Being the Light, Discovery, Fear of the Dark, Soul Work

Saving the Day

 

I scan the front section of the Seattle Times at breakfast to see the trash at a homeless camp in Montlake, saddened by both the need for such a “shelter” and the lack of support that results in such a mess. I read that the Dems “fumed” at the White House balking to supply their subpoenaed file. A trade war “rattles” our markets. Denver hosts the latest school shooting. And Boeing is suspected of obfuscating causes of an earlier failed altitude sensor in a Turkish Airlines crash in 2009.

Ten minutes of morning news eclipse my calm from a good sleep, delight at another warm, dry day.

I search for remedies to my grief, my dis-ease, at all the known conditions of the world we cannot fix. I used to think a lot of money would fix such things as the homeless camp with its despondent resident, city legislation and resources that could be deployed to fast track the clear necessity for housing. We live in one of the wealthiest cities in the nation and cannot resolve the plight of homelessness. Politicians at loggerheads. Apparently naive and jaundiced political advisors. Businesses that are, after all, all-business with a bottom line and a fixed expenditure list.

The shooting? One more statistic to prove that nearly everyone has a gun or access to one, and it is trendy to “go postal” with one’s grievances and cut short the lives of innocent children…once innocent children. I grew up practicing bomb drills in a concrete hallway, kneeling on the cold floor with one hand protecting my neck, and one over my eyes to dodge an impossibly brilliant flash of ignition. I was afraid of the bomb. Today’s children fear the shooter.

Turning to the natural world restores my soul. But even that is under siege from earth warming and drought. Whales beach themselves to escape the slow pain of starvation. Whole species dwindle steadily from the rising temperatures. The wise aren’t taken seriously. The foolish play at government.

How can I escape the juggernaut of all that is wrong with our world? “This fragile planet, our island home.”

Robert Frost wrote    The way a crow / Shook down on me / The dust of snow / From a hemlock tree /Has given my heart / A change of mood / And saved some part / Of a day I had rued.

I look out the front windows. Three azaleas in bloom, lavender, dark orange, and white. A chickadee splashing in the bird bath under the coral-bark maple. The robins sitting in courage and hope over their turquoise eggs, looking out for the black cat who likes to perch on a cedar stump nearby and simply watch with her wide green eyes. She’s no problem. She’s too old to hunt and never was any good at it. Arthritis in her elbows slows her down. She naps on the flagstones in the front yard, soothed by the warmth from the sun.

“It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being: God, a Soul, and a Moment. And the three are always here.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel) I stop to find God in the world, breathe slowly, and promise to be God’s love in this world today.

 

Being Quiet, Discovery, Fear of the Dark, Loss

History, Architecture or Spirituality?

St. Anne’s. Built by Crusaders in  Jerusalem in 1130

What accounts for our fear of seeing Notre Dame ablaze? For the French it is the national symbol of their lives in the past, not least, its surviving World War II, but also recent births, marriages, burials, anniversaries, and Holy Days.

Do we fear losing the building itself? Its form through the last thousand years? Or will we lose our memories of walking through its doors under the vaulted roof, awed by its majesty, height, and vastness, while on a momentary stop with a ragtag group of college students on summer tour?

Does she capture the elusive Spirit who beckons each of us into communion with the holy? Is this true even for those of us who do not darken church, mosque, or synagogue doors, who claim spirituality only in being alive, who do not take time to listen to the silent heart? And true even for those who aspire to be in such a stunning, outrageously beautiful edifice that promises prayer when they cannot bring themselves to go to any old house for worship?

Yes, I was there, astonished. On first walking under the vault, I remember holding my breath, hardly able to see the roof so high above me. The vastness stunned me to silence.

How could we endure the destruction of such a place? A place that symbolizes…God? Could it be God who speaks in such grandeur? A god most of us cannot imagine, a god we blame because we attribute the state of the world today to “His” malpractice.  But could it be that the thought and sight of such a cathedral in mortal danger suggests to us the danger of losing a god we do not know at all? That something is there, even so? Some spirit?

What was it in 1160, when it had hardly a form? Or one hundred years later when it was complete. How did Parisians feel about it then? In those years, cathedrals were the center of the community…the Christian community that included nearly every person alive. Not only were prayers heard within, but just outside there were markets and celebrations, feasts and gatherings. It was where everything happened; the center of town.

I wonder how many of us understand the incredulity of the French people that such an icon could be destroyed. The dread that it really was burning. And then, how many of us can empathize with worshipers in our own country when their churches, mosques, and synagogues are burned? While not icons of a nation, they are icons of their communities, the center where births and marriages are celebrated and lives mourned, where prayers rise like incense as if we can hear them gathered in by God.

If you have no such sacred place, what symbolizes holy silence for you? Where does hope reside? How can others reach to celebrate your life and comfort you in death?

Notre Dame is all these things. The history of a nation since 1160, steadfast—like God—decade by decade, centennial to centennial. An amazement of design, creation, and story-telling for more than 800 years. And spirituality. Notre Dame captures the spirit of millions whether we worship with her or view her from afar.

Maybe church buildings mean more to us than we realize. Maybe that’s why some confused people try to burn them down.

Being the Light, Discovery, Grace Happens, Ordinary Miracles

Spirit Stones–Undergoing a Transformation

Spirit Stones is alive and well, just undergoing a transformation. You’ve just found me on a redesigned website more easily searchable that will, one day soon, announce the emergence of my new book, Loving the Enemy: When the favorite parent dies first.

You’ll find some of the ‘Stones lovingly cached within the book. And you will also get a look at the ending of my parents’ lives, including the back stories, encounters, and astonishments that reveal how a new relationship comes to fruition with time, care, and love. But not before knowing some of the confusion and pain of family story

So many drafts I cannot count them. So much rewriting following advice from two professional editors in New York. Many of my friends have shared comments and suggestions along the way. It takes a village to write a book.

I am a veritable archive of quotations from others. Many of them appear within as well. How I wish I had begun earlier to get permission from the many publishers to reuse these pithy quotations. They are still trickling in, for example Sue Monk Kidd, Richard Rohr, and Joan Chittister.

A good friend and published writer told me that she would never let a publishing company get hold of her work again. She advised I self-publish as well. She didn’t let on how much work that is, however, and how long it takes to decide when one is finished. I am finished!

It is complete, except for the process of formatting, printing, and arranging marketing to let you know it’s ready. You will see it in late spring. And I will keep you posted.

Here are three short excerpts.

  1. “’Look at all that!’ Mom remarks, as I pull the stringy innards of the pumpkin out and slop them on the newspapers covering the table. She is charmed, seeing the orange pulp as if for the first time. With a large spoon I scoop out handfuls of strings and seeds. Once the shell is clean, I ask, ‘Now, where’s a candle we can put inside?’ I make holes for eyes and carve a large mouth in a smile while she goes to the hall closet. A small votive candle fits perfectly, and I put the pumpkin on my parents’ mantel. “When I drive away I’m pleased; I’ve done something tangible. Should I be doing this more often? Should I be caring for my parents as if were the parent? Is it time? Will they permit it, I wonder? Mom’s marveling at the pumpkin worries me. Why, for her, is this so fresh? Has she forgotten she’d led this exercise for me and my brothers and her grandchildren for years?”
  1. “I betrayed my mother. The two of us face each other in the social worker’s office at Rocky Glen, the nursing home where Dad is already placed. Mom’s red blouse and charcoal sweater punctuate her anger, always dreadful for me. My mouth is dry, my face blank, hiding fear and deep sadness. She has visited Dad here once; she knows where she is, and she knows it’s not her home. She frowns at me, leveling her dark eyes, adamant she will not be admitted against her will. ’This is just for a short while, Mom. It’s not safe for you to stay at home alone.’ My voice is soft and trembling, but full of what I hope is compassion and understanding. She has only rudimentary understanding of what is going on. ‘When Dad is stronger, the two of you can find a retirement home together.’ She glares.”
  2.  “’I can’t see the television captions from my chair,’ Dad explains of the set on top of his bureau but, as I quickly offer to get a larger one, he stops me. ‘No, no. I don’t want a bigger one,’ he insists. But it isn’t the last time he brings up how hard it is to see and understand what’s going on. Apparently it is just one more factor he has accepted. He’s not complaining when he shares these things, he’s reporting. There is nothing I need do. Does he view the circumstances as temporary? Tolerable? Or is he simply done with allowing other people to do things for him? Maybe in his silences at home he was just as content, and I couldn’t read it on his face.”

Loving the Enemy: When the Favorite Parents Dies First.

Catherine Fransson.     Stilwell Press.

Stay Tuned!

Discovery

Turning Over Rocks

Once in a while I have to escape my familiar walls at home, even my cat, to get close to the wider, wilder world. When I do that, I am entranced by the small things: beach rocks and the tiny crab who flee when I turn them over, lichen, white, black and tan, tree bark, and nurse logs from which all growing things arise. What is it that compels us to pick up a small enough, well-enough shaped beach rock, and spin it into the waves? Why do we sit on the gravel and comb through the multiform stones for one that’s distinct? The one we take home with us?

The well-placed pebble tossed into a small pool distinguishes itself by the ribbons of ripples that spread in all directions at once, expanding until they reach banks even I cannot reach. I like to study things small and close to examine exactly what/who they are. As Thoreau observed, Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain. For example, a tiny white mushroom leaning out of a gaggle of bright green moss growing on the side of a tree.

And then what? Is the observation enough? Sometimes. I know when, when I feel in awe at all our neighbors on the planet. And yes, I count moss, lichen, mushrooms, stones, and pebbled beaches where tiny crab hide. Awe is my response to the world. Especially when I have a chance to explore it firsthand.

I was struck by this cairn of remembrance, or thanksgiving, at the top of the Trollstigen Mountain road in Norway, well-known for its steep pitch and 11 hairpin turns. There was not just this one. There were perhaps, a hundred. Carefully placed to mark someone’s safe passage, or the hope that the return to sea level would be safe as well. I have a friend who builds a cairn in the many places she has hiked to remember her mother, who recently left the planet. She calls her into presence as she stops to envision her standing on the spot with her. Thanksgiving. Presence.

Present! We say, when our name is called. On All Souls Sunday we heard the names of those who had died this past year, and then said aloud with emphasis, Present! for each one. There are more things in our world than we can possibly see firsthand, and even researchers, when they concentrate on one phylum, genus or species, find they cannot come to the end of their exploring. Just as the stars we can see spread out into the distance and the distant past, we can never come to the original seed. You may not agree. But these depths are beyond my ken.

Similarly, turning over stones is one way to go in deep to the core of things, to their spirit, their place, their nature, though we cannot name it or understand it. Spirituality is like that. It is what is not seen. Often not glimpsed. But even when not glimpsed, it might be felt, sensed somehow. The awe we feel in the presence of the ocean surf, the forest pond, the tiny acorn, the Magnolia seed pod, is what I feel when I sense a Presence when it is not present. Yet it is. It definitely is. And I live in search of it every day.

Discovery, Soul Work

An Afternoon of Writing

I was ready to write when I came home from lunch last week. I had a great opening line and confidence that more would follow; my mind was alive with images. Not something a writer ignores. On the way to the house I wondered if aphids were still after the perennial hellebores. I’ve been spraying them with dish soap and water, but I saw aphids still ruled. I’d also forgotten to clean out last year’s old leaves lying dyspeptically on the ground underneath the new, moldy with rot and now covered with the insects. I was dressed casually enough that I didn’t need to change clothes, so I dropped my purse inside the study, grabbed the spray from the garage, and headed out front.

Writing could wait a few minutes. This exercise would be good—as well as a fresh break from staying indoors too long with good books.

I sprayed, noticing the various developmental stages of the tiny white nits, light green eggs (maggots?) and winged predators. Some of the darker leaves were so sticky with aphid poop I had to wash them by hand. That took longer than I thought, but there were essentially only three plants to focus on, so I kept at it. These hellebores and two newer hosta spent so much time in the shade of the coral bark maple and dogwood, not to mention the neighbor’s huge camellia, that surely other shade-loving plants were not as infested as these. Blended chartreuse, lime and celery-green leaves nestled along the stone walk that wound its way to the front door. They were fine.

Who knew a hellebore could grow so large! I had to hunt for an old bamboo stake and pound it in with the back of a hatchet to prop up a mature, tall branch. Some of the wilted bottom leaves refused to be pulled out and crumpled by hand, so I went back to the garage for a pair of clippers, the kind with gears that protect my joints—not that these juicy stems needed that much strength. As an afterthought, I grabbed the white 5-gallon bucket I use for yard waste to stow what I pulled out from under and within the plants.

I had a line or two in mind for the article I planned, but for a moment I let it drift. It would come back to me. Scoping out the larger area where I was working revealed that the pebbled slab where the birdbath stands was three-quarters covered with dirt. I would need the rake and then a whisk broom to spiff it up. While I was at it, it would help if I raked over the mulch after everything else was done.

Back to the garage for the rake and whisk broom and then, pleased by the fragrance of freshly-turned earth, I surveyed this half of the front yard, pulling out several more dying leaves, shaking off the wilted blossoms of the crabapple tree that had fallen on the plants below. As I had suspected, more sun kept those hellebores freer of aphids.

Finally I stood up, straightening my tired back. Following the sounds of calling crows, I looked up to see a murder of them harrying a young eagle who led them on a chase around the east side of the adjacent cemetery behind fir and cedar, his white tail gleaming against the azure sky.

What time was it? I had started this project before sitting down to write. It was not yet two. Now it was four. Satisfied, I had still to finish the overall raking, toss my clippers, gloves, spray bottle and whisk broom into the bucket with the detritus of hellebore and hosta, bundle up the rake and a stake I had not used, and head for the garage.

Now, what was that line I had in mind?

Discovery, Lavish loving, Ordinary Miracles, Uncategorized

The Little Things

            Being human cannot be borne alone. We need other presences. We need soft night noises—a mother speaking downstairs, a grandfather rumbling in response, cars swishing past on Philadelphia Avenue and their headlights  wheeling about the room. We need the little clicks and sighs of a sustaining otherness.

 

John Updike describes the comforting “clicks and sighs” of the presence of others in our lives, our awareness of parents talking quietly downstairs, or brothers murmuring in the next room, traffic on Colby cruising to a stoplight.

 

Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection are that kind of presence. Not only does he speak peace to his friends, he appears unannounced as if the dead regularly materialize in our living rooms, urging calm and trust.

 

My favorite story is of the disciples coasting close to shore where Jesus has prepared a small fire on the beach. He is grilling a few fish and some bread. (Jn 21) He calls to them to come closer, tells them where they’ll find more fish, and once they’ve beached their boat, to bring more fish to the fire. They don’t even recognize him at first. And then they’re astonished. You can imagine the smoke blown into the hills behind him, the welcome warmth in the chill salty air, and the fatigue—not only from a night of fishing, but another whole net full of fish pulled in as they arrive.

 

So schooled was I to expect Jesus’ return at any hour of any day, one Sunday night before evening church I thought I saw him standing near a staircase in a brilliant white robe, light shining round about him. I thought Jesus had returned! A second later I realized it was just the pastor in his white baptismal robe standing under a 100-watt light bulb.

 

So much for peace and presence. I was taught that the Lord might return just this way, all of a sudden, in the middle of a football game or church picnic, and especially in spectacular sunsets over Hat Island. Anticipation overran my imagination.

 

I grew up with a “Jesus-and-me” complex, a relationship so tight that I always felt him at my side, walking in the fields together. Years later when this assurance had faded, I began to realize the limitations of my naïve familiarity and the millennia that already distanced believers from its magic. At the same time, there was an other-worldliness to the ways I discovered we can still expect the Mysteries of God in our lives. The soft night voices of those we love, the reflection of the back porch light, phrases of music suddenly distinct when the furnace shuts down, the gifts of clean sheets and hopes for tomorrow.

 

It may not be grilled fish on a rocky beach, but the fragrance of coffee and toast in the kitchen. These little clicks and sighs of a sustaining otherness still speak to us of the love that will never let us go.

 

 

Rev. Cathy Fransson blogs at SpiritStones.net, and sees individuals for spiritual direction

Being Quiet, Discovery, Grace Happens, Ordinary Miracles

Wandering on Purpose

It is true that media, over-programmed days and American work hours are hard to avoid. If we work hard, we also play hard. And judging from my recent retirement I know I am not the best person to suggest our work need not be all-consuming and endless. Before you jump to defend yourselves, hear me out. Twenty-four hours can also include the luxury of trying to wrest meaning within the chaos of busy-ness.

Of course, for me, days go by without meetings, or someone asking me to do something, or my contacting my friends or their me, doing some or no work at all (housework, laundry, gardening, reading, writing, grocery shopping), and napping when napping feels like the best thing at the time. I cherish separation from the world of work and relish the conversations that surprise me on the path.

I retired at age seventy-two. I can hardly remember when I didn’t work except when I hadn’t yet begun piano lessons: so I was 7. I worked in high school and all the way through college and university, and then after hours after I had begun to teach full time in public school. I taught English all day and played the organ for churches on weekends between shifts of taking evening and summer coursework toward advanced degrees. I’m one of the rare (old) persons who paid for their entire university career themselves. In these varied “careers” I learned many roles, some of them unawares, because I was a willing listener, too. As I became more skilled, listening itself became my vocation.

It was listening to my day at a deeper level that invited me to contemplate the larger realities in the many events I was thrown into. Parker Palmer admitted to no scripted contemplative techniques in The Active Life (1990). Instead he wrote, “life compensates…by providing moments of unintentional contemplation….life makes contemplatives of all of us.” He lists four such invitations: feelings of disillusionment, pain, dislocation, and unbidden solitude.

It is easy to turn to busy-ness simply to avoid facing painful feelings. In churches some people identify as do-ers because they’re proud they get so much done for the rest of us. While they’re indispensable, they rarely risk finding time to sit with others to discern a new path, or attend a small sharing group.

In the familiar parable of Mary who sits listening to Jesus teach, Martha has several choices. One is to continue to do what she’s doing and NOT complain, another is to join Mary so that the two sisters can get the meal together afterwards. Instead she triangulates with Jesus, asking him to get Mary to help her. Instead, Jesus rebukes her for her anxiety that prevents her from making a better choice.

If we spend all our time dashing about from home to work to errands and house keeping and back again ourselves, how can we be thoughtful about anything? When can we be quiet and solitary? When do we think? Or do we simply react to circumstances? Parsing over life stories and the dilemmas our lives so easily create can be done while running, or at the gym, or even occasionally, sleeping in. Watching less television. Squeezing one fewer activity into the day. It is not so much the way we choose to contemplate as it is to choose a way when we must.

I continue to find deep conversations, contemplation. A rest from action—a necessary balance to action in fact, lest in any calling I go off in all directions at once. Listening has been part of every position I have held. Many times, even though I didn’t know what I was doing, listening was my chief gift. When I felt called to seminary in my mid fifties, my whole life was walking toward this door. When I opened it I believed I would never need to retire again. The calling (a strong spiritual attraction to prayer, the interpretation of scripture, and listening) felt the most like me, the most appropriate of my gifts.

Now after nearly seventeen years serving the church, I am exploring who I am anew. My denomination calls me a “ wandering minister.” Imagine! Permission just to wander. Wandering I understand. Putting one foot in front of the other, often turning to draw near to a curious thicket of leaves in the eddy of a stream, or a knot of words among individuals, become walking meditations. Both require my attention to everything from dust motes floating in a beam of winter sun, to the half-heard sounds of laughter in the room next door and the inner messages that keep me tethered to the Mystery of living in this age.

So, I wander. Listening for sparks of thought, the messages that recreate me over and over again for the years ahead. Life beckons even as it grows shorter, tantalizing, summoning, gesturing, “Come here! Come and see!” There will always be time for our heart’s desires to spring forth, or burble up, or slowly dawn on us. Even death is a portal to the undiscovered.

           Look, I am about to do something new; even now it is emerging. Don’t you see it?