Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Choosing What Is Important

The list of tasks seems to only grow, with more added and fewer completed.

I headed to the garden Friday late morning, after the sun was already hot because too many tasks kept my morning full. As I reached for the warm red tomatoes, filling two and a half buckets of beautiful and flavorful fruit from the loaded vines, I was also within reach of crab grass that had gone to seed. Six feet away were weeds taller than I am. The corn needed water. The rhubarb was eaten down to just the ribs by some unknown insect. I refused to look at the pole beans to see if there were any to pick. The summer savory bloomed before I found time to pick the sprigs needed to season green bean soup this winter. And that was just the garden.

There is no point in picking the tomatoes if I don't take care of them, so the other tasks would have to wait until that was done.

My time is full.

My closets are full.

My house is full.

Full of stuff and people who need my time.

Stuff usually gets placed on the back burner so that people can take precedent, but eventually stuff can demand a response. There has to be room in the kitchen to cook. There have to be clean clothes to wear. And my stress level needs to be managed by some level of order in at least the main rooms of the house.

If I lived in a tiny house, what would I keep?

If I lived in a smaller life, what would I do?

Yesterday in Sunday School one verse we read was from II Corinthians 6:1 “I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation.”

I sometimes tire of blog posts that sound like me from other people who also struggle with unreasonable lists and guilt and shame about the things it was not possible to accomplish. There is strength in being understood, in resonating with the life of another. But today, I want to be able to write about finding the thing that was important to do, and doing it.

On Friday I put those tomatoes into the refrigerator because my 7th grade friend came over for the evening. He brought his dog and we compared notes on dog breeds and how good it is to love a pet. We made mistakes in how we introduced our dogs to each other and then we fixed those mistakes. We sat outside. I threw the ball for Harvey (my Labradoodle) several times, and he brought it back and placed it gently right into my hand. Then I threw it one more time and Harvey picked it up and ran past me, laying the ball at the feet of my 7th grade friend. Good choice. My friend has a much better throwing arm than I do.

When Harvey tired of chasing the ball we walked around the house some more, and my friend discovered four praying mantises in my flower bed, a fat green four inch hornworm caterpillar on the grape tomato vine in front of the house and a huge black and yellow garden spider sitting on a web next to my planters. Had he not noticed these things, I also would not have noticed these things.

We talked about 7th grade and new school buildings and new teachers. I wished I could go to his favorite class on Global Awareness to learn what he is learning. We picked a movie together on Netflix, one he had seen and recommended because it had a good message about bullying. We sat on the sofa with his dog sprawled across our laps and enjoyed the warm weight of the dog against us as we watched the movie. We talked about bullying, about how it still happens, and what he sacrifices in order to avoid it when he can. We hung out as friends, him at thirteen and me at fifty-six.

That evening felt like a time of God's favor, a glimpse of salvation.

May I put my life in the kind of order that makes more such encounters possible.







Sunday, April 27, 2014

Therapy dog practice

We took a day away to visit Ron today and Harvey came along for the ride. Harvey is still being trained for certification as a therapy dog and we take him as many places as we can.

The retirement home where Ron lives is a small facility. They have a small dog, a shi tzu, that lives at the home and other times when we've visited, the little dog has been a bit territorial. Before we walked in I planned my strategy to keep the peace. I would have Harvey get into a down position to show deference.

As it turned out we arrived during a thunderstorm and the little dog named Boots was afraid and hiding. Harvey didn't have any encounters with him then at all, and he enjoyed greeting a couple of the other residents.

We took Ron out for lunch at Hu Hot in Manhattan...about an hour away from the home. We had lots of time for conversation with the long drive and with a relaxed lunch. It was a very good lunch, but as usual I felt obligated to eat too much since it is all-you-can-eat. It would seem that I should be able to resist that by now, but apparently not. 

When we took Ron back to the home, Boots was at the door and I could hear him barking even before he could see Harvey. We eased Harvey in and I told him to sit. Boots looked him over, sniffed, and walked away. End of confrontation. Harvey kept an eye on Boots, but there were no further interactions between them.

However, there WERE interactions of other kinds. People wanted to meet Harvey. We came into the common area near the dining room and  a couple of ladies were sitting near a table. They asked to meet Harvey so we walked over to them. Harvey would come close and let them pet him. Sometimes he would lay his head in their laps. If they leaned forward for a kiss, he'd oblige but he did not push his face up to theirs without an invitation.

Ron pointed to a community living room area where two more women were seated. Again they asked to have Harvey greet them so I directed him to them and he made friends. We moved back to the first area and there were more residents. Nurse aides were taking pictures. Other nurse aides were collecting more residents from down the hall. Harvey stayed at my side (I didn't take him off lead) and waited to be directed to greet people. Then when told to say hello, he would move in quietly and either wait close enough to be petted or place his head in a lap. People would ask for another turn. Harvey would oblige. 

How does he know this stuff? We haven't worked on greeting etiquette in this context at all, and at home we are still trying to teach him he can't rush the door when people arrive. 

It was great. He's not ready to be off lead yet, but he's certainly interested and has the right temperament. He is such a couch potato at home that I sometimes wondered if he would go out on a visit and end up lying down for a nap instead of visiting with people. That didn't happen today.

The fun part was that people seemed hungry for that kind of activity. They really wanted that contact with an animal, that touch, that warmth. Everyone in the room was smiling, their hands outstretched. Harvey wasn't frightened or nervous about the wheelchairs or the smells or the resident who muttered under his breath. He wasn't afraid of people who approached quickly and he didn't rush people who were hesitant.

It will be fun when he's certified and we can do this regularly.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A poem for the weekend



A friend shared this poem in our small group the other night. 
It winds its way through my thoughts now, and is worth sharing.



Patterns
by Jan Richardson

Forgive us, God
When we live our lives
within the lines,
when we say
this is the shape of our work
this is the boundary of our habitation
these are the limits of our love
these are the lines of our vision
these, and none other
Draw us beyond our patterns into yours:
shifting, moving
curving, spiraling,
many-colored, ever-changing,
stretching, pushing,
challenging, renaming,
unsettling, disturbing,
casting forth,
and welcoming home.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

In the dirt on Earth Day



I didn't know it was Earth Day until after I left the garden and happened to check facebook.

The garden is a mess. Last year was a rough year and the garden was one of the things that had to get left behind while I worked on healing. I knew it was bad out there so I've been putting off working in it. I seeded the spinach and beets in my perenial bed. I planted snap peas and broccoli and brussels sprouts (something we haven't tried to grow before) in the flower bed close to the house.

Brussels sprouts and broccoli next to the house

About a week ago I decided to walk close enough to my vegetable garden to look inside. I didn't actually step in, but I looked. I was delighted to find that rhubarb and asparagus were still growing, in spite of my neglect.

Asparagus and rhubarb cleaned up

More rhubarb

My parents came over Monday and cleaned up the weeds around the rhubarb while I began working one of the raised beds. I had to go in early to get supper before some evening plans, but they stayed long enough to clear weeds off another bed.

Yesterday I was able to plant a little more broccoli and a dozen tomato plants after working another bed. Now all those things are watered and ready for mulch. 

The part of the garden that is worked.

the work still waiting to be done

I could have stayed there a lot longer, but the mowing needed attention too, and I'd already had enough aerobic exercise for one day.

Mowed center yard
Mowed front yard

I promise not to put up pictures every time I mow the yard.

I'm glad to be reminded of the goodness of working in the dirt. Also the goodness of having motivation and energy. After last summer and depression I no longer take that for granted. It is such a relief to feel better. I have more humility about getting things done now. It feels great to accomplish things that are measurable, certainly. But the amount of energy necessary to do that is so much less now than it was last year. Doing the garden last year was insurmountable. This year it is fun. It isn't anything in my character that makes me better this year than last. I wasn't lazy then and strong now. 

I have to be careful with this, because it is important even when depressed to force yourself into some activity, some normal tasks. But the amount of energy needed to do so is different, and the amount of exhaustion that follows is also different. It required so much more energy and so much more rest afterwards during the depression than now when my spirits are back to normal.The gentleness and empathy that I was offered by those who love me was more than I could offer myself during that time and I'm grateful for it.

I came in after mowing to check email and take a break. I found out that Harvey's intermediate obedience class was not going to be at 7pm, but rather at 4:45pm...leaving me barely enough time to shower before racing to Wichita for class. We made it. He did well, making no more mistakes than any of the other dogs and getting lots of attention for his stunning appearance. 

He loves class and today is pumped and eager for commands to obey. He seems to want to show me what he is capable of...just a big show-off, I guess...a very very big show-off.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Still Growing

When Harvey sits, his head is above the dining room table.

I'm so glad we decided to do obedience classes while he was still smaller! If we hadn't, so many things would now be physically impossible.

How would I give him a bath if he didn't choose to submit? As it is, he doesn't love it, but he walks into the bathroom on his own, waits for me to remove his collar, and then slowly lifts each foot into the water. When he is done being washed, again he holds still and waits while I close the shower curtain and tell him to shake. Then I hear the loud flapping of his ears as he gives himself a big body shivver. When I open the curtain he slowly steps back out of the tub onto the layers of towels I've laid out for him. He lies down and allows me to rub him down with towels. Then we move to the other room where he lets me brush him out completely. What a great dog!

He still has things he needs to work on but he is also making progress. Public events are pretty routine by now. If we sit down in rows of seats he knows we will be there a while. He gets comfortable on the floor and falls asleep. We have to find seats that have plenty of room underneath or else sit near a wide empty spot because he no longer fits next to our feet in narrow rows. He has heard bluegrass, jazz, classical, and choral music as well as numerous sermons and speeches. He seems to not have a preference. He knows we will stand and sit and stand and sit and that no longer causes him any anxiety. He wakes up when it is time to leave.

He prefers to not stay home.

When I pull on my shoes, he is attentive and at my side as I get ready to leave. He is quicker at obedience at those moments than at any other time. He almost gleefully waits for commands.

Things we need to work on...
longer stays
obeying commands from a distance
keeping a loose lead without the pinch collar when we go for a walk
lying down when guests arrive and waiting for an invitation to greet

Things I love...
He is affectionate in such quiet gentle ways. First thing in the morning he comes to each of us for a greeting. He places his head in my lap and leans in for a long neck and shoulder massage. If I'm sitting on the floor he lays his head on my shoulder and waits to be hugged.

He is pretty calm and laid back. It is rare that he gets overly excited. Most of the time he is calmly attentive and enjoys the contact people want to give him.

He is calm even with play. Sometimes he will come up to me and drop a tennis ball in my lap. Then he just waits for me to throw it. He will chase it and bring it back 3-4 times and then he's ready to lie down again.

His run is so big and ungainly. It is easiest to see that he is still a puppy when he runs because everything about him is on the edge of coordination. He runs as though he hasn't adjusted to the size he has achieved, his huge feet landing all splayed out, his speed taking him farther than he intends to go and then causing him to slide past his target.

I love the way people light up and respond to him when he shows up.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lent in Sixth Grade Sunday School

Waiting too long to post takes away my foolish bravery about putting thoughts out into the world, and so I haven't written much lately. It's time to break that streak.

We are marking the season of Lent in our 6th Grade Sunday School class. Every Sunday we light six candles for the six Sundays during Lent. We turn out the electric lights. We read a lenten reading, and then blow out one more candle each Sunday of Lent to symbolize the darkness that is broken by Easter. Then we are silent for a moment to take it in. Because today is Palm Sunday, today we blew out all six of the candles. In our low light basement classroom the darkness was startling...as was the light, when we moved on to the next part of our lesson.

Today the sixth grade class heard John 18 and 19. We sat outside on park benches in the playground and read a section at a time, and talked about it. The kids, who are gradually becoming taller than me, have insight beyond their years and I find myself humbled at the honor of being present to hear their questions and their insights.

Reading this particular passage about the betrayal and execution of Christ has been especially timely because our pastors, Kay and Anita, used the same chapters for their sermons the last two weeks. Those sermons have not been put online yet, but in a couple of weeks you will be able to hear them here. Today I echoed many things Kay taught us last week, and after class was over I enjoyed hearing Anita flesh out more fully the rest of the things we talked about together on the playground.

Anita talked about how Jesus spoke truth to everyone and some people heard it and acted on it while others turned away from it, finding it too threatening or too risky. The children and I did not talk in terms of truth, but we did marvel at how Pilate seemed to understand Jesus better than the religious leaders. And yet he could not bring himself to do what he knew was right. I told them that it makes me watchful, and careful to try not to miss the truth the way religious leaders did then. We also talked about what might have gone through Peter's thoughts, and why he was afraid to tell the truth. One of us asked if Peter in that moment was still a Christian or not. What a deep question! We remembered later parts of Peter's life as we thought about what it meant to deny Christ three times.

Jesus said to let the children come, because to such belongs the kingdom of God. As we sat with our Bibles open together on the playground, my role was more to add information when something needed clarity and to keep the space safe for asking questions and sharing ideas. The teaching was a community project with all of us learning together. They may be children, but God's spirit uses them.

I was also in charge of getting the palm branches distributed for the processional in worship today. These amazing sixth graders feel a bit too old to be included in something the tiny children do. They aren't too old. We adults aren't too old. We could all be waving our palms and marching in, and reflecting on what it means. But the sixth graders ARE too old to not play a stronger part, so we all were in charge of the processional. I gave them the information that I had been given about when and how things needed to happen and asked for their help. They organized the smaller children, handed out the palm branches, and led them around the church. They were ready for responsibility and did a great job, better than I could have done without them.

Back to the subject of truth, my friend Hannah is living out her faith in a tough neighborhood in Chicago. She lives her life so fully that she rarely has time to blog, but she wrote one recently that I want to pass on...A burden too great. Check it out if you get the chance.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Mindfulness and the Sex Trade

A friend posted a link to a web page the other day that has carried itself through my thoughts since then. The page tells the story of a woman who was kidnapped and then forced into the sex trade industry.  Eden: a sex slave's story is difficult reading. 

I keep having to repeat the questions in my mind. How can people do this to other people? What happens to a person that makes them capable of forcing women to live like this? What has changed in their souls that makes it OK in their eyes?

Are they still even people? Can real people be like this?

One belief I have clung to is that every person has worth. Every human being is precious in God's eyes. Each of us is capable of great good...and great evil, I guess. If there can be a Gandhi and  Mother Teresa who were great, even though they were also flawed and human, can these traffickers who do such evil also have good in them? Is there humanity at the other end of the good/evil spectrum?

I want to believe there is.

*******

I'm coming to the final stages of the mindfulness practices although I have taken longer than eight weeks to work them out. There is a progression that makes sense. Mindfulness very effectively takes me out of tyranny of the events of my life and my reactions to those events. It allows me a space to breathe, literally as well as figuratively. It offers me a chance to get perspective, to readjust, to reconnect with myself and with what is real.

You begin by practicing being still and aware of your breath, of the sensations of your body. You notice the thoughts that distract you, and then you direct your focus back to your breath.

With practice, the next steps involve becoming aware of the sounds around you, and then tuning in to the thoughts you have. At this stage it is still an awareness of the thoughts and emotions, but not an involvement with them. The idea seems to be to notice them, somewhat objectively, as things that are temporary. Watch them come and grow stronger or weaker against the background of your breath, constant, always there.

After learning this step, the next is to allow yourself to slip more completely into a difficult thought or emotion. While doing so, focus on what that difficult thought or emotion feels like in your body. It sounds a bit weird, I know, but I found it pretty helpful. The focus is not to change anything, but to become more aware.

I'm not sure how it works, but it does help. There is a sense that although this emotion is real, it is also temporary.  It's not bad to have this emotion. It is just an emotion. It comes, and it will go eventually.

And now, I am learning what is called in the book 'befriending'. In other places I have heard it called compassion, or self compassion.

I've tried compassion meditation before and it was helpful. There is an opportunity to offer yourself the same kind of compassion that you offer to those whom you love the most. For those you love it is natural to wish for them happiness, safety, good health, well being, contentment. In this stage of the mindfulness practice, the task becomes to learn to offer those same wishes for yourself.

May I be safe.
May I be content.
May I be healthy.
May I live at ease.

And then to expand those wishes to those people you love.

Then to those who you see in your everyday life.

Then to those with whom you have difficult relationships.

And finally to all human beings.

May we all be safe.
May we all be content.
May we all be healthy.
May we all live at ease.

Until a few days ago, this was the most comforting part of the mindfulness practice for me...this longing for goodwill for every human being on earth, beginning with myself and extending out to the farthest reaches away from myself.

*******

As I've practiced mindfulness I have thought often about how this practice fits in with my faith. I've alluded to this before, I think, on the blog. The thoughts continue.

Why does mindfulness calm me in different ways than the practices of my faith? Is there a faith practice that I am missing that would fill the gap that mindfulness seems to currently fill?

I don't have a complete answer for this. I have some beginning thoughts.

For Lent I am trying to pray the hours, using the prayer books written by Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours.  There are daily prayers written mostly from scripture for morning, midday, evening and bedtime. Nearly every day I miss at least one. This Lenten practice has been teaching me how undisciplined I seem to be, even around things I'd really like to do.

However, praying these prayers changes me in similar ways to the changes I experience with mindfulness. It is not exactly the same. Some things are the same.

Each prayer brings me back to foundations of truth. No matter what directions my day has taken or how intensely it has taken me there, for a few minutes I am reminded that there are larger truths, that God loves us deeply, that praise and gratitude are good for the soul, that God is worthy of our praise and gratitude. It grounds me in ways that the mindfulness begins to, but the prayers are more complete.

Each prayer also includes the Lord's prayer, which is very much a foundational prayer for me. When I have no words for prayer, this is my prayer. No matter who you are thinking of, this prayer can be prayed for them and it will cover every possible aspect of their life.

The prayers do not include the intentional method of being able to step back and observe my own thoughts and emotions in ways that mindfulness emphasizes. That is the main helpful thing from mindfulness that I have not yet found a corollary for in my faith practice.

*******

After reading about Eden and the sex slave industry, I was doing my mindfulness practice. I was specifically working on the befriending/compassion affirmations. I mentally repeated them for myself, for my loved ones, for my acquaintances, for people with whom I have difficulties, and all was fine until I got to all the people on earth. Did I wish the sex traffickers to be safe, happy, at ease? Could I wish those things for them?

I could not. 

Even though somehow I believe that an awful thing must have happened in each of their lives that has made it possible for them to do these things, even though I cling to the idea that even they could be healed and could be released from continuing to participate in this horror, I can't wish happiness and safety and easy living for them right now.

I lay there in bed and wondered, what can I wish for them? Is there some way I can want good for them that is true?

Yes.

The Lord's prayer.

May these people someday hallow your name. May your kingdom come and your will be done in them as it is in heaven. Give them this day the things they need (my paraphrase for daily bread) and forgive them and help them likewise to forgive others. Lead them not into temptation, but deliver them from evil.  Please. Deliver them from evil and from the evil they are doing.

There is truthfulness in this as well as power. It is not just a wish. It is a prayer. 

And yet, I don't know how to put words to all I'm thinking and feeling. It is better to pray than to wish, yes. But there is a deep ache inside me that such evil exists in the world, and that this is only one of many forms of abject evil in the world. Every part of me denies it. How can the same world offer me so many forms of goodness, while others are offered lives saturated with pain and suffering? Is there a turning point for people who hurt other people so wantonly? What do they do with the recognition of the pain they have caused? When they finally realized the hurt they have caused, how do they still find a reason to breathe?

The morning prayers for today include this refrain:
" 'Because the needy are oppressed, and the poor cry out in misery, I will rise up,' says the LORD, 'And give them the help they long for.'"
May it be so.

Lord have mercy on us. Christ have mercy on us. Lord have mercy on us.