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Artist Mother 2

She steals away an hour, to hover over fragments of pages, torn from one form to be made into another.

A twinge of guilt runs through from her gut to her head. She should be tending to the sink full of dishes. She should be sitting with children as they play.

But the insatiable urge is there, compelled to create. Not for the world to see, but for sanity’s sake. This way, she can reach all the corners of her mind.

Clutter and chaos give way to pattern and form. Last week’s unfinished business flows perfectly into tomorrow’s plans. There are just enough cracks left to let slivers of light stream through.

It is tempting to rush, but the children play quietly just long enough. The phone remains quiet. The dishes stay put in the sink.

She lingers a moment over her work, yet unfinished, but just enough for today.

For those who don’t know, one of my pathways to sound thought and sane behavior is through making collages. There is something sacred to me about taking an object or an image that has had a specific purpose, and reshaping it into an entirely new form of expression. This poem is about an hour I spent on a Sunday afternoon working on a collage piece using a few pages from one of my daughter’s old math workbooks. 


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Side By Side

“Long before we start a war, we have already killed our enemies mentally by making them into abstractions with which no real intimate human relationship is possible.” –Henri Nouwen

As I actively seek to live into a life of pacifism, I keep finding ideas that make it more difficult to consider myself pacifist. The last month has been filled with instances where I thought I was doing fine, but it turns out that my heart and my head weren’t quite in the right place to be considered peaceful.

From my experience, distance makes the heart grow harder. When I am frustrated with my husband and I don’t talk it over with him, the distance between us grows until a small misunderstanding has become a major rift. When I am hurt by a friend’s words and stop talking to her, the bond of friendship begins to break.

But it’s even more damaging when I assign my frustrations and hurts to whole people groups and cultures. It’s the old “us and them” scenario, one in which I dehumanize people who are different from me. When I was a child, growing up in a conservative Republican home, I tended to demonize those lazy bums on welfare, who I assumed must have been poor beggars trying to take advantage of families like mine. And now that I am grown and have found myself in the position of being a hard-working mama on food stamps, I admit that I have also cast judgment on those who are in the top income bracket. Largely I judge them for the way I think they are judging the poor.

Whether I’m casting judgment on a brown-skinned prisoner or a pale-skinned CEO, I’m committing an act of violence. I am guilty of lumping “those people” into categories that can be dismissed because I simply cannot relate.

So what’s a struggling pacifist to do when “they” really just aren’t acting right?

I’m not going to pretend that I have some sort of golden ticket answer to this question. Henri Nouwen begins to address the solution with a few words: “intimate human relationship.”

As soon as I place someone into a group that could be considered “them” I’m in serious trouble. For example, when I’m angry with my husband, I quickly begin to write off all men. When I’ve been hurt by a woman friend in a catty situation, suddenly all the other women out there are nasty bitches who are just waiting for the chance to humiliate me. The break in intimacy is made worse by sweeping generalizations.

And once I transfer those sorts of generalizations to people I don’t even know, it’s so easy to decide that I must be right, therefore making them wrong. When they continue to live their way of life in the face of my rightness, I feel threatened, and I lash out to protect the things I fear losing – things like my sense of security and safety, my chosen way of life.

So here is one answer: stop fighting people, and start fighting the tendency to create abstract people groups with no relation to yourself. Believe in the assertion of Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable, that everyone is your neighbor. If you feel so moved, start writing letters to prisoners, or start visiting a homeless shelter and getting to know the people there (both the volunteers and the ones being served). If it’s wealthy people you judge, try attending a church in a well-to-do neighborhood and really getting to know a few of the members. Or hang out in the up-scale coffee shop and try striking up a conversation with the man in a business suit at the next table, and make friends with the baristas too.

Or, if you’re like me, you are probably very busy in the details of your own life, and starting in on a new “cause” sounds pretty daunting. So for myself, I will pause next time I sigh over the strange behavior of the entire male population, or the next time I find myself cursing all the investment bankers who got bailed out by the government. I will think twice before I dismiss the woman at the thrift shop that is preaching and asking for others to shout “Amen” as she browses the clothing racks. I will dig deep into my pockets to hand out the dollar I don’t really need and give it to the beggar on the street regardless of how I think he will spend it.

But most importantly, I will try to remember to pray for those I want to judge. I will stop waging war with my thoughts. I will put down my weapons of self-righteousness and judgment and be willing to listen to the stories of those whose lives are outwardly different from mine. And in the process, I know I will discover fellow humans, with the same longings and struggles as I face. After all, it’s much more difficult to start a battle when you’re standing side by side.

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A friend whose love for me is more important than which one of us is right.

Six-year-old can’t sit still, smiling eyes, sounding out the letters to make words.

Eight-year-old studying her script, and I catch a glimpse of the young woman growing inside her.

Puppy watching intently as I hustle out the door, devoted beyond reason.

Late-night conversations that leave my mind racing with wonder at all that my life has been and will be.

Exhausted husband soundly sleeping, and I grind the coffee beans, setting the pot to wake him far too early for tomorrow’s chores.

Gifts come and go so quietly; I want to hold each moment, but must continue so I do not miss the next.

When I think my heart is full enough, I open my hands and receive even more.

Matthew 6:19-21
“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.”

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Returning Home

I’ve been absent from this blog for almost a year, and what a year it’s been. I have been through mysterious illness, deep depression, an extended retreat from my beloved community and my husband, a cancer scare, a major change in my work responsibilities, the death of my grandmother, a broken wrist, losing our family dog to cancer, and more than I could possibly cover in one post. It’s been trying in many regards, but I’ve come through it all and I think I can honestly say I’m better for it, though at one point the multitude of trials had me steeped in despair, and I wasn’t sure how I would ever get out.

But I fought for new life. I held onto the thread of faith I had left and would not let go no matter how many demons promised it could be easier if I would just forget the fight and join them for good. I knew better. As a recovered alcoholic, I believe I’ve already seen the gates of hell, and I have no desire to go back.

God promises to put on a show when we invite him to the party, and did he ever put on a show for me. The Koinonia community allowed me the time and space I needed to get some much-needed rest and to put down all my responsibilities here, and my husband agreed. My daughters and I went to spend 8 weeks at the Fox Hill Bruderhof community in New York state (for those who don’t know, the Bruderhof is a worldwide intentional Christian community that is similar in many ways to Koinonia). During those weeks I was allowed to fully enter into the daily life of their community, and it proved to be transformational. I’m sure I’ll have stories of my time there for months and years to come.

Also while I was there I discovered a large, terrifying lump on the right side of my neck, right over my thyroid. The physician’s assistant in their community saw me immediately and referred me for an ultrasound. Within 24 hours I received the advice that I return to Koinonia as soon as possible for a biopsy with a doctor closer to home. At 33 years old, I was faced with the possibility that I might have cancer.

Confession time: when I was in high school I was depressed enough to be suicidal, but as I grew older and the nature of my circumstances changed, the urge to harm myself subsided for a more subtle and insidious form of self-hatred. In my young adulthood I began to wish that something awful and life-threatening would afflict me so I would have a good reason for how awful I felt. I fantasized about plane crashes and car wrecks, wished for a terminal illness, and fretted about how crazy I was, wondering if I should just go commit myself and then everyone would know the truth about me. For over 10 years these thoughts had lingered in the back of my mind whenever life began to feel overwhelming.

So, here it comes, I thought. Had all those hours I spent on thoughts of illness manifested an actual tumor? For two days after receiving the news I cried and cried. The Bruderhof members lifted me up in prayer at one of their meetings, sharing encouraging words in their quiet way. And that night I was able to embrace the truth. I realized there was nothing I could do by worrying, and that even if I had wished for disaster, this entire situation was not just thought up and created by me. God was in charge of it all. And with that thought, I released every ounce of my life to his care.

I told God that if he could use my situation to do any amount of good in the world, then I knew I could willingly walk through it. I felt a peace deeper than I ever had before, and I began to trust in a way that I didn’t know was possible. Each time I lifted my hand to my throat to check on the lump, I half expected it to have disappeared. Alas, it was still there as we drove back south, still there when I got home, still there when I went in for my biopsy appointment. It was still the same abnormally large size, and I still felt physically out of sorts. A week later, the test results came back inconclusive, which meant I still might have cancer and had to go through the whole ordeal again.

The strange thing was, a week after the procedure, the lump also felt smaller. I began to look up thyroid nodules online…was it possible for them to just go away on their own? Of course all the websites run by doctors said absolutely not, but on a few of the patient forums I found sketchy evidence that it might be possible. Well maybe?…but I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high as I waited another month to have my second biopsy.

Meanwhile, the lump became indetectable. Previously visible from across the room, I couldn’t even feel it when I pressed my fingers into my throat. I even had a checkup with a different doctor, who said that whoever had felt the nodule must have had sensitive fingers because she didn’t feel anything. At the second biopsy appointment, the ultrasound showed that it was still there, but had shrunk by more than half. The doctor and attending nurse just shrugged and went ahead with the procedure. Interesting how science has no logic to explain miracles. The results that time came back negative…no cancer!

Since the day I placed my entire existence in God’s hands, I have felt a peace that cannot be described in words. My faith is strong, I know that miracles are real, and I have a hope that cannot be extinguished even by the worst of trials. Because of this fundamental change in me, it was cause for rejoicing, but not very surprising when I heard from the doctor’s office that I could get on with my life.

This is not to say that every moment is filled with warm, glowing light and that everything in my life is just wonderful all the time. I’m still human. I still get frustrated and fight with my husband or yell at my kids. I still fall short, still can’t get to everything that needs to be done in a day, and my house is still a cluttered mess. Sometimes I still feel overwhelmed almost to the point of despair.

But it doesn’t paralyze me the way it used to. It might sound minor, but to me this change in outlook is an even bigger miracle than the disappearance of the lump in my throat. It’s like I’ve finally discovered my spiritual home. No matter how far away I travel, the light of God’s love is glowing from inside, welcoming me back.

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It was basic developmental theory that first introduced me to the significance of the mirror. As a college senior, I first read about Jaques Lacan, who first identified the mirror stage of development. He observed that as an infant develops her awareness of the outside world, she begins to identify with the images around her, eventually discovering that she is also human and therefore capable of doing the things she has witnessed. In other words, she gained self-awareness through observing and identifying with other people. Ever since I learned this in college, I have firmly believed we are all mirrors for one another.

Later in my adult life, a friend taught me a great spiritual truth: If something about someone else bothers me, that is because I’m bothered by the same trait in myself. Now, this should have been easy to swallow since I already had such a fondness for Lacan’s mirror theory. But even now, over ten years later, I still struggle to be honest about the reflections I see. It would be so much easier to just write you off as annoying or stupid or (fill in the blank). But instead I am now faced with the fact that if you’re annoying me, then I’m probably quite annoying to someone else as well.

When I allow myself to become aware of the reflective quality of my relationships, then I have a choice. I can constantly try to alter the mirror so that I can become comfortable with the image I’m seeing. Or, I can use the opportunity to see if anything in my own life is flawed. Think about it. When I look into a glass mirror, I’m checking to see if I look presentable enough to go out the front door and face the world. Any hairs out of place? Anything stuck in my teeth? I use the tools at my disposal to correct any blemishes, and then I can start my day with some measure of confidence.

And so when I look into a human mirror, I should logically do the same thing. When I look at you, what do I see? Am I overcome by love and appreciation for the many talents and gifts that you have to share with the world? Or do I sneer and snicker in disgust at the wide array of bad habits and character defects you possess? More often than I want to admit, the answer is the latter. And to follow suit, more often than I even know it, as soon as I see the flaw I’m trying to figure out how to fix you, how to counsel you, how to manipulate and manage you until you just start acting right, dang it!

It’s time for us all to stop polishing the mirror and start paying attention to what we see. If I could look at you and simply see beauty and grace, then I wouldn’t be going around trying to fix all of your quirks. And if all I can see is your quirks, well…I’ve probably got more than a few of my own issues to work through.

If we are to truly adopt the Christian way of life, we must heed the words of our model for good behavior. After all, in the 7th chapter of Matthew Christ himself said it best:

“And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.”

Think I’m going to go see about my own log now. How about you?

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I trudge through grass that is too tall through raindrops that came on too fast and too heavy, but ended too soon, to turn off the sprinkler that I left running in the back yard.

Too many weeds and too many ideas about what to plant leave me feeling too tired to accomplish anything this afternoon.

I ignore the to do list that is too long, become too distracted by mundane things to keep my children focused, and so they go to bed too late once again.

Too many people ask questions, to which there are too many answers, and so I also stay up too late thinking and talking and explaining and dreaming.

I feel as though I’ve seen too much, but somehow also done too little. The universe feels too big, but my corner of it seems too small.

They used to tell me I was too idealistic, that I tried to cover too much ground with one poem.

But I kept on writing anyway.

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My friend Amanda snapped me out of my blogging slump today, with this great post about what it means to be a neighbor. It got me thinking…what kind of a neighbor am I?

I’d like to say I’m the type of neighbor who always thinks of others before myself. I’d like to testify that my house is filled with friends, that I frequently visit others just to say hello, that I create about myself a calming presence that welcomes everyone into my midst so that I can show them God’s love in the way I behave.

Reality, I must confess, is unfortunately the flip side of that coin. I’m usually so busy rushing from task to task that I walk too fast to notice the blue sky, much less to pay attention to the needy person in my path. My house is usually a mess, and though I aspire to have friends over for tea, the invitations I issue are too few and too infrequent. I rarely visit or call on others unless I need their help with something, and only after my agenda items have been covered do I ask how they are doing. And since I haven’t been managing my stress well, people are more likely to encounter emotional shrapnel from my venting than meeting me as a serene and loving daughter of the most high.

All right, I’ll stop blasting myself for a minute now and say that I am pretty good at welcoming people, I do love to hear and share stories about all sorts of topics, and generally people give me feedback that it’s fun to be with me. But lately, I’ve been so caught up in project lists, or caring for sick kids, or crying over all the stress in my life, that I’ve been shutting others out. And it’s about time I pulled my head out of my own backside for a minute to take hold of all the opportunities I have to become a better neighbor.

When Jesus issued the Golden Rule, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. And love your neighbor as you love yourself,” one of his listeners (an expert in religious law) challenged him to define neighbor. This is when Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan. The tale is so familiar that it’s almost become cliche, yet it sill presents a direct challenge to our modern attitudes and prejudices. In Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version of Luke 10, the injured man is white and the Samaritan is a black man. In the more familiar version of the story, it’s well-known that Samaritans and Jews did not hold mixed company. Jesus skillfully turns the idea of neighbor on its head! We are to live as neighbors to everyone, not just to people who are like us, or who make us feel completely comfortable all the time.

But even more relevant to my current predicament is the analysis of those who did not stop. All of them were in a hurry to get on with some self-important errand. Yes, I would argue that motivation to serve in the ancient temples, and especially in today’s churches, can easily be born in the ego rather than the heart. We can get caught up in the work, in the plans, in the fundraising and maintaining our image. All for what? For nothing, if at the end of the day we have no energy left to enter the holy experience of being a neighbor to those we encounter.

Perhaps this recent stress I’ve been going through coupled with being sick at home all last week, and now still at home caring for my daughter who has bronchitis…maybe these are blessings in disguise. Each obstacle has forced me to slow down, to think about what’s most important in life, and to truly value the people around me who’ve loved me enough to let me say “no” to the daily grind, and who have kept things going in my absence. Perhaps all the agendas can be set aside. And then I can grasp hold of this new opportunity to remember what the Golden Rule was all about in the first place.

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