Category Archives: Social Justice

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

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

Xmas2017

“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

Joy Comes in the Mourning

joy in mourning

“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

      – Psalm 30:5b

“The people must sing”.

      – Martin Luther; paraphrased by Eric Mataxas

The past three months, I feel like every time I turn on the news there is another story of sorrow. Devastation from multiple hurricanes, forest fires, earthquakes, shootings and bombs skyrocketing are the ongoing saga. I’ve had to limit my news consumption at times – not to ignore the pain of those affected but to protect myself from becoming enmeshed in the sadness. During this same season, I have had the immediate effect of a heavy heart from the situational distress of loved ones – job loss, health problems, relationship struggles etc. It all gets to be so overwhelming. I’m of the more melancholic kind, so I can easily lapse into despair if I let my focus be solely on the darkness of our days.

But during these past few months, I had an interesting experience that helped to turn my attention towards joy in the midst of mourning. While watching news coverage from hurricane ravaged Texas after Harvey swept through, I observed something notably wonderful. The news was highlighting interviews of people standing outside their once livable homes, now uninhabitable. The people choked back tears as they talked about their loss and hopelessness. I listened and wiped away a tear or two of my own. Then, during one interview while the heartbroken survivor spoke, I heard something in the background that I could not ignore. It was the sound of birds singing in the trees. Despite the state of even tree limbs missing or leaves blown to the next town, birds were singing – a chirpy joyous tune. It seemed ironic and even absurd to hear such sounds as the backdrop of such sad on -the-ground reporting. The people questioned how to find ways to move forward while the birds sang sweetly in the trees – a song of hope? I was listening to all of this via television over a thousand miles away from that scene and wondered if the people there could hear the song being sung feet away from them in real time. I was awestruck by the whole scene and then remembered a similar experience almost two decades ago.

I recalled living during the aftermath of 911. My housemate at the time and I turned to each other a day or so after the tragedy and noted to each other the silence outside. We huddled inside, glued to the TV, as most were those days; but we sensed the ubiquitous mourning by even nature. We commented to each other that the birds were noticeably silent and even the kids typically playing on our block were no where to be seen. Sadness definitely hung in the air, especially where I lived in the northeast, being so close to ground zero. Then another day or two later, my housemate and I turned to each other almost at the same time when we heard familiar sounds outside. We heard birds singing again. We both seemed to contagiously rejoice together with smiles and laughter.  Amid, the ongoing mourning that continued to trudge on during those days as recovery efforts and investigative pleas had not yet subsided and wounds of loss were still so raw, the birds had an instinctual need to sing. Likewise, we heard the joyous sounds of children instinctually playing outside again. My observation of such phenomenon then and now proves to me that in the midst of mourning, joy can exist, must exist.

By joy, I am not implying disregard for sadness or overlooking obvious loss. Indeed, I am referring to something deep in the DNA of nature that wants to sing, play and rejoice because of something more deeply rooted than sorrow. I suppose this may be referred to as resilience but I do not want to categorize this instinctual response in simple psychological terms. Joy, for me as I observe its reality among humanity and nature at large, stems from something divine. In the midst of brokenness, God is there revealing our truest nature, proven by the expression of joy. The first Christmas occurred in this way. Jesus was born (God with us) in the midst of horrific realities. The gospel of Luke details how an angel appeared to shepherds and announced Jesus’ birth saying, “Behold I bring you tidings of great joy…” (Luke 2:10 – 11). Oh, it is worth mentioning that the angel first said, “Fear not…” (Luke 2:10a). Such preface acknowledges that fear was present but so was joy. The shepherds could have easily responded with either “Yeah, right” or “So what” but they didn’t. they joined in the rejoicing by going to see Jesus and then going to tell others about the miracle they witnessed.

I feel like I saw a miracle in that news reel. In the midst of despair, a joyous song can be sung – if the birds can do it after their habitat has been destroyed, then can’t we as humans? Such rejoicing is not diminishing the value of what was lost; it is about declaring, first, that the story was never meant to be like this and that, indubitably, restoration is possible. The coming of Jesus to earth (God in flesh) is the very act of God mourning with us and, more significantly, inviting us to be part of a new story, a new song. As another Christmas nears, it will no doubt be a challenge for those who have experienced difficult seasons of life this year, I pray that they and I, in a new, way, can experience joy as it was meant to be – as we were created to experience and express it. Later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus quotes a seven-hundred-year old prophecy and declares that such reality is found in Him. Jesus said:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61:1 – 3a)

There are plenty of reasons to mourn; but because of Jesus, there is a reason to rejoice in the midst of that mourning. Let the birds’ singing remind us every morning that there is still a song of joy in our hearts wanting, needing to be sung.

References:

  1. Photo of Steve Wasson by Joe Gough 2008
  2. Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World and Rediscovered God by Eric Mataxas
  3. The Jesus I Never Knew by Phillip Yancey
  4. Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

 

Pondering These Things

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As a birth professional and as a woman and, most telling, as a mere mortal, I’ve been pondering these things for a long time. The following are pieces of narrative of how the story has been told thus far. I offer these words, that are not my own, to reveal how the story is so much bigger than me and yet includes me just the same. I have tried to string the following words together like Christmas lights to shine into dark places that long for hope to come.  I continue to consider how such subtle and obvious rays of light and threads of grace and mercy, joy and love, blessings overcoming curses are woven in the fabric of time’s tale. I could offer my own commentary but I am letting the words of others throughout time speak for themselves. I have been most impacted by listening, and then listening again, and again – Christmas after Christmas, day after day. With each birth I witness, I understand a little bit more of how amazing humanity is and, most revealing, how awesomely God loves us to have taken the form of humanity to undo what has been done, what we have done to ourselves. With each breath, I can breathe in something fresh to not only sustain physical survival but, because of Christmas, every breath can stimulate spiritual vitality to thrive as it was meant to.  So without further ado:

“In the beginning…God created human beings in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number…fill the whole earth’…and God saw all that He had made and it was very good.  Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden…in the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And the Lord God commanded the man saying, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die’…and the serpent said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?…when the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it…then to the woman God said, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.”

– Genesis 1:1, 27-28; 2:8, 15-17; 3:1-8, 16

“It is always winter and never Christmas.”

-C.S. Lewis; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

“Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will be called Immanuel…Before she goes into labor, she gives birth;
before the pains come upon her, she delivers a son. Who has ever heard of such things? Who has ever seen things like this? Can a country be born in a day or a nation be brought forth in a moment? Yet no sooner is Zion in labor than she gives birth to her children. Do I bring to the moment of birth and not give delivery?” says the Lord. “Do I close up the womb when I bring to delivery?” says your God. Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice greatly with her, all you who mourn over her. For you will nurse and be satisfied at her comforting breasts; you will drink deeply and delight in her overflowing abundance.

– Isaiah 7:14; 66:7-11

And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

– Luke 1:46-55

“…the attending ministry she was offered: to bear in her womb infinite weight and lightness; to carry in hidden, finite inwardness, nine months of Eternity; to contain in slender vase of being… Then bring to birth, push out into air, a Man-child needing like any other, milk and love – but who was God. This was the moment no one speaks of, when she could still refuse. A breath unbreathed, Spirit, suspended, waiting,..Consent, courage unparalleled, opened her utterly.”

– Denise Levertov; Annunciation

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so we can fear less.”

– Marie Curie (1867 – 1934

“But when the set time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to be His children.”

– Galatians 4:4-5

“Hark the herald angels sing, ‘Gory to the newborn King’. Peace on earth and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled. Joyful all ye nations rise; join the triumph of the skies. Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King’. Christ by highest heaven adored; Christ the everlasting Lord. Laid in time, behold Him come, offspring of a virgin’s womb. Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity. Pleased with man with man to dwell – Jesus, our Immanuel. Hark the herald angels sing, ‘glory to the newborn King’. Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the son of Righteousness!  Light and life to all He brings. Risen with healing in His wings. Mild he lays His glory by; born that men may no more die. Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth. Hark the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King’.”

– Charles Wesley, 1739

“They kept asking, ‘What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.’ Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, ‘Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.”

– John 16:18-21

“All must endure great travail and conflict when they are first converted to the Lord, but later they have unspeakable joy. They are like people trying to light a fire, the smoke gets in their eyes, their eyes begin to water, but they succeed in what they want. It is written ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:29), and so we must kindle divine fire with tears and trouble.”

– Anna Syncletica; 5th century desert mother

“For You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You because I am marvelously made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are Your thoughts,, oh God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand— when I awake, I am still with You.

        – Psalm 139:13-18

“May today there be peace within.  May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.  May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.  May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.  May you be content knowing you are a child of God.”

– St. Teresa of Avila 1577

 

Photo by Jamie Wasson; Mother and child from birth she attended, 2015

 

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

 

Blind Optimism (Part 1 of 2)

the eye of God

There are times, mostly at night, when I find it necessary to use a white cane to navigate my way. I was trained in high school to use such a tool by gifted folks known as orientation and mobility specialists. Their job was to teach me how to be as independent as possible, though ironically this usually entails relying on some kind of device or method. While they taught me much about using my own capacity in tandem with handy gadgets to make daily life activities more manageable, I think their fundamental specialty was teaching me how to have confidence not simply in specific tools and techniques but in myself. I could never feel fully comfortable using any type of aid unless I was first comfortable in my own skin, my own skill. There are more times than I’d like to admit when I find it humbling (even humiliating) to have to depend on another’s capacity to boost my own capabilities. The root of my distress comes down to simply feeling incapable. This is the underlying definition of being ‘disabled’ in an autonomous sense. I am ‘unable’ to do something as I once did, as others do or as I wish I could do. There seems to be an intrinsic partnership between ‘help’ and ‘humility’. One cannot exist without the other; otherwise, life becomes very lonely as well as inert. None of us can exist independently of something or someone. ‘Interdependence’ allows us to truly live life to its fullest. These are basic laws of physics, right? Why, then, do I pretend to exist as though I don’t need to rely on anything or anyone to feel fully human? Such a false pretense disengages me from knowing what life is really about, who I am as a whole person and, most significantly, who God is first and foremost. These three realities engage with one another to form a limitless ability to live.

When I use my white cane, I sway it back and forth like a metronome, skimming the ground’s surface as I go. I sway it slightly wider than my body’s width, tapping each outer edge, keeping a rhythmic beat with each step. Left, right, left, right – tap, tap, tap, tap. Time ticks and my cane clicks in sync, helping me make my way. Despite how smooth or unobstructed the path is before me, I can still get tripped up if I forget to synchronize my steps with the sway of my walking stick. At times, I have to intentionally focus on the task, while other times it seems to occur as second nature. Yet, my primary nature is to want to walk out the door with nothing but my own two feet to trek along. Over the years, this reckless abandonment of leaving behind such a useful support shifts to regret when I later realize how handy it would have been. Initially, there is a uncomfortable humility in being so overtly seen by others as a person with limitations that requires something like a white cane or magnifying glass to do something as seemingly simple as crossing a street or reading a price tag. But even if I stubbornly dismiss reliance on any inanimate aid, inevitably I must ask for help from someone, friend or foe, to successfully complete a desired task – humility at its finest hour. Though I confess, walking into poles, people and door frames, tripping over curbs and cracks in sidewalks are even more humbling, especially when it could have been avoided with the proper tools. Now adays, I frequently keep my cane folded in my bag with me, just in case. I don’t need to use it all the time, though I do find myself using it more often than in years past. It may be because my vision has decreased a bit since childhood; yet, perhaps it is because I am increasingly redefining humility as a true virtue rather than a vice to be overcome. The more I practice this virtue, it seems the more readily and with ease I admit my needs and accept help in some useful form. It is ironic how the more reliance I confess I need, the more freedom I experience and the more efficiently I live.

I can’t always anticipate the terrain I’ll trek or the return time of my excursions. I’ve realized how I’ve developed a confident humility to utilize all known supports to feel capable. When I use my cane, particularly at night, I find myself walking with more ease and welcoming the information my cane provides for me to overcome obstacles along my path. My white cane is also a signal for others that I am visually impaired – this is a good thing. It can imperatively transform into a white flag, communicating the message that I surrender to the notion that I want to be noticed. In the event I miss a traffic signal or enter a store, there is a socially acceptable identity that I may need extra help. I’m not simply perceived as oblivious or idiosyncratic but that I actually have a legit reason for acting the way I do. I can’t be shy about being seen in certain contexts. I want to be seen. Holding my cane signifies that my limitation to see may require others to adjust their own observation skills. Seeing and being seen is an interdependent occurrence. The same is true for any sensation – touch equates being touched, hearing elicits sounds exchanged etc. There is mystery and risk involved in considering these connections, which is best described as perception. I don’t always know how someone will perceive me or even help me, regardless of whether or not I use a white cane, wheelchair or fog horn. In basic relational attachment theory terms, the experience of being misperceived or overlooked can best be described as feeling rejected. This can directly influence whether or not we fully attempt connection again, especially if we cannot clearly and accurately qualify how great the risk. If we are unsure how successful or safe our efforts to be supported will turn out, we may not bother trying at all; or we may choose the connection with the least resistance, which may turn out to be the least healthy option and further impair our sensibility.

It is easy to go through life like a zombie, responding merely to primitive perceptions of one’s surroundings, aimlessly wandering around according to brain stem impulses. But I’m always intrigued at how I perceive the world when I am consciously and confidently humble enough to rely on something or someone. There is an expanded awareness that activates of how life is meant to be lived. Initially, I must contend with the human condition of interpreting what I come in contact with. I must evaluate how reliable a person or piece of equipment may or may not be to assist me. My calculations are not always accurate. For starters, my white cane does not always permit me to quantify the depth of puddles. This has resulted in the unpleasantry of trekking the rest of my journey with wet and often cold feet. My cane or even my own feet also cannot detect low lying tree branches. It’s a miracle I still have eyeballs when I think about near misses or head on collisions I’ve had with tree limbs. People prove to react curiously at times too. Once in a while, someone over-exerts themselves to help me by grabbing my arm and leading me in the opposite direction of where I intended to go. Some others just stare blankly at me as if I had asked them to build me a rocket, when all I asked was what train stop we pulled up to. These anecdotal situations reveal a deeper disconnect for me though – I’m left to depend on myself more than others. Thus, I find myself meticulously trying to plan things to avoid mishaps and strange encounters. I methodically review my purse contents before leaving the house to ensure I have all necessary items to master my mission. I strategize routes and places, especially if I am not familiar with a certain destination. I memorize train times, bus routes, addresses and plot coordinates according to landmarks and street corners. However, despite doing all this, I have experienced intense moments of panic when I become disoriented to a location or get lost in route somewhere. Whatever confidence I started out with dissipates quickly and I feel like a bewildered little girl all over again. All sensational information becomes dissident noise until I steady myself, take a deep breath and find something familiar to re-orient my way. This also involves taking time to study where I’ve come from, where I think I am and where I’m hoping to get to. In these moments, panic and impatience only compromises my attempts and confuses me more. I have to calm my breathing, my thoughts and any feeling of defeat and fear with mindful repose. If not, the tears emerge and all I want to do is go home. During more than one of these occasions, I’ve wished I was Dorothy and could just click my heels three times to be magically whisked back to the inside of my house. These adventures, however, play out more like Alice in Wonderland, requiring me to confront rather than escape the discomfort of feeling lost to find my way home. Alas, such effort helps me resume grounded reality and I realize getting anywhere necessitates an intentional and internal sense of calm to occur, so I can clearly consider my options. Sometimes I think I am too ambitious, which is its own stumbling block; but then I realize that it is that same ambition that reminds me to access a Sacred Compass to help me resume calm and courage to get my bearings and press on with purpose.

Any type of orientation (even being disoriented or re-orienting oneself) connotes that a relationship exists or has been challenged to exist. Our whole life is about relating to something or someone. From the womb to the grave, we are letting go as well as receiving connection from another to survive. There are transfers of connections from one resource to another but always connection nonetheless – some connections are healthier than others. My sensitivity to this process and how it works has increased throughout my life. So often I’m required to assess and reassess my surroundings in order to make the simplest decisions more manageable. Despite my own best efforts, I feel like asking permission or clarification assistance has become my modus operandi to get through any given day.

Sometimes I feel so child-like relying on another’s queue just to cross the street or press debit on the swipe machine at the store. I’ve wandered around retail shops and supermarkets browsing and hoping to purchase a new outfit or groceries for the week, only to walk out the door empty handed. I follow up later with a call to a friend or family member to go with me to ensure I find what I’m looking for. I do frequently ask the sales person or customer service desk but I hesitate at times to pester them with questions I can more easily ask someone who knows me. Less explaining may be needed with a familiar companion and less guessing at what works best. Maybe this preference is simply about avoiding the ongoing vulnerability of constantly self-disclosing the parts of me that feel incapable; though maybe it is also about celebrating the ongoing support of specific people who give me grace to be me without pretending that I’m perfectly capable. There is comfort in being able to rely on something/someone consistently. Even though I must wait till such friend or family member can synchronize calendars with me, it is worth the wait. It is also worth noting how consistency of frequenting the same stores and settings creates connections of familiarity and accepted routines. Self-disclosure doesn’t seem as scary or inconvenient because there is already an anticipation of what may be needed. The debut of online shopping has remedied some of these social transactions but not completely. I still often rely on better eyes than mine to navigate websites. What may take the average sighted person ten minutes to order or register for some item can take me three times that, resulting in eye fatigue and soul frustration. Assessing the cost to benefit ratio of attempting something on my own proves it is worth asking and even waiting for help. Oh but there is definitely a significant moment of pride I feel when I can perform a task like finding the toilet bowl cleaner I like at a store on my own.

These seemingly little triumphs boost my confidence but they are not without the inevitable humility factor of buying it – I ask for help with the swipe machine and then have to wait for the bus or train to escort me and my purchase back home. And don’t even get me started about eating at buffets, using ATMs and getting around construction sites that block the sidewalk. Just when I think I can do something all by myself, I face the facts that I still need help. And that’s okay. That’s the true essence of optimistic living – having humility to know we need help and to know that help comes when we need it.

 

References:

Photo: The Eye of God, celestial nebula

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.

 

The Seven Words – seventh prayer

Cross7

 

Today’s Bible passage and an excerpt 

Read Luke 23:44-49

Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.

More thoughts for meditation

We have come to the end of a week’s journey of praying through what is known as The Seven Words or The Way of the Cross. This spiritual practice is a contemplative prayer method that has, hopefully, helped us this week to move deeper into the reality of what Christ did on the cross to give us salvation from sin and direct access to God. Such forgiveness and relationship, in turn, gives us new connection with one another. Because of Christ, we can live life on earth (and one day in heaven) together, no longer isolated – from sharing resources and supporting each other during difficult times. Because of Christ, we have hope that we will survive and thrive, even in the moment of death.

Jesus’ seventh and final statement on the cross before he died was actually the reality of what it is to truly live, because of his death. It may seem counterintuitive to think this way. In part, it is. As we began our journey this week, we recalled Jesus’ words to his disciples before he endured the cross that “whoever wants to be my disciple must take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). By this, did Jesus mean personal death? To answer this question, we have gone deep this week and are trying to go deeper into Jesus’ meaning, which implies death is needed to live. When the first humanity disconnected themselves from God due to a selfish decision, living life with God openly and freely required an intervention, a sacrifice. We recalled, while praying through Jesus’ fourth statement, that the first sacrifice occurred in Genesis by God to allow humanity to not feel ashamed in approaching God. That first sacrifice began thousands of years of traditional sacrifices of animals, on the behalf of people, to remove sin’s separating reality between us and God. This repetitive bloodshed was no longer needed when Jesus declared it to be so, as we prayed through his sixth statement. The finality of being separated from God was confirmed with Jesus’ final statement when he said aloud, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”. Jesus committed his life into the hands of his Maker.

Such commitment suggests two vital things: First, there is an acknowledgement that one’s life belongs to a caregiver. This requires trust in the one giving care – that the entrusted will be cared for without neglect. Second, there is a surrendering of self that has taken place. Because one trusts the caregiver completely to provide care accordingly, there is no doubt present to suggest otherwise, nor competing will to assert another (a better) way of caring. C.S. Lewis described the antithesis of this kind of commitment as “the great sin”. Lewis identified pride as the most significant stumbling block that keeps us from “taking up our cross”. Taking up our cross means we acknowledge Jesus’ death should have been our death. Taking up our cross means to no longer identify with our own attempts to be good, or be in charge or exist on our own; but rather, we identify with Jesus as the best Way to live. Humility is essential to carry this out this way, to carry the cross and follow Jesus. Pride and humility cannot co-exist. We saw this play out in the Garden of Eden, as we reflected this week, when Adam and Eve did not trust God to know best, and then they could not undo what they had done without God intervening. God, through Christ is the once and for all intervention that reconciles us with God and proves God is trustworthy to care for us forever. Jesus declaring his commitment to the origin of his life, before he breathed his last, is our example of how to live. After all, he knew that his last breath was going to be transformed into resurrection.

Suggestions for Action

Pray: “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.”

Use not only Jesus’ words but his work on the cross, for us, be your life identity. Acknowledge that God, your Creator, is the best one to care for you, no other. Surrender yourself, your pride of thinking you know best. Allow God’s Spirit to hold your spirit and help guide you as you continue to walk the Way of the Cross.

 

 

Reposted from Circle of Hope Daily Prayer; Water