Unconditional handshake

Parenting a precocious tween has many moments that are probably best left off my blog. But, to my surprise and delight, small points of light still accompany my days and nights even at the end of a summer of (occasionally too much) family togetherness.

My daughter has pretty much had her fill of me. At some points this week, even my breathing in her general vicinity has been too much for her to bear. My jokes aren’t funny, my dinners are repetitious, and far too many of my conversations begin with, “So, let’s set some goals for this school year…” She rolls her eyes as she bemoans to anyone that’s listening, or even if they are not: “why do I have to have a social worker for a mother!”

It’s a tough lot, I know. She’s not any happier about my college teaching gig, nor the journey-toward-priesthood thing either. But, life deals us these parental cards. I tell her often, while smirking, that I realize I am her burden to bear.

The night before last, I had popped in her room to say good-night and was greeted with, “why do you have to STARE at me like that! UGH!” It was obviously time to call it a night. I went to bed and quickly fell into a sound sleep. At 1:00 a.m. I felt a tug at my sheet.

Mom!”

I groggily turned over wondering what was going on.

“Mom, please. Help me. It’s my tooth and something is wrong and I don’t know if its bad, please look…”

I got up with her and tried to adjust my eyes to the light. After a late night dental exam with flashlight and mirror, it turned out to be a loose primary tooth that had been dislodged a bit by a wayward pita chip on which she’d been snacking. Some water, a cold cloth, and reassurance that it was a normal loss and not an adult tooth catastrophe calmed her nerves.

I reached out to give her a hug. Forgetting her angst for an instant…and possibly even feeling a hint of gratitude…she moved toward me and almost accepted my maternal embrace. But, she caught herself in the act, and reclaimed her fierce independence. Instead, she stood up straight, and extended her hand to me in a formal handshake. I shook her hand, said, “I love you” and went back to bed.

Only back in my room did I erupt with laughter at the hysterical formality of my daughter fighting so hard for her independence, even while almost painfully acknowledging gratitude for support. What a metaphor, truly.

I think of all the times that I have been angry with God…the Universe…fate…just for being there. I want my way, on my terms. Even the acknowledgement of Divine Presence has felt like hot breath down my neck. And then I wake, frightened. I need that closeness, crave the knowledge and direction, the nurturing and support. I call out and always, my cries are heard. My hurt is held in larger hands, and what cannot be fixed is still soothed in a radiant realness that reminds me: this is being human. This is feeling, and living, and yes…even hurting. I am not alone.

God is reaching, extending unconditional love while I struggle with my own need for independence. Sometimes, I too I have managed only a hand-shake, a formal thank-you of gratitude. And I am met, exactly as I am. The embrace is always there waiting, whenever I am ready to unfold within it.

The unconditional handshake of our humanity. The eternal embrace always present, always reaching, patiently persistent. Through it all, the ever-present gratitude of knowing we may be able to stand on our own, but we are never alone. I think on these things as I drift back to sleep reminded that, in parenting and in life, all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

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What I Love

All summer, I’ve been in a state of mentally realigning myself with a new role this academic year.  I have a non-administrative role now but in a larger sense, I stepped down and away from something that wasn’t serving me and into the great unknown of re-making myself.  I equate that with standing at the bottom of a waterfall, looking up and thinking “Great, time to get back up to where I started!”  Great idea, but getting from one place to the other is daunting and counter-intuitive.

I realize that, in going back to what I love, it is helpful to put into words just what it is that I love as I make this uphill climb back to water where I want to be swimming.  So, I thought I would compose a list of what I have loved about this trial-by-fire first week back in my “new” old role.

  • I love being able to have someone stop in my office and be able to say, “Come in!” wholeheartedly, and mean it.
  • I love being in a classroom with 26 diverse, young, smart, funny undergraduates who are willing to trust me just as I trust them to engage with me in a joint process of learning.
  • I love eating lunch.  Eating a real, healthy, calm lunch…not stuffing a granola bar in my mouth as I fly down the hall between meetings as a sorry excuse for lunch.
  • I love that I was able to say “yes!” to a new opportunity that inspired me instead of feeling a pit of “I want to, but I can’t possibly…”
  • I love that when something unforeseen came up on my research project team, I felt confident that it would be OK.
  • I love that I have been able to meet people for coffee and lunch who are outside of my usual group and have given me interesting and challenging ways to think about my research and teaching.
  • I love that I am laughing again, regularly and from my heart.
  • I love that I bumped into a student on the campus quad and she excitedly told me about a new service project that she and her friend decided to do after our last night’s class.  Hooray!  I LOVE that.
  • I love that I was able to retain the aforementioned student’s name after only one class, something I cannot do when my mind is racing on overdrive.
  • I love that I had time to develop a placement and supervise a student in a community field placement where I myself invest my time and service with people that I love working with and an organization I am deeply committed to serving.  Win-win-win.
  • I love showing up to one of the field sites with the aforementioned student today and being able to work carrying food into the food pantry for 20 minutes without feeling like I needed to text an excuse about why I was late for a meeting.  I could just be where I needed to be.
  • I love it when people tell me I look happy, that “I’m back again” and that I can walk through the hallways and tell people good-morning.
  • I love scouring the web and finding inspirational things to share with my students so that they begin to see diverse people and oppressed groups in new ways.
  • I love it when a class ends and a student says, “Wow, that three hours went by so fast!”
  • I love feeling like I am my authentic self as I move through all of my day.
  • I love being able to devote time to this vocational work, and to my formation for new vocational roles that are emerging.  I no longer feel “root-bound” in my container.
  • I love that one week in, I can still see the surface of my desk (that may change, but it’s nice for now).

Final wrap up advice to my friends and readers:  whenever you can, follow your heart.  It is a beautiful thing to be able to invest yourself fully into work that you are called to do.  It isn’t about the social advancement, or the paycheck, or someone telling you they really need you to be in a particular role.  It is about following your heart and being willing to admit failure, to bow out gracefully (or even, not gracefully) in order to regain your footing.  Sometimes we are not in a place where we can follow our heart, or at least not right away.  Last year, that was how I felt.  A wise mentor told me, “Sometimes you have to say yes to something you need to do, but don’t want to do.  But, you are in control of how long you keep saying it.”  So, when the time is right, be brave and be bold.  Do what you love and small points of light will find you.

 

 

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Message from the Midwives

Today, I was reading the Old Testament lesson from the lectionary, a familiar tale to many of baby Moses, hidden in his basket among the bullrushes. It seemed appropriate for a day with two baptisms, one sweet baby boy and another sweet baby girl sitting in their sweet white christening day outfits in the front rows with their families. I had already practiced the reading last night so I didn’t trip over my words. But, as the words formed this morning, I had a small epiphany…a small point of light…about the midwives in this very familiar Judeo-Christian story.

Midwives are some of my favorite people, I have to say. The midwives I know in my own life tend to be both gentle and sassy. They have knowledge they have acquired that augments wisdom emanating from their depth of experience. Midwifery has been an occupation of women before women were socially allowed to have occupations; the midwife goes where many men fear to tread. For any of us who have given birth with the support of a midwife, we will attest to their association with the divine. It was my midwife that stood ground with the medical staff for me when I was meditating my way through a longer-than-anticipated transition in my labor. It was my midwife that spoke to me about the meaning of the music that I chose to play during childbirth, and how it reminded her of the birth of her own daughter. It was my midwife that faded into the distance when my own child was placed into my arms so that the wisdom of my own mothering could breathe its life, even in the midst of my exhaustion. I know from my personal experiences with midwives just how much trust, honor, and power is present in that exchange.

Today, as I read this story, I heard the midwives telling the tale. They seemed to whisper through the story, and their steadfast faith and gentle resistance to oppression and injustice are rightly credited as the way in which an oppressed people thrived in their history. The midwives had a message, I think, and so I went home today and listened to their words again as I read in the quiet moments of the afternoon. This is the poem that formed in response. I hope it conveys this message from the midwives, a small point of light in the midst of a familiar tale for all who wish to read.

Reference: Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

Message from the Midwives

I have heard about that basket in the bullrushes
ever since I was a child,
ever since I was old enough to realize
babies couldn’t swim once they left the womb.
And I was really glad, even then, that Moses’ Mom
had a basket and a good idea.

But today, my message came from the midwife.
She spoke to me of wisdom,
of following a heart’s calling instead of a ruler’s decree.
She knew how to twist a tale
just as well as how to deliver a baby;
she used both of those talents to save the sons’ of mothers,
and to honor her God.

She told me about strength,
not the kind that comes from making laws that oppress,
or the kind that comes just because you’re feared.
She told me about strength,
the kind that comes from wisdom within,
the still small voice that resists with subtlety
and sets her people free.

Time passes, and the story floats away in its papyrus basket.
The midwives’ tale is silent and still
standing like bullrushes
surrounding the child,
nurturing mystery,
birthing serendipity and discovery.
Honoring wisdom across generations,
even now, as their story crosses my lips.

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From a distance

I had been living in St. Louis for about a year when two hijacked planes collided into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. What I remember most about that time, emotionally, was the overwhelming feeling of being so far away. I had moved to St. Louis from upstate New York. I felt like the eyes of the world were focused on terror in my own backyard, witnessing the tragedy of my neighbors. And there I was…several states away…wanting to be there, to do something, to reach out, to support. But, I was helplessly at a distance.

In the days that followed, my desire to get in my car and do something to help in New York was replaced by an urgency to help my students and colleagues make sense in the aftermath of a tragedy the impact of which had ripple effects. It took very little time for everyone to feel like I did: that our country’s yard had been invaded, and that the presumption of safety wasn’t something we could take for granted. I began to teach my students, and I was learning and processing with faculty in my own classes, too. With my clients in the community I was vicariously processing grief compounding grief, and occasionally anger over a hidden injustice within mass trauma: the sense of how unfair it can seem when the whole country can stop to mourn loss at a distance when there are deeply personal, close to home losses that grieving people feel they are navigating alone. Work found me, as it does, and people crossed my path as I crossed theirs. Soon my own integration of helping in my own corner of the world made the distance seem less cavernous.

I’m reflecting on this now because, ironically, I am back on the East Coast and it is a town in the near north suburb of St. Louis that is drawing my heart and attention and reminding me of how close I feel, yet how far away I am. When I see pictures of Ferguson, MO they are incredibly familiar. I’ve been on home visits in and near Canfield. I have driven down the streets where the protesters march, and I have stood in those same places and felt both distance, and disparity. For me, disparity presents as that nagging sense of injustice when you’ve been to three back-to-back bereavement visits in one low-income zip code with families who have had a baby die. And yet, you realize that you’ve had no visits in more affluent areas of town with just as many families. I’ve stood in the police academies in St. Louis County, teaching young cadets about death scene investigations, the aftermath of tragedy on both crime victims and neighborhoods and warning against presumption and compassion fatigue. I’ve walked those roads they are walking, and felt those tensions that people are voicing. My eyes are glued to my twitter feed, and I force myself to watch every #Ferguson and #MikeBrown video posted on Twitter, Vine, and both the St. Louis American (the independent African American newspaper) and the traditional media from St. Louis. I know that there is a deeper story-beneath-the-story taking place that is rooted in disparity. I have walked those streets and I have felt it. But today, I am at a distance.

The tensions playing out on the streets of Ferguson, though, are not isolated. Like the cataclysmic events of 9/11, the whole nation is beginning to feel the aftershock. Structural racism…the almost invisible assumptions of privilege, power, economic disparity and social expectations…this has been a force that keeps Americans at a distance from the struggles that still exist from a history marred by slavery, discrimination, hatred, and mistrust. We don’t want to feel it. We want to keep it at arm’s length. We falsely think that we cannot be “great” if we own that we have faults. We fail to consider that maybe what would make us truly great is owning them, struggling with them. Getting real. Not just in Ferguson, MO…but in every one of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods…there is important work to do.

I have been thinking about being at a distance, because I have come to believe its a state of mind and a choice borne of privilege to remain at a distance. I can choose to watch or not watch videos on my portable electronics. I own that choice. I watched a video this morning filmed on the camera phone of someone who heard shots fired and was standing on the other side of police tape from Michael Brown’s body. The resident did not have a choice about his distance. He did, however, have a camera. And that broke down the distance between his life, and my own. I could choose to stand in his shoes, and watch, and learn. And I did watch. I watched ten minutes of raw footage where I heard shock, anger, confusion, frustration, blame, truths, half-truths, questions, uncertainty, presumption, fears. The poignant cry of a woman saying repeatedly, “where in the f— is the ambulance, where is it???” while someone else points out repeatedly, “he’s dead. that boy is dead. That’s Mike and he’s dead. Those m— f—ers shot him, and there he is, dead.” And I keep watching, wondering if one of those police officers…any of them…standing around, walking by, holding back the crowds…was ever at a training I did where I talked about the respect of the dying, recognition of the shock of the grieving, and the compatibility of compassion with law enforcement. It was an enormously long ten minutes of watching a body with blood and brains streaking all over the pavement, with police passing by and neighbors standing all around, for someone to finally get a sheet and cover his body.

Even from a distance, I was crying. Dignity and respect were not on that scene until that one, lone act. It didn’t go unnoticed. In the background, in the softest voice, the holder of the camera says almost under his breath, “You finally went and got a sheet.” It was as if he read my mind.

The levels of injustice, oppression, and structural inequality that are being demonstrated about on the streets of Ferguson, MO will find their way into my classroom, into my conversations, into my facebook updates and this blog for a long time to come. But, what we cannot afford to do…not one more second…is to keep dignity and respect at a distance. We can disagree, we can come from completely different perspectives. But respect: that is human. And that is divine.

When I watched that video, I imagined a moment when the person who finally found a sheet had a flash of clarity. No matter what happened, no matter how much anger or confusion or hatred or love or frustration or utter chaos. That person, whomever it was, acted alone because I saw him make the choice. It was the one act of dignity in an otherwise unfathomable display of injustice. For a moment, even from a distance, I felt a small point of light in that action.

So, I write this tonight because we are all at a distance, and yet just a breath away from each other. If you are reading this, from whatever distance, I urge you to one thing: choose dignity. Whatever you do, whenever you do it: promote dignity. You can banter later. You can argue details, find fault, run an investigation, state your opinion. You can be a peace-keeper or an agitator; you can be one of the powerful or one who is without power. There is room in this fabric of humanity for all of us and we are not required to agree with or like each other all the time. But, there is always…always…a time when we can and must choose dignity.

Dignity removes distance. It changes the way we feel, and the way we behave. Dignity urges us to see something larger than ourselves and beyond our limited understanding and judgment. Dignity is the gateway to grace, because we can see in another the inherent glow of humanity, a spark of divine creation. Dignity does not presume perfection or flawlessness. It presumes that all human beings have a common core of potential. Dignity costs nothing but our vulnerability. Dignity is more valuable than the most prized possession.

Even from a distance, dignity is a small point of light in this scene filled with unfinished struggles and structural challenges. Bring it into your world, wherever you are standing. This small point of light has the power to change the world.

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Jesus’ Mom

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The first time I realized that August 15 was the feast day of St. Mary (or as I like to say, “Jesus’ Mom”) I was sharing a hospital room adjacent to the NICU with another postpartum woman. She was praying a special novena that day for her son who was, she hoped, turning a corner in his ability to breathe on his own. I was a wide-eyed mess of maternal hormones, desperately seeking answers to why my newborn baby daughter suddenly spiked a fever. She was receiving several courses of antibiotics and seemed to be stabilizing. At least, I hoped and prayed that she was. She looked huge at nearly 8 pounds next to all the preemies. I would hold her, sitting beside her plexiglass bassinette, rocking her and trying to learn to nurse and bond in this fishbowl swimming with healthcare workers and other parents who looked both committed to loving, and scared to death. I could relate. What would the day…the week…the month…bring? Would the lives of these children be marked by the surroundings of their birth? What did the future hold for these weakest and smallest of the small? I wasn’t entirely sure where my own prayers were directed. But, I did know one thing: Jesus’ Mom would be very empathetic to this scene.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for God has looked with favor on this lowly servant.

Mothering can make one feel exceptionally lowly. I know this from my own life, and from the lives of those who touch my life every day. Moms are my friends, clients, research participants, colleagues, group leaders, volunteers, teachers, navigators, peer counselors. I have taught Moms, and learned from them. Moms have ministered to me, and I have ministered to them. I have handed off my baby to strangers for her care and keeping, and felt the humble awe when others have shown that same trust towards me. I have been in houses that look like a Pottery Barn catalogue and…literally…some that looked like a barn. Sometimes there is a baby to coo over, and sometimes only memory remains and we cry together. We are all Moms. We are, irrespective of circumstance, a part of something much larger than we are. The human touching divine and the Divine touching human…a powerful space even in the midst of the lowly. Jesus’ Mom knew this maternal experience, intimately.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me. God’s mercy is for all those who trust, from generation to generation.

Sometimes, our generation seems very distant from Jesus’ Mom…and culturally we’ve come a long way, right? The role and status of women has changed. In some ways. The way in which poor strangers are welcomed into unfamiliar places and given compassionate lodging and clean, supportive places to birth children has changed…hasn’t it? In some communities, perhaps. Society is understanding of births that don’t seem traditional, and we extend mercy to Fathers who might question their paternal role, or to Mothers who might make seemingly unbelievable claims about the origin of their pregnancy. Maybe not so much has changed, after all. Its easy to think we know all about our neighbors…or strangers…from the outside looking in. The shepherds…smelly, hard-working farm folk…were the ones to tell Jesus’ Mom and the rest of the world who was listening that this tiny baby she birthed in a barn was God’s own, capable of great and mighty things. She knew that in her heart. She pondered it, deeply. But it was the others…the ones who were with her exactly as they were and saw her exactly as she was…who gave her heart-hopes voice.

“When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. ” –Luke 2:17-19

Historically, I hear Jesus’ Mom extolled for her obedience. But, on this day of tribute I think of St. Mary as the embodiment of motherhood in all its complexity: willing to step into the unknown, to give birth to possibility, to believe a child capable of divine greatness, to be willing to weep at the possibility of great loss.

Jesus’ Mom eventually stands at the foot of the cross on which her Son is brutally killed. She has relevance and wisdom to share even today with Michael Brown’s Mom; with the Moms of both Palestinian and Israeli children who have been victims and casualties of war; with Moms who care for and die from Ebola in countries of West Africa. Jesus’ Mom holds in her own mind and heart the intensity of love, even in the face of death.

Jesus’ Mom isn’t just a figure in history, or on brightly colored candles lit in shrines on her feast day. I think Jesus’ Mom has a message for the pregnant young Moms who are sneered at when walking in to schools or churches or a WIC clinic…but keep right on walking. She greets the gaze of all Moms who ponder what will become of their child, meeting with understanding their daily parenting that is mixed with hope and with fear. She gives us an embodiment, a face and gaze of maternal love, that reflects how to trust in something greater than we are, even when circumstances in our lives are nothing like we imagined they might be.

Today is the day to celebrate Jesus’ Mom. The real Mother’s Day.

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cloud cover

This is one of those nights where I join thousands who look up to the skies, hoping for small points of light to appear streaking across the sky. The Perseid meteor shower is peaking tonight, but the cloud cover where I live is too thick for even the moon to peer through other than a soft, luminous glow. So, I have to imagine the small points of light that I know are there, in spite of the cloud cover blocking my vision.

It’s a pretty good metaphor for the kind of day I’ve had, actually.

Life offers a lot of brilliant lights that seem to be under the cover of clouds. Puffy clouds, storm clouds…it’s not really relevant the nature of the clouds. They are there, and we cannot change their course. Our vision is blocked, so all we have is our faith and sense of what we cannot see to know that there is motion and light beneath the cloud cover.

I was sitting tonight, enjoying some silence and thinking about the skies. I have had more than a few moments where I stretched out beneath the stars, hoping for a siting or a sign, or a constellation. I am reminded of my own smallness within the vastness of the Universe. And yet, each one of us is a real point in that vastness, a genuine article of light and breath and flesh that lives out a lifetime even if that lifetime is a nanosecond of cosmic time.

One of my favorite moments was last summer, on a hotter-than-hot stretch of time where even the night breezes were warm on my skin. My daughter was up late, and I couldn’t sleep. So, we stretched out on the grass and just let the breezes run across us while watching the stars. I’m not even sure that we spoke. It was just a simple, present moment of mother and daughter soaking in their little space in the Universe. Simple, but powerful. It’s etched in my mind.

Back to tonight’s cloud cover. I have to believe in the bright streaking Perseids that someone, somewhere is seeing this light show even if I cannot. I may catch a glimpse tomorrow on google images, or CNN, or the Facebook page of some friend living under clearer skies. It’s OK to enjoy vicariously, too.

Or, I might just sit right here beneath the cloud cover, knowing that the Perseids are overhead. Small points of light are streaking in the sky whether or not I can see them from my vantage point. I don’t have to see them to know that they exist. If I am still enough, I may even feel them.

This, I know: small points of light are shining, even beneath the cloud cover.

“To make myself understood and to diminish the distance between us, I called out: “I am an evening cloud too.” They stopped still, evidently taking a good look at me. Then they stretched towards me their fine, transparent, rosy wings. That is how evening clouds greet each other. They had recognized me.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Stories of God: A New Translation

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Birthday Buddies

I have the auspicious honor of sharing my own birth date with two other family members…an uncle one generation older, and a cousin one generation younger. My Gramma proudly celebrated her son, granddaughter and great grandson each of us born June 9. I have always thought this timing coincidence was pretty incredible myself.

So, eleven years ago, when I awoke on the morning of August 10, I laughed out loud when a sharp abdominal kick broke my membranes and sent me into labor. It was a few days before my due date, but the calendar already held two birthdays in my husband’s family. It seemed likely that my soon-to-be-born child would have birth date companions herself.

It was a long 18 hours of labor, but my daughter made her way into this world at 10:54 p.m., just in time to join her uncle and her cousin as birthday buddies.

We had some wonderful birthday buddy moments, especially heartfelt between uncle and niece. We had the joy of living in the same city, so we had the joy of celebrating together. I have pictures of the two of them, one meticulously decorating a princess cake while nursing a scotch…the other sneaking her fingers into the frosting on the other side. A few years later, on what would be the last birthday jointly celebrated, it was my daughter who baked an easy bake cake. She spread it thick with frosting and sprinkles, and home delivered it to her Uncle who was convalescing weeks before what would be his final hospital stay.

August 10 has been bittersweet since then. Each year, it is a joy to see my daughter growing more fully into her own self. But, the absence of her older birthday buddy is still palpable.

There is a birthday buddy bond that transcends time, and extends somewhere between this world and the next. It feels palpable in the morning air, and flickers in the birthday candles on the cake. It has brought tears to my eyes today, unexpectedly and without warning. It shines in the moon tonight, and echoes in the song of the mourning dove that was mysteriously perched outside at dusk, framing this day with melancholy melody.

Tonight, I laugh and watch my daughter open her presents and eat cake. I also remember and cherish the memories etched in my mind. These birthdays are a kind of thin place. I feel the younger birthday buddy being lovingly watched over. I pour a bit of scotch into a glass and leave a little slice of cake on my counter, too.

I am drinking a little toast myself tonight: to birthday buddies, and small points of light.

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Candle Light

Yesterday, on my way back home from our mother-daughter road trip, I asked my daughter if she wanted to stop at the Yankee Candle outlet that was en route. She shares my love of candles and we thought we might grab a few. I was completely unprepared for the sensory overload experience of Yankee Candle village. After having to take a moment to deep breathe beneath the artificial snow that falls every 5 minutes in “Holiday Land,” I realized that my enjoyment of the simplicity of candlelight was in sharp contrast to this spectacular event. My daughter was equally overwhelmed, but we quickly fell in step by making our own glass candle and sniffing almost every one of the seemingly endless votive candle buffet to select the dozen we would bring home with us. It was, I admit, a fun road trip diversion.

I love every scent I bought, but I think it’s going to be a couple weeks before I can appreciate their flickering light without a visceral memory of that candle extravaganza.

Tonight, I am sitting outside by candlelight with air scented only by some smoldering citronella. An expansive collection of candles and their decorative holders are here, too, adorning the upper porch of our house. I breathe in a relaxed Friday night with one more week of vacation spreading out before me. It’s no Yankee Village but my candle infatuation is evident.

As I sit, I start remembering back to candles in my life. Candles growing up marked special occasions: birthdays, Christmas, perhaps a very nice dinner on a chilly winter night. Birthday candles were recycled year to year (they were still good!) and the special number in the center of the cake could sometimes be known to pass from cousin to cousin like our familiar plaid dresses. Or, numbers were saved for the coming years when there could be a “1” on front, or combined to sneak onto my parents cake. Candles were lit boldly, accompanied by a wish certain to come true (if never spoken out loud) then extinguished. There was a precious, limited quality to birthday candle flames. Christmas, on the other hand, was a candle indulgent time of year. We had some candles (carved and decorated) that we never lit, only displayed. Who could stand to watch Rudolph’s nose melt into red drips, or see a flame emanating from Mary’s head as she cradled baby Jesus? But, around the not-to-be burned wax decor were glass votive holders and their many scented, squatty candle companions that would scent the house with bayberry, pine, and cinnamon. Nights when we lit candles and turned out all the lights were my favorite. It was quiet, and still. I felt at peace.

It’s probably no surprise that in my own home…even my first tiny apartment…candles were a treasured necessity. Even if I could only purchase the four-for-a-dollar variety, candles were in my house wherever I could find a space. Votives, sconces, and most especially thick blown glass cups that cast reflected and refracted light around me. I learned to melt down leftover wax and repurpose it into my own drip candles, adding a drop or two of scented oil. I sometimes bought and rolled beeswax into tapers of all sizes and shapes (something I have taught to my daughter, too). Long before I returned to church, candles carried my prayers and meditations to Spirit, wafting through the stillness and speaking words before they had even taken audible form.

Later, I would begin to light candles in memory of friends and family. Candles became light in the midst of loss; visceral reminders that memories burn on in our hearts and keep light scattered even to the darkened corners of a broken spirit. In churches, cathedrals, carried to the four corners on the wind, stately on my mantel, intimately by my bedside…these are the the flames of memory that burn in my heart and soul.

Candles are not all for my own use and keeping, though. I like to give candles, too. If you receive a candle from me, it is like I am giving you a little cup full of Spirit, perhaps encased in some lovely glass or imbued with a scent that made me think of you. If I make a candle for you, I have been wrapping blessings into the beeswax, or dipping the wick into pools of prayer. I don’t say that, of course. You might not burn them if I did, and that truly is what candles are for. I never buy people shaped candles, nor animals, nor anything else that could look like it is being torched. Candles are meant to be burned, and those are the candles I buy, and light, and give away. The wax, the scent, the light and the warmth dissipating into the air, being carried by Spirit to places we may never know. That is the gift of the candle, whenever and wherever it is lit.

Time to savor my remaining candlelight tonight.

Each candle, a small point of light…

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Wrestling

Did you ever have one of those days where a word just keeps coming up? In every context today, I seem to hear the word “wrestling.” It started in church with the Old Testament lesson, Jacob wrestling in the desert with an unknown, perhaps divine stranger. Jacob…who becomes known as “Israel” in this human-divine wrestling match and walks away with both a limp, and a blessing.

I’ve talked with several people close to me today who are wrestling with situations of life; their situations are not imposed by God, and yet they are invariably taken to a place of existential wondering. For each of my friends in their varied situations, they are limping from the human anguish and frustrations of life and yet feeling blessed in ways they don’t completely understand. Walking away with a limp, and a blessing it would seem.

My father wrestled with his blankets last night, and ended up taking a fall trying to get out of bed. He’s feeling the frustration of aging and thinking his body is capable of doing more than it really is capable of anymore. That is frustrating, and so is spending a Sunday getting bandaged up. Talking to them, I heard my parents each feel blessed by the other person’s strength, and the fact that they are home and safe and have what they need to survive. They are wrestling, with a limp and a blessing.

Then, my daughter started talking about wrestling at dinner. “Why is she asking about this?” I thought. It was random…she wanted to know why there seems to be so many wrestling shows on the television on Sunday. I think we settled with some explanation about television ratings and marketing groups which she found completely unsatisfying. So did I. I began to think maybe it’s because we are in need of noticing both that we are limping, and that we are craving a blessing. Maybe that is a Sunday kind of lesson unintentionally spun into network programming.

The biggest wrestling match for me these days, though, is the one I am helplessly watching play out on the global arena. As a result, I am wrestling in my mind and my spirit. I am watching this wrestling match play out on my personal social media, afraid to hit “like” or comment because of course, that is broadcast to the world. It’s much more complex than what I “like” or refuse to like. I have close friends I love who have deeply pro-Israel ties that harken back to years of wrestling, strife, and oppression. And I have close friends that I love who are so personally impacted by the violence in Palestine, who cannot imagine how this can be justifiable. I agree with both sides: it has to stop. I have been watching this wrestling, and rather like Jacob in the desert, no one has been prevailing. In the case of the conflict in Gaza, it is perhaps because this conflict is deeper than the present actions, and deeper even than both the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine movements can fully articulate. Like the scene playing out thousands of years ago in a desert…literally or metaphorically…no one is prevailing. The wrestling continues. But, I feel the hope within this narrative: “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”

It’s time to stop wrestling.

I have debated writing a blog post on this subject in recent weeks, because I have so much emotion for multiple perspectives in this conflict in a political sense. But, tonight, I realized that what I needed to speak wasn’t political. I needed to write about the human-wrestling-divine at the core of this and so many other human conflicts. Like so many conflicts, it comes to impasse at exactly that place: a perceived divine right, fought out in human terms. Our way out of a sense of oppression begins to feel like a wrestling match, a fight to see who will prevail and a sense that if we (or our side) prevails we will be the divine victors.

Back to the old testament lesson, it doesn’t work that way.

I think that the lesson-in-the-lesson of Jacob and his night-time struggles with the divine is one that is so entirely and authentically human that we want to skip over it as just another one of those biblical stories that may or may not have relevance to today’s culture. In my view, it’s so extremely human that we want to overlook it. When we are wrestling, we are going to inflict injury or have injury inflicted upon us. Likely, both. We may end up with a blessing (in Jacob’s case, for having confronted divine presence and survived) and we also may end up limping. It’s like saying in a concrete way: even if you win, you will be humbled. I might suggest that the real blessing is in that humility.

For my friends who are wrestling in their lives, they understand that sometimes limping and blessing come together. Its a paradox that I understand deeply myself, both in a physical sense and symbolically. For the conflicts that are so poignant in this world that we are living in…how can there be a victor, truly? How can we allow politics to outweigh human life? We cannot. Even if we are the victor, we will be known by our limping.

A few weeks ago I went to see a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III which was wonderfully well acted. Richard, bellicose and filled with angst uses the outer trappings of religious zeal to further his quest for power. As the actor in this play was limping with such reality one could almost imagine he was genuinely as challenged as his historical namesake. But, his limp that seemed to bring him blessing turns into his downfall. In that play…a true tragedy…the casualties are high and there is little to be done but to rebuild from the ashes. And yet…it is also a history…England rebuils from within these dark nights of history.

Hopefully, I am wrapping around to my point here. It isn’t about the wrestling, nor is it about the divine blessing that we seek from the struggle. It really may be the human-and-divine, divine-in-human story of redemption around which we are struggling. We get caught up in the fight itself: who started it, who is justified, who has oppressed whom. The fact of the matter is, we the people are all limping from the battle. We’ve been wounded by our short-sightedness and our quest to be victorious. But, we the people also have a blessing which lies even further beneath the surface than the limp that marks us. We have room for forgiveness; reconciliation; healing; redemption.

In all that we wrestle with, in our lives and on the global stage, let’s not lose sight of both the limp and the blessing that mark our human struggles. We human beings are limping right now…physically, spiritually, politically, emotionally. This wrestling match needs to draw to a close not by one clear victor, but because we realize it is time to stop. We recognize the divine, and we know when to stop. Tonight, I pray for peace, for forgiveness, for an end to oppression which I only believe can happen when we see the spark of the divine in each and every human being we encounter. That is the blessing…to see that our wrestling has brought us into contact with the divine, and to know that we have been changed by that experience.

Perhaps that is why “wrestling” has been in my life today. The small point of light when we name our limping and our blessing, and walk into the sun of a new day.

Genesis 32:22-31
The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

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Every Step

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

Joseph Campbell

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