Friday, July 29, 2011

A grace flower

In the midst of a long walk at dusk on a perfect summer evening, I spot a rose. Creamy, pink, full-bodied, silky petals, it rests alone on its bush. I'm walking fast, with Mom, and yet my feet brake quickly. Coming close, I cup it gently in my hands and lean in, inhale deep its scent. So sweet. Its fragrance, I want to store it in my nose's memory forever. But it's here, on this bush, and as I step away the memory will quickly fade, and I can't take it home with me. So I stoop again.

When it's cupped in my hands, I feel I'm cupping the face of grace. I stare, mesmerized by this grace flower. And I breathe deep again. Life slows, and all that is in this moment is the scent of grace and the silky head of this rose against my skin.

It seems a beautiful reminder placed at the end of a week spent pondering grace. Life is not roses, we know this well. But this grace flower speaks to me: roses can always be found along the roadside of life, beckoning us aside for a moment to see, feel, breathe the fragrance of grace.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Grace and cliff jumping

I think it may be high time I did some cliff jumping. I've been talking trust and living in the present moment, but some days, irritatingly, I am well aware that it is mostly talk. Aware that something, someone, is holding me back from truly being free to live in grace, even while practicing gratitude. And that someone is none other than me.

There's a tight bond between gratitude and grace which I have yet to explore. Perhaps more than I even imagine, for they appear to be interdependent. Gratitude cannot be expressed without grace, for all is grace in this life; and grace cannot be received without gratitude following closely on its heels. And yet, they are not one in the same.

A story in Brennan Manning's The ragamuffin gospel illustrates the relationship between living in the moment, grace and gratitude:

The meaning of living in fidelity to the present moment, neither retreating to the past nor anticipating the future, is wonderfully illustrated by a Zen story about a monk being pursued by a ferocious tiger. He raced to the edge of the cliff, glanced back, and saw the growling tiger about to spring. The monk spotted a rope dangling over the edge of the cliff. He grabbed it and began shinning down the side of the cliff out of the clutches of the tiger. Whew! Narrow escape. He stared down and saw a huge quarry of jagged rocks five hundred feet below. He looked up and saw the tiger poised atop the cliff with barred claws. Just then, two mice began to nibble at the rope. What to do?

The monk saw a strawberry within arm's reach growing out of the face of the cliff side. He plucked it, ate it, and exclaimed, "Yum-yum; that's the best strawberry I've ever tasted in my entire life." If he had been preoccupied with the rock below (the future) or the tiger above (the past), he would have missed the strawberry God was giving him in the present moment.

I stare at the tigers of my past, the tigers that once looked so sweet and virtuous, and I feel them breathing hot down my neck, reminding me of my past failings (or perceived failings). Reminding me of who I once was and how different I now am from that person, as if the person I am today is inferior, unacceptable. And I peer down with a creased brow at the rocks below, wondering, at what point I'll collide with them. All the while, noticing the strawberry out of the corner of my eye and reaching out to steal nibbles between my preoccupation with the tiger above and the rocks below.

At some point it occurs to me: this isn't freedom. This is not the full life of peace and joy, gratitude and grace, that I believe I'm designed for.

In order to ditch the tiger and tear my gaze from the rocks, I've got to just jump. (I'm digressing from the little Zen illustration, by the way.) I'm talking now about taking the plunge of trust. Freeing myself from my self-made court of judgment and allowing myself to believe that I can live in this moment as acceptable to God, just as I am, without worrying about where I'll be at in the future or who I was in the past. God is present not in the past or in the future, but now, here, in this moment. And with that presence is fullness of joy. If I find that instead of joy there is fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, condemnation, or the like in me, then it may be safe to conclude that I'm not really planted in the here-and-now of God's presence after all. I'm flitting somewhere in between.

Only grace is able to keep me planted in the moment. Grace is able to whisper, "You are free. Jump, and you will be caught. You are meant for joy. You are accepted as you are. Don't be afraid to take the plunge."

And so I jump. Maybe with the need to return again and again to the precipice of this cliff and jump some more, but in this moment, now, I jump.






Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An otherworldly sort of gift

As I add more notches in my belt of life, some things that seemed black and white take on a grayish hue, while those things that were grayish stand out more starkly as black or white. At first, these discoveries can feel threatening, disorienting, disruptive. Then, they can feel strangely corrective, as if I my eyes needed glasses all this time and didn't know it. And finally, they can feel a tad amusing.

My perception of grace is one of these.

Having grown up, literally, in Christian community, I thought I understood grace a long time ago. The further I journey in my faith, however, the more clearly I see that, while I may be well educated in grace, I've barely scratched the surface of knowing it outside the classroom of theology. You see, grace cannot be understood with the head; it's got to be known through experience.

What in the world is this grace, exactly? For all my usage of the word, it's a little harder to pinpoint a concise definition. In a broad sense, grace is an extravagant gift received that is not deserved. A gift that no one could afford to pay back, even if they tried (and just look at so many of us living the Christian faith, we sure do try), and not only that, no payback is expected. The only required stance is one of open-handedness, receiving with a grateful heart.

In a more precise context - and this is where I lose people who haven't experienced this themselves - grace is none other than the gospel of Christ, revealed in the person of Christ. Grace takes on the form of Jesus, continually holding out this outrageous (dare I say, scandalous), free gift of salvation, love, redemption, peace, healing, wholeness and life - and the greatest gift of all, the invitation to know him intimately - to absolutely everyone, no holds barred, no strings attached.

The thing with grace is, the moment we try to work for it, earn it, be worthy of it, it slips from our grasp. We don't really get it yet. Similar to how, as soon as a person claims to be humble, we scratch our heads, take them less seriously. Obviously, they don't get it yet, either.

Those are my summarized, unsophisticated definitions. I realize I'm doing something I try not to do very often in my blog, and that's speak what may sound like Christianese. But you see, grace is not a word that people use very often outside of the Christian faith, except in reference to dancing or athletic ability or social skills, and so I want to clarify here that this is not the grace I'm referring to. The grace I'm referring to is an other-wordly sort of grace, and because of that, it's like trying to wrap your mind around the particulars of life in another planet.

What in the world is this grace, I ask again? Something not of this world.

More thoughts on this tomorrow, as I'm already bordering on a dangerously long blog entry as it is.



Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Confessions of an imperfect Christian

There are enough days, like today, to fill a book. It wouldn't be the most fascinating of books, but a book it would be. A day when I wake up and immediately dig my heels into the ground, so to speak, but it's more like my back into the mattress. Groggy, unmotivated, grumpy, that's how I greet the day. I frown at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. I sit down on the couch with my breakfast, open my Bible and try to focus, but everything's a blur.

Everywhere I read, I somehow see the same message: "You don't measure up." Not devoted enough, not passionate enough, not spiritual enough, not pure enough, not loving enough, not obedient enough, not interested enough in the Bible. These are my confessions, ones that only those in similar shoes can appreciate. I sit and listen to these voices, resounding accusations, and slump further into the couch. Is this God speaking to me, I wonder, or is it some other voice?

At work, a continual loop of irritating pop songs play all the day long. And while I hate to admit it, there are a very, very few of these songs that I actually like. One in particular. I don't listen to the radio much, so I'd never heard this song until it was played at work. Couldn't tell you who sings it until I googled it. To many, I imagine it's a cheesy song, but I can't get away from the words. Something deep inside me aches for them to be true, of me. Most women would melt to hear someone speak these words to them, let alone sing them. But this isn't the message most of us - woman or man - hear, from anyone.

I work with one of my closest friends, and she happens to like this song, too. As she's leaving work today, this song is playing, and she comments, "I think this is God's theme song for humankind." It's just a passing comment, and she sounds so sure of herself. I want to believe it, really, I do, and still I fight it. I stop the tears before they form in my eyes, but I don't stop the song from continuing to play in my head.

Just the way you are
Bruno Mars

Oh, her eyes, her eyes make the stars look like they're not shinin'
Her hair, her hair falls perfectly without her tryin'
She's so beautiful
And I tell her everyday

Yeah, I know, I know when I compliment her, she won't believe me
And it's so, it's so sad to think that she don't see what I see
But every time she asks me do I look okay?
I say

When I see your face
There's not a thing that I would change
'Cause you're amazing
Just the way you are

And when you smile
The whole world stops and stares for awhile
'Cause girl, you're amazing
Just the way you are

What if this were God's song for us? Even for me? What stops me from believing? At what point can I fully believe the constancy of God's character - that, contrary to how I may feel about myself, God's love for me is as steady, sturdy, and unbending as a metal pipeline. And more. There are days when I think too little or too much of myself, but not him. I try to imagine embracing a love that is not in some way connected to my performance, and I confess, it's great in my imagination but really hard to hold onto in the daily living. So sad, for so many reasons. For my struggle is not with a harsh, unloving, demanding God, as so many of us seem so tragically to view him, but with myself, peering at God through a broken mirror and trying to accept what I cannot always see.

A perfect love, loving me just the way I am.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Favorite things: Part II

Mom n' son hugs

Rolling down grassy hills

Picnics at Gas Works park

Teamwork

Lovely hostesses and singing chihuahuas

Hammock webs

Laughing at ourselves

Tiny bicycles

Enjoying tequila, the Mexican way

Something like tetherball

Kids of all ages at play


Chiles rellenos

Swings

Friday, July 22, 2011

Writer's block

I'm sitting outside my favorite cafe, sipping my coffee, staring at a cute little sparrow on the table in front of me, feeling the breeze, checking my phone, chatting with a beloved barista, wanting to go home, wondering what in the world to write about today. Some days are like that. When they come around, I feel like mentally scolding myself, "Really, Amber? I mean, really? Nothing to write about? Perhaps you have simply not been paying attention." But then I also know that the universal writers' experience is exactly this, sometimes more often than not.

I mean, what is writer's block, really? Is it staring at a screen or a piece of paper, blankly, for a period of time, feeling your words and thoughts have dried up, a well with no water? Or maybe feeling your words are in the midst of a tornado, scattered and flailing, tossed about? Perhaps the words are slow and sporadic, like a leaky faucet. Drip....... drip............... drop.

Whatever the case, there appears to be varying types and degrees of severity. One day of difficulty figuring out what to write might be considered minor, while weeks of sitting to write and drawing a big blank might be more severe.

But what causes writer's block? That's what I really want to know. I'm sure lots of seasoned writers would say there's no surefire way of preventing writer's block, that it befalls every writer, great and small. I'm sure they'd be right in saying so. And yet....

I recognize the tired slumping before a laptop, gazing off in my own little world, fingers poised to write but resting, frozen, on my keyboard. I know most frequently when these days occur. It's not so much the days when I'm stressed or struggling in some way. It's the days when I'm just plain checked out. When I just can't wait to leave work because I'm done. Or when I'm just getting my day started and my mind is far from clear. The less intentional I am about my living, the less I have to say in my writing. For me, it's as plain as that.

And lucky for me, I managed to skirt around this issue for the day by writing about none other than the problem itself. Hoping to start fresh again next week.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Lessons from a Univega



Some statistic asserts that most accidents happen within 1.4 miles of home. I doubt the statisticians meant to include bicyclists in that stat, but I fit it. Two summers ago, roughly two weeks after purchasing my 199os Univega road bike, I hit the road on a perfectly hot afternoon and started cycling to Golden Gardens beach wearing shorts and a swimsuit top. My mission: bike to the beach and run into the water nice and sweaty.

I made it three blocks. Granted, I was not biking responsibly, per se, clutching my bike lock in my left hand (while trying to also access the left front brake) and front tire brakes in my right. Not a good idea. All it took was swerving unsteadily to avoid a car pulling out of a side street and the quick reflexes of my right hand to throw me off the bike onto the pavement.

The driver rolled down her window and called out to me from her car, "Sorry 'bout that. You ok?" I stood up and brushed the gravel off my legs, twisting my arm to look at my elbow that was oozing blood and my hand that had donated a sizable swath of skin to the road. Amazingly, all the rest of my exposed skin, including my stomach, had escaped road burn.

"Uh, I guess," was my dazed reply. She waved, rolled up her window, and drove away.

So it wasn't because of that incident that my little Uni sat in exiled storage for the past two years, it just kind of worked out that way. Still, it's entirely possible that a little repressed trauma led to my long procrastination in actually wheeling Uni with her two flabby, lifeless tires to the nearest bike shop this week. Now with firm, full tires beneath me, I hopped aboard Uni and went for a mid-afternoon ride in the sun break yesterday.

They say you don't ever forget how to ride a bike, which is true. And yet, I had forgotten the delightful rush of self-powered transportation. The freedom. The feeling of being so close to the ground. The vulnerability of being atop approximately eight pounds of aluminum and skinny minny tires, knowing that if I needed to brake quickly I was toast.

But Uni and I did fine. Flew (cautiously) down 24th to Market St, turned right and rode past the Locks, cruising on the bike path to Golden Gardens, then turned to climb up the mile long hill to the top. Uni's gears and frame creaked in solidarity with my creaky knees, though together, forming a strong team that's been around the block a few times. And I appreciate this quality of my not-so-new road bike, for she reminds me of my mortality. Of wising up as I get older (no longer riding against traffic, in the dark, without a helmet); of realizing I'm not indestructible; of hitting the roads regardless, in acceptance of the risks posed, and responsibly enjoying the freedom of riding.

Who knew I could learn so much about life from a Univega?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The imperfect perfect

Living in the here-and-now, fully present in each moment, would be so much easier if we all had default buttons set to this mode. I think we must have, a long, long time ago, but the switch got flipped and now we have to perpetually fight this other mode of discontent. Were we only hard-wired for gratitude, what a difference that would make! And yet, it seems that in the struggle, that is when the diamond of gratitude is polished. Yes, it takes struggle for me to see, to appreciate beauty, even when I write about it nearly every day.

Though I go through my days with varying degrees of determination to see with grateful eyes, deep down still resides some quiet, persistent voice niggling away at my heart. Trying to convince me that when such-and-such piece of life falls into place, things will be perfect. If I could just arrange A and B to fit together, and C to move here, and to eliminate D altogether, and manipulate E, I'll have things just as I want them. Just as they should be.

Is it just me, going through life, so often subconsciously, as if I'm trying to shift the pieces of a Rubric cube?

But one who has experienced loss, who has lived the sudden shattering of things falling apart, knows, too, that things as they should be - the illusive perfect composition - is infinitely fragile. The photographer trying to capture group shots of families with small children knows this. The "perfect" picture is actually a split-second shot where the photographer eventually succeeded in capturing the children in poses, facing the camera and smiling, before attentions shifted once more, boredom or curiosity set in, other emotions flashed on little faces, all with the optimal lighting, camera settings and composition.

Life is fluid like that quest to capture the perfect picture, before the scene changes and the moment is lost. Perfect pictures come around again, for moments. And in the interim, we create another type of moment. The imperfect perfect moment. The truest, deepest gratitude virtually eliminates the need for perfection. There is potential in each moment, in each season of life, in each struggling relationship or faith or business, for the beautiful imperfect.

And now I see a bit more clearly, it's also grace I so desperately need. Grace for those imperfect perfects to be as they are, un-manipulated. Grace for life, for others, for me, not to have an ideal.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A happy non-tourist

I was mistaken for a tourist the other day. At first, it felt like a back-handed compliment, caught me off-guard. We were walking through a corridor of shops at the factory outlets and a kiosk of brightly colored cloth drew me in. The business owner, in contrast to the vibrant colors of her product, dressed in black with long dark hair, approached us with an accent I couldn't identify. Turns out she was from Israel, but more recently, from Pennsylvania.

"Are you a tourist?" Her tone was friendly, inquisitive. "Ah, no. Certainly not." I smiled as I emphasized the not, wondering if I had succumbed as a tourist would to her product.

"Really? Where are you from?" She sounded incredulous now, and I wasn't sure why. I didn't think I looked that out of place.

"Yes, really. I live in Seattle."

"No way! How do you look so happy? Your bright pink hat, your smile, how do you stay happy living in such a place?" Her face scrunched in mild disgust at the indirect reference to Seattle.

I stammered a little, trying to respond to a question I'd never been asked before. "Well, I try not to base my happiness on the weather, for one."

She nodded, giving pause to this thought. "It's so awful, though," she lamented. "I've been out here for a few years, but each year it's getting worse - harder to stay here. I think I'm finished. I want outta here. I need sun. And people seem so unhappy, depressed. They dress all in dark."

I bit back a smile. Not entirely true, I thought, but certainly some truth to that conclusion. "Yeah, it's challenging sometimes. It would be nice to get more sunshine... but there are other things to look for, other things that keep me going, make me happy." She looked at me expectantly. "Like my faith in God."

She nodded, pointing to her sales associate, "She's a really good Christian, too. Goes to church every Sunday. A happy girl, too."

I smiled at the younger girl who had introduced me to all the uses of the product, which as it turned out, could be worn as a skirt or dress in about ten different ways, and she returned the smile. My mom and I stood talking with them for a few more minutes, about Israel and other things, and walked away with a glow on our faces.

So I stand corrected. It seems there is at least one instance in which being mistaken for a tourist is actually a compliment.




Monday, July 18, 2011

Blast from the past

Nearly half a lifetime ago, I wrote a little book. It was never published, never seen, in fact, by anyone but one of my close friends and her boyfriend at the time. I made two copies - one for this boyfriend of hers and one for myself, pink and heart-shaped, with a Lisa Frank sticker of two tropical fishes kissing on the back cover - then tucked mine away. For years.

It appeared again the other day, this little book, sent back in the mail from a time in my past when I had shared it with someone else. And I chuckled at first when I saw it, rolling my eyes at my girlishness, at the ridiculousness of a young teenager contemplating things with which she clearly had no experience. Then I opened it and read, wondering if I didn't, perhaps, know something after all, those many years ago.

The 15 most important tips for being a successful boyfriend

1. Learn to be romantic [of course I would have put this first. At least I understood then, in part, that this must often be learned].

2. Tell her once in awhile that you think she's beautiful (but only if you really mean it)!

3. Watch "girly" movies on some occasions just to show her you care about the things she enjoys.

4. Go out on fun inexpensive dates.

5. Always be honest and open with each other.

6. Don't get too carried away with being physical - it can wreck a good relationship.

7. Not only are you her boyfriend; you are her best friend!

8. Realize that it's also important for you to do guy things and her do girl things with buds.

9. Money isn't everything, expensive doesn't mean better. It's the special little things you do that mean the most.

10. Be not only a good talker, but a good listener, too.

11. Girls LOVE surprises!!

12. Good communication is a key part of any relationship [Look at me, a pop psychologist in the making].

13. Sometimes a hug can say more than words.

14. If you respect her for her morals, values, and beliefs, she'll respect yours in return.

15. Most importantly, keep God in the focus of your relationship.

Experience can make us wiser, this is true; but the booklet is a good reminder for me that fresh, un-jaded eyes can also see without the aid of experience.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Favorite things: the ever-growing list

Life is full of favorites. Every day, new favorites emerge to join the constant presence of enduring favorites, but it takes me slowing down to invite them in:

*Dogs with sad, wistful eyes, begging to be petted out on the sidewalk

*Children's chubby cheeks and sparkling eyes full of curiosity

*Juicy watermelon after a run

*The scent of a fresh bar of soap on a hand-washed, hand-stitched white wrap, a gift from Mexico

*Waking up in the morning to my body's alarm, laying awake before getting up

*Phone conversations with my sister, recalling details of the day

*Playing soccer barefoot

*Reading before bedtime, falling asleep mid-sentence

*Conversational cocktails of Spanish, English and hand gestures

*Humor transcending culture

*The first cup of coffee of the day

How many things can be added to the list each day? Depends on how much I'm paying attention.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

En la cocina

He's told me stories of his family for the past year, of their evenings in the cocina, cooking together, of the flavorful dishes they prepare with much carinito, love. I could hear the longing tucked just behind his smile - remembering his family, his culture, their traditions. And so I sank into the moment as I stood with his dad (I call him Pancho) in the kitchen last night, listening to him confide in me the family secret for making mole. Ricardo stood by, interjecting with a few translations as needed, smiling as I guessed in English what Pancho was explaining to me in Spanish.

Pancho pulls out a plastic container and unscrews the lid, holding it out beneath my nose. I inhale the sweet, fruity, spicy scent and sigh with pleasure. Mole. Ricardo hasn't shown you how to make this? He asks. I shake my head.

He leans in close, comfortable, his face animated, his hands gesticulating to and fro to supplement his words, inserting jokes and pausing every now and then to lay a hand on my shoulder, "Entiendes?" You understand? I laugh, Ricardo laughs, of course she does. Grinning and nodding, I shrug, "Si, si..." Ricardo's lovely mom, Betty, casts me a sidelong glance, smiling knowingly. "Poquito." Well, a little.

We sit outside in the disappearing sun and the quickening cool breeze, wearing layers: Ricardo, Pancho, Betty, cousin Dafne, nephew Yashir, myself and my mom. Pancho offers the prayer in Spanish and we all cross ourselves the Catholic way, the way Ricardo taught me, ending with a kiss to our thumbs and index fingers forming a cross. I savor the sopa (soup) - squash, spinach and potato - and my mouth melts into its pureed smoothness. Now my gaze shifts to Ricardo, so happy, eyes bright, and inhale this moment. Mom practices her Spanish, conversation flows somehow, and Betty's eyes glisten. These are the treasures, so sweet, and I am finally transported into new stories of Ricardo's long-cherished family traditions.










Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Beneath the geyser

Life gushes sometimes. Water shooting from a geyser, droplets flying north, south, east and west, all free falling into the same pool below. Carried along in the stream, it's easy to make it halfway down the river before opening my eyes to see the landscape.

All within a week's time.

Sis calls, tells me they need to put their house on the market now, that there's a strong possibility they could wind up financially upside-down if it doesn't sell soon. She's determined to trust God, fighting the urgency that breeds stress. Less than a week later, they have a solid offer and it's in the process of being sold.

In Japan, cousin Josh in the Marines needs surgery, to remove a cyst on his brain that's been growing for years, stealing his health. The military arranges for his parents to fly to D.C. for passports, and then to Japan, to care for him while he's in the hospital. Prayers fly out. He receives excellent, compassionate care from hospital staff, makes it through surgery with a positive outcome, and is on the road to recovery with the hopes of a better quality of life.

My novio gets in a car accident the night before his family is set to arrive for a month's visit from Mexico. The car is totaled, while he is virtually unharmed. I join him at the airport to witness the joyful reunion with the family he hasn't seen in several years, and find myself pulled into a bienvenidos embrace, kisses on my cheeks, smiling into their warm and beaming faces for the first time. We share a meal and gifts at eleven pm, conversation flying from their mouths in Spanish, halting from my own mouth. I fall into bed late, smitten.

It's easy to get distracted by life's cracks; by the rush of events, big and small. Is it chaos, or is it beauty? I step back and peer through the cracks, see the beauty, the grace that seeps through to refresh my eyes. It's grace that gushes from every direction, and I stand soaked beneath the shower, grinning crazy.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sink or swim

I wish I could install Google Translate in my brain. Me gustarĂ­a poder instalar el traductor Google en mi cerebro. It's so convenient to type in sentences and have the equivalent phrases spit back out on the screen, even if they aren't always the greatest of translations. My brain, however, doesn't have the database to draw from to make those translations, and certainly not as quickly.

As I write, Ricardo's parents, cousin and nephew are in route to Seattle from Mexico. He hasn't seen them in over four years, which also means I haven't met them. I'm excited to see them all together: to see him receive the hugs he's missed for all these years; to join him as he sits with his dad when work is finished, drinking tequila and talking about our days; to experience cooking together and sharing some of his family's favorite meals, the flavors of his culture; to know in part the people that are so dear to him, that are a huge part of him; to see the Ricardo that comes alive when he feels truly at home.

His padres speak a few words in English and I speak not enough Spanish. We're headed for a great cross-cultural adventure this next month. I've been learning Spanish for over a year now, but it seems I can't speak any better than I did six months ago. Immersion really is the way to go, and this is the closest I'll get for now.

For a communicator and recovering perfectionist such as myself, not being able to communicate effectively is a source of frustration and dissatisfaction; but for a person learning to be fully present in the moment, full of gratitude, it is an opportunity. As my mom might say, it's like tying an Italian's hands behind her back and telling her to continue talking. Challenging at first, but then stretching me to look beyond my language capabilities - beyond my "not enough" - for other ways to communicate. Looking for other ways to see and notice and understand another person. An opportunity to develop senses not as heavily relied upon, to jump in before I feel competent or prepared enough and not judge my performance. Sink or swim.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Of goats and schemas



There's nothing quite like an afternoon that is spent smiling until your cheeks ache. And that's how I am around goats, particularly goats in costume. Can't help it; Lady BaBa, bumble bees, a zebra, a plethora of little ballerina fairy princesses, a unicorn, a Christmas elf, circus cars, and a hippie tie-dyed goat make a girl happy.

I spent some years of my childhood going back and forth from city girl to country girl. As I grew up, I settled upon city girl. I thrived in the constant activity, the diverse culture, the opportunities abounding in the city. And yet... and yet that way of understanding and defining myself is in flux. While I still love the city and so many aspects of city life, I find myself driving back to country places with some wistfulness, longing for a simpler, quieter, reach-out-and-take-hold-of-the-earth sort of life. Some distance from all the technology that can swallow life, actually distance us from living. It's one of the reasons, perhaps, I feel a sense of pure delight when I'm around goats.

In grad school, one of my beloved professors, Dr. Nelson, gave a memorable demonstration of this concept called "schema." It's been a few years, so I'll borrow a definition of schema I found on the internet from someone named Kendra Cherry:

"A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. Schemas can be useful, because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting a vast amount of information. However, these mental frameworks also cause us to exclude pertinent information in favor of information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and ideas. Schemas can contribute to stereotypes and make it difficult to retain new information that does not conform to our established schemas."

Dr. N wrote the word "bird" on the whiteboard and circled it. Then he asked for any ideas that came to mind when we thought of a bird. As we shouted them out, he drew little lines coming from the circled bird and wrote our concepts of a bird in new circles. The more little circles and concepts that stemmed from our original "bird" schema, the more apparent it was that, while we all knew what a bird is, we had slightly and even vastly different frameworks for organizing and interpreting that information.

Funny, but Dr. N might be surprised to know that much of my post-grad work has centered around this idea of schemas. My schemas of God, profession, life direction, vocation (or calling), success, value, priorities, love, church, worship, faith, marriage, turning thirty, and the whole of who I am, for example, have all been called into question and in many cases, restructured. Or shall I say, they are in the process of being restructured.

All this restructuring can be tiring work. The questioning, the wrestling, the wide-eyed seeing, sometimes painfully but always eventually freeing, what I hold to be true. Admitting who I really am and how different that often is from who I thought I was and accepting that person, with grace, this is not easy work. Yet the closer I get to that understanding and acceptance, the more I can give myself permission to just be me, the more alive I feel.

The ongoing question is, can I have a flexible enough framework of life, one that does not include "should" as a preface; that has space enough for the continuous addition of stems connected to descriptive words, ever expanding and deepening and opening to this journey of becoming?

I could end with a question, as I've done so many times before. Or I could draw another line, another stem coming from me, circling "Yes." Why yes, yes I can. Not perfectly, but persistently and intentionally, yes.


Friday, July 8, 2011

It's a goat thing


It all began with a video on Youtube. A fainting goat doing what it does so well, fainting. Over and over again. Highly amusing stuff, and I laughed like crazy, and what started off as a joke evolved into a true like of all things goat. I remember walking through Pike Market one crowded summer afternoon with my mom and noticing the t-shirt on a girl passing by. Something about an international fainting goat association. I just about died knowing that such a thing existed, and much to my embarrassment (and later on, I'll confess, delight), good ol' Mom stopped the poor girl and asked if we could have a picture taken of the girl and I together, since I love fainting goats.

It occurred to me last night as I was browsing a website, oohing and ahhhing and chuckling over goat-themed merchandise, that this behavior might seem a little strange to the average city bloke. Admittedly, it took self-restraint to keep myself from purchasing a few t-shirts (though I may cave in and order a canvas tote). And what's not to love about shirts that bear "Got goat?" or "No goats, no glory" (a phrase I think was stolen from a customer of mine) or "You wouldn't understand, it's a goat thing" or one of my faves, "Peace, love, goats"? I dig it. Like it's going out of style; except, wait, it's never been in style.

And so it makes perfect sense that I'm driving all the way to Monroe tomorrow, Ricardo in tow, to witness the first ever Goat Olympics. I forget that not everyone knows me that well, and so when customers asked today what I'm doing this weekend and heard my response, I got a fair amount of raised eyebrows and "That's... interesting" comments.

Most people want to know, "Why goats? What's the fascination?" And I tend to shrug and reply, "Why not goats?" They're a whole lot more entertaining than tv. If you'd ever seen two goats facing off on a teeter-totter, you'd understand.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Beyond the closet

Some days, I'm a faith-filled, awestruck believer. And some days, I'm a closet atheist. Slowly it seeps in, this truth that pokes holes in my closet door: refusal to trust in the goodness of my God is nothing short of atheism, appearing innocently disguised.

I've lived perpetually stressed out, even thought for too many years that I thrived on the frenetic pace I kept. How many things could I pack into one day, into one week, into one life, to make me feel valuable and worthy, when deep down it was fear that kept me running on this treadmill? But fear kills faith, and the insatiable need to control is driven by fear, and this belief that I need to control everything is putting my faith in myself as my own little god, and that leaves me...where? In the closet, an atheist dressed up like a believer.

That's a long, rambly sentence, and it can be just as effective arranged in a cute little formula:

Fear ---> Need to control ---> Adios faith ---> Trusting self ---> Closet atheist

I'm not picking on atheists here. Yet with all due respect, having the particular beliefs I do, neither do I want to be one. And certainly not a closet one. Ann Voskamp, author of One thousand gifts, says it this way: "Anything less than gratitude and trust is practical atheism." Not a lot of room for rationalizing here, though certainly I want to try. I want to find a loophole, give myself permission to be stressed, because it takes less energy than trust. It's way too easy to let my mind go unrestrained, thoughts buzzing chaotically like a swarm of bees, emotions running wild. It takes discipline to trust, and sadly, discipline is what I often lack.

Perhaps I keep repeating the same old things, day in and day out, but then again, I obviously need the repetition. Because when I ask myself the question, But how in the world does one trust in a good God in a world of crumbling economics, broken relationships, failing housing markets, lost jobs, terminal illness, divorce, death, natural disasters, war, monotony, miscarriages, poverty, crime...?

How??

I return again and again, each time with more confidence: gratitude. So simple, but far from simplistic. Gratitude is how I stay weighted down in this moment instead of scrambling back and forth between past histories and future anxieties. It's how I slow down that treadmill until I can jump off, legs wobbly, and walk on solid ground. It's how I open the door and live outside the closet, fully alive.