and resilience of the wild and wonderful state we live in; they reveal her wounds and fragile bones the very next.  They have reminded this middle-aged insomniac desk-bound mess that outside and underneath my workaday life—which I had lived for years almost entirely from the desk up—I am muscle, sinew and sweat as well, a physical being surrounded by rich and simple gifts:  smell of wood smoke, strains of bluegrass, the rose petal of a child’s face, poetry and sex and moon-shine and a bit of mud between my toes.

And a river that in the winter sun runs the color of my husband’s eyes.

When I kayak our rivers, there is a blessed silence that settles in my mind; and often, a lovely line from a C S Lewis novel rises as a meditative, rhythmic refrain:  “All is gift.”  On the river, surrounded by, upheld within, overflowing with gifts—I can only be grateful.  So when I offer the invitation to paddle, when I can teach my tired or tentative colleagues; see them gather their courage, take a deep breath, and step in; see them return, transformed themselves, overflowing with confidence and joy for the experience–I see the gifts I have received “cast upon the waters and return a hundredfold”–and I can only be grateful.

All is gift—these rivers of ours–this I believe.

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The Silence that Heals

Speak up. Shout out. Stand up. Stand out. Don’t mumble.  Be heard. Turn it up. Turn it on.

We don’t do silence well.  Our children and students grow up plugged in and interfaced six ways to Sunday, and just to get their attention, we learn to do the same, until our hours are filled with multi-tasked, multi-channel, multi-screened, scrolling, annotated, dictated, and high-voltage inputs.  If something happens to disrupt the nonstop flow of information, sound, and images, like a storm that knocks out power or internet access, we find ourselves helpless, restless, bored, unable to cope with the interior of our own minds, naked thoughts rattling around, that hopeless monkeymind of modernity. . . .

But we are reminded: in the beginning was the Word.  And to hear that word, we must be still enough to hear it.

In my own busy full-plate kind of life, one of the blessings that keeps me grounded and whole is the practice of silence.  To be reacquainted with my own company, such as it is; and to know One other in that still and sacred space:  the Beloved.  Jesus, in my faith tradition–lover of my soul, as the old hymn beautifully names him.

Other faith traditions also embrace and practice silence as invitation into a welcome and welcoming Presence.  One beautiful means by which I have learned and nurtured that practice has been through the ministry of a dear friend, Br. Stefan Waligur, who ministers around the world, leading retreats of song and silence and sacred listening.

I have written about these moments before, and offer one such description below:

I am sitting in dappled sunshine above a small pond. It is the first day of spring. Behind me, robins are scratching, a miniature flock of chickens, making a happy racket in the dry leaves and detritus of the long, hard winter. An enormous red-headed woodpecker thrums out a bongo rhythm in the distance. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a nuthatch land lightly on a branch damaged by heavy snows, then swing comically about in mid-air as the half-broken limb gives way suddenly and dangles under his weight. He clings briefly, desperately, flapping a bit; then releases and flits away to find a more secure perch. I would laugh out loud, but that would break my temporary vow:

I am at Dayspring Silent Retreat Center for Stefan Andre Waligur’s Song of Peace/Community of Peace retreat. I am relearning silence, reclaiming a too-long relinquished fellowship with these creatures. When I first entered this warm glade, their activity stilled, busy voices falling silent; but seeing that I was content simply to be still, each of them eventually returned to the business of the day, paying me the high compliment of ignoring me entirely. Two days is not nearly enough time to spend pursuing the ancient monastic rhythms of silence, communal meals, sung prayer, and shared work—not nearly enough to thaw the winter out of my bones, out of my stony heart–but for now, it will be a start. The branch is damaged but still holding.

I certainly did not expect to feel close to people with whom I might have shared maybe 15 minutes’ conversation at the beginning of the weekend–but I do. At one of our regular gathering times, I look around the Yoke Room at seventeen others who share my own impulse toward silence as spiritual nourishment–who perhaps understand something about the levels of exhaustion and sadness that would bring someone to beg for a silent retreat weekend as her birthday present. We don’t know each other’s histories–don’t need to know those details—and give each other a wonderful gift: no explanations necessary. I think I love all of them, just for that.

Meals are an odd mixture of barely-suppressed hilarity–how many ways can you pantomime “Please may I have ________?” without completely breaking up for the sheer silliness of it all?—and an amazed awareness of the goodness of the vegetarian meals—colors, tastes, texture, the care with which they were prepared. Without the distraction of forced small talk, we are released simply to pay attention to the food, to “be mindful”, to be grateful. This too is a gift.

We also give each other the gift of music. These are the only times we deliberately break the silence of the weekend, our voices lifting each other up, harmonies rising spontaneously and naturally, creating themselves as the songs circle in endless variations. Some choose not to sing, some are overcome with emotion and are unable to sing for a time, but for each of us there is a sense of having the deepest cry of our hearts expressed and amplified and carried for us. It is release; it is healing; it is a foretaste, surely, of heaven.

And then there is this holy silence that surrounds me under the trees. Neither emptiness nor absence, the deep quiet is actually overflowing with sounds I usually miss. These birds—like me, suddenly released from some deep winter—are part of it, but there is more. Traffic sounds: some, but blessedly far away. A distant bell sounds from the lodge over on the Wellspring side of the property. Feet crunch past on the gravel path behind me. Squirrels and insect life crumple through the leaves. Flurries of breeze. I can’t listen hard enough to catch all of it. And underneath it, through it, around it—I am listening for another Voice, too often drowned out by the din of my own busy-ness.

I will hear it in the labyrinth: I am the God of turnings, too. Even the wrong path is still one that I can turn towards Home. I will hear it in song, over and over again: You are beloved of God. I will hear it in silence and breath prayer: Even in this, I AM. Even in this, Jesus, breathe through me.

I had not realized how heavy my weekend bags were until I pick them up Sunday afternoon to walk back up the drive one last time, heading home. It has been good to lay the burden down, even for a brief time. As I load up my car, the nuthatch flits past, still searching for a safe place. I am happy to have found one.

Br. Stefan returns to offer an annual retreat of song and silence known as the Pilgrimage of Peace this August 10-26, in the Blue Ridge of WV near Washington, DC.  Participants can come on flexible schedules–a day, a weekend, a week, as their schedules allow.  Fees are flexible, too, to allow all to participate who wish.

If your soul is hungry for silence, consider this moment, consider this gift.  I’ll be there, too!

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The Journey So Far . . .

Twenty-some years married. Twenty-some years in higher education administration. Two children, ten years apart. (Yes, I know–what were we thinking?!)  Several states, moves, houses, job changes between us.

Somewhere in all of that, I got lost. It was easy enough to lose myself in the work.  But it’s also true that in constantly saying yes to something new–the new good for the plate–I was looking for new ways to lose myself.  That’s just the hard truth of it, and here’s part of the reason why:

I was isolated behind walls I had built up thicker and higher with each passing year with all my busy-ness, yes, but also in my own body:  at one point, I found myself not too far from 200 lbs.  On a 5 ft nothing person, that’s not just mildly overweight.

I was obese.

And my body  was starting to fight back.

In October 2010, I experienced and recognized a near-miss with my body: during a weekend serving on the staff of a spiritual renewal weekend for women, I was struck with a headache so sharp and severe, I thought my head was going to explode. I had experienced headaches before–chronic headaches, in fact, were a normal part of my days–but this was different. I was within minutes of asking people to call for help.  I know now that I had experienced a blood pressure spike severe enough to put me in danger.  My native good health, blessed to me by my parents, was not going to be enough to fight back what I was doing to my body anymore.

The following month, we packed up and drove south for a family reunion, and I had another moment of truth–this time from a beloved sister who has also struggled to return to good health, and wanted better for me, her baby sister.

Between those two kicks in the pants from the universe, I knew things had to change.

I tell a little bit about the beginning of my journey back to health, back to sanity and strength and balance, as a guest blogger with Girya Girl and twitter bud Adrienne Harvey. (See the link over to her amazing blog over to the right and up a bit there? —->> ^ Yep, there it is! Go there.  Great stuff.)

This was just the beginning of my journey back . . . enjoy the story–more to come!  By the way, here’s the “Jabba the Butt” picture I mention in the blogpost at giryagirl.com.  You see why the universe kicked me in the pants:  I was rather an easy target. (0_o)

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