Six Months

IMG_0843Part of my Lenten practice this year is Seven Sun Salutations, at least, in part, for the alliterative value of that practice.  It reminds me of that bit on “Sesame Street” with the baker.  “Seven…sun…salutations!”  The other part is letting myself mourn my old life.  One of my godmothers mentioned to me that it was okay to do this.

It seems ungrateful.  I am reluctant to say anything negative about my move, since, after all, I chose it, and I am so lucky to get to do this, and you get to have all these great adventures, and blah, blah, blah, but my godmother said I could, so I will.

“You had roots,” she said.  I did.  I mean, I do.

Last Friday I went straight from work to Penn Station.  One of my classes on Friday was quite unpleasant.  I will repeat that my limits allow for kids yelling, not sitting down, throwing small objects, using profanity.  They do not allow for kids touching me, yelling profanity at me (once or twice a year max), throwing anything that could actually hurt anyone.  The unpleasant hour was within my limits.  Merely I won’t shut up, I won’t sit down, I won’t do any work.  With my freshmen, they are certainly not perfectly behaved, but on our bad days, instituting a bit of silent reading time has always been enough to settle us to productivity.  Not Friday.

Year nine of teaching, and yes, I still have times, days, I think, maybe I am not cut out for this.  I suck.  I do not have that je ne sais quoi that makes people listen.  MLK had that, but then, so did Hitler.

The previous day, I had taken kids on a great field trip, got to see lots of them smile and say things like, “I’ve never eaten dumplings before!” and one kid had written me this uber-sweet thank you letter.

There are some things in teaching I’m good at, some I’m not.

I finished my day with a teacher meeting where we shared some of our regrets, weaknesses, and fears.  That helped.

Being a teacher fosters both pride and humility.  Lots of both.

The train ride to Philadelphia was long enough I felt myself come back into my body.  I pulled my suitcase from the train station to the art museum.  A guy in front of me on the sidewalk said I looked French.  The beret.  Then he said he had met some Italian tourists recently who asked how to get to “Baltimoray.”  Doesn’t everything sound better in Italian?  Of course it does, we agree.

Everyone at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was elaborately friendly.  It was like I was in Georgia, but no one had an accent.  “Is there anything else I can do for you?  Anything in particular you want to see?”  the ticket sellers said.  “Hi, how are you?” several of the guards said as I walked by.  I can’t remember a museum guard ever greeting me.

I met my cousin that evening, and he hugged me.  We went out to dinner, and someone said, “I can tell you’re related.”

The next day I met an old friend, and she said offhandedly, “You know how I am,” and I do.

Between the two of them, they have known me 54 years.

I miss being able to help people because I know who they should talk to, where they should go for this or that.  I miss playing hostess, which I did a lot during my mansion days.  I miss introducing people to each other, hoping they will enjoy each other’s company or somehow benefit each other.  I miss knowing what is going on.  I miss having so many people I love spending time with, time that is hours of just talking.  I miss knowing where I want to go, what I want to eat.

At the Philadelphia museum, I saw this piece by Michael Snow.  Snow took a metal tub and set objects in it, poured in some grey liquid plastic, put more random stuff in, poured more plastic in.  On the left is the now-hardened bin.  On the right is a pile of white gloves.  In the middle are 22 wooden slabs.  A Philadelphia-friendly brunette young woman says, “Would you like to participate in our interactive display here?”

Of course I would.  I put on the gloves and pawed through the pile of slabs, as directed.  They are images of the tub being created, object by object, gluey grey plastic and more gluey grey plastic.  Things being engulfed.  They were in that tub now.  Sort of.  They were no longer accessible.

“Sesame Street” Seven with the Baker

Giving Up

This year for Lent I let everything fall apart.  Primarily, my belief that if I practiced some technique carefully and fervently enough, I would feel good.  For the second year, I let my abstention from alcohol and chocolate go.  I picked up meditating again for a while, and then I let that go, too.  I didn’t carry anything with me.  Nothing made it special, except the decorations at church and my own deeply ingrained feeling, from Christian practice fitting me like a glove, and generations of observance before me in my blood.  I knew it was Lent.

If you’ve grown up Christian, you’ve heard the Passion story so many times it’s hard to notice it.  Jesus basically has the worst day you can imagine.  The details of the worstness are both touchingly human (your friends are nowhere to be found when you’re in trouble) and absurdly exotic (people offer you a sponge soaked in wine).  You’ve got your emotional suffering, your physical suffering, your fear of being snatched up by the authorities, and it all culminates in the fear of death.  It’s a no good, very bad day.

Spiritual movement is about letting more and more things go, until finally you are only carrying what is yours: a soul, maybe, a spirit, a sight, a sound, an impulse, a knowing.  This year I let go of my long-cherished image of myself as Always Perfectly Healthy.  I’ve been working on letting go of I Must Move to New York To Be Real, and I Desperately Want To Have Children Before It’s Too Late Except When I Don’t, and My Life Doesn’t Actually Begin Until I’m Securely Coupled.  My toughest, which will probably occupy the rest of my life, is I Am Perfectly Fine, Thank You.  These scripts don’t really do much for me but keep my brain occupied.  I’d rather look at paintings and watch movies and read books and talk to friends and write.  I’d even rather do the dishes while feeling the water and listening to the scrub of the brush.

In the Passion story, Jesus gives up his friends, his family, his body, his physical life.  He doesn’t give up his emotions or his pain.  He’s sad and angry and confused.  He’s hurting.  It’s a great story because someone, after it happened, felt that God was with Jesus through the whole business, and that nothing about who Jesus was became diminished by his (probably ignominious) death.  In fact, they felt his message get stronger, and bolder, and brighter, as time went on.  Which is a real miracle.

Size Matters

This week I drank a glass of merlot at happy hour.  It was no big deal to anyone except me.  For many years, I gave up alcohol for Lent.  I felt like I needed to rethink my ritual, so I decided I would be easier on myself.  I’m calling this a “soft Lent.”  I would mostly give up chocolate and alcohol.  If I felt like I needed to be looser and kinder to myself, I would have a damn drink or eat a silly cookie.

I have been thinking about hope.  It’s Lent just now, so church is 80% repenting, buoyed by 20% hope.  We couldn’t have Lent at all if we didn’t know Easter party time was at the end.  The arrangements on the altar now are brown branches, no green at all.  Somebody wrapped our cross in scarlet film this year, rather than covering St. Peter, Christ, and St. John the Evangelist with our Lenten screen.  I was glad.  The screen is fine: a crown of thorns, a chalice and wafer.  I really miss the paintings of the guys when they’re covered up, though.  I like to see them and be like, what’s up, guys?

I ordered the wine after I got invited to happy hour and realized that I was feeling pretty down, and I ought to go wrap myself in the company of cheerful people.  So I drank my wine, sort of expecting to be struck by lighting, but instead laughing at how we faced a whole table of men, all of whom seemed to be staring at us, since The Game was on the TVs right above our heads.

The lesson last Sunday was about Abram (still Abram) being shown all the stars.  God says, I’m going to give you all these descendants, and Abram is like, yeah, right.  Then some creepy stuff happens where God proves He means it by levitating a torch through the halves of a goat carcass or something.  (I tried humor the author here, since he was writing a bazillion years ago.)

This story is about expanding horizons.  It’s someone saying, “This place is huge.  Big.  No, bigger.  Much bigger.  Your life could be much, much bigger.”  So big that it’s okay to stop drinking wine for a while if it makes you feel like an A-plus Episcopalian, and it’s also okay to settle for a C, or even an F if your day is a stupid F level day.

Lent is a good time to try to refocus yourself, which could mean experimenting with limits.  I have benefited from these limits– learned about how painful and how silly it is when fear you will DIE without a cookie.  Craving a cookie, I can often laugh at myself and the whole world.  Life is just full of ridiculous burning cravings that could could quickly fade if you are watching for favorite TV show.

This year, I think my more important challenge is to see the big picture, the full sky, and consider which limits are healthy, and which ones make me feel small and hopeless.

To Ashes

I used to find the ashes creepy.  Everyone in this church will die.  Every old person, young person, baby, and flower in this church will die.  (I think all our flowers are real.)  As they come down the steps,  I would imagine their funerals.  What will be said?  Where will it be?  Will a lot of people come?  Who of all their family and friends will survive to mourn the loss?  Where will they be buried or thrown to the winds?

That sounds depressing.  This year, I also thought: what a relief.  You may think your problems and your schedule and your angst are a big deal.  You’re gonna die anyway.  Ash Wednesday suggests you might compare your ego and your problems to the entire universe.  Or, more colloquially, dude, give it a rest.

A hundred years ago, there was a completely different set of people at my church.  A hundred years from now, if it’s still there, if people still think Ash Wednesday mass is valuable, the worshippers will be a completely different cast of characters.  Something has held people to this ritual for centuries.  Something has held people to these rituals on that very spot since 1898.

They were very important– helping build and maintain a church I love– and very unimportant– mostly forgotten, all dead and buried.  I know they worried about work and money and their loved ones.  And now they don’t have anything to worry about.  They are said and done.  They are ashes.

Giving Up

So, it’s that special day of the year set aside by the church for perfectionists to freak out about what else they ought to be doing, and start doing (or not doing) that thing like gangbusters for 40 days plus Sundays.  They say “sacrifice” and they say “pay attention to what matters” or “do more good,” but honestly I hear: “Perfectionists, get ready, get set, go.”

I spend the week before Mardi Gras running my brain around like I’m rehearsing it for a dog show.  Run, and leap, and prance.  Run, and leap, and prance.  (It’s just that boring, too.)  Is giving up booze for Lent still meaningful to me?  What is supposed to mean?  Or is it just a cultural thing to me now, like my Easter basket?  That isn’t spiritual, but it’s part of my holiday.

This year, still smarting from breaking up with my boyfriend, I feel antsy at the thought of giving up anything.  Haven’t I given up enough lately?  I’m not sure I can get past my resentment to a more generous place.

Nice thoughtful people flood me with ideas.  You can give money for Lent.  Or time.  You can pray.  Or meditate.  Or exercise.  Or read some spiritual stuff.  If the practice is such a great habit to have, I think, well, I ought to be doing it anyway, all year.  I do meditate most days, exercise a couple times a week.  I’m already a vegetarian, so I can’t give up meat.

I’ve thought about drawing every day– I already write every day– but that makes drawing seem like sort of a punishment, and what if I burn out my enthusiasm for it?

I like using a Lenten practice because it can mean taking a hard look at things, trying to be more honest and more tough.  My love of doing difficult things and trying to be tough is not always beneficial, though.  Sometimes it makes me take myself too seriously.  Or it can encourage me to avoid asking for help.  Lent isn’t supposed to feed your demons, that’s for sure.

First, you have to feel like you have plenty.  You can’t consider sacrifice or sharing until you are relaxed.  You have to have this “enough” feeling.  I can get that feeling at church, or meditating, or soaking in art I love, or sitting down after unloading all my weekly groceries.

I’d love to think I could get it sitting in the dirt picking at the boils the devil sent me while my friends tell me I’ve brought it all on myself, but luckily I haven’t been tested to such an extreme.

Once you know, really know, that you have what you need, you can think about what is extra.  What you can give, or give up, from your generosity.  Giving from resentment is risky.  For you, and for the people who receive the gift.

I’m not sure what is extra for me right now.  At least today, on Ash Wednesday, I feel like I need everything I have, and possibly a bunch of stuff I lack.  But maybe I’ll get there.

Holy Water

Although he is regularly served expensive food, my white cat thinks I’m trying to starve him to death.  He woke up early on Orthodox Easter, found the beet-red boiled egg I’d been given, and chewed one end of it off.  Scattered around the gnawed egg, I found the pastel foil-wrapped chocolates the priest had sprinkled with holy water.

At the service I attended the night before, my friend held her three-year-old son in her lap.  He wiggled and touched her face.  He wore a little vest and tie and suit pants, reminding me of the little clothes I pulled onto my baby brother’s limbs, only sixteen years ago.

I loved how we passed the light, candle to candle, in the pitch-dark room.  We do that at my church, too, and it’s gorgeous every time.  With our flames in hand, we left the sanctuary to circle the building.  This was a new thing for me.  Off to the west, lightning tapped on and off.  All around the building, and I was mostly thinking about how to hold my candle and trying not to run into anything.

When we got back to the front door, the priests and choir did some singing and proclaiming, basically winding up for the Easter pitch.  One, then two, then four drops fell on my head, and I thought, will we really stand out here with the priests in the bright cream brocade, the torches, the big gold starts on poles, the incense, and let the rain pour down on us?  I wondered, and wondered, and then we went inside.

I loved singing the same three phrases a million times: “Christ is risen from the dead/trampling down death by death/and on those in the tombs bestowing life.”  We don’t repeat much of anything in the Anglican prayer book.  That means you have only one time to let it sink in.  I appreciate repeating words.  It takes into account the slow, dumb nature of humans.  After singing it twelve or twenty times, I actually started to think about “those in the tombs.”

Children in the sanctuary were wrapped in sleeping bags, fleece blankets, and Dad jackets.  They slept and dozed and were walked up and down the aisle.  The service had started at midnight.  Then it was one.  Two.  (At my church, we do a long Easter Vigil, but it starts at eight, not midnight.)  We were all probably drifting in and out of focus.  Only the children could show their ebb and flow, their eyes closed or open, their bodies still or squirming.

I also loved hearing the lessons and singing in many languages: Greek, Russian, Latin, Spanish, Urdu, Belarusian.  Especially the opening of John’s gospel in Greek.  I studied ancient Greek to be able to read that piece in the original language.  If you have that piece of literature, you don’t need anything else.  It’s poetry, theology, philosophy.

After the service, we went outside again to bless the Easter baskets.  I put Spanish wine and chocolates in mine.  The others had candy and liquor, but also meat, bread, and dairy– they had observed Lent much more strictly.  Our candles were used again, this time to light up the baskets, kind of like birthday cakes.  The priest held a three-pronged candelabra and blessed our treats and how much we would enjoy them.

The evening culminates in a feast, down in the parish hall.  I’ve seen a lot of drinking, but I’ve never seen grown people gulp bottles of beer so gleefully.  That holy water must be effective… on people, and on cats.

Winter’s Last Grab

Theoretically, the arrival of spring is inevitable.  It doesn’t feel inevitable in April.  We get handed a day of sun and short sleeves, the forsythia squint out, and then winter yanks us back.  Today is forty degrees, overcast as a trenchcoat, and the wind slaps everyone in the face.  Grow up!  It’s not spring yet!

Last Friday evening, I wore a summer dress under a cardigan and a winter coat.  My boyfriend and I made rounds of art galleries.  He walked up to me holding a cup of beer, and I could smell the alcohol underlying the grainy bouquet. 

It’s still winter, and it’s still Lent.  I miss drinking.  The poisonous streak of alcohol, then the flavor in my mouth, down my throat.  Then it turns my blood from calm magenta to fluorescent and squealing.  I can live without it, just as I can live in long underwear and wool hat and long boots.  But the abstemious life is isolated and itchy.

During Palm Sunday church, we read the whole Passion story, for the benefit of everyone who doesn’t hit the extra Holy Week services.  Some people would miss Jesus’ death all together, and be completely confused by his surprise appearance at Easter next week.

I like how Peter freaks out.  Every time you trust something to save you, it ends up getting crucified.  Every time you are inspired, you are shocked by the death of inspiration.  It just happens that way. 

I think the Passion story is about how people survive disillusionment.  People somehow move toward new beliefs and new opportunities.  Regardless of whether some Jesus person in any way came back to life, I believe that resurrection is real. 

Eventually, spring will win.  Although this Sunday I held my paper next to my wool coat and shivered, some Sunday soon I will stand at that same intersection, with my arm bare, glowing in the sun.  From shivering, we will glow, and then sweat, and then go back around again. 

Where most religions emphasized the circular sense of the year, and of life, Christianity has a streak of linear energy, messiah-seeking, a future orientation.  Christianity relishes spring.  Worships spring.  Fetishizes spring.

The winter is still in front of us.  We’ll kneel and mourn and listen to the gory details of Holy Week’s winter, only because we hope spring is inevitable.