I was up north in Minocqua a month or so ago and chatting with a colleague I don’t see terribly often. Somehow, the topic turned to Harry Potter. I’m honesty not sure how. I swear I’d fess up if I recalled steering the conversation that direction, but I really don’t remember doing that. Regardless, we were talking about Harry Potter and the aforementioned colleague, Peter, told me about Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. A weekly podcast that takes you through the Harry Potter series, chapter by chapter, reading and discussing each through the lens of a specific theme and using various traditional spiritual practices to relate the reading and those themes to the world and our own lie.
I’d actually never listened to a podcast before, but audiobooks have completely changed my running experience, so it seemed like something I could get behind. Two things first…
I had to figure out how to listen to a podcast. It was a little bit of a process that made me feel o-l-d and required that I admit to more than one person that I didn’t even know how to start, but I got there. The little purple Podcast icon is now on my iphone home page and I’ve got all of the Book 1 podcasts loaded.
This felt like something I really didn’t want to do alone, but taking a children’s book that seriously isn’t something you can ask just anyone to do. Fortunately, I knew exactly who I wanted to do it with. Unfortunately… anxiety. And that brings me to the real meat of this story: Nicole. Yes, I did just call my friend meat. And she is a woman. Two strikes against this post already.
Nicole and I were both chemistry majors at Michigan Tech. I can count on one hand (literally) the other female chemistry majors I knew while I was there — Beth, Amanda, Shannon. And because other women were so few and far between in my classes, on campus, in the dorms, there was really something special about the bonds I forged with them while there. There was a familiarity, a safety, a kinship with those women that may or may not have been unique to Michigan Tech, but was definitely unique in my life to that point and I sincerely value those relationships.
I loved (and still love, honesty) those women. But I was desperately shy around Nicole while we were still in Houghton. She had this gorgeous, unruly, curly black hair that she wore with absolute abandon, while I was still busy working my way out of the over-gelled, wet poodle, ramen noodle look. She wore rocker jeans and funky t-shirts and chucks with everything. I never went anywhere or wore anything without a white, crew neck, men’s t-shirt underneath. She spoke up for what she believed in in class and on campus. I was busy trying to quietly figure out what I even believed in enough to speak up about. I put Nicole on a high pedestal and convinced myself I couldn’t reach her there.
Fortunately, Facebook emerged on the college scene circa 2005 and I was far more comfortable with virtual friendship than I was with the in-person kind. Nicole and I, like many other college classmates, became friends on Facebook and stayed that way after graduation as we went our separate ways — interstate moves, jobs and grad schools, marriages and more new states, quietly noting one another in our evolving Facebook feeds. So many times, though, there was overlap. Overlap in likes and dislikes, feelings about life milestones or political happenings, appreciation for four-legged creatures with fur and science, science, science. Curls and books. David Bowie and JK Rowling. It was too much to ignore, so we didn’t.
Nicole, from her pedestal on high, took the first big step when she sent me her actual phone number — allowing us to step outside of the Facebook world into the real one. And it was up to me to invite her, via that very real phone number, to do Harry Potter and the Sacred Text with me. I took a page out of Nicole’s Big Book of Bravery and did it. She said yes.
The first podcast was a revelation. The two moderators (hosts? what do you call a podcast star???) talked about spirituality and what it meant to view something as a sacred text – to love a work, feel at home with it, and to intentionally spend time with the words and their meaning in the context of our own lives. People have done this with a variety of texts for ages and ages – the bible, for example. So why not Harry Potter?
Why not, indeed?
I was enamored instantly and the week-long conversation that 30 minute podcast and single chapter of reading sparked between Nicole and I fed me in an incredibly profound way over that first week. We talked, also, at length about how quickly we wanted to go. The biggest part of me wanted to RUN, to devour it, take as much in as quickly as I possibly could. But a deeper, more rational part of me, convinced me that to savor it would be better. And as I listened to the second podcast on a walk with my pup in the sunshine this afternoon, I was so grateful for that decision. What I heard again moved my heart. I cannot wait to sit down with my book this evening and really reflect, using a version of the spiritual practice of lectio divina to fully engage with the text and my friend.
I learned in that first week that I am committed to authenticity. But as I think about this week’s theme of loneliness, I understand how terrified I was of authenticity for much of my life. I set myself up for loneliness by spending a lot of energy trying to fit in and worrying that I wouldn’t, rather than engaging others authentically and finding meaning in the relationships that resulted. That started to change in college to some extent, and even more so in graduate school, but only now is it something that I would consider intentional.
Perhaps that’s why now is exactly the right time for me to discover a real relationship with Nicole. Any sooner and I may have felt the need to purchase a pair of chucks, but she’d have seen right through it and I’d have blown everything. Or maybe not. But seriously, this woman rocks and now is definitely a good time!
As anyone whose ever gone to grade school knows, there are a lot of times in our lives that we are expected to do stupid things that someone else thinks will be good for us.
When I was younger, I was always right. The stupid thing was exactly as stupid as I thought it would be and it never did me any good.
What can I say, I was born knowing everything.
Until I was approximately 17 at which point I distinctly remember the first ever stupid thing that was actually good for me.
My first ever therapist made me do lots of stupid things. I was on the struggle bus and I just really didn’t understand how doing coloring pages in her office and making collages of magazine pictures in my dorm room was going to do anything to help with the fact that I was sad, down, miserable ALL. OF. THE. TIME.
But I (my parents, and their insurance) was paying for this lady, so I jumped through her hoops. I did her stupid things.
Every so often, I’d sit in what’s-her-name’s office with a coloring page and a big box of colored pencils, I’d scritch and scratch on the paper and answer her questions. Talk about my stuffs. Without fear… very open… about things I vowed not to talk about…
Damnit — the coloring! She tricked me into spilling my guts!
And her mind tricks only got more tricksy with the collage business. We talked about a little photo of a martini glass filled with milk for such a ridiculously long time. Why did it attract me? Was it the juxtaposition that I related to? And so on. It had seemed so silly until she really made me think about it. Not to mention the sort of mindful mindlessness of clipping the pictures on the floor of my room night after night.
Art projects, journaling, nerdy ice breakers, flipping through pictures, doing yoga, forced show and tell, filling my body up with sunshine, repeating tiny positive phrases…
Over the years, the stupid things have actually been so effective, that I have even stopped thinking of them as stupid. Actively pursuing things I once-upon-a-time would have immediately, and vehemently, poo-pooed.
And that’s the me of today. I like to try things — stupid things. Weird things. Out of the box things. Recently, through some of the hardest struggles and biggest hurts, I’ve found various artistic endeavors to be particularly helpful, healing, grounding, calming, enjoyable. I’ve pressed flowers and experimented with water colors. Hosted a painting party and DIY decorated my home.
This past weekend, I tried something new yet again. My friend Marie (my spiritual guuuu-ru) hosted a retreat at St. Anthony Spirituality Center in Marathon, about an hour north of me, focused on the use of beads in prayer — Pray One, Bead Two. Sounded neat… and the weekend did not disappoint.
Marie taught us the millennia-long history of the use of beads in various spiritual practices across geography and time. She told us stories about her innate attraction to the repetitive, tactile nature of the use of beads in her own life and the way that translated into a robust spiritual practice in her life today. Marie shared her stories, her knowledge, and her beads with us — oodles of beads — and we built things that meant something to us from the things that she shared.
I made a mental health focused prayer bracelet – a soft, sea green, with beads in sets of three, and a St. Dymphna medal; the patron saint of mental illness.
I made an earth amulet – one big clay circle representing God, the Earth, the universe, the totality, and a single wooden bead above it, representing myself and my place in the whole.
I made a beaded prayer shawl focused on healing – a heavy, long string of lovely beads with colors representing the bodily chakras from head-to-toe, toe-to-head, and back again.
And finally — the story beads.
The second Marie mentioned story beads, the idea of creating a story or party of a story from your life in a strand of beads, I was enamored with the idea. It was the last thing we did, but the first place my mind went as I started sifting through the different colors, shapes, and sizes of beads. As I made every other piece, I set aside the beads I knew I’d use to represent different pieces of the story I wanted to tell. And in the end, putting together my journey through expectation, infertility, miscarriage, depression, and to the place I am now was incredibly cathartic.
Want to see?
It started when we got married. We’d been together FOR-EV-ER. We were both crazy cute kids. We knew we wanted to make some more. We wished for a family all our own.
A year went by. It can take time. We knew that. We saw the doctor, did the tests – probes in unpleasant places, awkward samples in tiny containers. Nothing was wrong. So we stepped it up a touch, another 6+ months of clomid. So hopeful still, it was just a matter of time. It was going to happen. The wish was unchanged. It still had not been granted.
So we went to a fertility clinic in Madison. If anyone could make us pregnant, grant us our wish, it was Generations. Still so hopeful. We started with intrauterine insemination (IUI). Three crystal beads for those three whole-hearted attempts. We had a 30% chance of success each time… if it was going to work. It didn’t work. So we stepped up our game, we went with in vitro fetilization (IVF). Three more crystal beads for our three fertilized eggs — my little maybe babies. Hundreds of pills, injections, patches, swabs, ultrasounds, trips represented by six shiny beads. All the hope in the world in that tiny little section.
And one of those little embryos, the one that survived to implantation, she took root. My body knew her early. My heart fell in love immediately. It felt so uncertain at first. I was nervous and wary. And then one morning, I was in the garage, getting into my car to go to work and had to run quickly back inside to throw up and… it was so real. Who’d have thought vomit could be represented by a big pink bead covered in butterflies? But there it is.
I didn’t know it was a girl, but I felt so certain. I dreamt of of her future, of the uber feminist mom I was going to be. She was going to always feel beautiful and brilliant and bright. Worthy of all the love in the world, all good things, always. I was in love with her. The dream was real for a minute. So real.
Until it was, just like that, over. A picture perfect baby on the screen, but no blip of life. And all of it was over. Forever an angel baby.
We tried three more times. That’s these three beads. One round of IVF with my own eggs and two with donor eggs. But it was harder — harder on my mind, my heart, and my body. And we experienced unexpected and inexplicable failures. Things that weren’t supposed to happen, things that never happen, happened. We got discounts to “make up for it,” but I didn’t want a discount… I wanted a baby. Our baby. The baby we lost. The baby we’d tried so hard to have.
We had to give up. We had to stop. And things were black. My world was sodark for solong. And I still struggle with the darkness. It makes up a really big part of this story, of my story — it’s easy to see, easy to feel, hard to ignore.
But with letting go also comes some sort of acceptance. And we did some big things for ourselves to facilitate a reset — a shift in mindset, expectations. This bit represents the amazing trip we took, across the ocean and back again, the incredible treat we gave ourselves. The incredible joy I felt watching dolphins play in the water far below us. The profound groundedness and acceptance I felt spending those amazing 12 days with my husband and our two best friends in this world.
The two of us came home fresh and refreshed. Ready to do life together. Knowing that our family is just as real as any other family, regardless of whether we end up with human children someday or not. We’re so lucky to have each other.
And so we come to the last segment on the string. This one is me — big and imperfect. I’ve been through a lot, but now that’s behind me. It’s just my story, the tale of how I came to be this big, imperfect rock. And in front of me — 11 beads. 11 for a new beginning. 10, a number of completion, plus 1 to keep going. (Except you know I love Joe Dirt, so I’m going to say it… plus 1 to keep on keepin’ on!)
Finally, the one big special bead that I made myself, molded out of clay. It’s a heart. My heart. With a tiny heart missing — the piece of my heart my girl took with her when she left us. But she also left something behind, an imprint that won’t ever go away. My heart is changed.
It’s been 18 months since we saw our little baby on the screen… only to learn that her heart no longer beat. 18 months since the D&C, the blackest of black, and I’m still grieving. But over the course of those 18 months, I’ve moved from the constant brink of tears to a place where talking about it — walking through the story, remembering what could have been — is something I actually want to do. When someone (anyone) asks about whether/how many kids we have, I don’t want to just say “no” or “none,” I want to say, “Unfortunately, no. We do not have children. We tried for a long time, did everything we could, and even lost one baby, but we don’t have any kids. And we might not ever. It’s been hard, but we have each other and our sweet pup and that’s ok.”
That’s my story. The story the beads tell. And the story I get to share.
For my upcoming birthday, I’m building myself a library. A special little space full of coziness and books. (And when I’m in it, a big old nerd!) A space to read, think, relax, unwind or wind up, depending on the book, maybe even write a little. And I’m pretty dang excited about it. All I need is the chair — and that’s going to be my birthday present from Seth. Something big enough so that should Curly choose to join me, there will plenty of space for the both of us.
Maybe a little side table for the lamp and cup of tea I envision at my side. My set up will face the fireplace, of course, for night time reading, and soak up the sun from the big window when it’s shining. But most importantly: the books. And I’m definitely an avid collector in that respect. Physically and mentally. I just soak them up, always have, always will. 2015 has been no exception in that respect, although it has been exceptional in a million other ways and because of that — books have been even more important than usual. They have consoled me and distracted me in a way nothing else possibly could and I am so grateful that comfort like that is always, always, always available. Words are so powerful. And well-timed words are probably the most powerful thing of all. I read some spectacular ones this year.
As I moved my most special books from their stacks, shelves, and cupboards into my new little library, I thought back to the Lincoln Later El library (I think it’s maybe called Brick now?) — where I spent all my lunchtimes many years ago. Sixth grade was probably my peak of loser-dom and recess was kind of a nightmare. So to avoid it, I reshelved books in the library. It was glorious to spend my lunch that way every day — handling the books, seeing what others were reading, getting ideas about what I should read next, and helping Mrs. Van-can’t-spell-the-rest a little bit at the same time. (But most importantly, avoiding the playground.) As I looked over my laundry baskets of collected books, I thought back on those lunch times, about the Dewey Decimal System, and how I would organize things in my own little space. A story about the stories I’ve read began to emerge and it suddenly seemed like an appropriate way to sum up the year I’ve had… my mental shelves are bursting, after all. So a little recap of 2015 — in a literary context:
Even before it started, I was quite aware that 2015 was going to be a tough year. Our last round of IUI was in December of 2014 and when it was unsuccessful (again) we knew that IVF was next. I was unhappy and I wasn’t alone. My sister-in-law, Kayla, and I were both dealing with stuff, feeling unhappy, and so we thought we’d read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin together. We started and I thought the research on happiness was fascinating, but we quickly petered out — I don’t know. It just wasn’t really for me, maybe it was the rigidity? Under normal circumstances, I’m a big fan of plans and dates and times and the like, but there’s something about the beauty of evolution and letting things naturally develop over time that I guess I find preferable. Happiness is always a worthy goal, to be sure, but I guess I prefer to take a step, see what happens, and let that inform the next step over making a 12 month plan with its 12 pre-planned steps and putting checks in the boxes as I accomplish them. (Gasp! I love to check boxes! A revelation that that does not apply here.) I’m not sure what Kayla’s thoughts on the topic are (note to self: ask Kayla for her thoughts), but I think the read was worth it just to better understand the science of happiness — the idea of a set point that you can’t sway too much and the notion that little things can make a surprisingly big difference when they become part of the every day.
One of those little things that makes a huge difference for me is audiobooks. I subscribed to Audible in the middle of 2014 and started listening to books while walking, running, mowing the lawn, sewing, driving long distances, etc, and ho-ly cow, I’m so in love. While there’s no doubt in my mind that reading is a worthwhile activity, I somehow always either felt guilty for reading while I could/should have been doing something else or, conversely, while doing something else hobby-ish, I’d rather be reading. Audible has solved that problem completely — now I can do both. This year alone, I’ve listened to All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Murial Barbery, Lightning by Dean Koontz, Saint Odd by Dean Koontz, One Door Away from Heaven by Dean Koontz (so yeah, I’m a big DK fan, and his books are so fast paced that they’re some of the best I’ve found for running to), The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, Awakenings by Oliver Sacks (although admittedly, I haven’t finished this one yet — probably better for something like driving than running), The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (which I hated so much, but we chatted about that before), all three All Souls Trilogy books by Deborah Harkness (A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life), The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, and, at present, Ashley Bell by Dean Koontz (his newest — yay yay yay). I also listened to Scrum by Jeff and J. J. Sutherland. That one was not my choice. It’s a book about a business productivity technique that Seth wanted to listen to and he talked me into listening along as we drove across the UP in September. It was interesting, but not super duper applicable to my lone wolf work environment. On the plus side, however, it was in exchange for that listening experience that I talked him into listening to The Five Love Languages with me on our next drive to and from Madison. As far as self-help goes, it was ridiculously cheesy and almost alarmingly intuitive, yet, Seth and I had an excellent time mocking the self-important and overly serious author and, honestly, recognizing the primary way in which we tend to hear and speak love (me in words, Seth in action) was excellent for us both. Five hours of car time well spent! As far as the rest go All the Light was so beautiful and so hard, but so important and I’m so glad I read it; Orange is the New Black was interesting and informative, definitely a good look at the broken prison system in America, but probably not what you would expect if you just watched the show — sometimes I felt like I was in prison listening to the overly long descriptions of kind of boring things, like prison cheescake and salad bars, a thousand times over; and all the Dean Koontzes were delightful as expected, except that I’m craving so much more about the smooth and blue than the final Odd Thomas book had to offer. The others warrant special attention, however.
The Invention of Wings and The Elegance of the Hedgehog were two of the best books I read all year. They’re both amazing, thought provoking, fascinating. And, while I didn’t think of it really until now, both have in some respect shaped the way I feel about life’s unexpected turns as well as its meaning. Like, so much so, that I should really go back and read Elegance again with an eye to the point of existing, as I’ve lamented over recently. I was so annoyed with both narrators at first — the self-important adolescent and the chip-on-her-shoulder concierge. But they grew and I loved them for it so much in the end. So so much. Anyone can grow, everyone has purpose. Even if just for a moment. Oh, love, love, love! Similarly, the main character in Wings seems so naive at first — and she is, I suppose, because she’s 11 and it’s basically your job at 11 to be naive. But growth and change and heartbreak and breaking hearts, standing up for what’s right for others and recognizing what’s right for yourself, all of that. It’s just beautiful. One of my favorite, favorites. So much so that after I was gifted a second copy (thanks, sweet Ellen! you do know me well!), I re-gifted it to my dear friend Marie and then again at Christmas to my friend Deb. And now you should all read it. Because it’s so so good. (Btw, Sue Monk Kidd also wrote The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, which you know you loved, and that should be an even better recommendation for The Invention of Wings.)
Speaking of good fiction… I also devoured The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and think it was truly the best of the best that I read all year. It’s a World War II-based story about two sisters who are both simultaneously jealous of one another and insecure about themselves, in the end realizing that they’re both incredibly courageous in two distinctly different ways. It’s such a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful story. Simultaneously heart breaking and heart making. This is probably the book I’m the most insistent that other people read — when Aimee said she was reading books with bird titles I was so excited for her to get to this one, I told Erika to start here when she was looking for recommendations, I sent it to Melissa after she had surgery, and gave Marie a copy for Christmas. These are people I love very, very much and this is a book I love very, very much. Definitely my 2015 Must Read. Oh! And one more “deep fiction” winner — At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen, the author of Water for Elephants knocked it out of the park once again with another fascinating look back in time, although this time it was the Loch Ness craze in war battered Scotland rather than the depression-era circus scene. Loved.
But it’s not just prize-winning, super deep fiction that I love… I just love, love, love a good story, and twice this year, Lara Lacombe delivered, with both Lethal Lies and Killer Exposure. The biggest problem with Lara’s books is that if you have even the tiniest inkling of nerdy girl-ness inside you or potential for enjoyment of romantic suspense, you better start reading on a Friday night so that by the time you have to go back to work, you’re done with the book and ready to come up for air. I can never put them down and I think that Killer Exposure was actually my favorite that Lara has written so far. It’s crazy to me how addictive her stories are! Similarly, I devoured lots of Dean Koontz, as mentioned above, including my old hard copy of Life Expectancy, which again, proved itself to be my favorite Koontz of all time. It’s just SO good. I also forced Erika to read it. And she loved it. N = 2, must be true! I also loved One Plus One by Jojo Moyes, which wasn’t quite as amazing as Me Before You, but still excellent and a good reminder that when life is super crazy hard, we can, and should, lean on each other; Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal, a race-exploring New Orleans-based book with super likable and interesting characters; Invisible Ellen by Shari Shattuck because I’m a total sucker for stories about fat girls finding acceptance, friendship, worth, purpose, self-love, etc (a la Jemima J by Jane Green), and this book totally fits that bill — brilliant and interesting and funny and witty and super feel-good; and Lila by Marilynne Robinson, which is apparently a stand alone part of the Gilead series that I obviously need to read more of. Sadly, however, not all the fiction I read delivered quite so well and I did find myself pretty disappointed in Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin, probably because it was my understanding that Le Guin was a science fiction writer and I just couldn’t reconcile my expectations with the reality of the book — although if I really wanted to read about a woman bogged down by unreasonable expectations that had to overcome great adversity, particularly within the context of her unexpected husband, I’d re-read The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (a total masterpiece) instead. I was also disappointed by The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner, which is so sad because it’s a legitimately brilliant idea for a story — I just didn’t really dig the execution, I think. It could have been such a lovely little love story wrapped up in history, but instead felt cheesy. I feel like I want to read the same story with an author like Sarah Gruen or Sue Monk Kidd instead, which seems like such a mean thing to say, but it’s my truth. Sorry, Susan.
Perhaps my two most personally important fiction reads, however, actually fall under a broader category of books — namely, those I read in the wake of grief and really helped me to cope. I re-read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series this year, as we’ve discussed, and while I thought it was about making my maybe baby magical, it actually ended up being an important thing to have done for myself, as I learned only in the wake of my miscarriage. Interestingly, my friend Kristen also recommended to me an adolescent-fiction-slash-graphic-novel called A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and it kind of had a similar story line — a young man’s mother is dying and he calls up a monster to save her, except, the monster wasn’t actually there to save his mother. The monster was there to save him. It’s a quick read, but ridiculously profound and I loved it so much. Probably my number one recommendation in the context of grief specifically. It’s beautiful. I sobbed. So did Kristen. I highly recommend this book. I also recently finished the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness as I mentioned above. Had I read anything about them before diving in, I probably wouldn’t have even stepped a toe in the water — the vampire, witch, demon deal sounds a bit too Twilight-y to suit my HP devotee style (Hermione for life!!), but my mom’s friend and former school social worker, Linda, recommended them to me as I walked and walked and walked through IVF and I am so grateful that she did because I absolutely adore these books. History and magic and love and family and meaning and spirituality and all of the above. Love, love, love, love, love. At nearly 30 hours a piece, it’s impressive to think how many miles I must have run and walked while listening to these three books. The main character even grieved a miscarriage at one point. It was perfection.
In addition to the grief-important fiction, I’ve also read a lot of grief-important non-fiction. Early after my miscarriage, Aunt Becky sent me a copy of To Live Again by Catherine Marshall and I walked with Ms. Marshall for a good long while — in Hawaii, on my way home, many difficult nights, and she’s proven to me over and over again why I find her Prayer of Relinquishment so meaningful, it’s how she lives her whole life. It’s the place she found after the greatest of tragedies, in the wake of the most difficult situation, and she and her words are really an amazing source of strength. Similarly, and then again so completely not similarly at all because there really is no comparing the Catherine Marshall of the 1950s to the Jenny Lawson of now, I also read and loved Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and Furiously Happy this year. We talked about the brilliant Bloggess already, but to bring the point home one more time — to move from grief into a state of long-standing, long-battled, hard fought mental illness is not a surprise. Depression is always there waiting for me and I live with it, through it, in spite of it, every single day of my life. Some periods are harder than others and I am not alone. To have collaborated with my healthcare providers to decide to use medication, to participate in talk therapy, those things are not weaknesses — they are strengths, they are good decisions, they are active participation in my own wellness and growth. Also, Jenny Lawson is freaking hilarious and for someone to fit jokes in amongst all that good stuff? Well, that just seems rather amazing, doesn’t it?
(Sad sidenote: hoping for non-fiction goodness a la Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling and Jenny Lawson and the like, I also picked up Yes Please by Amy Pohler at the Honolulu airport after I busted my Kindle on the beach. Unfortunately, I was disappointed — I feel guilty for even saying so, but it just felt so name droppy and gushy about the amazingness of her amazing friends without being particularly hilarious, except when she basically says, “trust me, we were all so hilarious”… I guess you had to be there? So sad about this… but it’s the truth, and it sits half read in a stack next to my bed. Sorry, Amy. This doesn’t change the way I feel about Parks and Rec. Promise.)
I also super loved The Shack by William P. Young and found it particularly encouraging to read Young’s super fascinating imagining of God the trinity. God as black woman, even if only as a representation, among other anti-institutional and/or anti-dogmatic sentiments, has this book frequently labeled as heresy, which I love so much because it says so much about the people who label fiction (a la the Dan Brown books) as such, don’t you think? But besides that, it’s just such an interesting read. I especially loved the way God, the black woman, greets the main character when he first shows up:
Instinctively he jumped back, but he was too slow. With speed that belied her size, she crossed the distance between them and engulfed him in her arms, lifting him clear off his feet and spinning him around like a little child. And all the while she was shouting his name — “Mackenzie Allen Phillips”– with the ardor of someone seeing a long-lost and deeply loved relative. She finally set him back on Earth and, with her hands on his shoulders, pushed him back as if to get a good look at him.
“Mack, look at you!” she fairly exploded. “Here you are, and so grown up. I have really been looking forward to seeing you face-to-face. It is so wonderful to have you here with us. My, my, my, how I do love you!” And with that she wrapped herself around him again…
… He felt the presence of love. It was warm, inviting, melting.
…and I lose it. I highlighted that passage when I gave this book to my dad for Christmas (even though he’d already read it) because I wanted to make sure that he knows that that’s what it feels like to be his daughter. I just loved the things this book made me think and feel and consider. If you’re at all interested in spirituality sans dogma, in spite of dogma, or to make you think about dogma, this is a really good read. Also, spiritually speaking, I super loved The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. I started reading it right after my friend Aimee‘s mom (I love all Rathbuns so much — like, they’re basically my sports team and I should get myself a jersey to wear) pinned it and shortly thereafter, my mom bought me a copy that she then kept for herself because she loved it so much too. Brene Brown is a shame researcher, a true academician and expert in psychology, and also one of the greatest spiritual thinkers/writers I’ve ever encountered. Imperfection is all about being who you really are, warts and all, why that’s hard, and why it’s so necessary. There was so much good packed into the book that I feel like I need to have it with me at all times as a reference manual — things to constantly think about until completely internalized. Similarly, Savor by Shauna Niequist is a daily devotional, or perhaps more accurately a book of daily reflections, chock full of this kind of thing — ideas about giving yourself grace, being present in the moment, etc, that are totally worth thinking about. Beautiful things, every day. And something I think I could read over and over again every day in perpetuity.
At present, I’m reading Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America by Margot Adler as quickly as I can and tiny bits of Praying with Celtic Holy Women by Bridget Mary Meehan and Regina Madonna Oliver on a daily basis. The Moon is a really interesting historical narrative on polytheistic practices in this country over the past century, as well as where they may have come from in the more distant past. I got interested in the topic after reading about some of these Celtic Holy Women who were really fascinating early adopters of Christianity. I wish I had more time to spend deep diving into all the millions of areas I get interested in because both of these books make me ask more and more questions and want to read more and more books. I suppose that’s what my little library and all this spare time are for.
I approach 2016 knowing that we’re in for another tough year. My 32nd birthday is nearly here, which means my ovaries are rapidly approaching what the fertility specialist appears to believe is the end for me in my fertility journey. We’re doing IVF again in the spring and I know full well what that means now. In addition, I also know that even in the unlikely event of pregnancy, miscarriage is not only a very real possibly, but a pretty likely outcome. I know what that feels like too. But I’m not ready to give up on this path quite yet, so we head into the new year with our eyes wide open and our scars still red and fresh. My mental library has a whole new annex and my physical library will be a place of refuge when I need it. So back to my dear Hagrid, one more time — what’s coming will come and we’ll greet it when it does. Fortunately, for me, I can greet it like my beloved Hermione, frizzy haired and nose in a book.
Au revior, 2015! Any recommendations for stocking my shelves in 2016???
At the end of the race, there are almost always bananas.
At the end of the rainbow, there is supposed to be a pot of gold.
At the end of a journey, a destination.
And at the end of the five stages of grief, there lies acceptance.
I don’t know that I’ve ever grieved heartily and with enough awareness as an adult to really notice any given stage of grief. Not until yesterday… when in less than 24 hours I managed to go from stage 1 (blissful denial) to rapid vacillation between stages 2, 3, and 4 in a torrent of tears and snot (so much snot) before I finally settled into a puffy-eyed, rosy lipped (my lips get very bright pink when I cry a lot) depression.
So, what happened, exactly? We’ll do it stage by stage.
I had a lovely time on Sunday night, the night before the embryo transfer. My cousin-in-law Megan had her second annual Take Steps for Crohn’s and Colitis fundraiser at UPaint and Party in Wausau. Almost everyone painted a gorgeous picture of a lovely little bird silhouetted against a bright sky flying from it’s cage. My painting somehow got a dementor in it, but I still had a blast. It was nothing but fun and I was in good spirits about Monday’s transfer. Yes, I only had three embryos, but it could be great! That was three chances — making for a potential family of five humans and my sweet Curly girl to boot. I was good.
Even Monday morning, though nervous and stressed about heading out the door a bit late, I was still making The Jerk-based jokes with my family.
And that’s all I need…
We arrived in Madison a mere 4 minutes late for our scheduled appointment. Big thanks to the state of Wisconsin for upping our speed limits to 70 mph — big help yesterday. The nurse brought us back to the procedure area, same as before, and began to collect vitals, provide information, prep us with our gowns and caps and booties and all that… and I noticed that all the while, she kept saying “the embryo.” Part of me assumed it was because they were planning to just transfer one, which was always the goal. A much darker part of me knew what it really meant though.
There was only one embryo left. Two of the three we had, the three I had been banking on, had stopped developing. Just stopped. We were going to transfer only one because we had only one.
And that one? Not even ideal. Not sure on the details… and this image means pretty much nothing to me (no wonder they call it a ball of cells, eh?) so I can’t exactly glean anything from that, but something about it not being as developed as it should have been — an early blast instead of a mature/late/something one. I don’t know. It was hard to hear the embryologist over the buzzing in my ears that always comes when I start trying to hold back tears.
I was so unbelievably, inconsolably (even by Valium) sad. And angry. ONE?!?! After ALL THAT?! After all we had been through, all the thousands of dollars and hundreds of injections and ultrasounds and trips and tears and everything… just one. One shot. One sub-par shot.
But we did SO much. We’ve been through SO FREAKING MUCH. And so many people who do NOTHING, absolutely NOTHING, but get it on once or twice have babies all the dang time. ALL THE TIME. Why are they special? Why am I not? Why are they so obnoxiously #blessed and is #cursed even a thing?! Because I obviously am. What’s wrong with me that even with thousands and thousands of dollars of medical intervention this is still the best I can do??? One.
And if that one doesn’t work? There’s nothing in the freezer to try again. Nothing. We have to start over from zero. Physically, emotionally, financially from zero. Do it alll over again. And I know I’m too close, and I know this isn’t where we are yet, but I can’t. I shouldn’t have to! I don’t want to!! It’s not FAIR!!! (Which is truly the worst thing you can say as an adult because by this point in my life I am well aware that life is not fair and nobody every said it would be.)
But it only takes one. One is enough. One is better than zero and I’ve prayed and hoped and begged and done everything right. Everything I could do. I would do anything — hasn’t what I’ve done so far proven that? Wouldn’t we be good parents? Don’t we deserve a family?
Even just this weekend, the priest talked about the little boy who made a miracle happen by bringing Jesus his meager loaves and fishes. I’ve brought him mine, haven’t I? With everything I have done, all that I’ve been through… it’s time for our miracle now, isn’t it?
And there it is… the little embryo between the two air bubbles.
Or so they tell me. I wouldn’t know. As far as I’m concerned, this actually could be a print out of an ultrasound from a cow and I’d be none the wiser. But that has to be good, right? That you can see where it is? Inside me? Please, I’ll do anything to keep it there, to make it grow, to let it be life.
But then again, it really doesn’t matter anyway. It’s out of my hands and come next Wednesday, when we can finally test, this will all be over. Yes, pregnancy is a possibility. But really? If after all that, we were left with one embryo. Just the one, just hanging in there, is it really very likely that we’ll be pregnant at all? I have lost my hopefulness, my optimism. The best of it, the stuff on the inside. I have to keep saying to everyone, “Oh yes! It’s very exciting! We could be pregnant right now– not too much longer ’til we find out! Keeping our fingers crossed!!” When really, I know otherwise. I know, you know? And the best news of all — my attitude will not change anything and if ONE MORE MOTHER EFFING PERSON TELLS ME OTHERWISE I AM GOING TO FREAKING LOSE IT. (Oops… that bit might have been anger again.) You cannot visualize or positive energy or pray or wish or hope yourself into pregnancy. It’s biology. And my biology hasn’t really felt like cooperating so far. It is what it is (sorry, Aimee — I know you hate that phrase, but isn’t it the best depressive phrase kind of ever?) and I am where I am and what’s done is done and it’ll all be over soon.
Back and forth and back and forth, sometimes anger, sometimes bargaining, sometimes depression over a frightening number of cycles since yesterday afternoon. And then sometime this morning, as I chatted with my friend Marie (Seth, if we ever do have a baby, her middle name (or even his middle name, to be honest) is going to have to be Marie — fair warning) about normal things, the things we chat about all the time, and I felt my funk start to lift just a bit I started thinking about what acceptance might actually mean. And I realized that Seth’s Aunt Becky had kind of already set me up for it a while ago, believe it or not. Probably on purpose too. She’s super wise and all knowing like that. Like Dumbledore. A doctor even, the good kind, PhD-style like me. Her PhD isn’t actually in theology, although as a self-taught theologian she’s quite impressive, if I do say so myself.
A few weeks back she sent me a link to this article about the prayer of relinquishment:
Maybe I’m really late to the game and this is old news for everybody else, but in this moment, I’m so crazy grateful to Aunt Becky, PhD, for sharing it with me and I can’t recommend reading the whole thing enough if you’re in any capacity inclined toward spirituality. It’s so good.
This is the crux of it all, at least to me and right now:
“…it says, ‘This is my situation at the moment. I’ll face the reality of it. But I’ll also accept willingly whatever a loving Father sends.’ Acceptance, therefore, never slams the door on hope.
Yet even with hope our relinquishment must be the real thing, because this giving up of self-will is the hardest thing we human beings are ever called on to do.”
So as Catherine Marshall says Mrs. Nathaniel Hawthorne said once upon a time… why should I doubt the goodness of God?
I wear my bracelet all the time, the one that says “Always.” as a reminder that God is good. Always. No matter what. Why would this moment be any different? Pregnant or not, my life will go on. Pregnant or not, Seth and I will still love each other and we’re really lucky to have that. Pregnant or not, our little family will continue to flourish and decide what to do from there. All I can do right now is accept what is to come, relinquish the notion that I have any control over it, and carry on for the next several days until we have an actual answer to which I can react.
Yes, it’s hard. So so so hard. But as Melissa told me last night, even Jesus got angry. Why shouldn’t I? God gave me all these emotions and I’m free to feel them. They’re not wrong. They’re normal. And this is so hard. It’s no wonder that I feel angry and sad and depressed and worried and even hungry at times. (So so hungry.) We feel things. It’s what we do.
So stages of grief and all that aside… we had an embryo (i.e. the embryo) transferred to my uterus yesterday. At present, it’s a little ball of cells floating in space and the hope is that it will eventually implant into the uterine lining, effectively establishing a viable pregnancy. I don’t know how likely that is or is not. All I know is that on August 5th, we’ll do a blood test for HCG — a pregnancy test (not the pee on a stick kind). A negative is the real thing. Negative = negative. A positive could still be a false positive though, so if we do get a positive result, we have to do another blood test two days later on August 7th to look for rising levels of HCG, which will effectively confirm the positive result. It would be lovely to think that maybe I could look for signs and symptoms of pregnancy in the interim, but with the hormone overload my body is currently going through, I already have just about all of them and there’s no way any sign of actual pregnancy could be differentiated from the craziness happening in my body baby or no… so we wait.
Wait and accept and relinquish and let that little bit of hope in because that’s pretty much all we can do.
There’s a big book I want to read, but as with that grocery store, I’m a little scared to read it. (I’m such a chicken!) I can’t really put my finger on what makes me nervous about it, exactly, but I think it’s important that before reading the book, I at least make an attempt at finding my own answer.
And today I’d like to talk about why I am Catholic. Or at least my very best, super non-eloquent, attempt at explaining why. Because Joan suggests that it might be time.
“Keep traveling, Sister! Keep traveling! The road is far from finished!” –Nelle Morton
Unrelated side note: sisters are the best, best, best!
“Indeed we are not finished. The struggle for women is only just begun actually. But I have come to the conclusion that social change does not happen in a straight line. It’s run and coast, run and coast all the way. This is another deceleration period, perhaps. Everything has quieted, slowed for a while, no big demonstrations, no great amount of organizing. But it is precisely now that we must not stop or we will stand to lose our hearts along the way.” –Joan Chittister
Whether you agree or disagree with me, in my own personal world where the opinions are 100% and entirely my own, my struggle with my faith has often been reflected in, as Joan calls it, “the struggle for women.” Where the word “women” can be replaced with any truly marginalized segment of the population.
I am what many would call a “cradle Catholic” — I was born into the faith. My parents met as catechism teachers, for pete’s sake! (And their first date was to see the Star Trek movie and they’re so cute/gross (they are my parents, it has to be a little gross to me) and so happy even after like a million years and three wack job kids and a bad, bad dog– I love their story!)
Anyway, I was born to Catholic parents. Baptized in the Catholic church. Attended CCD once a week during elementary school, went to mass on Sundays, made my basic sacraments, and wore the pretty dresses when required (Easter, Christmas, but none more beautiful than my first communion dress– handmade by my mom, eyelet lace, and I loooooved it).
I even went to youth group off and on as an awkward teen. And oh snap was I ever awkward. It’s hard not to cringe when I even think about youth group… (I had such a crush on this handsome young man (that’s the old lady way of saying “total hottie!”) named Andrew who had gone to my school before leaving for a private Catholic school. I screwed up the courage to ask him to Homecoming my senior year. He initially said yes and I freaking flipped until he reversed his decision on account of “Saturday night hockey practice” (riiiight… i.e. I can’t go to Homecoming with a nerd at my old school! I’ll never hear the end of it) and I was very understanding (to him) and mortified (in private) and all that. Oh, so soso cringe-worthy! Although, date or no, in retrospect, I looked HOT at that Homecoming dance, so whatevs. Also, good on me for having the courage to ask!!)
[[[Dang it! I was sure I had a picture somewhere around here from that dance– lots of other dances, Homecoming, Coming Home, Prom, etc… but not that particular one. I looked good though, I promise. And even if I didn’t, I was awesome! His loss!]]]
I even went to church on my own in college. I walked up the hill from Wadsworth Hall to St. Al’s in Houghton and sang my little heart out whenever I could get out of bed in time to make it (because think what you like, I love traditional Catholic hymns– I just do). A lot of my friends were Catholic too, so it was always a social experience, and when I started dating Seth my sophomore year we had that in common. It’s always just been a thing. Albeit, a rote thing, because this-is-the-way-it’s-always-been thing. Not much in the way of thought at any point. Although, I should point out that I was not confirmed in the church along with my peers… because I didn’t really see the need, and neither did my parents who were going through their own thoughtful faith period. While it has caused me some problems along the way (marriage prep– oy), I do not regret it. It would have just been another meaningless hoop to jump through on what was already a very rote path. I have since toyed with the idea of going through the RCIA process to become confirmed as an adult and I am grateful for that because over and over again it has made me examine the central teachings of my Catholic faith with a more discerning, thoughtful, and critical eye than I would have possessed at any point earlier in my life and that has made all of the difference.
The next natural place to go as I’m writing this is, I’m sure, toward a theological discussion of what I agree with, what I disagree with, and so on. But instead, let’s just say that my concerns center largely around the way certain groups of people are treated– women, LGBTQ individuals, divorced/remarried couples, the homeless, etc. (Sigh for Catholics in San Francisco at the moment, yes? Seems as though they’ve been in the media recently for every last one of these things.) It bothers me because I feel confident that Jesus loved everyone and that as followers of Jesus (i.e. Christians) we are also called to love everyone, always, no matter what, and with no questions asked. Even when it’s hard. Lepers and prostitutes, tax collectors and pharisees. Everyone is welcome. And we even sing that, in church, some Sundays– allll are welcome, allll are welcome, alllll are welcome in this place. I really, really believe that.
So the question then becomes: why stay? Why do I still consider myself a Catholic?
Reasonable question, and one I have honestly and whole-heartedly asked myself. For a few months a year or so ago I found myself bouncing around from church to church to church. I tried them all locally, and even not so locally (driving long distances on Sunday morning was not something I particularly enjoyed, but I tried it, to be thorough). I liked the service at the Episcopalian church in town (the minister even referenced Joan Chittister in her homily! sermon, maybe?), but ultimately, even that just didn’t fit quite right. It wasn’t comfortable. It wasn’t home.
In the end, I still attend Catholic mass on Sunday with my husband. I get quite a bit out of it, but sometimes it definitely makes me a bit rage-y. Mostly only when the homily gets political– even subtle politicization is enough to boil my blood. But I can listen respectfully and dissent in the car on the way home. I can do it. And I can work to change those things from elsewhere. To make my church more just. To make my spiritual home a place that I am proud of. Hence, my involvement in Call To Action.
In the end, I relate it back to politics after all. I may not always like my political leaders and the policies put forth in the US, but I’m not going to move to Canada over it. I’m sure there’d be something there I would disagree with too. And ultimately, Canada, lovely as it may be, is not my home… not the place I feel like I belong. (Granted, I have not tried living in Canada, so that’s not a super fair statement, but I’m sure you get my drift.)
When I think about this concept of your church or faith or lack thereof as a home or place of comfort, I think that my husband’s family really demonstrates how true that is. My father-in-law is Catholic and my mother-in-law is Lutheran. Neither converted or changed anything when they got married. My MIL continues to attend her Lutheran church and my two sisters-in-law have always gone with her. My FIL continues to attend his Catholic church and my husband has always gone with him. All three kids are amazing people– morally upstanding, grounded in their faith, kind, beautiful and compassionate and spiritual people. Two were raised Lutheran, one was raised Catholic, all three came from a household that values family and love and respect and hard work. The two raised Lutheran have chosen to remain Lutheran, likewise for the Catholic, and while I haven’t actually asked them why exactly, I imagine that the concept of familiarity and home would come to mind eventually if I did. Probably the same would be true for their parents– they still got married and spent the rest of their lives (to date… can’t predict the future, of course, but their also pretty cute/gross) loving, respecting, and raising a family with one another. And I think that’s what we’ll all do as we grow up– what our parents did. Seth and I will (fingers crossed!!!) have children someday and raise our kids in the Catholic church, but we’ll also raise our kids according to our own moral values and our kids will be shown that all people are welcome, no matter what, no questions asked, because that’s what we think Jesus would do. And more to the point, what we think is right. Should someday they decide to move on to a faith or religion or spiritual practice (or, again, lack thereof) in which they feel more comfortable, more at home, that’s totally cool. For me, it just so happens that that place of spiritual comfort is Catholicism.
Progressive Catholicism, anyway. Catholicism with a twist.
And that is my best answer to that question posed by Gary Wills. A long time in the making, but most brilliant works take a minute, eh? 😉
I think I am ready to read that book now. To see what Gary has to say. (True story: I almost wrote Mr. Wills right there, but then stopped myself– I never write Ms. Chittister, or even Sister Chittister… I always call her Joan, like she’s my own personal friend and never with the respect of the title she’s probably owed. Yet, interestingly, I have actually seen Gary Wills speak in person, closer to a friend therefore than Joan is, and still I initially went for the mister. Glad I can catch myself in these super anti-equality moments. Wonder how many more I don’t catch?).
As you can see, I certainly can’t defend my Faith with any kind of theological argument, but my faith, with the little f, which is the one that I practice rather than the one I necessarily subscribe to or attend, isn’t based on theology really at all. It’s based on a feeling and an ideal of goodness and rightness that really isn’t something that can be argued one way another because it’s 100% personal.So I consider myself Catholic, whether or not I’m a good one according to the hierarchical Church. (And I doubt very much that I am.) But I don’t do it for them, I do it for me and for God. And no one can come between God and my conscience. (That’s a direct quote from a Catholic priest, btw. Must be true!)
I’d be really very curious to hear about the experiences of others– not the doctrinal/theological reason for belonging to one group or another or not at all, but rather, the personal history- and feelings-based reasons. I can’t be the only one, can I? Tell me about you!
PS: Talking about that youth group-based Homecoming rejection, and even more so, joking about it– HUGE deal for me! Turns out, it legitimately no longer hurts. And I’m grateful for the story. I wonder when that happened? (But was he ever dreamy to my 16 year old self…) FREEDOM!!
“Spirituality is expressed in everything we do.” –Anne E. Carr
Another day of lent, another quotation. And this time, by a woman named Anne. Anne with an e. Important to take note of that e. My graduate school advisor spelled her name that way, with an E, and a lot of people spelled it wrong. First time, fine. But over and over and over again following several back-and-forth correspondences? She always found it to be offensive– showed a lack of caring, lack of respect, lack of attention to a detail that was important to her. I’ve waffled back and forth about that idea for some time. But I get it. I really do. I have enough years of Rachael with the extra a instead of the correct Rachel to understand why it can be frustrating.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy spelled my name Rachael on a wedding gift. Seth suggested I change my name accordingly. Disagree. But I digress.
Spirituality is expressed in everything we do. When we fail to take note of something that’s meaningful or important to someone else, it can be hurtful. Mistakes happen, of course, but often it’s a choice not to spend the time, to take the note.
Believe it or not, that doesn’t seem to be Joan’s point today (she’s just so much deeper than me!):
“I believe that our lives are our spirituality but I am not sure that behavior is its best test, its certain indicator. I do a great many things that ‘look’ good: I suppress anger, I give partial responses to serious questions, I hold myself to my own breast and live life within life within life that no one else knows about. But at the same time, I long desperately to bring all of them into focus, into line, into the One, where the heart is soft toward everything and everyone in this world. So which approach is real spirituality?” –Joan Chittister
Oh my. Another question… not really an answer. Does our behavior really reflect our spirituality? What’s in our heart of hearts?
Because of Anne (with an E), I’ve always tried to pay careful attention to how people spell their names and to get it right. I want to make note, to display to that person that I care… but then again, am I actually making note because it is part of my heart being soft toward everything and everyone in the world? Or am I concerned about it only because I feel like it makes me look good? Like I have paid attention?
Huh. I honestly don’t know.
The way I treat people, whether I note the e at the end of their name, maybe it matters. But does it really matter if I’m noting it only to look good? Not because I really mean it?
I guess the question is, then, how important is intention? Even Joan doesn’t seem to have that all figured out. Must be something worth thinking about.
Turns out, after mulling it over alllllll the live long day, through several loads of laundry and a walk in the snow with my Curls, a trip to the Y and the grocery store in yoga pants followed by a dinner of spaghetti and a nice long shower, a viewing of Pitch Perfect (I finally got Seth to watch it!) and a big bowl of popcorn, I have decided that part of my own personally spirituality, the thing I feel in my heart of hearts, is that any chance I have to make someone else feel good… or at the very least not feel bad… I should take it. I want to take it. Because I believe in raising others up, not bringing them down.
Well, I believe that most of the time. Not all of the time. You know those times when it’s practically impossible. Mean girls, Facebook, you catch my drift. Doesn’t seem to matter how many years go by. I’m trying to be better. I swear I try!
Regardless, my decision is that remembering the e on Anne or the single l in Michele or the correct way to spell Amy/Aimie/Aimee matters. No one is celebrating their name being spelled correctly (except, I imagine, for all the poor Siobhans out there), but when I have an opportunity to make a note, spell it right, and not contribute to someone feeling disrespected or ignored or whatevs, I better take it.
I think that behavior matters. Maybe because of my intention? I don’t know. What do you think? How does your behavior reflect your soul?
PS: Seth and I are Packer owners now. We have a share of the team. So Coach McCarthy better get it right next time! Fun fact– he took this picture for us when we were at Lambeau Field last Tuesday.
I kid of course. We’d have kicked my mom out and had her take the picture of the rest of us if he’d been there 😉
I recently read the bookLife of Pi by Yann Martel. It was a beautiful book and the boy’s adventure was absolutely magical. But honestly, my favorite part of the book was the beginning.
In the beginning, Pi, a born, raised, and practicing Hindu, begins exploring other religions. He becomes, simultaneously, a Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. He is devout in his practice of all three. Until the Hindu pandit (new vocabulary word! yessss!), the Christian priest, and the Muslim imam realize that he is practicing more than one religion… at which point, everyone gets upset.
While the three religious men are busy making arguments in favor of their own religion and against the others (because religious discourse tends to go south very fast, doesn’t it?), Pi and his father make some really beautiful points of their own.
First, Pi quotes Gandhi: “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.”
Then his father backs him up saying, “I suppose that’s what we’re all trying to do–love God.”
Finally, Pi explains: “Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.”
At the same time I was reading Life of Pi, I was also working my way (again) through Joan Chittister’s book Welcome to the Wisdom of the World. (I always read more than one book at a time…) Joan Chittister is a ridiculously wise and eloquent nun from Pennsylvania. While she is indeed a Catholic sister, she is also a brilliant theologian who understands, and in this book explains, how all of the worlds major religions are ultimately devoted to helping people understand the answers to the big questions in life. She draws beautiful parallels between Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and uses their parables to answer some of the tough questions that we all ponder at one point or another.
I think the essence of Joan Chittister’s book is summed up when she says, “Every major spiritual tradition – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – brings a special gift to the art of living the spiritual life. Each of them refracts the light of its own spiritual wisdom text in particularly sharp and distinct ways. Each of them strikes a different tone in giving the great truths of life that form a chord, a symphony of truth.”
One of my favorites so far (yes, I’m still working my way through it– I think it’s because I’m scared to get to the chapter entitled “What’s Wrong with Me: Why Can’t I Change?” because I’m afraid it’s going to strike too close to home…) was her chapter that discusses what it means to be a spiritual person using the wisdom of the Hindus. She says:
“Religion and spirituality are not the same thing… The truth is that we can go through the motions about something all our lives and never really become what the thing itself is meant to be… religious practice without the spiritual development that is meant to proceed from it is the more deceptive of the two. It leaves us in danger of being keepers of the law rather than seekers of the truth.”
This weekend I am in Milwaukee for a spirituality-based conference with my dad. The conference is the national meeting for Call To Action, a group for progressive-minded Catholics interested in creating a more inclusive, loving, and justice-seeking faith community. I don’t expect anyone else to agree with my meanderings through the world of faith, religion, and spirituality, but after this weekend I have learned one thing and I’ve learned it really well:
For me, meandering is the way to go!!
I can’t be spoon fed and I can’t be told what to say, do, think, or feel, but the more information I take in and the more I let myself discern with my heart what feels right and what doesn’t, the more clear my path becomes. And right now, learning is my path.
Spiritually, I’ve always felt a bit like that creepy Voldemort character, writhing on the ground in that in-between place where Harry goes to meet Dumbledore at the end of the series. (That thing is creepy!) (Omg… I was just going to link you to a picture, but got to creeped out even looking at them! Just awful! I take it back! My spirituality is better than that! Maybe like a mandrake root— creepy, but not that bad.) But I’ve learned so much this weekend and heard so many new ideas that I’ve become incredibly anxious to learn more and I know I’ll grow up out of that creepy place soon.
For me, the best way to learn is to read (I’m not the doer or the listener learning type– reading is definitely my thing) and my list has grown by leaps and bounds this weekend. I even bought a book while I was here and had it inscribed by the author (color me star-struck!!). Unfortunately, I haven’t the slightest idea what the inscription says!! So sad– I’m sure it’s something really clever and meaningful!! The book isOccupy Spirituality by Adam Bucko and Matthew Fox. We heard Adam Bucko speak about his work with homeless youths in New York City on Friday night and his talk was incredible. Amazing. Inspired and inspiring. And I’m dying to know what he said to me! (He’s Polish and was impressed with my Polish last name– could it be something about that? He also has like 6 feet long dreadlocks (no kidding), but I don’t think it’s about that… To Rachel- May you be… WHAT?! Please, help me!!)
Be the first to tell me what the inscription says and I will literally send you a copy of the book. (And I actually know what the word literally means, I’m using it correctly. I will purchase the book on Amazon and have it sent straight to your home. Literally.)
So, yep, I went to the spiritual place. I understand that it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people, but I also think that as human beings, we are all gifted with what Adam Bucko called “spiritual intuition for justice” and I think that idea transcends any particular religion or faith practice, and is rather something like the intention of every religion or faith practice. So I think we can talk about that here, right?
First, as promised, the poem for the more spiritually-minded:
Life is But the Weaving (The Tapestry Poem) by Corrie Ten Boom
My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me.
I cannot choose the colors
He weaveth steadily.
Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget he sees the upper
And I the underside.
Not ‘til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas
And reveal the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned
He knows, He loves, He cares;
Nothing the truth can dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice to Him.
The idea of life as a tapestry, a needlepoint, or a cross stitch isn’t particularly novel, but for some reason I had either (a) never heard of it or (b) never registered hearing about it until recently. I heard about it at church and it just resonated with me. It was one of those days when you sit there in the pew, certain that the priest/pastor/rabbi/whatevs is looking straight at you, into your soul, and telling you the-exact-thing-you-absolutely-must-hear-at-this-moment. It made me think about all those times I’ve ranted and raved about this, that, or the other thing only to find out later that it was just a necessarily dark thread in a much bigger and more beautiful picture. Something I couldn’t have imagined, something I didn’t think I wanted, but something I, in fact, needed.
If religion/spirituality isn’t your thing, I totally get that. And I can speak your language too, because science, you see, is my mother tongue. That’s where I’m really fluent and that’s where I feel most comfortable. (Writing in medical-ese is my day job!) So, when I think about this concept, this tapestry thing, in more scientific terms, two ideas come to mind:
1) Schrodinger’s (someday I’ll learn how to add a diaresis above the o, sorry Schrodinger, friend!) theory of quantum entanglement, or what Einstein (rather jerkily, actually) dubbed spooky action at a distance. While Einstein’s intent was definitely not kind, I actually like the phrase spooky action at a distance. It sounds so… Halloween-style fun, doesn’t it? Anyway, in very, very rough terms, this is the concept that two particles that share a quantum state can never truly be separated even if they are no longer in the same vicinity. That is to say, if you know something about the one particle, you automatically know something about the other particle because they are inextricably and forever linked. Inextricably. And forever. And since every atom in your body has at one point in the history of time been a part of something else– a stick of gum, a bumblebee, a dinosaur, a blade of grass, a distant star– it’s hard not to believe that all of these things, all of us on this earth, all of us in the universe, are somehow, at least in some small, quark-scale way, connected. (As a side note: I’m pretty sure most of my atoms come from dinosaurs.)
2) Or, in slightly more simple, Newtonian-physics, equal-and-opposite-reaction terms: the butterfly effect. Like the movie. Like the phrase, “a butterfly flaps its wings in China…” you get the rest.
Of course, if you’re like me, all of these ideas– spiritual, religious, scientific, and proverbial– appeal to you. In that case, I would highly recommend Thank God for Evolution by the Reverend Michael Dowd… it’s a great read! The way he blends science, spirituality, religion… the universe… it’s beautiful and makes such lovely sense. I really enjoyed it. (Thanks, Dad!)
Regardless of how you want to think about, it’s hard not to believe, for me anyway, that the things that happen to us and the things that happen because of us don’t happen in a world that revolves around us. (Double negatives much? I’m leaving it…) Therefore, the implications, the ramifications, the causes and the effects, the bigger picture, is really something we can’t entirely wrap our heads around. No matter how much we think a decision through, there will always be consequences we can’t anticipate. No matter how much we analyze something, there may always be a cause we can’t even imagine.
That’s not so say that planning and analysis, careful consideration of causes and effects, can’t be beneficial. But it is to say that there’s more to this world, this life, than we can really comprehend. I’ve only very, very recently, and very, very inconsistently found the ability to sit back and put a little bit of faith into the idea that the whole, big picture, the one I am completely incapable of comprehending at this moment, is exactly what it’s meant to be.
So, back to the analogy of the tapestry… sometimes the threads are chosen for us, sometimes we get to pick out a strand or two. Sometimes we think we know what comes next better than the “weaver,” but perhaps that’s not the case. And the more I think about it, the more I find reasons to be grateful for the blessings in disguise and the silver linings that seem to line even the darkest of clouds.
Finally, I promised some pictures. My mom recently taught me to embroider, and I’m pretty psyched… but as in life, the back side is not so pretty.
Of course, if you’re like my mother-in-law at cross stitch or my friend Ellen at embroidery, even the back looks good:
Dang, that’s impressive…
But that’s the idea. In words, of the garden and medical variety, and in pictures, of the messy and the so-good-it-hurts variety. The underside’s not so bad, but the underside doesn’t make nearly as much sense. It’s that picture on top, that story we tell when the whole thing comes together, that makes life beautiful.