Yours, for Keeps

After Emily and I got an estimate to have a professional paint our stairwell ($10,000?!), we asked our neighbor Kurt who makes his living hanging wallpaper for his advice. Could we paint it ourselves? You bet. Kurt set us up with scaffolding. He even jumped on it, thereby proving it was trustworthy. He also examined the ceiling with its strangely peeling paint, the rim of painted-over wallpaper along the top edge, and the long horizontal crack running the length of our hallway wall. For ten grand the pros would have fixed these. Kurt waved them off. He ran his hand along the jagged split in the plaster. “Nope,” he said. “That’s your crack. It’s for keeps.” (more…)

Big Love

I’m haunted by a memory: Emily is enduring her second bout with cancer, this time preparing for extensive surgery involving her neck, chest, and leg. Like any cancer surgery, it might or might not be successful. The surgeons have warned her that, regardless of the outcome, she’ll likely lose the use of her right arm.

What haunts me isn’t the enormous stress of that time (Gwyn was six months old, still nursing; I drove my baldies back and forth to the Mayo Clinic all summer) but rather the tangle in my heart. With every cell of my being, I wanted Emily to be well. I prayed for this—make her well make her well make her well—all the while guarding myself against a bad outcome. The doctors were decidedly cautious, even pessimistic. I prayed for a miracle. I prayed that all five surgeons would be on their game. I bargained with God (“Okay, we can deal losing use of her arm so long as she can be cancer-free”). I tried praying “Thy will, not mine, be done,” but couldn’t.

And here is the crux, the bit that won’t let me go. I didn’t trust God. (more…)

The Beauty of Embracing Opposites

A friend of mine died recently. Jeanne Audrey Powers was one of the first women ordained in the United Methodist Church. She worked for the General Conference in Manhattan and traveled the globe, hobnobbing with top religious leaders of every stripe. Just before she retired, she came out lesbian at an international conference, sending waves of dismay throughout the global church in hopes of leveraging transformation. She kept an apartment in Minneapolis and attended my church, which was how I came to work for a brief spell as her personal secretary. (more…)

Freedom in Constriction

When seekers trekked out to the desert in the early centuries of Christianity, the wise Abbas and Ammas there advised them to “go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

Really?!

I’ve been mucking around in this pre-original-sin wisdom lately, and, let me tell you, it’s mind-bending. Mistakes, weaknesses, temptations, sins—Augustine hadn’t yet made of these cause for guilt and shame, so instead they’re understood as unavoidable, even necessary to the life of faith, and worthy of gratitude. In story after story, thieves create chances for the monks to release material attachments and exercise compassion. The devil comes not as the temptation to do bad things but rather as distracting thoughts. This is a topsy-turvy faith, barely recognizable today as Christianity. (more…)

God as Being, Being as God

A few years ago, I set off on a journey to the heart of Christian contemplation, both in practice and with studies. I began doing Centering Prayer, a form of meditation rooted in monasticism and the teachings of the mystics, and reading works from the mystical margins of Christian tradition—St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Theresa of Avila, Bonaventure, the Patristic fathers—and sharing all this with an international contemplative community. It’s been thrilling. The work transforms me from the inside out, and will have a profound on my writing, teaching, and living for years to come.

Because I love and trust language so much, the hardest part about these past years has been my inability to talk about what I’m learning. I put down a book or return from a symposium feeling like my internal furniture has been rearranged, but I can’t say how, or why, or what. I’m a blubbering fool. (more…)

Boiled Down to a Drop

She didn’t read books so she didn’t know
that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.
                                                    –Zora Neale Hurston

Since my mother died over a year ago I’ve worn her jade ring as a reminder that she’s still here. My mother loved beautiful objects and somehow these objects, her jewelry and the quilt she made me and the African violets she grew and even her dime-store spiral notebooks, continue to hold that love.

As do I. Sometimes I feel more my mother than myself—her loud hiccups, her bad gynecological genes, her late night worries and self-pitying whine, and her fondness for home, for a lingering, elegant meal, for libraries, for generous giving. Her goodnight kisses, her pride at my work, her inexhaustible love. These were in me before she died I know them more poignantly now.

None of us, it turns out, are separate, siloed identities. We’re all mash-ups of each other. (more…)