Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Connoisseur of life

This practice of learning to see has many flavors. I suppose it's not unlike developing my taste buds to the point of subtle distinction, like a connoisseur. A connoisseur of life.

Some tastes are more palatable than others. Tastes linger on the tongue, pleasant and soft, bold, bitter, sharp, mild, full-bodied, complimentary, fruity, tangy, tart, crisp, sweet, exotic, familiar, nostalgic, savory, earthy, peculiar, mysterious, rich, creamy, hearty, soothing, refreshing, warming, spicy, tantalizing, smoky, nutty, invigorating, clean. So many options for taste; and then, add in the layers of texture, aroma and context.

Such is the complexity of a moment experienced and savored as a gift of unique flavor. How often do I stop and savor even the mundane flavors, fill myself up with thanks for even these?

But today. Today I'm savoring a moment from yesterday. Not a serious, profound, contemplative moment, but an important moment nonetheless. A let-myself-shake-from-the-belly-and-fill-up-with-the-humor-of-simple-things kind of moment. I savor the flavor of this humor.

In the form of a staunch chihuahua named Fez.

The vet scolds, saying he should be around seven pounds instead of his nearly double that size. He's happy, king of the house, announcing his presence to us at the dinner table. At our feet, unseen, sending up pleas for a taste of Korean barbecue. He waits, until he can wait no more. Until his little white body covered in black splatters, a bandana of black fur around his neck, quivers with all that is in him. He's rescued, brought up to the lap, sitting a head above the table top.

Pink tongue, too long to roll up in his mouth, hangs out between his lips. My shoulders shake, laughter escapes. I try to listen, pay attention to conversation, but he captivates me, looking so pitiful, near bursting with emotion.

A high-pitched moaning yip escapes, like a hiccup. One, then another. His family encourage him, "Say 'I love you', Fez," in high-pitched voices.

Yip yip yip! Ry ruv ru! He's saying it, I'm sure! He's wound up, now releasing, till he gets it all out. Blessed relief.

He's rewarded with a small taste of barbecued beef. And I keep laughing, thanking, for even this moment. Especially this moment.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Seeing fresh

The evening air carries a chill on its shoulders. My boyfriend and I follow the flow of parishioners cascading down the front steps of the Blessed Sacrament, passing an older woman with her cane tracing the steps before her. She is alone. Before I can stop myself, I ask if she needs a ride home.

She stands in place, turns toward my voice, her face a billboard of surprise and pleasure. I'm glad I didn't stop myself from asking.

"Well! I live in Ballard, where do you live?"

"I live in Ballard, too. I'd be happy to take you."

"Oh, I'd appreciate that! God must have heard my prayer as I was walking down these steps. I said to him, 'It would sure be nice to have someone offer to give me a ride tonight.' My bus stop is a bit of a walk and on Sunday evenings, it can be a long wait."

Introductions all around follow, animated.

She asks, "Do you guys regularly attend Blessed Sacrament?"

"No, actually, this is our first visit." I place my arm next to her hand for her to rest on as we walk.

"Where do you usually attend?" she wants to know

"A Presbyterian church, actually." I wait, turn my head toward her face.

"Well isn't that great!" Her voice is larger than life, and now I'm the one surprised. "Many evangelicals can't use Catholic and Christian in the same sentence - it's a damn shame - and here you are - didn't you like the message tonight? He is so in love with Jesus! Not a lot of people get a chance to see that in the Catholic church."

I immediately like this woman. Uncensored, passionate, real. There's something fresh about her, after having lived a lifetime.

In the car, she fills the air with short stories of her life, and I sit enraptured. Blind since she was a girl of five, she's never slowed down. Studying at the University of Washington, she learned Spanish and French. She's worked as a social worker with the newly blind, helped people with developmental disabilities in El Salvador. Now she's retired, though the passivity of that word hardly describes her. She loves life and she loves God.

We pull up in front of her apartment building after backing up and turning the car around several times. My boyfriend gets out and opens her door, escorts her to the sidewalk. She is beaming, thanking us, feeling the ground again with her cane. We watch her, speechless.

Like a whirlwind, in and out, she is gone, leaving an impression hanging in the car.

Maybe God answered her spoken prayer for a ride home tonight, but he also answered my quiet prayer to see him fresh and alive in our visit to the Catholic church.

How like God, to use a blind woman to help me see.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Crossing the bridge

This daily practice of counting and recording graces - most often the simple, overlooked gifts so blindly rushed past - is changing me. Not an overnight make-over, but a gradual cleansing of the eyes that have been crusted with dirt and grime. As I child, I was prone to worry. Dentist appointments, shots, finances, the end of the world, being sent as a missionary to Africa - I worried about it all. I grew out of it as I grew up, learned to let go, but then came trauma.

Trauma scarred my eyes, distorted the lens through which I interpreted the world.

But each of us are bound to know the scar of trauma in our stories, whether in the past or today or somewhere in the future. So what is the vaccination against the hardening of disbelief, the suffocating fear and anxiety, the cynicism or pessimism that seap into our souls with the scarring?

In one word, thanks.

I'm learning that giving thanks daily, all throughout the day, builds trust. Saying it outloud and writing it down. Trying to think positive thoughts doesn't build trust. Medicating myself for anxiety would not build trust. Even praying about my anxiety or fear alone does not build trust. It's a certain type of prayer, the prayer with thanksgiving, that opens a new path for me to walk on.

I keep quoting one of my new favorite authors, Ann Voskamp, because her words cut a path through the muck to the heart: "Trust is the bridge from yesterday to tomorrow, built with the planks of thanks." This is how I walk unafraid. This is how I walk into peace, away from anxiety. Deliberately, sometimes irrationally, turning my back on the scenes and emotions that fill up a moment with heaviness, and training my eyes to see grace through thanks.

I've glided over Jesus' words many times, but not today. Today I want to glide, but I stop and let the words catch up to me: "The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!" (Matthew 6:22-23).

When my eyes are ungrateful, full of the shadows of death and loss and sorrow, I see darkness. I live in shadows. The only way to open the curtains that shut out the light, scraping off the crustiness, retraining the retinas, is the ongoing act of giving thanks.

But what about true losses, true grief, legitimate anxiety and fear and sorrow? Ignoring them is not the answer. I can't pretend they aren't real. I learn how to see through them. That bridge of trust is built with one plank of thanks at a time. While it's hard to see in the swirling of dust, in the raw ache of a wound, maybe the answer is to keep walking and not try to see everything in a moment.

"In time, years, dust settles. In memory, ages, God emerges. Then when we look back, we see God's back." Another Ann epiphany. How many bridges have I crossed in life, been able to look back and see God's back, if I have eyes to see?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Small beginnings

At the writer’s conference last weekend, I expected to be out of my league. Out of my comfort zone. Out of place. My sister encouraged, “Just go and be a sponge.” Somehow, it worked, imagining myself as a soft, sporous sponge soaking up whatever I could glean from the years of experience of writers around me. It felt less threatening that way, yet still required peeling back the curtain of shy self-consciousness that covers me when I’m around other writers. Being at a writer’s conference, if you’re going to get anything from it, demands a minimal level of vulnerability.

I stepped through the doors at the conference, crossing an invisible border between my worlds. Everyone seemed to speak a foreign language, know the lingo and the slang, navigate the streets with some sense of direction. Jump into the water, however, and see that they, too, are swimming upstream with everyone else. Maybe they can’t navigate the landscape without a map, but they at least know how to read the map. I hadn’t even picked a map up to study.

I’ve been writing from my early childhood, crafting simple, imaginative stories, and yet, this world of becoming not just a writer but an author is entirely different. One of the seminar speakers, a published author, compared becoming a writer to becoming a brain surgeon. Very different crafts, but each must train diligently for years to learn their craft.

If anything, I learned that the road to publishing has many side streets. Numerous roads can lead to publication. But the one thing that separates writers from authors is that authors have the courage to submit their work. Subject it to editing, review, critique, killing, recreating, rejection. And I heard over and over again, all who submit will face rejection. The more submissions, the more rejections. But publication cannot happen, obviously, without that step.

Before that step, however, comes heaps of research and preparation. One word that was tossed around often was “platform.” Writers need a platform because potential publishers and agents and editors want to see that they’re standing on something other than pure skills. They want to see marketing plans, vision, networking, previous publications, a solid following of readers. I thought of my blog, with its ten followers, and then, I have a lot of work to do. That’s not exactly what you could call a solid following. But it’s just as true that every writer starts out somewhere, usually somewhere small and insignificant.

Echoes from a prophet reverberate in my head, “Do not despise these small beginnings” (from the Bible, Zechariah 4:10). Small beginnings. Another facet of learning how to see the great and valuable in the small and insignificant.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

From Zumba to Nia

Sometimes, life's little cancellations are just what we need. You know, the ones where you're cruising down a Seattle street and see the "Road closed" and orange detour sign right before you come an inch from slamming into it. And you're annoyed, because that road you were going to take was the most efficient for your commute, but the detour winds you down along the waterfront, opening up before you a panoramic view of Lake Union from a park you didn't know existed. You pull off the route and park your car in the gravel, barely fast enough to scramble out the door and out onto a wooden bench in the park, beside the smooth calm of the lake. A front row seat and a moment taken that you didn't realize you desperately needed, to catch your breath and open your eyes.

As silly as it may sound, that happened to me tonight at the gym. I skidded into the reception area of my athletic club to check in for my Thursday night Zumba class - a high energy, cardio salsa and international dance class - and barely missed the words on the small chalkboard, announcing, "Zumba class cancelled tonight." My face dropped.

I looked at my Zumba friend next to me, "What? No Zumba...?" I didn't know what to do. I wasn't mentally prepared to stay and bore myself on stationary workout equipment. Turning to leave, she suggested we try out the Nia class instead.

I debated silently, though my face certainly didn't hide my lack of enthusiasm. "Uh... Nia? Have you actually done it before?"

"Yeah, once. It's not too bad. Let's try it."

My only impression of Nia was peering in on a class of older ladies, middle-aged granola ladies, young hard-core yoga ladies, dancing in flowy shirts and hippie pants, a blend between tai-chi, ballet, and a zen-like free-for-all. Not exactly Zumba. Not exactly in my comfort zone. But I felt like dancing, and curiosity won out.

So we took our shoes and socks off and waited in the back of the cozy studio, in front of the mirrors. The teacher came in, welcomed us to the class, and briefly explained that Nia is a compilation of three different types of martial arts, modern and jazz dance and some other types of movements I'm not familiar with.

The music invited us in, slow and rhythmic, enchanting, beckoning. Self-consciousness shed off like a discarded garment in a warm room. My eyes closed and I let my body lead me wherever the music danced. Eyes opened, and I saw myself in the mirror. Tightened muscles gradually loosening, limbs flowing in graceful femininity.

"Feel the joy of movement," our teacher instructed. My arms and hands, legs and toes, understood it before my mind did. The mind can be a little slow, but it caught up. Muscles and mind relaxed into the freedom of joyous movement.

Turns out, I didn't need high-impact, energetic routine tonight. I needed barefoot, graceful, creative, spontaneous, joyful, free.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In the face of a man

"Thanks makes now a sanctuary." Ann Voskamp's words from One thousand gifts ring in the space between ears and heart now on a daily basis. I felt myself walk in on several moments such as these with customers in the last few days. Sacred, holy, don't-trample-the-daisies sorts of moments. Take your shoes off, open your eyes. These are the moments to tuck away and savor.

A moment like this.

My eyes find his, dark and smooth as the espresso that daily beckons, before he steps into line Monday morning behind the regulars awaiting their morning caffeine. The gentle man, the one who makes the weekly trek from British Columbia to Seattle for chemotherapy, the one with the peaceful eyes and the strong heart, whose skin bears the colorful marks of cancer's treatment. I send him a nod, pleasantly surprised. He’s usually here only on weekends.

He steps up to the register, orders his tall Pike Place brewed coffee. "This cup of coffee - specifically, this roast - is the only thing I taste all day."

Frozen in place, my brain waits to register this new information. A brave smile crosses his face, an accepting shrug lifting his shoulders, admitting, "It's a highlight of my day."

My mouth opens and closes like a guppy fish, my smile not so brave, in a moment recalling all the things that pass over my tastebuds on a daily basis without truly being savored.

With the luxury of no one behind him in line, we chat for a few minutes. A few minutes of story, his life before it changed drastically. Once a successful entrepreneur, in both Seattle and Canada; then, cancer invaded. One cancer, then another, pillaging life, nailing a grim prognosis to the door. And yet. Heavy with hope, born on the broad shoulders of that three-letter word: Yet. This man refuses to let cancer have the final word. He's studying now for his MBA. He knows what the statistics say, what the doctors say, and still he says, "I'm a firm believer that miracles happen."

My head bobs up and down, an emphatic yes. "Me, too, I wholeheartedly agree." And in my heart, and in my prayers, yes, yes, yes! I want to proclaim it on his behalf from an impossibly high mountain: YES!

This moment, this man, this face, these words, play on a large screen in the theater of my mind all day long, compelling prayers I can scarce clothe in words. Compelling thanks for yet another moment of life, for gifts like health and taste that may not always be; for unexpected teachers; for God in the face of a man.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Seeing the unseen

Living in each moment as grace, fully present in the now, with eyes and heart wide open, requires retraining. Self-coaching to the soul.

A dear friend and I were catching up on each other's lives last night. A rare treat. It didn't take long into speaking and listening to our stories to see a common thread: we're both hungry to learn to live full of joy in each moment we've been given, with what we have. And this, we're also learning, can be a full on wrestling match.

What is that balance, we wondered, between being honest with what we're experiencing - the anxiety, depression, fear, anger, sorrow, you name it - and still seeing the joy?

I shook my head, "Whatever it is, it's not easy." And I thought, maybe it's in the seeing.

Yes, it might be in the seeing. During the work day, it can be easier for me to live in the moment. I'm pushing down what seem like intrusive emotions, putting them up and away on the shelf for later study. I'm coaching myself to stay here, live here, give here. But when I clock out and I slip down into the driver's seat of my car, fasten my seatbelt and point my way toward home, that book on the shelf opens up. Sometimes, it falls off the shelf.

Eyes open, desperate searching, I want to see, I must see. Anything. See the beauty in the ugly. I strain these eyes, grasping at whatever glimmer of glory I can capture. But some days, the eyes brim with tears and the sunglasses go on and I step inside the door of my home, slump to the ground and whisper blurry-eyed prayers.

Where is the beauty in this moment? This weak and crumpled moment. I've been here before, many times before, and struggle beneath the water to break the surface and fill my lungs.

I breathe in, breathe out. In thanks, out thanks. The breaths come slower. I'm aware I'm not alone, held by invisible arms, leaning on Someone I can't see. The thanks come harder, clearer. My heart rests, finally.

Through the blurry eyes, I see grace. I feel grace. I am held. Joy is right beside me, waiting to be touched. In plain view at all times, but not plainly seen.

I'm learning that thanks opens my eyes, and in that opening, I see joy.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Blessed interruptions

Turns out, playing hookie on Friday was an excellent choice. I took it nice and slow, and the blessed interruptions came, the ones that fill a day with flavor, memory, dimension. A spontaneous walk with my boyfriend in the morning. A 17-month girl bubbling joy around the table where I sat working at a coffee shop. Hiking around Carkeek Park. Laying on my yoga mat in a sea of miniature daisies with a book and the sun kissing my skin with pink. A frost-winged, fuzzy-bodied moth landing on my hand to explore with its curious antennae. Smoothies with Mom on her lunch break. A phone conversation with my sister.
And a pair of new goat friends.

I escorted Mom back to work, to say hi to her boss, Liz. And Liz knows of my love of all things goat. She was on the phone when we arrived in back, but cupping her hand on the receiver, offered me the cross streets for a house in her neighborhood that has goats in the backyard that people like to feed with apples as they pass by. My eyes grew in size, lit up like the sun outside. Part woman, part child on a treasure hunt, I gratefully accepted the slip of paper with the clue and promised to check them out.

The neighborhood was on my route home, slightly off my well-worn path. I found the house at the corner of 95th and 6th, the one with the sagging shack up against the wall, in a ring of dirt and wire fence and overgrown grass. Two goats, a boy and girl, trotted up to greet me. I had no apples, just fingers. They nibbled, I scratched chins, behind ears, around horns, fingertips turning charcoal. The boy, I dubbed him Nibbles, lost interest and turned to eat a tree, stretched out on back legs, reaching with his neck and tongue to strip it of bark. The girl remained, and I called her Nanny, content to let me stroke her head through the fence. I stood up reluctant, said goodbye, promised to return. My back to them, I heard a woeful "Naaaaaaa" as I walked away, and I felt a surge of pleasure. Nanny watched me go.

These little things, they are training my eyes to see. All throughout the day, gifts abound, if I am I searching, if my hands are open. I give thanks, and my heart fills.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The kicking stops here

I feel like a college student who didn't get her homework done and is playing hookie from class. Not only did I not get the homework done, I didn't read the instructions on the syllabus to see what the homework even was. And had I read the syllabus, I probably wouldn't have enrolled in the class in the first place. But no, here I am, having basically enrolled in Spanish 5 without finishing Spanish 1. Except it's not a language class, it's a writer's conference.

Yep, I signed up several months ago for a writer's conference. I did it in typical Amber fashion: felt inspired, saw the opportunity, skimmed through the promotional info, and committed myself. The classic cliche: it just seemed like a great idea at the time. I heard "writer's conference" and thought, I'm a writer, surely I'll learn something! I saw the title of this year's conference - "Living your story" - and it fit so well with where I'm at in life and in my writing. Perfect. I just neglected to read the rest.

So last night, again in typical Amber fashion (the conference starts today), I hopped on a computer at the library to see what time this conference actually starts and how I get there and what the agenda actually is. I finally located the schedule of events and felt my confidence and enthusiasm drain into the library floor as I read. Today, the first day, is all about preparing to meet an editor or snag an agent. Certainly something I could learn from, except, it's not just blending into a large group of anonymous writers listening to a speaker. They want us to sign up for group editorial appointments to prepare for meeting with potential editors. They want us to make appointments for critique sessions with a published author - as in, critiquing our manuscripts. They want us to bring our query letters, book chapters, and articles to the table. And I feel like kicking myself, because I have none of these. None. I'm still in level one.

So I'm playing hookie today. Even though I've already paid for this conference. Because the sun is shining in full force. Because I don't want to go and feed my natural inclination to kick myself for being unprepared, comparing myself to those more advanced ones who have their stuff together. I'm not going to go there, not today. The kicking stops here.

I may have been impulsive, but it was out of inspiration and hope that I signed up for this thing in the first place. So I'll enjoy the sunshine today, I'll go sit and listen to a speaker tonight, and I'll show up for the sessions tomorrow. I will learn something, and I will enter into the moments, and I will not kick myself for not being further along in this journey of writing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Treasure hunt

On a three hour walk yesterday - a treasure hunt, really - I saw so many wonders. And this thought, as I slowed down with open eyes: A hurried life is a life waiting to be fully lived.

Because for now, it's a lot less time consuming to post these pictures on facebook, here's the link to my post for the day:


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Embarking on the hunt

#1 - The sound of songbirds at twilight against a swath of pink sky

This was the beginning of my day, as I stepped out my front door and headed to my car, as the sun was just beginning to rouse from its slumber. This is the beginning of learning to see, a baby step toward cultivating a life of thanks. The book One thousand gifts has inspired and challenged me to keep my own running list of things in life that I love, gifts that God gives in a multitude of daily moments. Training in the sights and sounds of a full and thank-full heart, pouring over to a full and thank-full life. Maybe that list will stop at one thousand, or maybe it will keep going. The stopping place of the list is not the point; the point is that the list, once gaining steam, need never stop, even if my writing of it ceases. The list may continue to be written in my heart every day. That is my goal, my desire.

I am excited to embark on this hunt, to look for the gifts, to slow down and enter into the wonder of small things. I'm ready to learn to see, and I hope I'm also ready to open wide my hands and receive.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

In the sanctuary of now

As I read through Ann Voskamp's One thousand gifts, I lean forward on tiptoes, as if peering into my own soul, but through someone else's words. There are just too many things to behold, too many to take in with one sweeping glance. I've got to slow down, savor, digest, nourish myself.

She refers to the mystery of eucharisteo often, as in giving thanks, drawing forth conclusions that gently pound truth from my mind, deeper and deeper, reaching for my heart. Some things make me want to raise my hand and wave it around, like, That's me! You're talking about me...

"Is this eucharisteo the way to that elusive fullest life, the one that lives in the moment? What my sister urges when I get angsty and knotted about tomorrow, when I sorrow for what is gone, her words always tugging me to stay right here - 'Wherever you are, be all there.' I have lived the runner, panting ahead to worry, pounding back in regrets, terrified to live in the present, because here-time asks me to do the hardest of all: just open wide and receive."

Yep, I've been that terrified runner. Dreading the future, sorrowing over the losses, pounding back the regrets, afraid to stand still. Afraid to receive what's in the here and now because I'm not sure I want it, not sure I can trust that it's good. In more honest words, if I can trust that God is good, that the gifts - all of them - he gives are good. Even the ones that wound.

It was just five words. Five words that my hungry eyes grazed over today as I sat reading outside on the sidewalk, in the sunshine, this afternoon on my lunch break. Five words that arrested my thoughts:

"Thanks makes now a sanctuary."

The practice of thankfulness in my here-moment immediately ushers me into a sanctuary, on holy ground. The moment is no longer just a moment, but a holy moment. A sacred moment. A moment to slow down and, with wide eyes, gaze at with wonder and enter into with gratitude.

I walked back inside my work building from the near-blinding sun and my eyes were no longer adjusted to the comparative dim light inside. For a few moments, the light was my normal, my reality, dancing in my pupils, while the dimness was the artificial environment. I smiled at my wincing. In this moment, I was thankful. I carried these moments into the rest of my work shift, and it was actually surprising to me how much more I enjoyed the rest of my shift. Instead of bemoaning the fact that I was inside, a prisoner gazing with longing at the sun and life outside of this building, I told myself this was my moment. Live here, Amber. And I did, with joy. It felt good.

Baby steps to a full life.

Monday, May 16, 2011

God at the table

Words come alive to me in pictures. I think it’s one of the ways God communicates with me, as if the words spoken are a seed and his breath the germination and the picture that follows the blossoming flower. It was like that for me again today in the counseling office. It’s amazing to trace the trail of thoughts that eventually lead up to these pivotal moments where images birth life. Today, it was as repetitive as listing off the things I used to do (a.k.a, performance) that I equate as spiritual growth, or at the very least, a direct correlation. I hashed through them with an intonation of failure, counting them off on my spiritual fingers as jugdment for my lack of pursuit of God.

I used to read my Bible every day and study scripture. I used to play my guitar and worship for hours by myself. I used to write God beautiful songs. I used to lead others in worship, also playing and singing for hours of prayerful worship. I used to be involved in prayer ministry. I used to have the desire to serve and give of myself more to others in need. I used to talk about God more with people. I used to have more to give....

I used to spread before God a feast.

Whoa, hold on, I felt something coming.... and then, the image. The tears pooled in my eyes’ seemingly bottomless reservoirs and spill warmth down my face. That’s it. I used to have a feast for God, and now, I have nothing. Nothing but famine.

I saw myself laying a feast at my table for God in the tiny studio apartment I used to inhabit, back in the day before my life completely changed. We ate fairly well. I was a good hostess, with a good income and a nice spread of fare for him to dine on. We were laughing and enjoying the abundance together.

And I saw us now. In the tiny little apartment I share with my mom, where I sleep on a mat on the living room floor. There is no table, just a blanket spread on the carpet. We are sitting cross-legged, dining on... dry saltine crackers. I am sad, because there is nothing to eat in the house, nothing delicious to feed him. I sit before him and cry, heaving shoulders, quivering lip, snotty nose. I am hungry, and he is with me in that hunger. He smiles at me and puts his arms around me, taking the cracker I offer him, now soggy from my tears. He is unphased. I expect him to pack up and leave, find another house, another roommate who can feed and serve him better than me. But he just sits with me and eats that cracker as if it’s the best meal in the world. And it seeps into my soul, for a quick moment, that this - this moment - is what the marriage vows are all about.

In sickness, and in health. For richer, or for poorer. In feast, and in famine. He’s not moving out. He’s not finding someone else. He hunkers down with me through the famine, reminding me to breathe. Reminding me that it, too, will pass. The clouds will open and release their rains and the seeds that have been planted will be watered and the crops will grow and we will once more feast. But he’s not daunted by my famine.

The secret

These words have always held such mystery to me. And the author, the apostle Paul, spoke of his discovery as a secret. Probably one of those "obvious but not" secrets. Obvious, that is, if you have eyes to see. Obvious, if your fingers are uncurled and you lay them, palms up, to the heavens. When I hear these words, they are in a hushed voice, imploring my soul to hunger:

"I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little." (Philippians 4:11-12, emphasis mine).

Paul didn't discover the secret. He didn't read about the secret. No one told him the secret, not even God booming his voice down from heaven. Paul said he learned the secret.

I like to think of myself as a quick learner. In part, I imagine, because I'm a recovering perfectionist. I want to get it "right" and I don't want it to take very long. Some things, however, just take time to learn, no matter how quick a learner you are. Learning Spanish fluently, for instance, cannot happen in a week or three months or even a year. It takes time. If learning a new language takes a lot of time, I think a secret of this magnitude - for what he's claiming is no small feat - must also take a great deal of time, discipline and commitment.

But what is this secret he's referring to? In a word, contentment. But contentment stems from some deeper source, flows from a deeper well. It flows from a well of thankfulness. It flows from a heart that possesses the ability to receive whatever God pours down from the heavens, whether good or painful, much or little, empty stomach or full stomach, open-handed "yes" to God's gifts.

It's not for many months of the year that my sunglasses get much use here in Seattle. Just as often, I'll pull them out on mostly cloudy days as days spilling over with sunshine. The sunglasses I have now are the normal tinted kind, the kind that make everything a bit darker and more saturated in color, but my favorite sunglasses have been the kind that color my vision of the world with a different hue. When I wear those kinds of glasses, I see the world differently. I appreciate ordinary things with a different eye.

I think that's another part of the secret Paul's referring to. Living the fullest kind of overflowing-with-thankfulness life that teaches contentment and abounds in joy requires a new kind of eyesight.

I haven't read much of Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry, but I have felt a depth of connection with one of his famous statements since I first happened upon it several years ago: "Did I tell you? I'm learning to see." The eyesight of gratitude is a learned trait. I must be willing to put aside my old vision, my ingratitude, my fears and anxieties and lack of trust in God's goodness, and take up a new pair of sunglasses. Not just for one day or for a week, but day after day after day, for year after year after year, until my eyes actually adapt a different sort of vision, as natural as breathing the air that fills my lungs thousands of times each day.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

To fill a soul with thanks

I walked back up to the kiosk of my little Starbucks today, after working awhile in the back office of the store. He was sitting there in the corner, by the little decorative fireplace, drinking his savored cup of drip. I only see him when I work Sundays, which isn't very often anymore. The first time I met him, and every time after, his smile is always the same. Warm, unforced, deep, peaceful, and tired. I know hardly anything about this man, except he is a nice looking man, thirty or forty something. He drives down here from Canada every weekend for chemo treatments. His lovely dark skin is tinted with dark blue and green, covering much of his face. He always comes alone and orders a tall brewed coffee.

I stopped by his chair and said hello. At first, it's hard not to stare at his face as I'm fixing my gaze on his eyes, simply because my eyes are distracted by the superficial. My mind reels with questions. What's his story? But of course, I dare not ask. Instead I ask gently, "You've been making this trip for quite awhile, haven't you?" My way of asking, how long have you been on this journey, living with an illness?

"I have," he answered softly. "For many years. And I'll be doing it for the rest of my life."

I stood there practically stammering in surprise. "Your whole life?" I'm incredulous. I had no idea there could be a cancer that exacts such payment for the remainder of life, with no hope of remission. I didn't know what to say. I felt I was teetering on the precipice of an incredible story of sorrow and daily courage. How does this man do it?

I have trouble living in the fullness of each day, straining my eyes to see through the cracks of sorrow to the beauty of life and God, and all this without the added sorrow of a terminal illness. Permanent treatment. No weekends off from hours spent hooked up to IVs filled with poison, skin bearing the marks. No medical hopes of ever getting better. I chat a little more, smile and say goodbye, and bow my head as I walk away, gently chastened. This man appears to possess an ability to embrace life in its broken messiness that I in my own sorrows have only gasped to find. My soul gasps for air. Joy is what it seeks, but anymore, that feels so elusive and slippery.

I skipped church today because I was too tired to go straight from work, after having gotten up a little after three this morning. Instead, I grab a book that was laying on the couch and head out the door to a coffee shop, knowing my chances of staying awake are better there. I've been wanting to read this book since I heard about it several months ago at my writer's group. One thousand gifts is what it's called. Based on where the author was coming from and her raw authentic style of communicating, I felt a kindred spirit in her. I'm not very far into the book, but already, my attention is seized.

She's talking about the Greek word, eucharisteo, to give thanks. The root of that word is charis, which we know more commonly as "grace." But the Greek derivative of charis is chara - "joy."

In one of her first chapters, the author wonders: "Was this the clue to the quest of all most important? Deep chara joy is found only at the table of the euCHARisteo - the table of thanksgiving... Is the height of my chara joy dependent on the depths of my eucharisteo thanks?... The only place we need to see before we die is this place of seeing God, here and now."

As long as we're alive, it is possible to be thankful for something. And as long as I can be thankful for something, I can experience joy. It seems to me I've known this in my head for a long, long time, and still, it escapes me in the day to day of living. I have tried to write about beautiful rubbish - of seeing the redemptive beauty of God's story in the rubbish of my life and the world around me - but in actuality, my eyes have been more blinded by the messiness than captured by the beauty.

It is time, again, to learn to see.

I think it begins with thankfulness, and maybe, this is all I need to know.

Friday, May 13, 2011

More than this

I have this thing about zoos. I am drawn to animals like Mexicans to tortillas or Seattle-ites to good coffee. Animals fascinate me. Their adaptability and strength to survive amaze me, and at the same time, their relative vulnerability to domination by us humans at times saddens me. We humans can be a bit like that little kid who sees her wounded kitty cat and picks it up beneath its armpits, lugging it around so sincerely to find help for her pet, and in the process, unintentionally injures it further.

When I'm at the zoo, it's bittersweet. I hate to be overdramatic, but after oohing and ahhing over the beautiful animals that I don't get to see naturally in these parts, I begin to feel something akin to voyeurism. Like I'm peeking in on a bunch of prisoners. I understand that they are extremely well fed and well cared for. In terms of care, there aren't many animals who live better lives than these. I know the people who care for them are passionate about what they do, and I know that many animals are in zoos in part as a response to a much larger problem. But it doesn't take away from the reality that penguins weren't designed to live in a tank of luke warm water, mountain goats long to roam in real mountains, and brown bears want more than an acre or two of land to inhabit.

When I saw the majestic mountain goat recently, he was breathtaking. I couldn't stop staring at his beauty, and I couldn't help but feel his sadness. This was not really his home. A lovely, artificial home for sure, but not home. I peered down at a little brown fox in the same vicinity as the mountain goat. He was sitting on his haunches in a corner of his caged area. I could be reading too much into this, but to me, it appeared as if he sat with his head down, a little dejected. After a few minutes, he got up and slowly saundered up the manmade trail in the manmade mountainside, his bushy tail drooping behind him.

I'm not trying to be a downer about zoos, I'm really not. I was just thinking about freedom today, and how these animals that were designed to be free, for whatever multitude of complex or simple reasons, are not living as they were intended. In some ways, we are not that different from them. As comfortable, well fed and relatively safe we might be in our manmade environments, there must be more than this.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Afternoon prescription

I practiced slowing down yesterday. After writing my blog, it was like taking my blood pressure and realizing it was unusually high. Of course, having the sun pop out for the evening and warm my skin for a few hours certainly didn't hurt and encouraged me in my effort to take a deep breath and go for a walk.

On my walk to the Bluff (that is, a small neighborhood park overlooking the water in Ballard), I smiled at all the moms and dads out pushing strollers, chasing after kids on miniature bicycles, carrying soccer balls and baseball bats, holding onto leashes with excited pooches tugging on the ends. The flowers were alive. The scent of lilacs followed me on the breeze, strides past a lilac bush. Neighbors stood talking on the sidewalk while one took a break from gardening. A little boy wearing a baseball hat and carrying a bat stood next to his grandma in their front yard, also wearing a baseball hat, and pointed up to a crow on the power line above his yard: "Shhh, don't scare him!" A calico kitty crouched in a bed of blue bells and peered at me with its green eyes.

At the park, I found a sunny spot near a tree with low-lying branches, with a view of the marina below, the Olympic mountains across the water. The squeals of delighted children running around mingled with the barking of seals in the distance. I laid on my hooded sweatshirt, which I happily didn't require, soaking in the sun's medicine and reading Mr. Popper's penguins. A group of four little girls ran beneath the tree, grabbing its branches and swinging on them, chattering away in their make-believe play. A little boy, looking less than one year, unsteadily clasped his dad's hands and attempted to walk in the grass. Catching my eye, he stopped and stared, rewarding me with a huge smile when I waved at him.

Bees buzzed nearby while I read. I occasionally flicked tiny brown bugs off my sweatshirt and swatted my legs, tickled in the grass. I finished my book, leaned back and closed my eyes for a few minutes, relaxing into a place of contentment.

This walk was just what the doctor prescribed.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Day by day

I know it could be worse. Much, much worse, in fact. I know millions have it far worse than me. Some days when I sit down to write, it's as much a daily check-in to encourage myself to look for the beautiful in the present day, as it is an exercise in writing. And some days, I still sit here and draw an alarming blank. It's sad, I know. I can list off at least a dozen beautiful things about this day, and yet, my heart feels heavy. Lately, I'll be honest, I feel like I'm wrestling with a crocodile, and the crocodile appears to be gobbling me up. It's hard to name the crocodile, because I don't want a label to point my finger at. I don't need to believe the crocodile will win, and so, give up. The crocodile won't win, I know that. But that doesn't make the wrestling match any less tiresome. It doesn't even make the heaviness in my heart go away.

But I do find comfort in these words written by one the most prolific authors of the Bible. He was intimately acquainted with suffering, and somehow he was able to embrace it, even when it appears he struggled with his own depression at times. There is timeless truth in these ancient words...

"Therefore, we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal." ~ 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NKJV)

Think about that: regardless of what's going on in my body, in my circumstances, or with my emotions, I am being renewed inside - in my innermost being - day by day. While I may dwindle in one, I only grow stronger in the other. I can't see this with my eyes, or necessarily feel it in my body, but that doesn't diminish its truth. Amazing. One day, all these things will fade away into a distant memory, overtaken by the magnitude of eternity.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Children's books

I wasn't going to write today. I excused myself from it for "health" reasons. Still, I snuck over to the library this evening to see if I could squeeze in some half-hearted writing before it closed. Instead, I ended up perusing the children's section for some good books. I'll be going home tonight with The secret garden and Mr. Popper's penguins, and I figure these will be more therapeutic for me than writing much today.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Practicing a reverent pondering of dreams

After finding myself hanging out on another blog this week - belonging to a mom, probably not more than ten years older than me (if that), with nine children (five of whom are adopted) - I've felt something I haven't felt in awhile. Wrecked, in a good way. Emotions and desires and dreams I thought were long lost have paid me another visit, and I confess, I don't want them to leave. I'm hesitant to talk too much about it, because as a writer, I constantly fight the temptation to get stuck in a whirlpool of my words. I swirl round and round and round again, never actually getting anywhere I want to go. It's challenging for me, at times, to translate my words into a plan, into action. And the thought of relegating this dream to merely a written-about desire is a tragic thought. I want to tread lightly, even reverently, on this ground.

I want to treasure this in my heart, the way Mary pondered the things she heard and witnessed when she was raising the Son of God. When she carried him in the womb, birthed him and raised him from infancy, to boyhood, to young adulthood, and then, released him to manhood. When I read those words in the gospel story, I imagine her taking these things and placing them carefully in a treasure chest that only she had access to. She didn't run out and share them with every person she met, or even every close person in her life. I could use some more of that reverent safe-keeping of intangible treasures in my life.

But as I've recently disclosed, it has seemed that I no longer have any dreams for the future. Whereas I used to live in my dreams, my aim and challenge now is to live fully in each day. If I were to be honest with myself, however, I would have to admit that there are two dreams I am aware of that I still possess. They have hung in there with me and weathered the storms of the past several years, and so, I am growing to believe that they are here to stay. Knowing that, and knowing the way I've lived in my dreams before, I desire to hold them lightly. As if they did not belong to me, because in truth, I know they do not. Dreams do not belong to any of us. They are gifts that may be given or taken away at any moment. If we do not cling to those dreams, they do not have the power to break our spirits when they are lost. But I'm getting off on a tangent here.

In grad school, my dream was never to be a counselor, oddly enough. I wanted to work with refugee trauma survivors, ideally in other countries, to support them in their journey to healing. I wanted to do this largely through the power of story-telling. That is, being a witness to their stories and helping them tell their stories to others. This was the beginning of the theme of "beautiful rubbish", and I didn't even have those words for it at the time. Well, as great as that dream was, I can't say I still have it as it was. And I've come to accept that. The interesting thing is, the components of that dream haven't actually disappeared, merely morphed into a rearranged version of the old.

Only God knows how these may or may not materialize. My only role at the moment seems to be treasuring them in my heart, continuing to live each day, and seeing what he does.