Waiting with Mrs. Gibbs

This week, I am reflecting on the word, “wait” as a part of the online faith formation for St. Thomas. As I sit with this word, my mind drifts back to one particular time and place.

I was a sophomore in college that year, starting to build my sense of self and moving through the world with intention. In retrospect, a lot was happening in my life that was preparing me to propel into my next chapters. At the time of the audition, though, I was just a college sophomore hoping to be in a play.

The play I auditioned for was Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I had been in plays and musicals in high school, but this time it felt different. I read lines in soliloquy and was asked to read dialogue with several others. It was several days between auditions and the posting of parts. I honestly didn’t expect a role after my first audition. But there I was, on the character list: Mrs. Gibbs.

What I didn’t realize at that time was that performing Our Town in the style Thornton Wilder intended involved much more than learning lines. It involved a slow and steady transformation into Mrs. Gibbs. When the play opens, I am cooking dinner in my kitchen. There are no props in Our Town, so I had to practice this scene creating that kitchen in my mind with such certainty and accuracy that the audience could smell the eggs I was frying. In fact, living into Mrs. Gibbs took time and energy beyond anything I could have imagined. Without props, actions and dialogue are the only way to allow the character to emerge into life.

With time, and much rehearsing, I was able to deeply know Mrs. Gibbs. I knew what she would do, how she would hold her head, what she hoped and what she feared. I learned to love her, to embrace her strengths and flaws. Through the first two acts, we learned to live and move as one.

Then, we came to Act Three.

In Act III, the deceased residents of Grover’s Corners sit in simple folding chairs, detached and passively watching the scene of Emily’s funeral unfold. Mrs. Gibbs is one of the deceased. The first time I played out this scene, I remember feeling this enormous, wet blanket of emotion overwhelming me. Like the characters play out in the script, there is so much attachment to life that it can be palpably felt. Eventually, though, while I waited there with Mrs. Gibbs, the heavy attachment lifted. I began to feel free and light. Not sad. Not morose. Simply present, adrift in memory and lives actively lived.

The last night of our performance, I felt myself suddenly emotional. I realized that I had been waiting with Mrs. Gibbs in her life and in her death. I had lived into her character, and in doing so, I had learned something new about myself. In my waiting, I had touched a piece of something…something more real than living, something untouched by dying.

As the play closes, the Stage Manager speaks the words that I had come to know, to embrace, to embody. I had waited with Mrs. Gibbs, and I was granted a glimpse of the eternal:

We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.

That lesson was worth every moment of the wait. “There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”

Thank you, Mrs. Gibbs, for teaching me. For patiently waiting with me. For giving me a glimpse of the eternal that I cannot forget.

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New Light

Here in Virginia, snow is a rare treat, or at least, a treat for me. I grew up in Western New York with snow as the standard issue landscape for at least five months of the year. Now that I have moved south, snow is infrequent and short-lived. This week, though, it is cold enough that the winter storm brought 8 inches of powdery whiteness to our city, and it looks like it’s going to be here to stay for a while.

I took advantage of the snow day to get caught up on some work, but decided this afternoon that a snow walk was a necessity. I was so glad I made that decision. The snow was beautiful in the late afternoon sunlight, and I realized that I had forgotten just how much ordinary sights can change with the simple beauty of snow. My daughter decided to emerge from her Netflix hibernation and join me.

I paused to take this photo in the most mundane of locations: behind an oil change shop at the end of my street. I have walked by the same location a hundred times, maybe a thousand. But today, it was vibrant. Every ray of the sun found its way through the slats of the fence, brightening a stream of sparking light on untouched snow.

Same place, new light.

I kept that thought in my mind as I walked. I noticed the various greens of trees, the height of what were once tiny pines planted on Arbor Day that now shot up beyond my ability to see the top branches. I noticed the slate gray of my morning dove perched on a power line. She stood out against the snowy white background and let out a characteristic coo as I passed. The branches of old trees touched each other, creating a cathedral canopy over the street. I also noticed that my daughter’s snowy footsteps steps were virtually indistinguishable from my own in size, and stride.

These are the makings of an ordinary day, made extraordinary. As I was thinking this, my daughter asked me a question I had been hoping to hear from her for a long time:

Mom, what happened that made you decide you wanted to take this ‘journey’ that you keep talking about, you know, the whole “being a priest” thing?

I have been answering variations on that question for officials in the Church and in my own professional circles for months. But, this was the question I most wanted, from the person I most wanted it from, in her own honest pre-teen words.

As much as I craved the question, I hadn’t planned out what my answer to her would be.

The sunlight glistened on the snow, and I spoke the only thing I could: truth. “Do you remember that really terrible tragedy, two Decembers ago, when there was a school shooting?”

She nodded.

“When that happened, of course I felt incredibly sad, just like everyone else. But, I felt something different, too. I didn’t feel like a social worker. I didn’t feel like a teacher, or a professor, or a writer. I felt like a priest. I knew right then that was how I was meant to help people who were hurting. And, I have felt that way ever since.”

It occurred to me in that moment that it really was that simple. All the complexity, and questions, and discernment and formation: all valuable, all important. But I remember that moment when the light changed and I saw myself in it. I remembered that moment vividly, even as I stood there on our snowy street.

I saw myself in new light.

New light changes us. It seeks out the cracks of our brokenness and illuminates hidden places. New light permeates us, and transforms us. Once we are transformed, we have only one choice: we learn to live into that most sacred space of being who we know ourselves to be.

We kept walking; either the answer was enough, or enough for now. The journey is learning to live in the new light of now.

I hold that thought with me as I move into the sacred space of this season we call Lent.

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During Lent, I will be posting primarily on the virtual faith formation blog that I write for my faith community: Sacred Space at St. Thomas. Please feel free to follow that blog on WordPress or by email if you would like to receive daily Lenten reflections and practices. Each Sunday in Lent, I will write an entry here on my personal blog, small points of light, reflecting on the weekly theme.

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Sotto Voce

One of life’s most important lessons

is learning when to quiet your mind

and when to raise your voice.

But, there comes a time, like this one

when you realize that the real lesson

is when to quiet your own voice

and raise your mind’s awareness

so that the still, small voice

burning in your soul

can speak with clear intention

in each and every word.

-SKP

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I See the Moon

I may have written more blog posts about the moon than another other single subject. For whatever reason, the luminous moon is the aspect of nature that most enthralls me. I realize that there is a science to when, where, and how the moon presents in the night sky, but that scientific knowledge takes nothing away from my surprise and delight of the latest moon-siting.

The past few days have been absolutely breath-taking.

I have seen the moon, cresting to her fullness and brilliant in the clear night sky. That was on Wednesday, driving home from choir practice. I drove out of my way to have a bit more moonlight time before moving indoors and out of sight. I carried radiance in my thoughts and a song in my heart. Thursday night, I was up late working and missed the moonlight altogether; I slept only a few hours and rose early for a full day of work before me. As I sat Friday morning, sipping coffee in my breakfast room, I watched the full moon lowering into the horizon at the same time the sun was rising. The morning moon was brightly glowing amid my back-yard trees as I quieted my mind for morning prayer and prepared for the day ahead. I couldn’t even close my eyes…the moon filled and held my vision and allowed my mind to clear as it slowly dissipated into the daylight and below the horizon.

Last night, driving home from a fun evening celebrating a friend’s birthday, the moon was low on its rising horizon. This “moon illusion” of changing shape and size is always a delight to see, and added to the light-hearted nature of the evening as the stress of the work week was alleviated. Even then, I thought, what a wonderful weekend of moon watching it has been. I fully expected that would be the last of my moon watching for a while, given a cloudy forecast and a busy schedule.

Today itself has been filled with much scholarly reading and commentary, as well as preparation for a big day tomorrow. In the morning, I will be addressing my own congregation at our annual meeting in my transition from Jr. to Sr. Warden, and I have prepared a report and comments for that. In the afternoon, I will be giving some words at the installation of a colleague and mentee at his new church congregation. I had just finished word-smithing those remarks when I settled back at the close of this thought-intensive day. To my surprise, at that moment the moon was precisely in my line of vision through my living room window, bursting through wispy clouds and emerging between the slats of my blinds as if checking in on me. I smiled like I had just seen my dear friend, and we spent those few minutes connecting until it was time for her to disappear into the clouds again. I settled into a restful repose and decided that a little more writing was being invited in this quiet, reflective space.

I see the moon. Perhaps I see the moon by choice, or by chance. I doubt it, though. I think it’s more likely that a part of me is hard-wired to the rhythms of the moon, and my subconscious awareness is cued in to take note of her presence. The moon reminds me that I am connected to nature. I am neither above nature, nor disconnected from it. We are in nature, we are of nature, and we are connected to all things. The natural world is all around, and coursing through our veins. We have a natural rhythm and ordered predictability. We also have serendipity, illusions, and we reflect the Light of a source beyond our own structure. We are mineral, and we are myth.

I see the moon.

On nights like this, I am convinced that the moon sees me, too…

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The Green Spire

My mind was in a hundred different places as I was making my way up the three flights of stairs to my office. My thoughts were swirling with to-do lists, my concentration thrown by the competing priorities among my many vocational pursuits. I am admittedly a slower stair climber than the young collegiates who often spring two-stairs at a time past me, politely nodding in my general direction. It makes me feel old…or at least, older. But, taking the stairs is part of my daily exercise routine, so I trudge up them no matter how I am feeling, nor what I am carrying with me physically or emotionally.

This particular Friday morning, I heard steps quickly approaching behind me. I moved intuitively toward the right and took a moment to unbutton my coat, pausing as if I had deliberately slowed down to do so. While performing this little routine, my attention shifted to the view from the full-length windows emerging at the top of the stairwell. The sky was dark and ominously cloudy, with piercing light cutting through across the city rooftops. It was a breathtaking scene. But, within this landscape my eyes were drawn to a suddenly illuminated green spire from a nearby church. It was the same church, St. James, from which I used to delight in daily office chimes.

The sound of footsteps stopped, and I heard the young man behind me audibly sigh. “Wow.” I turned to look at him, feeling the moment of serendipity which had caught us both. I was about to joke about the “stairwell with a view” when he added, “I don’t usually care much for city scapes, but I have never noticed that green spire before…it’s stunning.”

His words caught me off-guard, since I had assumed he was reacting to the dramatic skyline as a whole. But, instead, it was a simple, aged copper church spire that had caught both of our attention.

We stood there for a few seconds, in silence, surrounded by the scene unfolding in the full-length windows. What an unlikely place to take in a moment of awe. I have often wondered why the building designers had constructed the best view in this entire building inside a stairwell. In that moment, I felt like it could have all been an elaborate plan so that I could get that one glimpse of ordinary, illuminated brilliance on this particular day.

The clouds of my mind parted. I suddenly knew something real, something deep in my soul that was beyond a word, any words. It was the kind of knowing that requires time to sink in before it can fully form as conscious thought. But, unmistakably, it was there.

Outside, the clouds drifted to a more ordinary scene and we nodded to each other and went our respective ways. Walking into my office, I immediately noticed the words of a Mary Oliver poem, “Praying” which I have written on my white board:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

These are days where I prepare, and wait, and appreciate times to quiet my mind. I will treasure all the moments I can to step inside the sacred space of solitude, to listen to the message unfolding.

The green spire, my doorway.

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What’s in a name?

For the past two days, I’ve been a lay delegate to the 220th Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.  I’ve sat and walked, listened and spoke, wrangled and voted, reconnected with friends and made new connections.  All in all, it’s been a good experience with plentiful food for thought which I will dispense to my congregational peers later this morning.  While there is a bigger picture to my Council experience this year, there is also a small point of light that found me in the midst of the proceedings.  As I reflect on this small point of light, I realize that the lesson I have learned over the past 48 hours is to have observed the power of change by observing how much is in a name.

You see, Virginia is one of the few remaining “Annual Councils” of the Episcopal Church.  In this 220th session, we followed up on last year’s resolution to have studied the name of our Council and examine its historical legacy.  At this year’s Council, we voted (overwhelmingly, but not unanimously) to change the name of our annual meeting to “Annual Convention.”  This resolution will need to be revisited next year in order for the full text of language change to take effect.  Change is incremental.  But it is also filled with opportunity.

You may be thinking, “who cares.”  Trust me, there were ample numbers of people who I heard express that sentiment, either within my earshot or to me directly.  Repeatedly, they would say: what’s in a name, after all?

You can read the report of the task force formed to study the historic origins of the naming of Virginia’s annual meeting if you would like to take in the nature of the debate and the role of history and politics as it has played out in a founding colony, that became one of the original independent states, and later seceded to be the capital of the confederacy.   Virginia now has a reputation as a “purple” state, where elections on the local, state and national scene are filled with changes along political party lines.  Virginia has it all within our citizens, and it’s quite easy to faction along party lines.  Even the structure of our “commonwealth” leaves very little room for collective, unified voice and action.

So, I think it’s actually rather miraculous that a group of people across the political continuum (even within one religious institution) voted with enough strength to change the name of an annual meeting.  The small point of light I observed wasn’t in the politics, though.  It was in shared consciousness.

Some of what was heard during debate on the floor, as well as in side-bar conversations in the hallway, was that history was unclear about the direct relationship between the naming of the meeting and the establishment of the Confederate States of America.  I’m a scholar, so I realize there is truth in that assertion.  But, I also found opportunities to remind people that history tends to be written by those in power; Virginia’s oral history traditions of a formerly enslaved people often do not carry the same weight as the written and published history of its institutions.  Even what we presume is “fact” is filled with perception.  The history that we are writing in our proposed actions at this meeting has to do with reconciliation: the coming together of disparate groups with historical power differentials to re-establish relationship.  The new relationship must have opportunities to give voice to historical hurt, to promote healing, and to move together in a way that fosters growth.  Like any relationship of our lives, we cannot do that if the relationship carries hurtful baggage.  Even if we have been working side by side, there is power in a name that divides, rather than unites us. To reconcile, we have to recognize history while embracing a common present which we can all claim.  We have to recognize that differing perceptions comprise a common history.  Making a deliberate change, even a seemingly small one, can bring all of us into a common space where we can hear, and be heard, and move forward together in a spirit of mutual respect.

Reconciliation opens the door to grace and growth.  It begins with single acts that off-set the status quo.  Re-naming is not re-writing.  It is an act of reconciliation.  And that is the power of a word.

I didn’t need to speak yesterday, as the points articulated in this debate were expressed eloquently by others.  On the note papers scattered at my table were two quotes I had brought with me, in case I felt compelled to make a point.  One, from John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice:  “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”  I realize that in my life, justice is an action step.  I have the mental capacity and fortitude to hear debates of theory and philosophy that contribute to systems of thought.  But, what matters to me is what happens in the living out of those theories for practical reality.  Justice requires us to embrace change, not because change reflects an ultimate truth.  But, simply, because it is our actions that can silence, repress, or harm others. Our actions can contribute to a perception of truth that is unjust.  Sometimes justice is holding the door open for both the more powerful and the less powerful voices to step through, together.

That’s what’s in a name.

I also carried my favorite quote, of course, from Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed:  “Liberation is a praxis.”  Friere reminds us…reminds me…that what changes the world is not talk about changing the world.  It’s actual praxis…practicing, implementing, doing, revisiting, re-evaluating, continuing to act.  Change happens incrementally most of the time, although sometimes even quickly and with a flourish.  However change happens, it happens because we engage it.  Friere’s writings remind us that engaging change must occur not just with those who have the power, but also with those who do not.

I witnessed a moment yesterday, an exchange between two people.  One had historic power and one did not.  The person without historic power had stood to tell her story in support of the motion to change the name of the annual meeting, and revealed in her narrative the perceived power of the status quo to dis-empower her and others from full participation.  The person who had power…planning to vote to keep the name as it was…said, “You changed my mind. You spoke, I heard, and it changed me.” I thought to myself: perceptions have shifted.  Instead of debating, we are choosing to walk together through a different door.

What’s in a name?  The power to change.  In the single moment I witnessed, at least three people were changed: the two speaking, and the observer.  Liberation became praxis.

Maybe each of them will share their change with others.  I will write this blog, and hopefully people will read it and the power of reconciliation will continue to spread.  Each of us can make a choice for change.  There is power in change.  There is power in a name.  Changing a name: this is not a small action.  It’s a moment filled with the capacity for change and reconciliation.

Reconciliation: that is in a name.

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Remembering the Alamo

It was nine years ago today that I sat with my head buried in my hands, sobbing in the Alamo.  I realize that is a strange image and memory with which to begin a blog post.  But, whether I knew it or not, that moment was…and is…a small point of light for which I remain grateful.

I had defended my dissertation the month prior to my San Antonio visit.  I was “on the market” as a new PhD and actively interviewing for faculty positions around the country.  At that time, this was the big weekend for those interviewing for faculty roles: the Society for Social Work and Research conference.  In fact, my academic colleagues from around the country are all gathered together now.  I am not attending this year (I’ll get to that later…)

Nine years ago was the first SSWR that I had ever attended, and I had several schools with which to have informal (and some formal) interviews about open positions.  I suppose at the time, I was caught up more in the energy of possibility:  which schools wanted to interview me, where would I be a good fit, what would this mean for my family??  I was walking a particularly challenging balance:  finding a place where I wanted to be, and finding a place that wanted me while hoping wherever that was, my family would like it, too.  Throw in the added pressure of mentors who had places they thought that I should be.  I was besieged on all sides, but my head was in the clouds.

I had a mental image of where I wanted to be based on my one-sided gleaning of information about campus locations, glossy mailers of pretty buildings, proximity to research collaborators, and people telling me what was a “good” school.  I had one school that stood out as the shining star in my constellation of opportunities.  The campus was beautiful, the location was great, they had all the programs and collaborators I was looking for, I had my mentors’ seal of approval…from all I could tell it was the perfect place for me.  There were some other standouts, too, and one of those “other” schools had already reached out to me, interviewed me by phone and was flying me out to visit them the week following the conference.  I now realize that I was in an enviable position, although at the time I had no idea of what was typical experience…I was too lost in my own experience.  I was trying to keep my eyes open and make it through the process intact, with a job waiting on the other side.

That particular Friday, I boarded a plane before the crack of dawn and flew to San Antonio.  I was checked into my hotel by 9, and freshened up for an 11:00 interview with my “star” school.  I was ready, armed with information about my dissertation and teaching experience, and how I would contribute to their faculty.  I stepped into a room filled with people whose names I had cited, and whose bios I had read and studied for this pre-employment pop quiz.  Things didn’t start well.  The room was apparently not set up the way the search chair liked, and I listened to him berate the hotel staff as I sat quietly in the hallway outside the interview room.  Insults were used, including an ethnic slur.  I don’t think he realized that anyone was listening, especially a candidate.  Eventually, several other people walked into the room and the person chairing the meeting came back out, which is when I popped up and introduced myself.  I saw by the look on his face that at that moment, he realized I was sitting there the whole time.  I smiled politely, but didn’t say a word.

I started the interview with some typical questions and was asked to give a brief summary of my research.  As I began to describe my dissertation, Parenting after Pregnancy Loss, another member of the group interrupted me as I named attachment theory as an underlying foundation for my research.  He asked (using the term loosely), “Don’t you think that’s a stretch?  I mean…come on…it’s just a pregnancy, and there’s nothing really to attach to.  It sounds like a fictitious attachment to me and you tell us you’re basing a whole dissertation on that?”

I felt my blood boiling, and knew that my neck and face were flushed red with the anger that I was holding back.  Then, I noticed a younger woman faculty member with her jaw dropped in disbelief by this scene.  But clearly, not feeling like she could speak up to stop it.  That was all I needed to see.  I turned to face my questioner and said, “That’s obviously the way you see it.  It’s not the way that many people see it, though, especially people who have been through a pregnancy loss.  I’m sad to hear that your need to assert your opinion could trample over another person’s subjective experience.  That isn’t how I learned to practice social work, and it isn’t how I intend to practice my research, either.”  That was the last lucid thing I remember saying.  There were other questions, and I had other answers.  It became awkward, uncomfortable and was an hour that felt like it would never end.

Like every experience, it finally did come to a close.  I stood up and the search chair walked me to the door, pushed it open for me and patted me on the shoulder and said, “You did a good job, dear.”  That incredibly patronizing act (not to mention, patronizing term) was the final straw for me.  I didn’t acknowledge his statement; I simply walked away.  In re-lived dreams, I imagine being bold enough to have found words, or to have said, “No, I didn’t and neither did you.”  Instead, I just walked and kept on walking.  In order to get back to my hotel by the shortest route possible, I had to cross The Alamo.

I held my hotel in my line of vision, trying to walk and not think about the crushing blows that had just been dealt.  I was desperate not to make eye contact with anyone I might know.  I just wanted the privacy of my room for my thoughts, my anger, my disillusionment, and my tears.  My feet were trying to move my body forward, seeking private shelter for overwhelming emotion.  I just had to cross the Alamo.

I didn’t make it.

I found myself in The Alamo, behind an old stone wall.  There was a stone bench, and I sat and I wept with my back to passers by.  My constellation had been destroyed.  Not only did they not like what they saw in me…I couldn’t stand what I had seen, either.  I wouldn’t have taken a position as a colleague in that group if I were offered twice the salary of another place.  Although, that was irrelevant, because I knew none of us were going to be continuing this conversation.  I sobbed as my assumptive world of “star” schools came crashing down around me.

The beauty of a good cry is how cathartic it can be.  Soon, I was brushing off my business suit and walking to my hotel room to freshen up.  There were other interviews, and a lunch with the school where I would be visiting a few days later.  There were friends to lean on and social networking events with acquaintances old and new, and I was caught up in the whirlwind again in no time.  I fell in the love with the school I visited the following week, and that led to a job offer with the place that has been my academic and professional home for eight years now.  My family did like their new home-town, and we have put down roots here where we could grow and flourish personally and professionally.  I’m grateful to have been emptied of my assumptions so that I could see a different opportunity with new eyes.  The place I chose…and that chose me…has allowed me to be myself, and to continue my journey of becoming even as we change and grow together with all the ups and downs that come with that.  A fit of mutual respect is a beautiful thing, in work and in life.

When my assumptive world of “the perfect school” came crashing down, it emptied me.  I remember the Alamo because it was the place where the siege I didn’t even realize was happening overtook me, emptied me, and dropped me to my knees.  But like those stone walls which tourists file through, I wasn’t destroyed.  I was just empty.

The beauty of emptiness is that it opens us to being filled.

Fast forward nine years.  My social work research friends are at our annual conference in New Orleans this year, and my Facebook feed is filled with pictures of beignets  and cafe au lait…check ins at jazz clubs…pictures of scientific posters and rooms filled with familiar faces.  I am on the program to run my special interest group, but others have stepped up to lead when I announced I wasn’t going this year.  I miss it.  I miss spending time with special people, and I miss the energy of large groups of acquaintances and small groups of friends catching up.  Let’s be honest…I also miss the ego-rush of people who want to talk with me about my research and who know me from what I write and publish and now get to know me as a person (I want to live into that with integrity, too).

There is an empty space I am feeling this weekend that I recognize is about more than just a conference.  I am on a journey that is changing, and the course that I have been on for the past nine years is altering.  Many people don’t know that yet but I am aware of it, and I honor the feelings that go along with it.  I am emptying myself for a reason.  I am charting a new course on my journey for which I needed to free up space so that new growth can emerge.  Transformation has already happened.  Now, I sit on the edge of noticeable change becoming very evident in my life, and I can welcome it with openness and freedom.  I didn’t need to be knocked down this time.  And I don’t need to hide.  I learned a lesson nine years ago about that.

Today, I am remembering the Alamo.  I am grateful for the lesson I learned, a lesson that I share:  We need to be empty in order to be filled.

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Owl Thoughts

This sight greeted me today, in the quiet of a Sunday afternoon. I keep seeing the eyes of this beautiful, majestic bird. In my head, heart, and soul, I keep hearing the imagery of one of my favorite poems of Mary Oliver. Sharing both as tonight’s small point of light…

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“White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field”
By Mary Oliver

Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —
as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

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Saturatation

This is one of those Friday nights where I have been completely grateful that my most social interaction needed to take place at the local pizza joint, picking up dinner that could be consumed with minimal preparation or mess. I love Friday pizza night, and the indulgent luxury of ending a re-entry week by soaking up quiet.

Sometimes on Friday nights, I just let it all sink in. Tonight, I could simultaneously cry and laugh at the bizarre, intense, heartfelt, ridiculous, annoying, overwhelming ordinary chaos that has been wrought during this week of re-entry from vacation back to work and school. Whole sit-com episodes and drama series could play out on the week’s adventures. But, as my spouse pointed out at dinner, that doesn’t mean anyone else would actually want to watch it. At least, laughing about it over Friday night pizza entertains us. Perhaps that is enough.

What I am reflecting on tonight is simple: we need down time. We need it because sometimes, we become saturated by life:

sat·u·ra·tion (ˌsaCHəˈrāSH(ə)n/)
noun
1) the state or process that occurs when no more of something can be absorbed, combined with, or added.
CHEMISTRY
2) the degree or extent to which something is dissolved or absorbed compared with the maximum possible, usually expressed as a percentage.
3) to a very full extent, especially beyond the point regarded as necessary or desirable.

That’s it…that is exactly how my whole being feels tonight.

Even though I can be a crazy, busy multi-tasking agent of doing good…sometimes I just need to sit. My body, mind, and spirit need to get in the same place at the same time. I am trying not to allow guilt, to forbid using the term “lazy” or denigrating myself for an evening of quiet. I am learning to appreciate the sacred space to simply be.

I am about to dispense with my electronics, too, and make myself some tea and symbolically stir in honey just to watch it dissolve. I am replacing my saturation of re-entry and all its crazy energy with a cup of warmth, saturated with sweetness.

I will sip on that tonight. Maybe you can do the same?

Taste the sweetness of that small point of light…

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Epiphany and Science

On Christmas day, Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted a little gem that stirred up some sentiment…or at least, some social media air time.  In case you missed it, his now infamous tweet was: “On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642″

While one can infer a host of things about that message (irrespective of whether a “heavenly host” was involved) what clearly comes across in his message is a linguistic and intellectual positioning of science and religion as separate, side-by-side entities which may co-exist, but do not co-mingle.  Many responses to that tweet perpetuated a sentiment that religion (here, Christianity) and science are in some sort of competition for existential meaning and importance on December 25.  Personally, I don’t believe that the two are distinct, nor in competition, but I realize and respect that some people might.  Regardless of how you may feel about Dr. deGrasse Tyson’s December 25th tweet, I hope this blog post offers something new to this conversation.

Today…January 6th…is Epiphany.  Epiphany is for scientists.

Let me explain.

The one common feature that I notice in every one of my scientifically minded colleagues is that there is an unmistakable awe in the possibility of discovery.  That moment of discovery…which in the realm of translational science we even refer to as “T-Zero”…is when something happens that takes us by surprise, and makes us reject the null hypothesis when we didn’t have another hypothesis that we were observing and expecting to occur.  It could be the moment that a cancer cell dies in the presence of a newly introduced substance; it could be an observation of a potentially different species or the prospect of a new element that exists even for a fraction of a nano-second; it could be an intervention that produces a desired effect three times faster than anything else that has been tried. It isn’t yet “proven” through testing, re-testing, and challenging contextual limitations but there has been discovery.  Any scientist who loves what they do will have a “discovery” story to share that has hooked us in our field and keeps us asking the next question, examining the data a little more deeply, considering alternative hypotheses, holding out the prospect of meaning in emergent design.  We can study people, cells, robotics, plants, art, cognition…the list is endless.  The moment of discovery is Epiphany; it is where wisdom meets knowledge and creates a spark.

Today is that day…Epiphany…in the Christian calendar.  By tradition, Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the Magi…the “We Three Kings” of song and legend…to deliver gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the young Jesus and his family.  Although we are not told a great deal about this visit in scripture, the inference that we have is that these visitors traveled from far away; they were educated, wise, and used all the evidence around them to chart a course toward something that inspired their intellectual curiosity.

We aren’t told that the Magi had any kind of conversion experience.  We don’t really know if or how their world views changed after their moment of discovery.  Like most scientists, they likely didn’t make an instant pronouncement, and they most certainly would not have discussed it with any sources likely to report on it out of context; that happens without scientific effort.  But, like all those of scientific mind and intellectual curiosity, they were seeking to find something…yet, they were also holding out the realization that they might find nothing.  That is one of the hallmarks of science.  As Albert Einstein so succinctly put it (at least according to the plaque in my office): “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.”

The one aspect of the Epiphany Gospel from Matthew stands out to me:  “…and having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”  We are told the magi chose a different direction; this is a response to discovery, to new information, to an unsettling of the status quo.

The one thing that all scientists have in common is the prospect that we will find nothing.  So, when we have a moment of discovery…when we can reject the null hypothesis…when an emergent finding materializes from within an inquiry…wisdom touches knowledge.  We are transformed.  Knowledge is generated.  Epiphany.

I’m not suggesting that any person has to believe that three smart men rode camels across a desert and found a baby laying in a manger the way that carved crèche might suggest.  But, I am holding out the possibility that even in the midst of a religious story, scientific discovery can occur.  And, that during a life of scientific pursuit, a spiritual experience of wisdom can emerge.  In both situations, we are transformed. We will likely go home by another road.

Epiphany: where wisdom and knowledge meet each other, and we are transformed.

With gratitude, as I close this Epiphany, for transformation that has allowed me to travel home by another road.

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