Category Archives: Art Therapy

The Art of Being a Doula (Gallery 3 of 3)

When I was in eleventh grade, I learned the true risk of what it means to create. I had completed the first stage of a clay sculpture – a hand-formed depiction of my faith journey, as the art assignment instructed. I had molded a statue of a woman wearing a long flowing robe, holding a swaddled baby and positioned moving forward atop a cross. The symbolism was intended to be both obvious and layered with nuances literally and figuratively. This was not my first go at working with clay. Thus, I was careful to ensure appropriate thickness and avoid air bubbles, lest the whole effort crack or explode during the first firing in the kiln. Yet, this was my largest sculpture to date; it was about a foot tall. I was a little nervous but confident in the process. I was part of a tightknit art class. They had been affirming of me and my art piece as I worked on it. A couple of my classmates (Who were on kiln crew) even noted that they had taken special care to place it in the kiln. A day or so later, as I was hanging out in the art room, those same classmates came in visibly forlorn. They slowly approached me. They seemed hesitant to say anything; but with consoling tones, they told me that my clay piece did not make it. I vividly remember having the initial obvious feeling of disappointment, but also having a strange feeling of calm about the outcome. For starters, I felt so supported by my teacher and classmates. I should note, my teacher gave me an A for the assignment despite its unofficial completeness. Regardless of the outcome, I felt “seen” and supported during the creative process. I think my sense of calm, in the midst of disappointment, emerged from a keen awareness that not only had I already indeed created something but, more importantly, I had not created it alone. In such a lived experience, this was, in fact, the depiction of my faith journey.

Ever since I began to work with clay, I fell in love with every bit of the material and process. During grad school, I remember chatting with a professor about how working with clay, specifically the potter’s wheel, embodied all three phases of Freud’s theory of development – providing a truly psychodynamic art therapeutic experience. We had a good laugh about it, savoring how art is so sublimely conscious and unconscious in its healing power. After all, I was a committed art therapy student and he was a beloved art therapy pioneer who had helped charter the art therapy program I was attending. Little did I know then, as much as I wanted to be an art therapist, I was already a doula at heart. Working with a medium like clay has its own kind of tangible birth experience… stages of gestation, happenings inside and out, things emerging from the fire etc. I strongly believe artwork (made from clay) bears not just a physical gestational reality but begs a certain wonderment about spiritual existence.

The Bible has many references about the relational connection between Potter and Clay and the relevant relationship between God and humanity. When my hands are immersed in clay, I often think of God’s creative process – carefully and intentionally molding and fashioning earthen elements into something distinct – me/us. I love the ancient creation story in Genesis of how God did not just form humanity from earth but breathed living Spirit into such earthenware (Genesis 2:7). We were not simply made from dirt without purpose, but we have been strategically created with divine essence to perpetuate the best kind of creative genius – eternity. King Solomon reflected on it this way:

What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:9 – 11)

As a doula, I can never predict the outcome for my clients, nor can I ever make certain promises about end results. I’ve been asked all too often over the years, “how much longer, what if I need X, how will I know Y” etc. I can merely affirm the process and the relationships involved, provide relevant information to make intentional decisions along the way, and offer techniques of comfort and calm to endure the process and hopefully help make it efficient. Ha, using the word “merely” seems so pejorative – suggesting I wish there was more I can do to relieve the stress of uncertainty and discomfort. But why do I minimize the value of simply being available in the moment, ready to serve and participate, making sure not to force anything or anyone to do something unintentional. It’s such a delicate balance. It’s risky business. Yes, and I’m ever more convinced of how resistance to what is meant to unfold and what we mean to unfold Is the opposite of the creative process (and product) being valued as something beautiful.

When it comes to clay and the powerful metaphor it possesses relevant to my faith journey, I take great comfort in God’s persistence to not give up on forming and reforming us into something beautiful, something eternal; but this process can only happen when we offer ourselves as lumps of clay or cracked ceramic pieces for Him to handle with care.The process requires relationship, an intimate relationship, to truly render creative worth. The prophet Ezekiel said this on God’s behalf, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26) Eternity is still part of the story, the creative genius persists. We were and are not meant to be dust to dust but earthy divine creatures that have stories to tell and art to make forever.

 

Plaster & Clay

 

Casted human foot: plaster 1992

 

Tile #2 of triptych series; clay 1992

 

Terra-cotta mask: 1999

 

Yin-Yang carafe and goblets: clay 2002

Bowl: Part 1 of communion set (Bread & Wine); clay 2002

Pottery pieces in Bowl – collected during my trip to Israel 2019:

*Collection A from Meggido; 7th century BC (Israelite era)

*Collection B found during my archaeological dig experience from Bet Guvrin; 3rd century BC (Edemite era)

 

Hand-built vessel; clay 2002

 

Sing; casted plaster sculpture 2012

 

The Dressmaker’s Form: terra-cotta 2013

 

Labor of Love; terra-cotta 2013

Special thanks to an amazing art crew from Plumstead Christian School; photo of “voted most artistic”, senior year 1994

The Art of Being a Doula (Gallery 1 of 3)

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Angel Sketch #2; magic marker 2014

Here begins a series of gallery posts. The artwork displayed, created by moi, represents a kind of pictural documentation of my life evolving to become a ‘doula’. Each piece emerged  from an unconscious as much as a conscious place that I could have never predicted. The timeline starts in childhood and is ongoing to be sure. Each piece of art posted has a story to tell about who I am, how I see the world and interact/want to interact with it. A picture says a thousand words, right? These picture stories are non-linear – with layers we perceive all at once and then break a part in pieces, just the same, to try to make sense of all that we see. Most of life is non-verbal reality, even pre-verbal, and this is an important factor in living lives fully aware of what life is really worth. 

 

DRAWINGS & PASTELS

 

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The People I Love; pencil 1984

 

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it’s Not Fair;pen and ink 1990

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Lunch; charcoal 1992

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Unchain My Soul; pastels 1992

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Joy; pastel painting 2003

hope

Hope: pastel painting 2009

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Longing; pastel painting 2018

BTExhibit-24

Siloam; pastel painting 2018

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Childlike; pastel painting 2018

Through A Glass Darkly

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It’s been almost a year since I posted words here. And with another year gone by, comes increasing clarity and maturity of who I am and what I am called to be/to do. I am taking this next year to articulate this identity – in both a broad sense of reality as well as in an intimate space. I plan to explore and define the ‘theology of being a doula’. But to understand any sophistication in such a concept, maybe even as a doctrine, there is a story to be told, to simply set the stage for how said theology has come to be known. And how it possibly applies to us all. Here’s a bit of how my story of becoming and being a doula begins:

I grew up in a small house with a big picture window. Our house was situated atop a high hill directly facing a T-intersection. The wide window was located in the living room and offered a panoramic view of the neighborhood valley. The landscape view seemed to stretch out from our front door. The scene included numerous rooftops, tree tops and other such suburban/urban features. As a wee lass, I spent countless hours loitering by and looking through this glass movie screen.

A baseboard heater ran along the wall beneath the big picture window. I often stood on it as a little girl to prop myself up and get a better look outside. On more than one occasion, the heating channel detached itself from the wall and my dad would have to reattach it, reminding me that, “It wasn’t installed to be a step stool”. Just the same, I continued to step up and look out with wide eyed wonderment. I loved to watch the everyday events of cars driving by, urban wildlife poking around and folks out and about like the mailman on his route or neighbors active in their yards. I never tired of my past time posts. My younger brother sometimes joined me and together we scouted out the scenery. You could say we were being nosey, but we had a bird’s eye view of the world; and I was fascinated by all I saw. Who knew staring out the window could be so entertaining? It was reality TV at its finest hour – live, unedited and in 3D. I was an active participant observer, poised to look, watch and wonder. This childhood habit has carried over into adulthood. I spend a lot of time riding trains and buses; and I still never tire of gazing out the window, watching and wondering…even while underground aboard the city subway, I stare out into the darkness. There is still something to be seen if one takes the time to look. There are doorways, vents, graffiti and adjacent tunnels lined with steel ribs that disappear into the void. Such things represent something shrouded as much as something to be known or at least the possibility.

During my childhood, in the late afternoon hours, I could frequently be found by the living room window craning my head to the right to peer down the street, anticipating my dad’s truck headed up the street on his way home from work. Once spotted, I would quickly announce, “Daddy’s home!”, and scramble out the front door and down the twenty-eight front steps to greet him curbside – I on the sidewalk and he still in his truck with keys not yet out of the ignition. There was something about my dad’s homecoming that was not just excitedly anticipated but reassuring. He always came home with a smile, no matter how bad his day had been.  I think his tireless optimism is a genetic gift. He says it’s a supernaturally inspired choice. It’s probably both. This aspect of his personality I did not inherit but I have tried to imitate it – easier said than done but I try.

As a youngster at home, only occasionally would someone outside my house spot me watching from the other side of the glass. They usually waved or smiled or said to the company with them, “Hey, look at that kid up there”. They’d chuckle to themselves and keep walking. This unexpected experience of being seen by someone else somehow made me feel ‘caught’ – as if my benign peak at the world wrongly interrupted the natural balance of things. My instinctive reaction was to hop down in a dash, duct beneath the window sill and then slowly pull myself back up to catch a glimpse once more. I would then try to be less conspicuous by only allowing my forehead and eyes to peer out above the window sill. Nighttime always proved my look out attempts to be a bit more difficult, due to the simple fact that it is much easier to see through a lit window when outside in the dark looking in then it is to see the other way around. My mom would catch me trying to look anyway and instructively say something like “keep those curtains closed, everyone can see in!” After all, we were the ones at the top of the hill with the big window. I don’t even want to think about the sights and scenes the neighbors or anyone outside looking in saw when our sense of awareness was turned off and all the lights turned on with curtains opened. Sometimes it feels like it’s less intimidating to see then to be seen. That is, unless a person wants to be seen. I guess it depends on one’s perspective and sense of control in the situation. Vulnerability isn’t always about being exposed against one’s will. Like when my mom would add, “Turn the lights off if you want to keep looking”.

By turning the lights off, the inside darkness seemed to mysteriously merge with the outside darkness. This made it easier to see things, though the night time sanctions muted the sights to be seen. The evening atmosphere offered a shadowed reality. All the vivid colors of objects made obvious to the viewer by day were transformed to darkened hues at night because of the lack of light. Only the dominant details and outlines of images could be identified. The quasi-clandescent experience of things not easily seen in the dark is proof to me that some things in life can only be known in part; but that doesn’t make them any less real in the existential sense.

As a kid, my bedroom window was located along the same wall as the big picture window; and coincidently, my bed was positioned against the window wall with my pillow centered and eye level to the window’s ledge. At night after lights out in any season, I’d lie on my bed with my head propped up by elbows and peer out into the evening darkness. I relished the silence, listening to the simple sound of nighttime nature; but I also loved being a proverbial fly on the wall to all the other happenings outside my window.  The neighborhood park entrance was half a block up the street. In the summertime with my window opened, I absorbed the seasonal sights and sounds of mostly teenagers walking up and down the street – guys dribbling basketballs or carrying boom boxes with music blaring and girls gossiping about whatever and whomever. I doubt they ever noticed me watching their adolescent antics from behind my darkened screen; if they did, I doubt they ever cared. But if I felt conspicuous, I lowered my head to my pillow and turned my attention to the sky. I can still vividly recall trying to find the red blinking light of the radio tower along the horizon. The tower was located at least two miles away across the valley on another hilltop. The flashing bulb was so tiny from that distance and I felt so proud of myself when I found it. I’d watch it blink on and off-on and off for who knows how long until sleep was inevitable and my eyes would close for the night. Finding the little red light became a bedtime routine throughout my childhood until that fateful season, the winter during fourth grade, when I would no longer be able to see it. I would try but my efforts would be in vain. My focus, at that point, shifted from lying on my bed and watching the world outside my window to staring aimlessly at anything while I lay preoccupied with thoughts about myself, trying to make sense of what was happening inside of me. I had enough awareness to know something had changed but not enough to know how to articulate it to anyone, especially my parents and ultimately myself.

In the middle of fourth grade, my eyes seemed to just suddenly stop functioning as they once ‘normally’ had. For the next five years, from age nine to fourteen, no one could really explain why this sensory dysfunction occurred. The doctors initially tried and offered my parents their best- educated-guess explanation. But their preliminary professional opinion would be wrong and the ramifications of their misdiagnoses would have a lasting and profoundly painful effect on me. The doctors noted they did not ‘see’ any problem with my eyes in a medical sense but rather prompted my parents to consider my psychological state as the cause for my sudden vision loss. Their inability to detect any plausible physical reason for my vision trouble seemed to leave them with the expert opinion that my sporadic eyesight was due to what they labeled a “psychological disturbance”. The fact that I could see some things but not other things was puzzling to all involved. The conclusion was that I was lying or being rude in my selective seeing, especially since I shifted my eyes a lot and seemingly was able to focus on one thing but then disregarded another focal point. I now know, as do the doctors, that it is extremely difficult to assess why sometimes the eyes work fine and other times they do not when it comes to visual impairments. The eyes are extraordinarily complicated. There are many factors that influence these effects – lighting, familiarity with settings and situations, not to mention how the visual field is affected by any particular visual disorder. Who knew the 1980s would prove so archaic for both doctors and little girls to articulate, what decades later, seems so simple to explain. As a teenager during  extensive testing at the national Institute of health in DC, I would come to understand how the loss of my central vision required my eyes to shift peripherally to compensate. Since then, these eye movements have become an intentional and trained effort to optimize the vision I do have. Though prior to my NIH diagnostic experience, it was suggested by the local doctors that my sight impairment was selective, implying an underlying psychotic (psycho-somatic) problem. An accurate diagnosis would not be achieved until the umpteenth consultation in the middle of ninth grade at NIH, which conclusively determined that my visual problem indeed possessed a physical and even genetic origin. A key factor in re-examining the cause of my vision loss was that my younger brother (wired so differently than me – he was an extraverted and athletic kid) developed the same symptomatic features when he turned nine. This was the same age I started to show the same kind of symptoms. I hadn’t been lying. It was official – I wasn’t crazy. And yet, the real psychological damage was made official. My sense of self had been undone by the doctors’ misdoings. In my retelling of all this, I do not intend to undermine medical attempts to do right. I’m just saying sometimes they are wrong. And when medicine fails, it requires deep soul healing to reinstate faith not just in science but more importantly in metaphysical resources. Psychology, as a practice, is all about providing soul healing. ‘Psych’ as a root word means ‘soul’. But in 1985, even the psychologist’s attempts proved misguided to help me heal. I was raised from birth in a Judea-Christian family and was guided to understand who I am according to who God says I am – Jesus loves me. This simple Sunday school song and sentiment formed my identity and context for how I am connected to something/someone eternal. This definitively divine identity would save my life more times than I can count. Ironically though, when I told the school psychologist that Jesus loved me, I loved Jesus and Jesus was my best friend, she decidedly told my parents that I had been brainwashed and I needed intensive psychological deprogramming. It is only in recent years, and even as I script these pages, that I can admit the pain as well as acknowledge and celebrate the healing that has occurred, is still occurring and will continue to occur in the midst of my loss – until Jesus comes to take me to an eternal home. Life and living is a process as much as it involves processing all that occurs. Regardless of what has been done or undone, grace is a required response. Who I’ve become as an adult is directly connected to these childhood experiences, best interpreted by grace. Redemption is a curious thing. My insatiable quest to not only figure out what is really Real and True but also find the beauty in all areas of life, yes even pain, has become my personal passion as well as my professional pursuit. Redemption looks life directly in the eye and declares that every beautiful and scandalous aspect is worth interpreting through eyes of love. I often remind myself and my clients that if Love was not stronger than pain, the human race would have died off long ago. Redemption reassures me that I can keep living and smile about it too.

However, I wasn’t an overtly smiley kid. I loved to laugh, still do, but not as the instigator. It wasn’t that I was born to be sad but I’ve been described as the serious type who is always scoping out and processing the scene.  In fourth grade, my class was seated alphabetically, which placed me in the last row at the back of the room since my last name began with ‘W’. I didn’t mind so much being back there. I often preferred this vantage point. I guess I felt safer along the rim of the circle and not all cloistered in the middle. It allowed me to quietly observe the scene while still feeling included in the situation. After all, I’m a bit introverted, though I do love being around people. Early on, I seemed to make a better spectator than center stager. I never liked being the center of attention or the main attraction, though this preference would shift some as I became an adult and became more confident in myself and skills. As a child, however, I was the shy one who was a-o-k lingering along the edges. I was fine with my classroom arrangement. So, I gladly took my seat like a good little girl and made good grades as every good girl should.  But that winter in fourth grade, something changed. All of a sudden, I couldn’t see what was written on the blackboard anymore when seated at my desk in the back of the room. I could barely decipher what was written on the paper right in front of me on my desk. I stopped responding to across-the-room social queues. My grades plummeted. I remember taking tests and ‘sort of’ seeing words and made my best-educated-guess as to what the question was asking based on what I could see and I answered accordingly. But my answers were usually wrong. I can recall just handing in blank tests and mumbling something about simply not knowing the answers. My teacher took the blank tests and then graded them accordingly. My nine-year-old brain was not computing the whole scenario at all. What was I thinking? Handing in blank tests? I was a smart kid, not to brag. I was an avid reader, a sponge of knowledge. This behavior was not like me. I was a compliant kid, shy but polite and attentive. Ignoring others and disregarding social prompts the majority of the time, especially when interacting with adults, was not my style. But again, my young mind was so confused, not able to make sense of what was happening inside and outside of me. So, I just shut down altogether. I relied on the adults and docs to figure it out for me. My compliance, once a virtue, became a vice that seemed to make me mis-step many times after that. Such vicious cycles began the long journey of distrusting everything and everyone. What could I really see? Who could I really trust?  The whole experience was over-stimulating as much as it was about not understanding what was happening.

Prior to a proper diagnosis, I became increasingly skittish at asserting myself in any way for fear that I would say or do the wrong thing or perceive something incorrectly. I felt paralyzed. Being embarrassed seemed inevitable on a daily basis. Being called on in class activated panic. I stared blankly at the teacher when prompted to read from the blackboard. I’d look aimlessly down at my desk when asked to read from a book or page right in front of me. I had no answer. My selective mutism only exasperated the situation. Near and far, all perspectives became a fuzzy blur of bewilderment. I had no vocabulary to describe it. I became the ‘weird girl’ who stared strangely and was socially awkward. My well-meaning parents scolded me for not looking at someone directly when talking or interacting. I would exclaim, “I am!”, but my response was reprimanded as sass and not acceptable. I would try in vain but that just invoked more scolding and evoked more anxiety that I was disappointing people I cared about. The ironic fact is that I was looking at them in my own way. Due to losing use of my central vision functioning, I unconsciously shifted my eyes to the side and even downward to see from my peripheral vision field. Despite the fact that one’s central vision capacity comprises only 10% of one’s total vision function, all the important mechanisms of seeing are located in the centralized area – i.e. focusing, depth perception, color recognition and lighting measures. I had no clue about any of this as a kid. So, I pressed my nose against the pages of books in desperate attempts to decipher something, anything that resembled the right answer. This behavior caught the attention of adults that I was simply in need of glasses. Yes! Such a simple solution! Unfortunately, as I sat in the optometrist’s office staring, the giant E was all I could see despite any lens he clicked into place to improve my focus. I remember how angry he became, firmly reminding me to tell the truth. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, how could a kid walk unassisted into his office, hop in his examining chair all by herself and that not be able to read the vision chart projected on the wall? Everyone was confused. My parents did not appreciate his hostile manner, so another doctor was consulted. This time, a gentler approach took place but simply confounded my parents more. My mom was asked to step into the hall and was told that I was faking. A psychiatric assessment was strongly advised. Though before leaving, a prescription for glasses was also recommended to aid in some kind of placebo attempt to correct the problem. This proved anything but helpful, except to help give my persona an even more awkward look. I wasn’t just the weird girl; I was now the weird girl with huge glasses that would have been equally as useful for a mannequin. Every developing adolescent fumbles to find their footing through puberty; it’s all par for the course, right? But I felt like I was being asked to walk on water and I was sinking like a rock, fast. As parents (of the few friends I had) became informed of my distressing diagnosis, they cautioned their youngins not to play with me anymore – lest my presumed psychosis was contagious? Ignorance is not bliss. It’s taken a long time to forgive such ignorance and segregation but I have no better option. Resentment is an imprisonment of one’s own construction. It is its own handicap that can be remedied through forgiveness, in order to find real freedom to keep living and loving oneself and others. I possessed my own ignorance at the time that needed to mature, as did the grown-ups around me. The developmental process spans a lifetime. Children become grown-ups but growing up never stops occurring. I reconcile these flash backs as growing pains. Sometimes it feels like I’ve awakened from a nightmare, whose noxious residue lingers in lucid life, but I’m no less inhibited to greet each new day and stretch my limbs to reach for hope and ground my feet on the one thing that continues to remain concrete and unconditional – Jesus loves me.

Though as a child and young teen, despite my inner increasing awareness to cope, outwardly I became more isolated and impaired to identify myself as anything but normal. I felt deformed and rejected; and there was nothing I could do to control it or rectify it. I tried, but kept failing. There was a critical juxtaposition of being aware but not aware enough, being able to see but not see enough. This theme of ‘not enough’ would embed itself in the bedrock of my psyche and has required nothing short of divine dynamite to unearth and remove it, to allow for a sufficient perception of myself to be reconstructed.

Since reading was so difficult (I would be a mid-teen before I discovered audio books…this was, after all, the 80s), I turned to music as a companion. I’d lay in bed for hours after school and over the weekend, listening to lyrics that swirled in my head and found their way to my heart. Poetry in all its forms as well as melodies have that way like water, finding the path of least resistance and seeping into the soul to solicit an honest response. The melodious words helped me feel human. By nature of music’s existence, it begs an audience to share dialogue or, at least, be heard. I could listen. I could do that well. I could even close my eyes to listen more attentively. With my eyes closed, I could focus more clearly, not just on the sounds and rhythms of the music playing but also pay closer attention to my own inner dialogue. Amid the darkness behind eyelids shut, competing images emerged. How did I want to see myself and the world around me when I opened my eyes? I refer to this internal conversation, contemplation and even competition as prayer. I never stopped believing Jesus loved me, though I doubted how and why. I had asked Jesus ‘into my heart’ at an early age; and so, I talked with Him there, in the deep caverns of my being. I asked all kinds of questions spoke frankly and yelled at times. I also allowed silence to linger, while not negating the sense of another’s presence. This experience has been my saving grace that, despite the darkness that shrouds clarity of seeing what is really true, I am not the only one in that darkness. Seeing is not the only sense needed to know that I am alive, I am loved and I am not alone. Sure, four out of five senses limits one from fully knowing; but there is the ability to know something nonetheless.

As an adult, I have blended my inside observations of myself with being an outside observer. I’m always looking at what’s inside me and around me. The narrow streets and sidewalks of Philadelphia, where I live, offer numerous opportunities to look up and in at each address as I pass by. Being a pedestrian slows down my pace of going to and fro. Being visually impaired demands an even slower pace, especially at night to avoid stumbles. Such a snail’s trail makes me more aware of each lit window. The light spills out to the darkened street to help me pinpoint my way and it also invites my gaze to scope the interior abodes of both neighbors and strangers. It’s like coming full circle to see someone who may not know they are being seen or want to be seen. I wonder what life is like for them. For a moment, I get a glimpse. There is always more to be known, so I keep wondering. Though I must turn my attention back to my path to keep an eye on where I go, to make it back to my own home safely. And when I crawl or fall into bed at night and close my eyes, I still pray. I still ask questions and let my feelings be known. I believe God is listening because I believe He is here, with me. Like the old song says ‘because the bible tells me so”. Such security is like a warm blanket that wraps around me in the dark and reminds me that I’m worth being known, being seen – even if I can only see through a glass darkly.

 

References:

  1. Artwork: pastel painting by Jamie Wasson, 2018
  2. The National Institute of Health
  3. The National Federation of the Blind
  4. Shout out to the Ronald McDonald House, who housed me, my younger brother and parents during our diagnostic time at NIH in DC
  5. Until We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

 

Waiting in the Dark

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“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me – even the darkness will not be dark to You; the night will shine like full day, for darkness is as light to You.” Psalm 139:11 – 12

In my birth work as a doula, I spend a lot of time waiting in the dark. Often, as labor progresses and intensity ramps up, the lights are dimmed down to manage all the stimulation. And we journey on towards delivery. At times, if rest is achievable, the lights are turned off entirely and I prompt mama and partner to sleep as much as possible. I usually keep at least one eye open in the dark to maintain my role as support. As I sit in the dark with sleeping parents, I feel a sense of privilege to be present in that space, waiting and watching. I relish these moments. For one, in the midst of heightened emotions and physical strain, I am glad to see that expectant parents can rest. But in those moments when rest is not permitted and endurance beckons, I am sensitive to ensure that no un-necessary over-stimulation such as light, sound etc. interferes with the mama’s focus to press on. Darkness seems to reveal a “holding space”. Indeed, there seems to be something about darkness that warrants waiting –  that insists on it. There is a kind of perseverance that does not exist in the light.

I mean, didn’t we all start out this way? The origin of our lives was spent waiting in the womb, waiting in the dark, preparing to be born into light. First, babies, once convinced safety was only found in the darkened space of mother’s belly, seem to instinctually long to be scooped up into arms and be held after the umbilical chord is cut. Babies need to be held in a way that reinforces safety is reality. Infants become toddlers and this thing, the absence of light, that once felt so safe in the womb, can turn into the presence of something threatening. Children in their cribs and beds at night, wait in the dark and even cry out for a nigh light or any glimpse of reassurance that the darkness will not persist.

There is a meta-narrative in all of this, as I endure another winter. The winter solstice debuts a kind of darkness that is, at first glance a looming weight of waiting; but then, in a more revealing perspective, it possesses a radiance of hope.  Winter suggests the sun has disappeared, but then bit by bit light is increasing – bit by bit revealing a new world of spring and harvest. Waiting for the sun to rise despite cold temperatures will not be in vain. Each sunrise offers a promise of more and more hope until blossoms burst forth in the warmth of spring and summer.

The changing seasons reflected in the significant presence of sun and moon has long been meaningful to me. Nature has that way of saying things for me – turning my attention to something so much more vast than I can comprehend. As a Christian, I believe Jesus offers a very specific message in his birth, life, death and resurrection. The early Christians were meticulously intentional in their attempts to formally select a holy day to celebrate Jesus’ birth. They sought to allow nature and history to holistically emphasize the spiritual practice that we call Christmas. Anthropologist and theologian, Alexander Shaia summed it up so succinctly in a podcast discussion entitled “Radiance Within the Darkness, facilitated by The Deconstructionists Podcast. He shared:

“Christmas is an earthly feast acknowledging both god’s incarnation through nature and the incarnation of Jesus. At Christmas, those two incarnations are absolutely intertwined. The core experience of the two is during the darkness of winter. The outer moments of darkness during December (in the Northern Hemisphere) are teaching us the spiritual practices for our inner moments of darkness during April, July and so on…. These two incarnations must agree with each other – they amplify and magnify each other so that the birth of Jesus Christ is not just a theological concept but an embodied physical experience…. We know in our spiritual practice that the place of new radiance is found in the deepest dark. This is the great story that is proclaimed at the winter solstice. The winter solstice is the time that dark has reached its greatest depth and its right at that moment that the reversal happens, the new radiance begins. Its more than appropriate, its perfect that the Christmas story be celebrated at the winter solstice. It teaches us that it is only by our courage and grace to go into the deepest dark ness is where the fresh radiance is born.”

In my postpartum work as a doula, I provide overnight support for new parents. My job is to care for newborns throughout the night to allow parents much needed sleep and sanity refreshment. I sit in the dark, waiting and watching. I oversee that baby sleeps and is soothed when restless. I help feed the baby either by bringing to mama or feeding the baby via bottle and then managing all the follow up details – burping, diapering, swaddling and helping to settle baby back to sleep. My moments spent with these little ones in the wee hours of the morning are so precious to me. Indeed, there is something sacred about it. I have referred to witnessing a baby’s birth as a “thin place” but I also refer to these overnight times spent with babies in the dark as another thin place as well. I feel an intimate connection with God as I hold these itty-bitty bundles of humanness and as I peak at them while they wiggle in their sleep. Their vulnerability is palpable and I take my role very seriously to ensure both their safety and serenity. So often, with babies positioned in my arms as they feed or fall to sleep, I stare at them in wonderment – this was God incarnate once. God’s vulnerability to ensure our safety and serenity is not overlooked by me in these midnight moments. I shift my perspective to how God sees us in our humanity, holding us in a way that reassures hope during the darkest moments of our lives. I try to connect with babies via as many senses as possible. I hum a rhythmic tune to help them trust my presence and sleep efficiently. It is so hard not to kiss them, but I try to maintain my professional role as best I can! As I sing softly, rock or sway them and maintain calm for them, there is a sweetness I experience that I cannot really explain when I feel their tiny bodies relax and begin to deeply sleep.  I recall an Old Testament declaration from the prophet Zephaniah, “The Lord is with you…the Lord will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). I imagine God doing this for me, for all of us, as I hold every baby I work with; and I am comforted with a kind of peace that is deeper than words, bigger than any darkness that surrounds me.

Another Christmas has passed and the groundhog saw his shadow yesterday, which means six more weeks of winter. But the cold shadowy reality I or anyone feels these days isn’t without hope. Jesus’ birth bore both a cosmic relevance and historical significance over two thousand years ago. While on earth, Jesus declared, “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12). After his ascension back to heaven, the reality of night still occurs literally and figuratively. Every day it comes and goes in various forms and functions. We continue to wait amid this ebb and flow of darkness until Jesus returns again and once and for all eliminates darkness. I long for this day and wish it would come soon – just as every birthing mother longs for her arduous labor to end and then strives to soothe her crying baby. Amid this longing, the fact remains, Jesus’ incarnation provided a Light that is in me now and can shine or simply smolder within me to prevent the darkness from consuming me. God is the best parent there is, Mother and Father, to hold me and reassure me that dawn is coming and each day following the winter solstice will shine a little bit brighter and a little bit brighter and a little bit brighter…. This ever-increasing brightness begs me to enjoy each day a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more. Every extra second of light each new day with Jesus decreases the need to simply persevere but rather increases the awareness that life is meant to be a delight found in the holding space of God.

 

References:

  1. Google image; illustrator unknown
  2. The Sweetness of Holding Space for Another; by Lynn Hauks
  3. Diary of A Baby: What Your Child Sees, Feels and Experiences; by Daniel Stern
  4. Radiance Within the Darkness; Dr. Alexander Shaia via The Deconstructionists Podcast

Spilled Milk (a short story of loss and hope)

Rejoice

She stood at the kitchen sink, methodically washing a pot. Her breathing kept a rhythmic pace with her hands. She did this unconsciously, like an intuitive internal tempo – eight scrubbing motions for every breath in, eight scrubbing motions for every breath out. She stopped scrubbing but kept breathing, as she rinsed the pot with clean water, inside and out. With the water still running, she set the washed pot on the drying rack, topping off a pile of other cleaned dishes. She turned the faucet off and, with the same intuitive sense, turned her head towards the direction of the living room. She took a deep breath in and exhaled very slowly. She then inhaled quickly.

“Emma!”, she shouted from the kitchen. “I told you to turn the TV off. Are your toys cleaned up yet? Daddy is going to be home any minute now and I want to eat dinner as soon as he comes in. Her emphatic and instructive plea seemed to hang in the air. She really had no idea when he’d be home. She had guesstimated based on his last words to her that morning before he left for work. He told her he had a meeting after class with a student and wanted to run an errand after that. She calculated an extra hour and a half to his usual arrival time and planned dinner accordingly. However, dinner was pretty much ready and he was not home yet. She sighed, and rather than looking at the clock, she looked at the ceiling. This gesture again activated an intuitive reaction to wonder what her son was doing. Amid the din of the TV, she could hear the sound of random thumps coming from upstairs. The arrhythmic down beats seemed to be directly above the kitchen where, coincidently, her son’s bedroom was located. She decided to investigate.

She walked a straight line from the kitchen, through the dining room and into the living room. Her long row home created a corridor of rooms from front to back while also offering a distinct transition from room to room, marked by decorative archways. This made each room feel like its own special space. The ornate moldings, that outlined the large dining room archway and smaller kitchen archway, were original to the house, over a hundred years old. She and her husband bought the house when they got married, thirteen years ago, as a ‘fixer-upper’ in an ‘up and coming’ neighborhood. They were determined to resurrect its former beauty. They both possessed a tenacity for loving life and having compassion for all things that needed hope restored, which is actually how they met – volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Back then, she loved helping Habitat’s effort, not only for its social justice focus but also because it made her feel closer to her dad. Her dad was a gifted carpenter who died suddenly in her late teens. The smell of fresh cut wood and wet paint and plaster always reminded her of him, and made her feel hopeful – because something new was being created (or re-created). Her husband had a knack for carpentry and was not shy about hard labor. He joined the Habitat team while he was finishing his dissertation. One of the first things he ever told her was how it was necessary to exercise head, hands and heart on a daily basis to remain a whole person.

She thought of him saying this as she passed through the dining room into the living room and saw the baby grand piano that hugged the archway that separated living room from dining room. The top of the piano was propped open. The smooth black glossy finish was a contrast against the white gilded molding. She stopped for a moment and put her hand on the edge of the piano and looked at her four-year-old little girl, who was sitting on the sofa staring at the TV. She looked back at the molding and remembered how carefully her husband and she had stripped, sanded and repainted all the woodwork throughout the house in their BC days – BC meaning ‘before children’, as her husband liked to refer to that time period in their lives. They were so excited and energetic when they set out to restore and renovate the house; and they accomplished much in a short amount of time. Now, just looking at the molding made her feel more tired.  It could use a fresh coat of paint these days, but the effort did not feel worth it.

With her hand still on the piano, she sighed abruptly. “Where is he?” she thought. She kept her hand on the piano and even leaned her weight a bit more onto it, as an effort to find support for both her tired legs and tired soul. Music had always been a special kind of medicine for her – one of the main reasons that attracted her to her husband. He could play many instruments, though piano was his primary focus. He was a brilliant musician and a beloved professor at the famed conservatory in town. The piano made no sound at that moment, but she could feel it strengthening her just the same, simply by its palpable presence. Then suddenly the sound of glass breaking came from upstairs. It made her gasp aloud.

“Jake! Are you okay?” She ran to the bottom of the staircase along the living room wall and quickly ran two-thirds of the way up and then stopped.

“Mom, I’m okay!”, Jake shouted back. She had a direct view up the rest of the stairs, down the hall and into her seven-ear-old son’s bedroom. She saw him darting back and forth, in and out of sight from the door frame’s view. Her view of him was also a bit obstructed by a large laundry basket that sat on the floor, just inside the entrance to his room, -which she knew to be filled with folded clean clothes. However, she could see some of the clothes hanging over the rim of the basket, as if trying to escape or worse. She gripped the railing with her right hand and slowly walked the rest of the way up, one step at a time, intentionally taking a deep breath with each upward step.

“Jake, what happened?”, she asked with a weary tone, as she scaled the last step.

“Um…well…” he disjointedly replied, still jumping around the room in some sort of franticly deliberate motion. As she stood at his door, she scanned the scene. She quickly concluded that the clean laundry in the laundry basket was no longer clean. She also assessed the broken glass on the other side of the basket ,that she could now see as she stepped into his room.

“Jake!” she exclaimed. She paused for a moment to look at the remains of a tall drinking glass shattered on the wood floor and what appeared to be milk splattered in little puddles alongside the laundry basket. She glanced at her son, who had stopped dashing around and was stationed on the other side of the room, putting on his shoes. “Jake,” she verbalized more gently, “what happened?” She paused and added, “ What are you doing?”

“I know, mom,” he blurted out.

“You know what?”, she quickly questioned.

“It was an accident,” he said with no eye contact. He was leaning over to tie his shoes.

”Jake,” she whispered in a serene yet stern manner. “Please tell me what happened and why are you putting on your shoes?”

“Mom,” he said assertively while making eye contact with her, “I spilled my glass of milk and I don’t want to step on any of the broken glass in my bare feet. I’m sorry, Mommy”, he added. He stood up with his shoes on and walked over to her.

She put her hands on her hips conflicted with wanting to be mad at him for 1. Not putting the laundry away like she had asked him at least an hour earlier and 2. having food in his room, which he knew was not allowed; but then she couldn’t help wanting to be proud of how he always tried to be a quick thinker/problem solver. He was so much like his dad that way.

“Did it spill on the laundry?” she asked.

“Well…yeah. I had my glass on the shelf,” they both looked at the bookcase along the wall just inside the door. “I reached over the basket to get it and it slipped and then fell on top of the clothes and then rolled off onto the floor. I tried to catch it but it just spilled all over the basket” He genuinely looked sad as he recounted the situation. He looked at the ground where the pieces of glass and puddles of milk lay.

“Okay,” she said, “let’s clean it up.”

“Mom!” he shouted, as they were about to move. “You don’t have any shoes on”.

She stood still and rubbed her eyes with both hands in the attempt to energize her body and help her brain think clearly. “Yeah,” she agreed, looking at her feet. “I’m going to go put my shoes on.” She adjusted her gaze from her feet to her son. “Go downstairs to the basement and bring back an empty laundry basket,” she instructed. “Please,” she added in a half-hearted tone. Well, it sounded half-hearted, but really it was meant whole heartedly. She needed help, and that was her one-word plea for it, even if directed to a seven-year-old.

While Jake scampered down to the basement and back up, she walked down the hall into her bedroom, put her sneakers on and walked back to Jake’s room. She squatted down, just inside the threshold in front of the laundry basket. She began to one by one sort through the layers of clothes in the basket to see what got wet and set them aside on the floor. As she sorted the clothes, she thought to herself that the glass must have been filled to the top. She didn’t remember Jake getting a glass of milk. She was in the kitchen all afternoon. Had it been there all day, since before he left for school? Maybe not even retrieved that day? She was too tired to put the effort into figuring out that riddle. She just kept sorting clothes. Even clothes at the bottom of the basket had gotten wet. Maybe from when the glass broke and splashed next to the basket? Again, she didn’t want to think too hard about this mystery.

“Here you go, mom”, Jake announced, as he ran up the stairs and stood behind her.

“Thanks, buddy”, she said, turning and taking the empty basket from him and setting it down on the floor. She put the clean clothes into the new basket and examined the old one to see if any glass lingered at the bottom. She set the wet clothes back into the old basket while giving Jake further instructions. “Go get the dust pan and brush from the bathroom closet and a towel from the bottom shelf, please” she included please this time with her request, feeling more at ease about the moment.

Jake turned on his heels quickly and dashed for the bathroom down the hall. Still squatting, she lifted each basket and set them in the hallway to clear the space in Jake’s room to clean up the glass. As she started to stand up, she heard the front door open.

“Hey all!” she heard her husband pleasantly exclaim, before the front door even shut. She stood in the hallway, rubbing her eyes again, and this time she felt energy returning. She heard the thud of his backpack hit the floor, soon followed by a series of statements and questions. “Hey sugar bean,” she heard him say to Emma -who was no doubt still sitting on the sofa, since the sound of the TV could still be heard. For a second, she heard the sound of a kiss – which was no doubt Emma’s forehead being kissed by her dad. “What are you watching?” he asked. “Where’s mommy? Where’s Jake? It smells good in here.”, he seemingly said in one breath. As she stood upstairs, she smirked and rolled her eyes at the same time.

At the same time this all occurred, her son emerged from the bathroom with only a towel in hand. He announced, “Mom, I couldn’t find the dust pan and brush.”

“Babe?” she heard her husband call from the bottom of the stairs. She walked to the top of the stairs and smiled when she saw him. He smiled back.

“Hi,” she said with a pause. We’re up here”, she paused again. “There was a bit of an accident” she told him While their eye contact lingered.

“Hi, Daddy,” Jake said, as he stood next to his mom at the top of the stairs looking down at the man dressed in black standing at the bottom.

“Hi,” he replied with a genuine smile. “What happened?”, he asked and began to ascend the stairs. She watched him casually walk up. Her husband strangely resembled, as she described him to her friends after they first met, an inside-out combination of Jesus and Johnny Cash with all the swoony charm of Harry Connick Jr and Ward Cleaver. After her friends met him, they obligingly agreed with her. And for what it’s worth, they still did. She being completely honest with herself, still did too.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Jake”, she said, turning her attention to her son – after recalling something seemingly triggered by watching her husband climb the stairs. “I think it’s in Emma’s room. Can you check…next to her dresser?” She took the towel from him and draped it over her forearm. Jake silently walked back down the hall, past the bathroom and into his sister’s bedroom. “Thanks, bud,” she called to him down the hall.

Her husband stared at her. “Is everything okay? Are you okay?” He asked this so gently and with a kind of concern that made her want to cry. Jake walked out of Emma’s room with dust pan and brush in hand and walked towards his mom and dad. He handed the tools to his mom. She held the tools in both hands and stared down at them. Merely holding the dust pan and brush made her feel weak again. She inhaled and held her breath for a few seconds. She stood between her husband and son, who stared at her as she stared at what she held.

“Mommy, are you okay?” Jake asked softly, in the same tone as his dad had asked. Again, this manner of inquiry made her want to cry. She could feel the lump swell in the back of her throat, which she knew would soon trigger her eyes to swell with tears.

“Jake, how about you let me help Mommy.” Her husband interjected. “Can you go downstairs and help Emmie clean up?”, he added, less as a question and more as an instructive nudge.

Jake looked at his dad then back at his mom, who was still staring at the dust pan and brush she held with both hands. “Sure, dad”, he replied and without missing a beat headed downstairs.

“You are not okay,” her husband assessed. He lassoed his arms around her and pulled her sideways against his chest. She shrugged slightly and then leaned her cheek on his shoulder. He lowered and craned his head to kiss her on her neck behind her ear. Her eyes were definitely starting to tear now, though she smiled as she closed her tearing eyes. His gesture was a non-verbal queue that had been established long, long ago in their relationship , as an unspoken sign of intimate empathy – less as a signal of sexual foreplay and more as a signal to simply know she was loved. After thirteen years together, they had formed a well-crafted way of speaking to each other. His kiss in that moment was a way of whispering something to her, and she knew what he was saying.

“I’m okay,” she said, “just really tired”. She kept her eyes closed a moment longer before lifting her head off his shoulder and looking at him. She love him so much, more than she could rationally articulate. Though once again, she felt the onset of internal conflict as she had had with Jake. She wanted to be annoyed at him as much as she appreciated all that he was. He had this way about him – he was a true extravert that never seemed to lack energy. He was an eternal optimist, which had been a quality so attractive to her before they were married but then frustrated her at times afterwards. He was forever hopeful that things would not only be okay but that they were okay – like when their bank account often became anemic or even when Emma spent three weeks in the hospital as a baby. It wasn’t that he was pretending or trying to convince himself (or her) of something he was struggling to believe…he actually believed that no matter what, life was good – God was good. She sometimes wondered, tried to convince herself, that it was due to his ADHD and that he just easily got distracted to think about ad infinitum possibilities of hopeful outcomes. Maybe his gift of not being able to fixate on the ‘bad’ was because he would simply and impulsively shift focus to something else. His genetic code seemed to help him navigate life with ease. She was so the opposite of that. At least, that was not her innate nature. She did work at being hopeful and knew it paid off; but as she felt his body warmth against her, she felt a twinge of resentment spark inside. She pulled away from his embrace.

“Dinner is ready,” she started to say, “the table just needs to be set. Jake spilled a glass of milk in his room and the glass broke on the floor.” She tilted her head towards the accident scene and held up the cleaning tools. “I need to sweep it up.”

He examined her with curious concern. “I’ll clean it up,” he said. “Go get dinner set up and I’ll be down.” He took the things from her hands and turned his head towards Jake’s room. He saw the mess she referred to. He had a puzzled look on his face and took a breath as if to ask something, but then opted not to. She noticed this and couldn’t help but wonder – was his silence because his distractibility kicked in or because he knew asking her what exactly happened would be bad timing. She wanted to think it was due to the former, because the latter explanation merely proved him to be even more perfect than she wanted to admit. More likely, she admitted to herself, it was due to both.

She walked downstairs and saw both her children sitting on the couch watching TV. She remained poised and scanned the room for the remote. It lay between her son and daughter, who each lay like lumps on either end of the sofa. She picked up the remote, pointed it at the TV and pressed off. She turned back to her two kids – who she really did love dearly. However, times like these required consciously remembering that. “Guys, I’m going to say this once and I want you to listen and obey” She paused for solemn effect. It worked.

“Yes, mama?”, Emma answered, uncurling her limbs and stretching to stand up. Jake lifted his head and looked at her, waiting for her to continue speaking. She looked at her daughter and then to her son. It was so strangely surreal how her son was so much like his father and her daughter was so much like her. Though she knew aspects of the visa versa were true too. She took a deep breath to steady her words.

“Emma, I want you to clean up these toys right now,” she said, while making a sweeping gesture around the whole room with her hand. “Jake, I want you to help me set the table”. She turned and began to walk the straight line back to the kitchen.

As she stepped into the dining room, she heard Jake’s voice behind her respond enthusiastically. “Yes, mom!” He jumped up and ran to follow behind her. But somehow his quickened footsteps behind her ceased suddenly. She heard the sound of something hard hitting something hard and then the siren sound of a seven-year-old boy in pain. She spun around on the balls of her feet.

Her son lay crumpled on the ground holding his head and crying. “What happened?” she asked. She bent down to examine him. He fell into her arms, mumbling something through tears that she could not understand. She looked up and guessed he had run into the door jam of the archway that led into the dining room. The thing of it was, this happened often. Jake was always running into things or tripping over something that wasn’t necessarily “in his way”. She and her husband had even taken him to see the eye doctor because they assumed it was due to a vision deficit. But the optometrist assured them that his vision was fine. In fact, he had 20/10 vision. Again, another similarity between father and son and another reason for her to value as well as resent her husband. “Jacob,” she said softly, “let me look at your head”. She put her hands over his hands and gently guided them away from his face. She did not see any lump starting to rise or bleeding. She put her fingertip ever so lightly on a red mark where his head met the door frame. “Everything is okay,” she informed him. “Just an unpleasant moment along the way”, she said reassuringly. “Stand up and come with me to set the table”, she said, helping him to his feet. Jake sniffled some final sobs and walked with her slowly.

“Oh, good grief!”, she uttered, as they entered the kitchen. “Bubba!”, she shouted at the cat, who was the bane of her existence the last few years. The fifteen-year-old tuxedo cat came with her husband when they got married and, these days, was half deaf and nearly blind. He had somehow jumped up on the counter and was trying to maneuver among the few plates of food that were their dinner. She used both hands to scoop up the cat, who was walking on top of the plate of chicken. She tried to place him gently on the floor, but he meowed loudly at her tight grip of disgust in the process.

“Ewwww, Mom!” Jake declared.

“What’s going on down here?” her husband asked, snapping his fingers and smiling as he walked into the kitchen.

“Babe, it’s not funny,” she quickly sneered. “The cat just walked all over the food. She looked at the cat cowering in the corner by the fridge.

“He what?” he asked, bending down to pet the cat behind the ears with his thumb and forefinger. “Well, let’s assess the damage”. He walked over to where she was standing by the counter and they both looked at the food. “I don’t see anything”, he noted. “Oh, maybe a hair or two”. He pointed to a few places. “Nothing we haven’t eaten before.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “Can you go away, please?”, she did not ask but instructed. She also did not include please to be polite.

“Yes, dear”, he replied, and left the kitchen with the same mannerisms as when he entered.

“Jake”, she sighed, “let’s just eat at the kitchen table tonight and let’s use paper plates.” She reached to pull open the silverware drawer. As she did so, she heard the beginning bars of an old beloved hymn being played on the piano. She shook her head in surrender and began to sing along. “I come to the garden alone, where the dew is still on the roses….” But, as she was about to continue singing the next line and count forks at the same time, the rendition shifted from classical hymn style to rag time rhythm. She felt like throwing a fork across the room and screaming. “How did he do it?”, she thought to herself. “How did he so easily go from one moment of life to another with constant energy and joy, regardless of what was threatening to undermine it all just beneath the surface?” She decided it was time to use the bathroom. The truth was, this was her standard way of finding space to be alone. Since becoming a mother, she constantly got interrupted; but thankfully at this stage in life, she could lock the door, which served as a buffer between her and the reality ‘outside’. As Jake arranged paper plates and glasses on the table, she disappeared into the half bath at the back of the house, just past the kitchen. She closed the door, unbuttoned her pants, scooched her bottom clothing down to her knees and sat down. She exhaled and listened to the stream of pee mix with the water in the toilet. This sensation and sound actually felt healing, as she sat there with her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. She looked up and around the bathroom. It was completely black and white in color. She remembered how this was their final project they got done before Jake was born. She smiled briefly, remembering how her belly was too big for her to easily lay tile on the floor, so he took the lower level and she handled the high road. She placed her hand on the lower part of her bare belly and stopped smiling. She took solace in knowing she was indeed healing. It didn’t hurt to urinate anymore and the bleeding had stopped, but she still took great care in patting herself with toilet tissue. Before she flushed, she stood up and assembled her clothes back into order. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, as she washed her hands. She forced a smile and it did brighten her countenance. She smiled bigger. She chuckled to herself. She told her reflection, “Yep, you’re okay”. She saw a sense of peace in her reflection and decided to own it for herself. She glanced one more time at her reflection after she dried her hands and then left the bathroom.

“We were wondering if you fell in in there”, she heard her husband say, as he and their two kids sat at the table watching her walk over to the table and sit down to join them. She said nothing but waited for his next queue. “Let’s pray,” he requested. They all held hands in silence, until the next queue was given. He led them in a short and memorized song of harvest praise for the blessing of their meal.

As the song concluded, Emma did not let go of her mom and dad’s hand who sat on either side of her. She raised her eyes upward and with a loud voice declared, “AAA-MEN!” This made the other three laugh out loud at such a sudden and unexpected outcry.

After that, dinner seemed uneventful and routine, cat hair on food and all. She thought of nothing else but what was in that moment. Her thoughts stayed ever-present after dinner as well. While she cleaned up dinner, her daughter colored at the kitchen table. She chatted with Emma about the color of unicorns and if they celebrate Christmas too. She had no idea where her husband and son were, but once again kept her thoughts present with only what was happening right in front of her. She sat down at the table while Emma finished her drawing of unicorns celebrating Christmas. She and Emma admired her detail of rendering a unicorn family not unlike their own. Emma pointed to the Christmas tree in the middle of the page decorated with a dozen or more lights and ornamental symbols.

“And this is the one very special present they are going to get for Christmas,” Emma said decidedly. She pointed to a rectangular shaped item under the tree, brightly colored.

“I see,” she said. “That will be exciting”, she added as she leaned over and kissed her daughter on the cheek. She was tempted to drift into the past or future, but was both determined to remain in the moment and was too tired to think about ‘what was” or ‘what may be’. Here and now seemed the best place to be. Well, bed also seemed like the best place to be and she could easily make that happen. “Okay, sweet thing. It’s time to get ready for bed”, she said and began to get up from the table. Emma made a slight disgruntled sound but put her coloring items away just the same and followed her mom upstairs.

Bedtime resembled the typical night routine – her husband and she took turns prompting son and daughter to take play clothes off, put pajamas on, go the bathroom, brush teeth, hop into bed and settle down for the night. Once tucked under the covers, starting in Jake’s room, both parents knelt by the side of their child’s bed and reviewed something from the day to be thankful for, followed by a final prayer of blessing before sleep was inevitable. A hug and kiss was exchanged between child and parents and lights were turned off and bedroom doors shut. However, as Emma’s parents were exiting her room, her mother lingered at the door with her hand on the door knob.  Emma’s dad walked down the hall. Somehow it felt like maternal instinct was a magnet that radiated through her and made the metal door knob cling to her hand. She lingered by the door and watched her daughter squirm for a few minutes, settling into her bed in a kind of instinctive way – finding the right position to permit sleep to occur. She slowly closed the door and walked slowly down the hall.

She walked into her bedroom and saw her husband sitting on the edge of the bed taking his socks off. She sat down next to him, as he tossed each wadded sock over to the corner of the room. She wanted to pretend not to notice but shifted her eyes towards him with a slight sneer.

He looked right at her with a smirk and asked, “What’s really going on? You’re not just tired, are you?” He hesitated slightly before asking this second question. His smirk disappeared and he sweetly stared at her.

She took a shallow breath in and out and did not make eye contact, but stared out the bedroom door. She thought about the picture Emma had drawn and could only think about the Christmas tree with the gift beneath it. She shifted her body on the bed to face her husband directly. “I’m still sad,” she said matter of factly.

He leaned towards her and quietly put his forehead against hers. He ever so gently put his hand on her shoulder and slowly lowered it, tracing the outline of her body with his fingertips, down to her knee. He rested his hand on her knee and she knew what that meant.

She leaned back, away from him and scooted upwards on the bed. She drew her knees to her chin, while shaking her head. “No, not now. I’m sorry. I can’t. I don’t want to.” She heard herself say this as if watching the scene like a third person in the room. She could hear how cruel it sounded, though it was said with almost no emotional tone. It was uttered with a monotone pitch – each sentence sounding like the same key on the piano being softly and repetitively played and forming a distant and dissident melody. She lowered her forehead to her knees, while she lifted her eyes to glance at her husband. He just sat there, staring at her. She rested her head on her knees and closed her eyes. Her thoughts drifted to a few weeks earlier, when they had shared an intimate moment – the first since the miscarriage, after getting the green light from the doctor that it was okay. She remembered the effort they both made to set each other at ease. The physical and emotional muscles needed to respond in a similar manner in that current moment felt too weak. She felt a twinge of guilt and opened her eyes to look at him again. He had a stern look on his face.

He abruptly got up and said to her, as he shifted his gaze to the floor, “You know I’m still sad, too.” He pulled off his shirt and continued to undress for bed. She watched him walk across the room and out the door.

As she heard the bathroom door shut with a clunk, she arched her back and looked at the ceiling. She looked at the light and it suddenly felt too bright in contrast to what she was feeling. She got up and turned the light off. A sliver of moonlight shone through the windows and cast a bluish hew on her bedroom floor, where her feet stood. she walked towards the window to look at the source of light that had washed over her feet. She pulled back the curtain and saw the moon, full in size, hanging in the sky by invisible strings. She felt herself swallow and stare at its radiance amid the night sky. She thought of her womb. Suddenly she felt as if she was the night sky and what was inside her was the moon. She felt tears silently stream down her cheeks and drip off the edge of her jaw. She heard the shuffled sounds of her husband re-enter the room and get into bed. She turned to look at him but he lay on his side with his back to her. The tears kept coming without a sound. She was so conscious of all that was occurring inside her and not until then had she thought of what was really happening inside of him. In that moment, they were in fact sharing something deeply intimate with each other, though neither could fully verbalize it or tangibly show it. It seemed invisible, but it was not. It must be made known. she walked over to the bed and removed her night gown from under her pillow. It was where she had kept her pajamas since she was a little girl. She undressed and slipped it on and climbed into bed. She purposefully did not wipe the tear residue from her face. She wanted it to stay there. She lay in the same position as her husband though she left a few inches of space between them as they lay. She wanted to give him room, not as a spiteful gesture but as a way to let him keep healing and to prepare him for what she would tell him in the morning. She knew that space between them was not empty, but presented something that would be revealed in time.

 

Photo:

Rejoice; casted plaster sculpture by Jamie Wasson 2013

Enough Is Enough

Resurrection2

“We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God´s compassionate love for others.”

St. Clare of Assisis

 

Nuff said.

 

Photo: Terracotta clay hand with Paper cut/painted butterfly by Jamie Wasson

Blind Optimism (Part 2 of 2)

the eye of God2

When I was thirty, for about two years, I lived with friends and their four kids (under the age of seven) and their two dogs in their four story brownstone home in Philadelphia. Another single gal lived there too and daily life was not unlike an episode of Full House. As a single adult, I was privileged to be part of this interdependent existence. Daily routines of cooking dinner, cleaning up, even finding one’s shoes and making sure the bathrooms had toilet paper required a collective organized effort among all or chaos would surely occur. It did at times and we would have to agreeably regroup to get the show going again in a manner that brought smiles rather than tears. Everyone in that house needed one another’s help to ensure a home that was worth coming home to. Some of the best moments of my life happened while living in that house. One of my favorite memories was an unexpected conversation I had with their then four year old son, Caedmon. He saw me struggling to read something one afternoon. As I pressed my nose and magnifying glass close to the text, he walked over and watched. I paused and asked if he wanted something. He simply asked, “Why can’t you see good?”

I answered with the over-simplistic response, “that’s how God made me”.

He looked intently at me and replied, “I know why God did that.”

His seriousness caught my curiosity and so I asked him “Why?”

He answered so decidedly “so I can help you”.

Tears filled my eyes at his sincere statement and I asked what he meant. He informed me that we all need help. He explained how God gave him his mom to help him feel better when he was sick, keeping him company by his bed or in the bathroom when he really got sick. He went on to say that he was so happy when she did this and it was a way to show how much she loved him. He added that his eyes worked fine and that meant he could help me see and make me feel better and show me that he loves me. I scooped him up into my arms and hugged him and told him how much that meant to me and I’m glad he could help me.

These days, I’m forty and Caedmon is a teenager, but his efforts still persist. After I moved out, his family and I began the tradition of venturing to the apple orchard together each fall to pick apples. Caedmon scouts out the trees with ample apples. I feel my way around the branches but there are times his eyes still help me locate fruit tucked away amid the branches and leaves that my hands can’t detect. It has become such a gift to be humble enough to accept the help and insights from children, whether in an apple orchard or in my therapy office. Children, in my opinion, can make some of the best philosophers and theologians. Children possess no pretense except to interpret life interdependently. Even the children I meet with in a therapeutic context who have experienced extreme distress and disconnection possess an innate sense that this is not how it was meant to be. They grieve their history of disconnect and long for ways to reconnect.

I am aware enough to know that there is so much I don’t know. That is why I am so thankful Jesus declared Himself to be “the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11). Jesus, as always, sums up reality so simply, describing His relationship with us and the relationship He wants us to have with Him. A few words prior to Jesus summing up our sacred social reality, He emphasized how keenly sheep know their Shepherd in an intimate relational sense – not in an intellectual sense (sheep are not known for their smarts). Jesus personalized how “My sheep know My voice” (John 10:3). I would venture to say that even for the greatest of minds throughout history have found comfort in hearing a beloved familiar voice call to them, call for them to interact in a manner that is not merely intellectual. After all, behind every great mind existed a child – whether or not they directly experienced the benevolent embrace of their mother, they longed for it just the same.

My mom tells the story of how, when I was about three years old, she was deeply moved by how Jesus’ sentiment of His sheep knowing His voice reenacted itself between herself and me. One Sunday, my family visited a new church. After the morning service ended, my mom made her way to the church nursery to pick me up. She recalls the room was crowded and a bit chaotic with all the parents and kids coming and going, chatting and playing. My mom spotted me across the room, though I was not facing her direction. She simply and in a normal tone called my name, “Jamie”.  I immediately turned around, saw her and came to meet her where she was standing on the other side of the room. My mom was stunned at such display of connection and has never forgotten it. Amid all the noise and distraction, I clearly heard my mom’s gentle voice and responded with eager recognition to join her. I have been absolutely blessed with one of the kindest mothers earth could ever render and I know this is not the case for all children. But once again, Jesus declares God’s pre-eminence that the best parental efforts pale in comparison to God’s perfect support. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus pointed out how God sees every sparrow that falls and makes sure they are fed, so “how much more” does He do that for us who are created in His image. Jesus emphasized “how much more does your Father in heaven love you” (Matthew 6:25). Jesus repeats such comparison in various ways throughout his sermon recorded in Matthew, which reinforces that God’s relationship with us is real and really good. There is a ubiquitous presence God employs in supporting us throughout life. How much? It’s a rhetorical question, of course, but we still need to verbalize the answer to keep such focus in the forefront. Whether likened to sheep or sparrows, the theme is God sees and cares for us.

Throughout Scripture, the Bible often uses aspects of all five senses to provide us a context for understanding how God’s caregiving operates.  Living is more than a mental exercise; it is as much a physical experience.  God instills value in seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling. And when one or more of our own sense capacities fail us, God offers His perfect capacities for us to rely on. This is beautifully exemplified in the Old Testament book of Chronicles. King Jehoshaphat, a descendent of King David, became aware that multiple enemies were coming to conquer Israel (2 Chronicles 20). Jehoshaphat humbly admitted his need for help and cried out to God. He added up the odds and made the noble decision to surrender to the fact that God knows best. He prayed, “I don’t know what to do but my eyes are on You” (2 Chronicles 20:12). God sent a prophet named Jahaziel to instruct Jehoshaphat how to respond to the problem. In Hebrew, the prophet’s name literally means “God is my vision”. Hmmm, it’s as if God is beckoning us to see through His eyes. Of course, God sees way beyond obstacles to the other side. Too often, my limited vision makes me cower in seeing past problems with hope that I can prevail; yet, when I can see as God sees life, I comprehend how much more God can see than I can. No doubt, King Jehoshaphat knew well the psalm his great great grandfather wrote that included the line “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5). God held true to these words – Jehoshaphat was prompted by the prophet to rally all the people to party and praise God together for how He always provides and protects. As it turned out, the enemies that surrounded Jehoshaphat’s kingdom heard the celebration and were confused and turned on each other.

God sometimes takes the long way in proving His protection and provision but always does in the end nonetheless. Years after Jehoshaphat ruled, Israel was taken captive by a foreign enemy. When confronting the problem of pain, God does not deserve to bear all the blame. Israel’s being carried off as captives to Babylon came by their own defiance not to rely on God; thus natural consequences ensued. However, God stops at nothing to preserve His legacy of being a Good Shepherd. God guided His people back from Babylon to rebuild Israel. Ezra was one of the appointed prophets to see that this effort was fulfilled. In the book of Ezra, Ezra reiterates more than a few times throughout his telling of the people’s return that “the hand of the Lord was on me”. Such a gracious gesture illustrates how God uses touch to tangibly direct us. The connection that touch offers is one of the most intimate sensations – some may say the most intimate. Touch is first readily experienced in the womb. I like to think that when God formed Adam out of earth, God used His immortal hands to mold Man, as any master potter would to create a piece of art. As the story goes, God likewise touched Adam to remove a rib that would form his helpmate – holding the rib in His grasp as He fashioned woman from the form to stand next to man. Even while Adam and Eve hid from God as they recognized their disobedience, God “made garments of skin” (Genesis 3:21), as an effort of redemptive touch to wrap grace around them and keep them from feeling ashamed. There is meaningful purpose in how God guides and provides. I don’t always get why it takes longer than I’d like but I at least know God’s got me in His hands, in His sight the whole time. He is calling for me to follow and inviting me to dine at His table and enjoy all the sweet and savory aspects of life, even if my enemies are nearby or drag me off to a seemingly God forsaken land. I’m not forsaken. Isn’t that what God has been trying to show us throughout history, showing me throughout my life? I choose to believe the optimistic perspective that He is.

 

References:

The Eye of God, ; painting by Lisa Hoy

 

Broken Glass

Broken Glass

It seems over the years, my perspective on life has often broken itself down into three categories: almost, not enough and oh well. These distinctions depend on the day, I guess. Some days I see the glass half full, focusing on life’s potentials. While other days I see the glass half empty, fixating on loss. Yet, there are days when I start to wonder if the glass really has anything in it at all, feeling the onset of an existential crisis. But then there was Mary. One day, long ago, she decided to break the glass altogether. I grew up well aware of this epoch Biblical account, but I’ve come to relate to her story with a new expanded perspective of how to live. Re-examining Mary’s story has inspired me to re-examine my own and accept that I am a part of a long tradition of transformation.

Three of the four gospels recount the beautifully scandalous tale of how Mary shared with Jesus probably the most treasured thing she possessed – an unopened jar of pure mard, which was an extremely expensive perfume. During a dinner party, she unabashedly broke the bottle’s seal and poured the perfume over Jesus’ head and feet, anointing him as an honoring and perhaps even healing gesture (Matthew 26:6- 13, Mark 14:3–9, John 12:1-8). Yep, and the onlookers were not amused by or supportive of her actions. In fact, they immediately scolded her for such an impetuous act. First, the gospel writers record one party goer accusing her of grossly wasting a valuable commodity. Second, it may be suggested that culturally in those days, a woman performing such an act (especially in mixed company) could have been perceived blasphemous. In ancient times, anointing someone was done by pouring oil or perfume over the crown of the head and letting the liquid flow down the face to symbolize recognition or inauguration of someone in high royal or religious rank. This tradition was notably performed by a high priest. Anointing someone also served as a healing ritual. Applying a medicinal balm or oil to wounds or an ailing person in a formal manner demonstrated a blessed and beloved sign of mercy. Contextualizing the scene from Mary’s vantage point requires spanning further back in history. In the Old Testament, David as a shepherd boy was anointed by Samuel the high priest to be the next king (1 Samuel 16:13). Later, David as king and psalmist poetically described God as his ‘Shepherd’ who attentively anointed his body and additionally restored his soul (Psalm 23:1-3). Furthermore, David declared in his famous psalm ‘my cup runs over’ (Psalm 23:5). David, like Mary, was not shy about what’s in the glass. David didn’t see the glass half anything or even empty. He celebrated its sweet overflowing status regardless of the surrounding situations that begged to deplete his strength. Throughout his life, David was constantly surrounded by trials and threats, which kept him on the move. Yet, he remained confident that “goodness and mercy” would sweetly pour over him “all the days” of his life and that one day every trouble would be washed away by such divine outpouring. He would reach a place he could forever call home (Psalm 23:6).

I can so easily laps into the mindset of seeing life as an overwhelmingly sour experience and not as one overflowing with sweetness. Initially, I shy away from bringing to my mouth the cup life hands me. I get scared that my mental and emotional taste buds will react with an intolerable ability to stomach any sort of sip. So why bother?  But I am, at least, still willing to hold the cup in hand and contemplate its contents. As they say, ‘I don’t have a drinking problem; I have a thinking problem’. During David’s era, a woman accused of marital infidelity was prompted to drink a cup of bitter herbs. If truly innocent, the caustic cocktail would miraculously taste sweet (Numbers 5:11 -31). I’m sure a flinching face after one sip was a dead give-away. I confess, at times, when I bring life’s cup to my lips and sip, the look on my face openly reveals my infidelity of not being faithful to the belief that life was meant to be a joyous journey with a defined destination. As a result, my disbelief inhibits me from appreciating that this life, here and now, is a gift. Instead, my doubt provokes me to anxiously accept my existence on earth as a grievance. I’m just doing my best to hang on until I get ‘there’. Thankfully there are times I can taste the sweetness therein despite the initial bitter drink life serves up. This is a miracle. I’m found faithful and can even toast to the source of life rather than wallow in the stress of it all.

I think this is what James, the New Testament writer, meant when he prescribed having “pure joy” in the midst of suffering (James 1:2 -3). Like James, I’m not denying distress persists. I am simply acknowledging that miracles can and do happen to pull me through the tough times so I can keep moving forward towards the heavenly home sweet home that David referenced. In the psych biz, this process is referred to as resilience. But as a Christian, I prefer to call this experience redemption. What’s the alternative?  Prolonged shame and doubt (and even anger) about what life and others have done to me or what I’ve done to myself and others keeps me shackled to the proverbial bar stool, staring at the bottom of a glass filled with spirits of self pity. But praise God for grace, which intervenes and reminds me that I am in this pilgrimage for the long haul and that I will get there. Martin Luther King preached many paramount words of courage to the pilgrims of the civil rights movements with this inspirational theme. My most favorite phrase he simply and inspiringly spoke was his declaration to “keep moving!” He described the 1960s journey as “carving a tunnel of hope through the great mountain of despair”. He further declared that “if you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk crawl; but by all means, keep moving!” And I footnote his cheer that if you can’t crawl, God will carry you over, under, around or through that mountain.

During a ten-year span, between my mid-twenties and mid-thirties, I had to move living locations seven times. Such a nomadic experience has reinforced the impermanency of things. I never anticipated or intended to accumulate so many addresses in a short amount of time. I also never expected how much I would have to give away every time I transitioned to the next home. Despite my best bubble wrap attempts to preserve what I could not/would not give up, something treasured always broke in the moving process and I would be faced with the sad reality that it was indeed time to let go. All that packing up and moving on proved what is truly permanent and unbreakable – I am alive, I am loved and I am not alone. I possess these three essential identities because of who God is. No one or no thing can ever remove these eternal realities from me. Never, ever!

Let me be clear, I do not like being broken. I don’t like it one bit. But I am broken; and I’m learning to deal – I’m learning to accept (and even celebrate) that I’m part of the ongoing Gospel story of redemption. The artist in me can not deny that without confronting brokenness, no beauty can be resurrected from the rubble. The expansive Byzantine mosaics or the elaborate Gothic stained glass panels would have never been created if pieces were not collected – broken.  The artist’s vision in assembling such masterpieces was articulated at the core through the intentional selection, which often involved further meticulous breaking for pieces to fit. Then the arrangement of such pieces to be carefully placed in specific manners to tell a specific story could occur. This is probably why I have come to love the art of collage so much. Whether conscious or unconscious, collage compels me to rummage among unlikely items and sources to select, cut, trim, position and paste into one united whole a bunch of broken pieces in order to depict a scene or tell a story. Each part serves its purpose whether or not it is overtly identifiable. I, myself, am the same way. I’m a collage, part of a cosmic collage. I’m stained glass in the process of transformation. I’m getting closer to completion. Hindsight is always 20/20, right? I think heaven will be too. The apostle Paul spoke of this hindsight understanding in his famous love passage (1 Corinthians 13). Paul underscored what is worth understanding now – faith, hope and love. One day, I will eventually and fully see the big picture for what it really is. But until then, faith is about accepting that the broken pieces have worth, hope is about acknowledging the pieces will be put together to reveal a worthy artistic rendering. And love is actually doing it and sharing the product (or at least the production process) with whomever needs to be reminded that they are part of the picture too. Mazel Tov!

 

References:

  1. East Window at Bath Abbey, England
  2. Until We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
  3. “Keep Moving….” speech by Martin Luther King Jr.

 

Bird Brain

Maggie's tree

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:25, 27)

Last Christmas, amidst the festive rituals of going to my brother’s house to gather for yule tide family time, a special gift caught my attention nestled amid the branches of my brother’s Christmas tree. Tucked almost at the top of the tree in a cozy spot was a bird’s nest. He made a point to show it to us. It was perched so perfectly among the branches; it could have passed for an ornament hung purposefully by human hands or even overlooked altogether. They didn’t notice it until after they had picked their tree out, but before they cut the tree down (during their annual adventure to fetch a freshly cut tree). They made sure to remove the nest before cutting, lest the tree’s descent damaged it. They set it back in its place when they got home. I stood on my tiptoes to see it and could not resist touching it. It was stunning. It was the shape of a hand sized basket – made from handfuls of twigs and natural threads woven so deliberately together to form a place to keep something safe. But no hand had made it – merely the handiwork of tiny claws, a tiny beak and, best of all, a tiny bird brain.

During his scientific stay at the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin made it his mission to study birds, specifically finches. Using the specificity of such birds, he wanted to learn the origin of life’s ability to thrive over time. He thought if he started small with bird brains, he might then utilize his observations to understand more sophisticated cerebral systems. Okay, I confess, as an Intelligent Design supporter, I thought (as I observed that bird’s nest at Christmas) about how brilliant a bird is…and more directly, how wonderfully God designed a bird’s DNA to do that. A bird is designed to craft something sturdy and secure to incubate its offspring. Eggs hatch, baby birds learn to fly away and they instinctively build nests of their own to ensure the survival of their species. They’re really good at it. I like to think that God is really good at designing all of life to thrive and survive, according to its kind. But just because I think that, doesn’t mean I live like that. Throughout the Scriptures and more relevantly my life, God has used the image of a bird to signify His care for us. God describes how smart birds are, not solely because of their skill to soar high and weave nests but also because they don’t worry…at least, not like we do. One could argue, that’s because birds don’t know any better and we do. I think God graciously wants to tell us that it’s actually the other way around – our brains have been much more sophisticatedly designed to know all the more how God has provided for us, so we absolutely need not worry. Sure, we can build skyscrapers and jet engines; but we can also worry like no other creature can.

When I was thirty four, I burned out as a therapist. Talk about helplessness and hopelessness. I was diagnosed with both. The ever increasing hours at the office managing a full caseload of clients with serious issues to resolve and trying to keep on top of the never ending pile of paperwork drained me in a way I had never experienced. Any effort I exerted never seemed enough. I realized I could have worked 24/7 and needs would still have gone unmet. I remember asking God the inevitable questions of why and why not. Why was it so hard? Why were there not enough hours in the day or resources? I found myself spiraling into a black hole of despair. I’d lie in bed at night, hoping my clients were safe as well as hoping I could just get some sleep to refresh my energy for the next day. Neither hope seemed fully actualized. Living and working in an urban setting seemed to exasperate my hyper-sensitivity to how great the plight of people was.

One day while in route to meet with a supervisory mentor to talk about how to best help my clients or at the very least help myself, I distinctively recall asking God for help. Moments after I prayed, I walked by three consecutive people in some kind of need. The first person I passed was standing at the top of the subway steps talking on his phone to someone about how he was being evicted and had nowhere to go. I began to descend the subway steps to catch the train to my colleague’s house and passed a second person standing halfway down the staircase. The person asked people as they passed by for money for food. I looked at him and shook my head that I had none to give and I passed him by, descending further into the subway tunnel and further into despair. I honestly didn’t have a dime on me. I was barely making ends meet myself on a non-profit social service salary. My emotions were so raw from being so tired. I could have started crying as I passed the third person at the bottom of the steps also asking for any spare change. I found myself standing on the subway platform waiting for the train and feeling the tears well up in my eyes. I prayed again – though this time I did not ask God why but how. How were all these people going to be okay? How was I going to be okay? I had that feeling of vertigo as I thought about every person in the city, in the world needing help and how could God care for them all with attentive response. At that very moment, I looked down amid my dizziness and saw something on the ground. I widened my eyes to make it out clearly and fixed my focus on the area right in front of me. A little sparrow-like-bird hopped about around my feet. I laughed out loud. “What is a sparrow doing in the subway?”, I thought. The urban bird was really a sparling; but the nature of a small bird (like a sparrow) bore the image of a beloved promise for me and brought it back to my memory at the most opportune moment. I watched the little bird hip hop back and forth in front of me, sweetly chirping without a care in the world it seemed. I stood there mesmerized by its movements. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It fluttered around me for a few minutes and then, I kid you not, it whimsically chirped and hopped up the steps that led back to the turn style gate and out of the subway it flew. It was like God responded to my pleading question “how” with “how much more” (Matthew 6:26). My feelings of overwhelming burden became so much lighter as I waited on that dark subway platform. Tears of joy filled my eyes and I found myself smiling like I hadn’t smiled in a long time. I felt so loved by God. If the God of the universe could send a sparrow to encourage me in a dingy subway station, He most certainly could send whatever anyone else needed to keep them going. I mean, He sent Jesus for heaven’s sake! For heaven’s sake? Yes, God is always providing opportunities for us to connect with Him, so He can reconnect us to heaven.  He did not forsake earth or any of us when He sent Jesus as the quintessential solution to our problems (John 3:16).

That “sparrow sighting” has begun a long standing testimony of this theme. Every time I see those sparlings around town, I remember and smile. Friends have joined me in celebration of such imagery and have sent me images of sparrows at times to remind me of how God cares for me or how they have experienced His care for them. It’s become a sort of legacy of mine. When I’m boohooing to my dad about how hard life feels, he often asks me if I’ve seen any sparrows lately to nudge me not to forget God’s promise. I’ve added that Christmas bird’s nest as a great gift, reminding me once again of not simply my ability to trust God but God’s ability to help me keep trusting.

 

References:

  1. Paper cut out (birthday card to me) by Maggie Machledt-Girard 2013
  2. Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin
  3. Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe
  4. Unlocking the Mysteries of Life documentary
  5. Traveling Mercies by Annie Lamont
  6. Hind’s Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard

Ink Blots (Part 3 of 3): The Art of Forgetting

Inkblots3

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us….. God never hurries. There are no deadlines against which He must work. Only to know this is to quiet our spirits and relax our nerves.” A. W. Tozer

 

There is a very delicate balance between the value of remembering and forgetting. Too often, we forget what we should remember and we remember what we wish we could forget. Forgetting relevant and necessary information can inconvenience and even devastate daily life; but the same impact goes for remembering un-necessary and irrelevant memories and ideas. Such phenomenon can distract us from keeping our focus on our present worth and tasks at hand or hold us back from moving forward with ease and agility towards what we hope for. Contrary to what may make sense, the past and the future always linger in our present tense state of being and influence us in powerful ways. The art of forgetting is a mental method by which we maintain perspective on what matters most, ‘here and now’. Otherwise, we stumble and hinder ourselves from getting ‘there and then.’

The things that swirl in our brains at any given moment as well as the things that swirl in our universe itself (which incidentally our brains swirl in, as we consider what we swirl in) are incredibly complex systems. If we try to consider it all at once, our heads can spin off kilter. I have felt that feeling of vertigo when I try to comprehend too much at the same time. In fact, we are hard wired to compensate for this sensation – our bodily functions are divided into voluntary and involuntary operations to help us sanely survive. Think of what it would be like if we constantly had to remember to make our hearts beat or our lungs breathe. Think of what it would be like if we were consciously aware of every sensation we encounter in a moment while we try to manage decision making – every aroma, texture, visual detail, sounds compounded with calculating numbers, deciphering conversations etc. We’d keel over from the over-stimulation. There are moments when it is necessary to consider these factors, but only in proportion to the task we are aiming to complete. Our past experiences with all stimuli always have the potential to interfere with how we process our current train of thought and/or happenings in invalid ways. Our ability to enjoy or avoid some present factor can be readily influenced by our past happenstances. And our eagerness or hesitancy to get to the goal we are pursuing can falter our efforts in the process. Is your head spinning yet from all this consideration? Take a deep breath. Be still and simply know that we don’t have to have it all figured out right now. Discard the content from the past that seeks to sabotage our ability to do this. We so easily let guilt and shame dictate our present condition and we worry about the future in ways that inhibit our present capacity to truly be successful.

The practice of being still can also parallel the experience of how runners race. The first method provides us with the opportunity to readjust our body and mind. People who practice contemplative prayer use this exercise to help them focus on what is most important to most powerfully influence life factors. They simply repeat in a steady rhythm the phrase “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). To emphasize the power of being present with God and allowing God’s presence to be with us, they simplify this phrase word by word in their prayer time with each breath. They leave off the last word with each new breath. They pray, “be still and know that I am, be still and know that I, be still and know that,” until all that is left to say and pray is “be”. I have practice this meditative prayer method and found it powerfully grounding. The vertigo I feel dissipates and I can focus again in a way that is invigorating, purposeful and productive. For runners, the need to keep moving uses a similar methodology in a manner that provides perpetual motion and momentum. The apostle Paul describes this lifestyle practice so vividly and validly when he wrote to the church in Philippi. He wrote:

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

I love to run. Though I’m not a fierce competitor, I relish the experience of concentration and coordination. When I hit my stride, each step has a rhythmic beat and my body and mind feel in sync. My thoughts are focused, even if deeply occupied with one thing or another. It is not all things all at once, lest I lose my awareness of the terrain I currently tread and trip. There is a definite freedom in forgetting – I have come to appreciate Paul’s cheer when he detailed, “forgetting what is behind and straining for what is ahead”.

Forgetting is its own effort that takes place purposefully to dis-inhibit us from the heavy thoughts or memories that seek to weigh and slow us down. If I let go of such recall; I can run more effortlessly towards a certain duration or destination. But, I must take care in making sure my muscles and movement keep pace. God’s glory is my focus and motivation. Anything that encumbers this effort must be forgotten.

References:

  1. Consider; photograph by Kamyee Wong Ladas and Jamie Wasson 1998
  2. Pursuit of God by A. W. Tozer
  3. Diary of An Old Soul by George MacDonald