Prying Open The Crack

Sometimes a theme rises up from our days, uniting otherwise random events. Consider these, from my last week:

  • I’m at a parenting class on how to use nonviolent communication with our kids. Like many parents I use coercion and shaming—instinctively, impulsively—and only recently am I coming to see this. The instructor draws a flow chart: Your kid does something that stimulates you. You can go down the path of control by judging the situation, thinking up a strategy, and demanding action, or you can go down the path of connection by observing, feeling your response, identifying your need, and requesting action. I’m amazed by how hard it is to take this second path.
  • I’m reading my church newsletter. The interim pastor has written a column challenging us to ask ourselves during this time of transition, “What do we notice?” Our habit is to see a change and jump to an opinion or judgment. He encourages us to first simply observe.
  • I’m leading a class in a tried-and-true writing exercise: Begin with an object from childhood. Describe it in detail. Only once you’ve brought it fully onto the page, allow it to lead you to other memories. The class, as always, is profoundly moved by what emerges.
  • I’m doing Centering Prayer, my candle lit, my knees on the floor. Ideas for this column pop into my head. They’re good ideas, but I remember Thomas Keating’s advice: Even should the Virgin Mary Herself tap me on the shoulder, I’m to say, “Not now, dearie; I’m doing my Centering Prayer.” I observe my thoughts then let them go.

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The Gifts of Being Curious

Isn’t curiosity marvelous? Something sparks your interest, and you’re off—questioning, learning, exploring, pondering. Say you meet someone new, share a bit about yourself, and they’re genuinely curious; suddenly you’re deep in conversation, sharing details about yourself or your work that you rarely otherwise disclose, and you begin to wonder whether this person might become a friend. Or say you receive a new artistic medium, a set of oil pastels; you’re eager to feel one in your hand, run it across a blank page, be surprised by the streak of color. Or say you’re a writer with one idea that leads to another, that leads to a few weeks buried in the library stacks and then a few years pursuing a project; you’re absorbed, you’re riding the rails of your heart without a clue where the train is going.

It’s exhilarating.

The gift of curiosity is this: We lose ourselves. (more…)

Developing the Inner Witness

Here is sure evidence that I am a born writer: By high school, I couldn’t walk down the hallway or open my locker without a little story-teller voice whispering in my ear, “With stealthy steps, Elizabeth paced the institutional hall, fluorescent lights buzzing overhead, until she stopped, suddenly, at a combination lock.” My every lived moment was instantly narrated. Call it a self-consciousness, psychosis, or literary genius, regardless, I had an instinctive, even impulsive need to relate events which was only released by writing.

Over the years my inner narrator has served me well, mostly because I’ve learned to work with her. She’s the story-teller in me as well as the essayist, the self that happily hops on a train of thought and rides it across the page. As a teacher, I’m particularly good at facilitating the development of my students’ reflective voices. “What’s your story?” is a great question to begin with, but it must be followed by “What do you make of your story?” before creation really begins. What do you think—and feel and wonder and deeply know—about your experience? (more…)

Entering Shadowland

pokahoesunset16-04Cancer does this: Shake you out of the status quo and drop you into a different realm, one where your everyday priorities are rearranged and suddenly small talk, the cleanliness of the house, even your job ambitions seem ridiculous. Instead you give yourself over to what really matters: Being present to one another. Doing everything possible to tend to health and well-being. Emily and I call this place of intensity Cancerland. Life-threatening illness does a marvelous job of helping you reprioritize.

But so do other things, like the death of a loved one or losing a home or experiencing trauma. The last time our country did a collective gasp and had to reprioritize was 9/11. The recent election shocked some of us into a new way of seeing the world. Our national shadows—the parts of us that fear the Other, that wants to eradicate whatever seems to threaten our wellbeing—are now out in the open. They’ve been there all along, as people of color and immigrants and trans folks have been trying to tell us. But now we’re all plunged into a new reality: Shadowland, a country where democratic processes are scorned and fear has taken the reigns. (more…)

Just the Pond

swimmyWhen I was in my early twenties, flying back and forth between home in New York and college in Minnesota, the moment on the plane that terrified me most had nothing to do with take-off or rising to forty-thousand feet or landing. No, what gave me anxiety was that broad view of New York City, eight million people packed into three hundred square miles, that proved to me just how small I was. In the vast world I was a speck. An “insignificant number,” my chemistry teacher taught us, was like the weight of ashes in an airplane ash tray (back in the days when there was such a thing) compared to the weight of an airplane. I was an insignificant number, and it shook my foundation. (more…)