Editing: a Lenten Practice

It reveals me to myself.“ I wrote this line in my last blog as I described this liturgical planner with which I’ve entered a complicated relationship.

I also wrote “It’s only January. I haven’t even made it to Lent yet.”

Well, Lent has arrived.in-640516_960_720Wednesday I went to a noon service and received the imposition of the ashes on my forehead. “From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” the priest said to me. Over and over I heard that phrase spoken to every kneeling soul at the altar. It echoed in the sanctuary of wood and stone and now it echoes in my mind and heart.   You are finite, it says. You are one of many; only human, who you are and what you can do and how long you will last are all limited.

That voice seems to be in chorus with the planner. As I struggle with using it, seeing it merge my digital calendar and reflective journal, facing its forcing me out of my denial about who I write in my journal that I want to be and what I actually do every day, I feel the truth bearing down upon me.

I didn’t mean to start this liturgical theme in my blog, but advent brought an anxious waiting, Christmas retold a story, and epiphany began a journey toward something to behold.

It seems a Mystery beyond me is being lived in my story. A wheel-shaped diagram on the inside cover of the book represents the liturgical year of the church. My own story seems to be a wheel within the wheel.

I set myself up last week when I wrote this line…

An epiphany is a moment of pause, a moment of revelation. But the still point of revelation is brief, for we are changed by it and it demands we respond in some way. 

 This made for a nice ending, only I wasn’t thinking particularly about the ‘some way’ in which I would respond. Then came Lent.

Some of theme words on the opening page describing Lent in the Sacred Ordinary Days Planner are self-examine, discipline, prepare, empty, fast, quiet, contemplation, and reflection.

It’s a fitting beginning for Lent: Response. I read yesterday that to ask oneself, “What do I give up for Lent? “ is to shortchange oneself. The better question is what practice will I add to my life, in place of the something I might need to let go, in order to better become who I was created to be.

Oddly, the word ‘edit’ comes to mind. Is that a spiritual practice? It certainly speaks to getting rid of things. The final stage in the writing process, I tell my students, is to re-read your work, to cut out all superfluous words. Where many words are, sin abounds, the Proverbs say. While I know this is true of those of us who talk too much and too often, I’m not sure it applies to essays of AP Lang students, though after reading five or six wordy ones in a row, I’m inclined to think loquaciousness deserves punishment and needs absolution.

Say it as tightly as you can – economy of word – I tell them. The fewer words, the more important the choice of each becomes and the more power each one holds. Editing is both eliminating words and choosing better ones; sometimes it’s putting the words in a different order.

I think about the pages of my life, represented by my journal, my planner and my calendar. Are ‘choice, fewer, and powerful’ the descriptions of the life recorded there? Is the order of things what it should be?  I’m not sure. I fear it lacks power because there are not enough pauses, silences, blank spaces, and careful choices.   Yes, editing is a spiritual practice. A Lenten practice of giving up and replacing, editing the filled spaces and times on that calendar to gain the fewer, deliberative and powerful moments that are born in space and silence.

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My Planner: A Love/Hate Relationship

I have a new planner.  A friend of mine found these online and knowing that I was reading Living the Christian Year and trying to live into the liturgical calendar this year,  she thought I might like to try one. I haven’t decided whether to thank her or ‘unfriend’ her.

The first day I loved it! The child whose father owned an office supply store, I had unlimited access to Blue Horse Tablets, #2 Wallace pencils, college-ruled composition notebooks,  and yellow legal pads. I loved fresh paper and new pens.  The teacher, too, loves a clean page on which to write and plan.  Maybe that type of child  becomes a teacher.  I was eager and enthusiastic when I first opened the book.

For the last few years I have used strictly a digital calendar, which I love for many reasons; not the least of which is entering the dentist’s appointment on my phone’s calendar right there in the office. Seconds later that appointment is also on my computer’s calendar. Gone is the small reminder card which once got lost in the black hole of my purse for weeks.  I miss, however, not being able to reflect on the calendar and make notes to myself about what did and did not work.   After I had completely exhausted myself over Christmas one year in the days of a paper calendar, a friend suggested I put a sticky note on next year’s December which read: ELIMINATE ONE THING!  I did. It worked.  I haven’t mailed out a Christmas card since that sticky note got put on December.  I use “old school paper” for my teacher plan book and I write in pencil so I can change easily – which I do often.  I go back and write reflections in colored ink about what works and what doesn’t, what needs more time, or less time.

I thought this new planner would be like that, a place to reflect on my pace of life and note adjustments I needed to make, and a reminder to fuse the practical tasks into the liturgical season. The planner starts the year with a space for writing one’s own rule of life, then each day provides readings from the daily office along with  a list of three projects one would like to accomplish. Underneath the project list is a daily schedule space and a small white space for other notes or thoughts related to the readings or anything else.

This was my first frustration. No way was the book adequate to serve as my journal.  I’m voluble, loquacious, verbose.  For years I’ve kept a black Moleskin journal,  the receptacle of thoughts, prayers, feelings that come tumbling out of my mind. I reflect and ponder and try to make meaning of what is happening in my daily life.  There the words excited, exhausted, afraid, overwhelmed, overjoyed show up.  In those pages is the record of what I felt, perceived, or learned from what happened in my life. Or maybe just a record of what I coped with or survived.

My second pushback was that I’m still going to use my digital calendar – too convenient to give up.

Thirdly, I was trying to fill in those three project boxes every day and complete them in spite of how much might be listed on the daily schedule – transferred from my digital calendar, mind you. I found myself becoming driven by the tyranny of my own list, obsessing over the boxes. I wanted to check those boxes.  The old taskmaster that drives me to accomplishment was rearing his head again.

I was about to give up on the whole thing, thinking it was only a complicated fusion of the calendar and the journal, duplicating what I already have and not serving its own purpose, but  I couldn’t quite let it go.  Hate gave way to love again.

The liturgical day planner is just that, a complicated fusion which represents me. It reveals me to myself.   A calendar alone lets me feel accomplished and productive; a journal tells another truth – driven, sometimes exhausted, afraid, and pensive.  In either book alone, I can deny the other side.

No wonder I love and hate this new book: it forces me to admit that my ‘to do’ list are too long and that I am the author of the list.  Nobody but me is making that unrealistic list.  When I get to the weekend it asks me to reflect on the previous week in terms of mind, body, spirit, home, relationships and work and reset for the next week.  I’m forced every seven days to look back at how my intention (who I say I want to be) matched with how I scheduled my time and energy.   My Moleskin journal and my digital calendar don’t talk to me this way. They don’t ask me to evaluate my schedule or force me to look back at previous pages.  I can continue my dualism in those two separate books.

It’s only January. I haven’t even made it to Lent yet.  I make no promises about my relationship with the liturgical planner for all of 2016.  We are ‘still just dating’ so to speak. A wise friend once told me, “When you feel yourself resisting, lean in. It’s usually what you need.”  I definitely met resistance within myself.   For now, I’m choosing love and leaning into the planner.

Epiphany: Courage, Movement, Attention

If Advent is waiting, then Epiphany is moving.

In December, in the middle of advent, a season of waiting, I wrote in my journal that “it felt like a marathon – which is a kind of waiting in itself.”  If you read my last blog, my advent was anything but the kind of sedentary waiting one does at the hospital or at the airport; rather it was wrap this, deliver that, attend this, visit them, cook this, pick up that.  The days of waiting seemed consumed with movement — all toward Christmas Day, the finish line.

Then the movement stopped. The waiting was over. We celebrated and enjoyed. Finally, after our kids were back at school, we were back at work and the holidays were over, my husband and I begin to dismantle the Christmas tree and all its trimmings.  We found ourselves finishing the task on January 6th. On the liturgical calendar it is Epiphany, a celebration of the Wise Men’s visit to the Christ Child.   They are no longer traveling, following a small star in the sky. Now they see in a human child the Word which called all light into existence.

We are putting ornaments in boxes and rolling up strings of lights. I’m packing up my collections of Santas and Nativity scenes. The live greenery surrounding them and the wreaths in almost every room come down and the dead leaves and branches shed all over the furniture and the floor.  I’m sweeping and and picking up dustpan after dustpan of needles that have fallen from our brittle tree which my husband has now dragged to the front porch. In a fit of New Year’s decluttering and cleaning, I decide to pull every piece of furniture out of the living room, remove the seagrass rug which is dry-rotted on the backside, and rearrange the furniture.

That evening a friend sent me a text with news that a research project she’s worked on during her recent graduate school experience had just been published.  She’d used her own experience with cancer as an impetus to return to school and do this important work. She’s made some courageous and life-altering decisions along the way.  I responded to her text with these words, “You’re an inspiration of where one can be in a few years with courage, movement and attention.”  And then I had my own small epiphany.  Those are the ingredients of transformation: courage, movement and attention.

In the two years prior to my taking this job, my husband’s job had him working nearly two hours away. He was really only home on the weekends. We considered moving. I’d prayed for courage often during those two years, though really not understanding why, as I didn’t recognize  fear in myself at the time. (That lightbulb moment came eventually.) The relocation of our family didn’t happen but change was coming for me in all kinds of ways and the nudge to pray for courage was the beginning of a Divine conversation.

It takes courage to move. Willingness to move a household and family, to make a job change, to get out of ‘stuck’ place, to let go of bitterness, to get out of a tired narrative, to move your mind to think in a new way, to move your body toward what it needs – courage is the fuel, but the body still has to put one foot in front of the other over and over and over: Move until you reach the destination.  The wise men kept traveling, night after night. They watched the sky, their camels plodding on.

This same friend had said to me, “Pay attention to what comes unbidden.”  The context of that quote was my contemplating an out-of-the blue offer to teach again after a twenty year break from the classroom. I’d been doing free-lance devotional writing and researching pursuing a graduate degree. The job I took was a total shift for me, as I’d been a stay-at-home mom for eighteen years. The four years prior to that I’d been in the business world. Way back, twenty two years before, I’d been a classroom teacher.  I’d been longing for freedom from an uncomfortable family situation; my freedom came in the form of a full-time teaching job. Talk about paradox. Sometimes when you arrive at the scene, it looks nothing like what you expected.

The word ‘epiphany’ means a moment when you suddenly see or hear something in a new or clear way. “The lightbulb came on” teachers say, when we see that knowing look on a student’s face. An epiphany is a moment of pause, a moment of revelation. But the still point of revelation is brief, for we are changed by it and it demands we respond in some way.  Epiphany is movement. The Wise Men didn’t stay with the Christ Child, they went home  – by another way.

Several months ago, a friend brought to my attention the James Taylor song, “Home by Another Way” in which Taylor writes, “But Herod’s always out there, he’s got our cards on file / It’s a lead pipe cinch, if we give an inch, old Herod likes to take a mile / It’s best to go home by another way, home by another way.

All of life is transformation. Epiphanies are ours for the asking and seeing – and then responding  -with courage, movement, and attention.

Anxiety and Advent: Between Conception and Delivery

Everybody over the age of twelve seems stressed this time of year.  The students in the high school where I teach are finishing their semester projects and papers, taking final chapter tests and preparing for semester exams next week.  The musicians and the dancers and actors have Christmas concerts, recitals and plays. Though football is done, basketball and indoor track are in full swing and practices follow school everyday.  The teachers are equally busy planning, grading, managing, and trying to make it to the academic finish line of the semester, only to leave school in the afternoon and go Christmas shopping, or home to bake or trim the tree.

Culturally, the ways we celebrate this season are counterintuitive to waiting. We are in Advent; but we are not waiting. We are racing, making list and checking them twice, studying, working, trying to use every available minute to accomplish the most before the deadline arrives.  For the students, it’s next Friday. The pressure is off after that last exam.  For adults, it’s Christmas Day. By then, the shopping, decorating, cooking and entertaining are culminating.

One of my students said this morning, “Sometimes the worrying is worse than the actual thing.”  He’s a pretty smart guy.  One of my school’s most accomplished young men, he is musician, scholar, and athlete:  he has an upcoming concert, is running track, is managing AP classes,  and he’s taking the ACT this weekend. He’s been given the wisdom in the moment to realize that the anxiety of all he is juggling is just that: vaporous dread. The events themselves will occur and he will get through them doing the best he can in the moment he’s got before him. And in a week, it will all be over for him.

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My scholars finishing their 5-week composition projects!

I wonder if Mary, the mother of the Christ child felt this way.  I know she was a teenage Jewish girl in a culture and time unlike modern America, but surely it wasn’t all peaceful waiting.  If she was like every other pregnant woman on planet earth, she felt the anxiety of an impending labor and birth. She must’ve had a “to do” list before the Christ Child was born, gone through the nesting instinct like other pregnant mothers, dreaded the heaviness of the final month and the pain of labor and delivery. She must’ve wondered when and where her labor would start and how long it would take and if she would survive it.  I bet she had a particular way she wanted that saddlebag packed when Joseph loaded her up on that donkey and said they had to go to Bethlehem.

I’ve read countless times the story of the angel appearing to Mary and I know well the words of “The Magnificat” found in The Gospel of Luke chapter 1.  Mary was told she was favored, to not be afraid, that she would be visited by the Holy Spirit and have a baby and what to name him. She celebrated this favor and pronouncement when she visited her cousin Elizabeth who was expecting John the Baptist.  Her famous line, “Be it onto me according to Thy word,” is a breath prayer for all of us who come after her.

Still, she didn’t get a whole lot of detail from the angel (as far as we can read) about the day to day between conception and delivery. She had to live each moment letting the narrative unfold, living in the details, coping with the questions, the anxiety or outright fear, until the day arrived when Jesus was born.  Interestingly, He was with her and in her the whole time.

And so it is with us.

Only we can’t seem to stay in conscious awareness of it so we stress about the details, and worry about the deadlines, and experience the darkness even as we carry the peace of God and the light of the world within us.

Fear and ritual. Football and religion.

I wrote last week trying to figure out my own response to a day when the world felt chaotic and frightening.  The following morning, my husband and I went to a college football game at my alma mater – Auburn University. That is unusual in itself if you know us at all.  I married a graduate of the University of Alabama.  Unless you hide under a rock or choose to avoid all mention of football in America, you have know the tension that football season can bring to such a household.  Since we moved back to Alabama after our Navy days, we have primarily attended his football games with his family and business associates.

Last week, before the Parisians were terrorized and everywhere I turned people were talking about Syrian refugees, friends invited my son, my only Auburn fan in the family, and me to attend the Auburn-Georgia game in Auburn.  He was unavailable, so these generous, gracious friends extended it to my husband who promised not  to smirk when Auburn fumbled or smile when Georgia scored.  We joke that college football is a religion in our state; and well, there’s a little truth in every joke. There’s probably some wisdom in not marrying outside the “faith” too.

So on Saturday morning my husband and I drove across town to our friend’s house to load up for a trip to “the loveliest village on the Plains”.  As we started toward their car, my friends said, “Let’s circle up and say a prayer for your daughter and all the American students abroad and their parents.”  There we stood, the four of us,  her husband and mine both veterans, clasping our hands and talking to God in their kitchen about what was happening on the other side of the world.  Four children, almost all grown between us, who have to launch lives of their own and lead in the future – what do we do for them, what can we say to them?  We are frightened ourselves and we’re supposed to be the grown-ups.  So we turn to prayer; it’s a ritual cultivated over a lifetime and the older we get the less we know for sure and the more we need Divine Love.

The day was as beautiful as a fall football Saturday in the South can possibly be -clear blue sky, leaves turning, jacket weather.  As we walked onto campus a nostalgic feeling flooded over me. I grew up coming here. From the time I was nine years old until I married my husband, I came to every home football game at Auburn, sitting in the same seats where my sister and her family sit today. I spent four years and a summer studying there. The comfort of the familiar was palpable.

Inside the stadium, the pregame ritual was much like it was thirty years ago when I was in school. The eagle makes his flight around the stadium while we all yell “War Eagle”. The ROTC students line the field holding the flags of all fifty states, the colors are presented and the Auburn band plays the national anthem. The announcer called for a moment of silence for the Parisians.  I look at the men dressed in USN uniforms and thank God mine came home to me in 1991.  This week, the band played “God Bless America”. People spontaneously began to sing.

Though we Auburn fans like to joke about our campus being the Holy Land and every football game, especially the Iron Bowl against Alabama, is a metaphorical battle of good vs. evil, there was a moment in the stadium Saturday that I was aware of the sacred space I inhabited.  Sacred because of the memories of love, family, friends, and shared celebrations on the campus. Sacred because I grew up there and many people invested in me as a human being along the way.  Sacred because before anything else we, like many other similar gatherings across the nation, were remembering our French friends and all others in harm’s way  and singing and reminding ourselves of our blessings as a community of Americans.  That’s what rituals do. They remind us.  When we are at a loss for words, we ‘go through the motions’ to remind ourselves what is real.

We lost the game, but it didn’t matter all that much to me. I saw two of my nieces  and the daughter of a dear friend at this game, and each girl I hugged a little tighter because my own daughter was so far away and so recently in Paris.

A few days later, she sent me a text: My roommates and I are eating risotto with broccoli and red velvet cake and listening to Christmas music while cutting snowflakes and paper chains with a mini Christmas tree.  It’s not even Thanksgiving, which these girls  plan to celebrate with American family and friends next week in London, but what are they doing a few days after the Paris attack? Lighting tiny Christmas trees, cutting the red and green strips of construction paper and gluing together the paper chains of their kindergarten years, making snowflakes, and listening to Christmas music. Ritual – going through the motions to remind ourselves of what is real.

Ask and You Shall Receive

Yesterday, I announced to my fifth period class that I would be leaving them in capable hands for part of the period while I left to go sing at the graveside service of a dear friend from my church.  His daughter and son-in-law are close friends of mine and two of his grandchildren are my former students and currently seniors at our school.

I have the luxury of teaching at Trinity Presbyterian School, whose mission is “to glorify God by providing the highest college preparatory education, while training students in the biblical world and life view, thus enabling them to serve God in spirit, mind and body.”  Because of who we are as a school, it is entirely acceptable to say to my class, “I would appreciate your prayers for me as I sing for this family and for them as they grieve the passing of their grandfather.”

It was a very cold day;  and singing is best when the body is warm. I was nervous about not being able to sing well outside and also about being able to keep my emotions in check when I saw the faces of these people that I love and the casket of this fine man who was our first Sunday School teacher when my husband and I moved to Montgomery eighteen years ago. I did not want my poor performance to be a distraction at such a sacred moment for this family.  Frankly, the tension was building in my body and I didn’t know if I could get out four verses of “Amazing Grace” under the circumstances. So, needing all the help I could get, I asked for the prayers of my ninth graders.

“We could get in a circle and pray right now,” one bright-eyed, warm-hearted girl said. It caught me by surprise.  What courage!  We were already conveniently sitting in a circle, and so I said, “Ok, would one of you like to lead?”  I was thinking I’d pray myself, setting an example to them that I ‘walk my talk’. Before I ended the question, the same girl who suggested it piped up, “I’ll do it.”   And so within seconds, I found myself surrounded by a circle of fifteen-year-olds with heads bowed with one voice praying aloud offering gratitude for the gifts of the day, the school, each other, and asking for comfort and peace for the family we all know and love and for strength for me as I sang.

The very act itself, the sound of her voice, the willing spirits of every soul in that circle gave me the gift I needed to walk to my car and drive to the cemetery.  For those who think today’s teenagers are too tied to their social media, too self-centered and spoiled, don’t have the right priorities and incapable of leadership in our culture, think again. Come visit my class. There are some courageous, compassionate, selfless young people who’ll step up when the need presents itself. They have much to offer us old folks if we ask them.