Things are Different: Grieve, Slow Down, Pay Attention, Stay Tender.

Things are Different: Grieve

Our lives will be forever changed. The grief and loss we now face will forever change us. They already have changed us. They will continue to change us. As long as I keep letting it in, grief is tenderizing me in ways my body had yet to feel. Loss is softening me to myself and others like never before. There is an opening, a deepening, a widening which can only take place in the searing furnace of grief, of loss, of uncertainty.

What would happen if I gave grief and loss more control amid a time of no control? What would happen if I let go to sink into the grief and anguish this moment beckons me to?

“In the personal life, there is
always grief more than enough,
a heart-load for each of us”
––Mary Oliver, Ocean in Red Bird

Here we are. 

Things are Different: Slow Down

Our slowing down depends on each other, and, the thing is, it always has. Nature cannot heal, you cannot heal, I cannot heal, until we slow down and begin to listen to ourselves and each other. This collective slow-down has really pointed me to the crux of the situation at hand: we belong to each other. My moral and ethical responsibility to my fellow human is about the collective us. My staying home is for me, for you, and for the collective body. And yet, my responsibility to me, to you, to us, was there all along. Sometimes slowing down is an uncovering. Sometimes slowing down is a return. Poet Wendell Berry captured the irony of this moment nicely in his 1980 poem titled Stay Home (an excerpt):

“I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man’s life
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.”

What would happen if I slowed down enough to embrace the stirrings within my own body. To feel my agonies and my longings. What would happen if I slowed down enough to remember my self-belonging, my belonging relationally, my belonging to the collective us?

Here we are. 

Things are Different: Pay Attention

Slowing down naturally leads me to paying more attention. My senses become more attuned, aware, and clear. And as I deepen my own connectivity to myself, it is inevitable that I touch an even deeper rootedness to all humans. “Attention,” Simone Weil writes, “is the rarest and purest form of generosity…. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

This collective slow-down tells us a lot about our systems — our countless systems which uphold injustices and oppression: the innumerable ways we are seeing the imbalance of Black deaths to COVID, the perpetual racism towards Chinese-Americans, the news segments of privileged white men with no symptoms and even tigers having easier access to testing than someone gasping for air, the continually dismissed clarity from the chronically ill and dissabled communities whose work has been speaking wisdom for time immemorial, the vulnerability of a number of groups including the homeless and incarcerated populations.

Am I paying attention?

It is safe to say that among other things, there is a “racial pandemic within the viral pandemic,” which is continuing to make the truth all the more clear, if I let it. If I am willing to pay attention. If I am willing to slow-down and heed the truth of innate belonging. A belonging which demands I see and yield to my connectivity to my fellow human––each and every one of of the collective body. “Sometimes,” writes Ibram X. Kendi in the Atlantic, “racial data tell us something we don’t know. Other times we need racial data to confirm something we already seem to know.”

In 1963 James Baldwin wrote, “I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the time burden is a reality and arrive where reality is. Anyway, the point here is that we are living in an age of revolution, whether we will or no, and that America is the only Western nation with both the power and, as I hope to suggest, the experience that may help to make these revolutions real and minimize the human damage.”

What does paying attention look like in this time of slowing down? What would happen if I did not forget what this moment in time is doing to the collective us, to the whole body of humanity?

“Neighborliness,” writes Howard Thurman in 1949, “is nonspatial; it is qualitative.”

Things are Different: Stay Soft, Be Tender, Let Yourself Rest (and eat chocolate)

Last week I opened the notes on my phone and wrote to myself: “Suddenly you have all this time and you’re not doing a damn thing? Good, you’re doing this right.”

If I have only learned one thing so far in this time of sheltering in place and slowing down, it is this: Stay soft, be tender, and let yourself rest.

That is enough. You are enough. However you’re doing this, you’re doing it right. You’re doing a good job.

Things are different: Grieve. Slow down. Pay Attention. Stay Tender. Repeat. 

(Oh. And, don’t forget to eat a little chocolate. In a recent piece on tips to cope with acedia––“the feeling of being totally bored and totally restless,” author Kathleen Norris shared, “I provide myself with enough chocolate to keep going.” Amen.)

Here we are. Welcome to the collective slow-down. 

 

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A New Year Offering

In Parker J. Palmer’s On The Brink of Everything, he writes, “I no longer ask what do I want to let go of and what do I want to hang on to… Instead I ask what do I want to let go of and what do I want to give myself to.”

For me (like most of us), this has been a year of massive changes: moving across the country, beginning seminary (and finishing my first semester), navigating family illnesses, surgeries, and deaths, deepening friendships, continuing my own internal growth, beginning work on my directorial debut, finishing a book, interviewing and meeting some of my heroes on the podcast, continuing to release my clinging hands from all that isn’t mine, and learning about what I want to give myself to. 

Our time and attention is a treasure––a rare commodity that we delegate among the needs before and within us. Simone Weil says “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity…. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” This sentiment has brought me a lot of of comfort and consideration this year. The idea that our attention is an offering of prayer is a delightful way to remind oneself to be present but also a reminder of the eternal value of said presence. How has my drifting mind pulled me away from this prayerful attention in these days of technology and endless to-do lists? How have I missed the ability to give of myself in a way that cultivates love for the beloved human or moment before me?

Whether we like it or not, most of us find ourselves reflecting when we approach the New Year. We consider changes we’d like to make, we plan ahead for what’s to come, we consider letting go of what weighs us down… In doing so, I dare to think we create fertile ground for openness. And I often wonder how I can carry around this invisible fecundity with me throughout the year. There is an awe to the newness of a shiny new year––how can I give myself in openness to the awe instead of holding on to the hope of goals, changes, or desires?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with carrying around hope, but it isn’t easy. In her OnBeing interview, author Rebecca Solnit shared, “hope is tough. It’s tougher to be uncertain than certain. It’s tougher to take chances than to be safe. And so hope is often seen as weakness, because it’s vulnerable, but it takes strength to enter into that vulnerability of being open to the possibilities.”

Perhaps there’s a place here where we can find ourselves in the middle of these things, after all, there’s nothing wrong with goals, changes, or desires (assuming they are hosting a means for greater love or deeper peace). Maybe, just maybe, there’s room for all of my wayward longings this year––if I can be in open-handed awe of their presence (or lack thereof) instead of being the clinging one breathless for control (I admit I’m much more prone to the latter!).

So, friends, as we all reflect on 2018 and the empty pages that rest before us in 2019, may we explore what is right for our own individual lives. I, for one, will try to boldly consider these things: Where do I need to let go? What do I want to give myself to? Where can I offer more unmixed attention? How can I remain open to the ever-present newness of each and every day? How can I live each day in greater wonder? 

Wishing everyone deep love, bright light, vulnerable hope, unfathomable peace, and the courage for new beginnings in the new year.
For a New Beginning, By John O’Donohue

In out of the way places of the heart
Where your thoughts never think to wander
This beginning has been quietly forming
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire
Feeling the emptiness grow inside you
Noticing how you willed yourself on
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

 

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Mepkin Abbey • Moncks Corner, SC

Mepkin Abbey is a very lush area in South Carolina. The beauty of the land was undeniable, before even knowing about the various gardens, dedicated grounds, and even labyrinth located on the monastic grounds. Unfortunately, I spent a short time at Mepkin, but still felt extraordinarily welcomed, loved, humbled, and honored to experience this monastery.

What I learned? That perhaps the ability to look at things more concisely may be a gift as opposed to a hindrance. Or maybe that viewing things less loosely and more blatantly: is this “coincidence or providence?” is this a “trip or a pilgrimage?” allows one to fully engage in a focal point in order to put their energies (or even lack thereof) towards something that is beyond themselves. It seems as though the less I understand things, the more potent they are to me. This, however, appears to accompany the daunting ability of letting go of my need for control in knowledge, knowing, decisions, etc.

I suppose part of me doesn’t want to declare such language because it seems to rein me in. But, what if it frees me to fully engage in that which I am meant to be, meant to explore, meant to do, meant to see? A friend of mine reminded me that perhaps freeing ourselves from the need of semantics (easier said than done) perhaps allows for letting go in an experience, ultimately allowing one to be more present and mindful.

I’ve found lately that having language for particular experiences has been helpful, however, some experiences require no language. What is it about the human experience that makes me think/assume I need to tie it to words? A word I’ve recently been introduced to is Acedia (according to my Apple dictionary: noun spiritual or mental sloth; apathy (which, to me, may minimize the word’s depth and affect)).  Coming from the mental health perspective, this word has been especially enlightening – a word that is far different from depression, but almost mockingly mimics it. It seems as though I have mistaken some bouts of depression in my life for the experience of acedia (which has also been referenced as the ‘noonday demon’*)

What is it in life that makes us (me especially) complicate things with words? For me, I have found words often necessary for human connection and interaction. Meanwhile, I have also found some of my most potent human connections to be in the midst of silence and knowing. Yet, I assume, how can I know without words being assigned to feelings or actions, or how can I feel without assigning words to knowing?

Another question that came up is the idea of  “do you access something by self limits?”

This seemingly radical thought may be of disgust to some, but it intrigued me. What if I am able to access more by self-limits, able to be more of who I am meant to be by self-limits, able to grow and learn and challenge myself in self-limits? There is certainly a lost art to self-control in our society these days (this includes myself). While we’re quite attune to those self-control motions that ‘appear’ and ‘show’ to others (i.e. working out, eating right, clothing), why aren’t we (or maybe I am just speaking for myself) more involved in those eternal aspects of our being regarding self-control? Why is it more important for one to say they meditated or prayed than their actual meditation or prayer experience? Why is it more important for one to say they gave a homeless person a piece of bread rather than to quietly experience the community with another brother or sister of humanity?

Clearly, my time at Mepkin was illuminating towards a more simple way of thinking and living. That honing ourselves in to words, ways of life, people, jobs, choices, directions, and feelings – may be more fulfilling and opening than depleting and closing.

*Evagrius’ (345-399 AD) depiction and description of acedia, the noonday demon:

“The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon [Ps 90:6 LXX]—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.”

Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, tr. John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981), pp. 18-9.

Some of Kathleen Norris’ Q&A on her book and the topic of acedia:

http://www.us.penguingroup.com/static/pages/specialinterests/religion/2008/acediame-norris.html