States of Mind–through NYC Haiku

 

A Haiku Tribute
to New York for National
Poetry Month’s End

 

A million faces
with no eyes–my lone nightmare.
But morning eyes laugh.

 

This backseat stranger
paid my fare. Who knew I’d find
kindness in a cab?

 

Ferry on Hudson
Crossing states and states of mind
From chaos to calm.

 

NYC skyline, clouds

 

 

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On Snow in New York City

At the bus stop we stamp our feet to stay warm. The snow is falling huge and heavy.

“I’ve been waiting a half hour,” an athletic guy says to no one in particular.

“I can’t take much more of this,” a middle-aged woman responds. She’s shaking so hard underneath her coat, at first I think she’s laughing.

But she isn’t. None of us are.

“Should we walk to the next stop?” I ask.

“I’m going to get a cab,” the guy says.

I haven’t been here long–at the bus stop for only five minutes, but working in New York City for only five months. Both my budget and my inexperience in cab-wrangling makes this cab-luxury seem impossible to hail.

NYC taxi snow

The guy sloshes over the snow-banked curb. His 200 pound stance stares down a 2000 pound cab.

“We’re all going to the ferries, right?” he says. “Get in. I’ll pay the fare.”

The middle-aged woman looks at the dirty snow bank, looks at her dress shoes, shrugs, and plunges in. I follow in the path opened for me.

We squeeze into the back of the cab, and the snow on our clothes turns into melting moisture.

The cab jolts forward.

“My glasses are fogged,” says the woman.

“The windows are fogged, too,” I say.

“Thank God!” the guy says as the cab swerves and then skids to stop.

The woman starts shaking. At first I think she’s still cold. But then I realize she’s laughing.

We all are.

At the terminal I try to offer money, but the others pay the full fare and run to their ferries before I can even get to my wallet.

“Thank you,” I say, to no one in particular.

A snowflake falls on my cheek. It’s huge. And heavy.

And warm.

 

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On Seahawks, Seattle, and Centenarians

12:06pm, Superbowl Sunday

 “Grandad, how do you keep doing it?”

Even though I now know his answer, today I wish I could be next to him again. I wish I could hear, again, what he would say when I ask how he “keeps on keeping on.”

But I work in New York City. My apartment is only a few miles from the stadium where the Superbowl will be played today. And Grandad lives in Seattle where, because of his macular degeneration, he will sit only a foot or two from his widescreen TV, urging his Seahawks on.

Gdad and Seahawks game

Nothing would make me happier today than to celebrate a Seahawks’ win for my 104-year-old grandfather, who has waited a really, really long time for any Seattle team to triumph. So the game-stakes are high. But the idea that we are sharing the same football action through the airways somehow shrinks those 3000 miles of roadways that separate us.

If the Seahawks win, it is only a symbol of the victories my grandfather has gained while spanning his full century.

Of course, if Seattle loses, Grandad would wish it otherwise, but this loss will take nothing from the game of life he has already played so well.

2:43pm, Pre-game

I’m hoping that I will get a view of the Seattle skyline in this pre-game show. But the network is only panning Times Square—a view I see in person at least once a week.

During this Superbowl I am feeling superimposed. In my mind the Space Needle stands next to the Freedom Tower. And a snow-covered mountain towers behind them both.

I don’t know how old I was when I began to think of my grandfather and Mount Rainier simultaneously. Every long-distance drive, every cross-country flight, when, at its tired end I am graced with a view of the mountain, the supernatural blends into the familiar. No matter how long I have been away, no matter what else has changed, the mountain stands—the human mountain of my grandfather, standing in grace.

4:58pm, John Fox’s interview

Although I don’t want the Broncos to win, I can’t help but be impressed by head coach John Fox’s story. Just 3 months ago he thought he might die while undergoing his open-heart surgery. “I was at peace,” he said. “If God wanted me to go, I was ready. But I’m lucky he decided he wanted me to stay. It was a God thing.”

If I were sitting next to my grandfather right now, he would agree with John Fox. Grandad has outlived my grandmother, found love for a second time, and then recently lost this wife as well.

“It’s a God thing that I am still here,” he would say. “When the new century was coming up, I thought it would be great to live to the year 2000. And then after that I thought that turning 100 would be a good goal. But now I don’t have any more milestones I’m waiting to pass. I’m ready—whenever I’m supposed to go.”

Knowing Grandad is ready brings me peace as well. Someday when I return to Seattle, I will see the mountain and not the man. But I will remember how it has always been the man who has given me a sense of safety—even in the unknown.

Mt. Rainier

6:32pm, Game time

A safety? Really?

It’s not that I want to be near Grandad only to talk about the important, philosophical questions. Right now I wish I could just turn to him, sitting next to me in his easy chair, and ask why football calls what really is a mistake by the other team a “safety.” Is it because the 2 points give the fortunate team a margin of safety?

Grandad, and the life he has modeled, gives me more than safety. He fuels my hope for the future.

7:38pm, 22-0 Seattle

Although it is February and I am physically in my apartment just a few blocks from the Hudson River, mentally it is October and I am in Grandad’s apartment, just a few miles from Puget Sound.

The past and present of two winning football games superimpose over each other.

Grandad and I, together for a long autumn weekend, are savoring the Seahawks’ domination of the Titans. Grandad had flown me to the Northwest to let me ask all my questions of him. But really, there was only one question. And I asked it over and over.

“Grandad,” I persisted, “how do you keep on? How do you keep so positive? You’ve been through world wars and the Great Depression. You’ve lost so many that you love. How have you lived so long and with such integrity?”

“Good, clean living,” he joked.

But then he grew serious.

“I guess I’ve been able to gain perspective after all these years. A perspective of looking back. I can look behind me at all the hard things I went through. But then I don’t remember how bad those times felt. I’ve learned that misery passes. Now, when something happens that makes me unhappy, I remind myself that only a few days or weeks later I won’t feel that way anymore. In fact, I might not even remember the event at all, much less the negative feelings that went with it.”

“That’s part of what I mean,” Grandad continued, “when I say, ‘this, too, shall pass.’ By understanding that bad feelings fade fast, I can focus instead on what’s positive in my life.”

8:08 Halftime

“This, too, shall pass,” Grandad had said.

But what about those moments where I wonder if life is passing me by—those days when I feel I’m missing something? What about those happy times—like right now—when the Seahawks are winning, and I wish I could be enjoying the experience with those I love—with those who are far away?

“Do those thoughts add stress to your life?” Grandad’s voice is asking this inside my head.

“Of course they do,” I say out loud.

And then I remember another of Grandad’s maxims that has helped him live a long and healthy life: avoid stress.

“How old were you when you learned to do that?” I had asked him during that October weekend.

“Oh, I think I was about 100,” he had said.

I am only halfway to that age. Can I learn some of what Grandad is trying to teach me before I reach it? All I know is that will try. And the rest will be a God thing.

9:56pm, 43-8 Seahawks

I am ecstatic. Grandad is ecstatic. He didn’t need this win to be at peace. But I sure wanted it for him.

And yet these good feelings, too, eventually will pass.

“Grandad? How do you do it?” I asked him one last time when we were together in the fall. “When it’s hard, or when you’re lonely? Or when you’re happy but still missing those you love, what do you do?” 

Dick's photo

Even though he only has peripheral vision, Grandad looked me straight in the eyes.

“It’s about what’s on the inside,” he said. “For most of my life I was worried about what other people thought of me. I cared about making, and keeping, a good impression. Almost everything I did was a performance. For me it was all external instead of being internal.”

“But remember, Sara, it’s the intrinsic that matters. Listen to what that voice inside is telling you. And keep on growing.”

Grandad took me by the shoulders and kissed me.

“Become a better person because it’s what you want to do,” he said, “not because of what someone else is telling you to do.”

And I will. Because it’s the intrinsic that matters.

This is his answer. This is my answer. And all the rest is a God thing.

 

 

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What if in heaven . . .

 

What if in heaven

Summer at Sky Meadows

 

I find oneness so complete

I completely lose myself

only to know that

I have actually found myself?

 

 

What if in heaven

IMG_3748 Yaquina Head Lighthouse, OR (Small)

 

a lighthouse is no longer a beacon against danger–

 

instead its beam beckons us toward unknown delights?

 

 

 

What if in heaven

All the things I think most beautiful—rainbows, sunrises, moonsets—are just appetizers, and the flavor and vigor of life in the new world makes the old one seem dry and tasteless?

Colorful Falls

 

 

What if in heaven

Snow Barn

 

 

there is no such thing as

dissatisfaction?

 

 

 

 

 What if in heaven

Sun Breaking Through

 

 

raindrops only come when called for–

for the sheer pleasure of feeling them on our faces

and tasting them on our tongues–

and the rain is warm and sweet

and when it is over

we are not even wet?

 

 

 

 

 

What if in heaven

stained glassmy artistic attempts that always ended up as stick figures

are now masterpieces of line and color?

 

 

What if in heaven

EFurn0802

 

 

 

 

the rocks really do sing out

and the streams accompany them with eloquent melodies?

 

 

 

 

 

 

What if in heaven

grace is not just a word that rights our wrongs

close up balloon

but is the actual air we breathe, filling our lungs with purity?

 

 

What if in heaven

my eyes can see the pupil of an eagle 100 miles away

Reward for a Hard Climb

 

and then

just by a change of focus

 

view the individual atoms of my hand?

 

 

 

What if in heaven

graveyard in fall

 

all the should-have-beens

are reconciled to what

really is?

 

 

 

 

 What if in heaven

impatiens

Trust-worthiness

and

loving-kindness

 

are not just what I pursue

but who I am?

 

 

 

What if in heaven

IMG_1207 White Post, VA (Small)

 

at the first sight of

HEAVEN

all the questions die on my lips

but one

 

why did I ever need to ask why?

 

 

 

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Oregon Thanksgiving

We always arrive at night—November days darken early in Oregon. Despite the chill, the beam of the lighthouse draws us down toward the beach, and the unseen music of the waves welcomes us. Oregon lighthouse vertical small

I was 12 the year the lighthouse first pulled me into its outstretched arms. Confused and hurt by my parents’ divorce, I was in an unfamiliar place, with a different family to embrace. But that night the waves sang assurances, the lighthouse shone safety, and I slept soundly.

I was 20 the year I wanted to act grown up and was invited to go out with the adults and sit in the lounge while they sipped their margaritas. But, even though my birthday was a bare ten days away, the bartender bounced me out. Back at the cabin, alone in the dark, I was a child again. The lighthouse beam crossed my bed in comfort, the steady waves soothed my embarrassment, and I slept soundly.

I was 25 the year I burgeoned with an unborn baby. Even then the lullaby of the waves seemed to calm his movement in my belly.

star fish smallAnd when I was 30, my young son and toddler daughter were enamored with the light that played on their beds and the music of the waves that rocked hard against the shore.

That music became the counterpoint to my teenage daughter’s violin, when she and other family musicians played an impromptu concert the year I was 42. Wine mixed with laughter. And the light outside pointed to our lightness on the inside.

Thanksgiving at the cabin is a potluck of food, faith, and family, and I have missed its Oregon cabin smallsalty flavor the many times I’ve had to be absent. This year I will be turning 49. My 2 children are now grown—each of us living in a different East Coast state. But we assure each other that one Thanksgiving, soon, we will gather together in Oregon again.

We will arrive at night,     the light-beam reminding our eyes and the wave-music reassuring our ears, that there is no better place to be for the Thanksgiving holiday.

And we will sleep soundly.

Oregon lighthouse horizontal

 
 
 
First written November 3, 2005
Updated November 17, 2013
 
 
 
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On the sizes, solitudes, connections, and collisions of my new life in NYC

 

I walk from my small apartment on the first floor of an old house and down two steep blocks to the marina. The early morning light is already casting a glow across the Hudson River. I look toward where I am going—to the towering island city rising out of the water with the sun.

Surreal.

marina and city

I have chosen to live on the New Jersey side of the river even though I work in Manhattan. Sizes are more manageable here. Less cars. Less noise. Shorter buildings that don’t compete for stature. Houses that are surrounded by trees that reach toward an open sky.

And less people.

It’s not that I am against people. Rather, it is that I am for them, and it’s the interactions with hundreds of people each day that I have to learn to manage. I look into all those faces, but they are not a sea. To me they are individuals. Some of them I would like to get to know, others I am not drawn to. But with all of them, I have a hard time ignoring the relational part of me.

In Manhattan I recently met a woman who was struggling to fit her stroller through a Starbucks door. As I reached to help her, I commented on her new baby. “Yes,” the women said, “he’s only 17 days old.” I asked her how she was adjusting, and her tired eyes gave me the answer. As we waited for our orders, we chatted about newborns and the feeling of being in long, sleep-deprived tunnels when nursing little ones. But then our drinks came up, and we parted. Again, I was almost stunned by the fact that I would never see this women again. This one moment, this small interaction, a connection between two mothers—that spark of energy that had passed between us—that was all we had. A start and finish of a relationship in under 5 minutes. Surreal.

A friend who has lived in Manhattan for years told me that I am going to have to learn to ignore much of the New York City stimuli in order to survive it. “I understand you wanting to make connections with people, Sara,” she said to me, “but you’ll wear yourself out if you try to do that with everyone you meet here.” And so I have adopted the big city custom of wearing headphones and listening to music on my short commute across the river. I can still smile at people, and I am finding that this in itself is a satisfying connection. Before I began to work in New York, I didn’t understand why so many people stayed in their own worlds, hiding behind their smartphones. But now I am finding it is a matter of size—making the huge manageable—cutting out the excess energy of the city.

“Show me your ‘don’t bother me’ face,” I said to my Manhattan friend one day. She is also relational by nature, but she has to occasionally put on a leave-me-alone expression in order to stay in control while navigating the city. I was almost made afraid myself when she transformed her welcoming smile into an unapproachable scowl. Then I told her I wished she had taught me some of these maneuvers before I had tried to make friends with the ferryman.

ferry

In the first few days of my ferry commute, the writer in me had already fictionalized the life of this man. If I had left the details inside my head, all would have been well. But no. In order to imagine his life better, I thought I should ask the ferryman what country he was originally from. “I was in the Cuban navy,” he said with a too-welcoming smile. “But then I was able to defect here to New York. And now I am going to stop being just an attendant. I am practicing for my boat pilot’s license.” “You’re living the American dream,” I said to him. “Yes,” he replied. And then he looked at me hungrily. “Yes, I am.”

That next day after the ferryman loaded all the passengers, he sat down close to me. Very close to me. Personal space in the city, or lack of it, is something I am also adjusting to. Once on a subway, all of us strangers were already so crammed in, standing front to back, that none of us could turn sideways. “Push in!” said a man still outside the door. We pushed, and he was in. Bodies pressed against bodies. But minds kept at a distance.

On the ferry, with the Cuban attendant sitting next to me, I was pretty sure he was not trying reach my mind, either, but he certainly liked the proximity of my body. “Your blue eyes are so beautiful,” he said. “And your legs?” He put his tongue out just enough to lick his lips. “Your legs make my mouth water.”

It seems I need to learn from many sources how to navigate New York City. When I told my 20 year old daughter, Rachel, about the ferryman’s advances, she admonished, “Mom, put on your headphones. Have your iPad open, reading. And speaking of open, don’t be so open. Don’t look the guy in the eyes. When you sit on the ferry, turn your legs and your body into a closed stance toward the window.” I laughed with her, enjoying the fact that she practices city survival skills herself while also being willing to teach me her tips.

On this day, though, as I walk out of my apartment and down the hill, with the glare so strong on the water that I slip my sunglasses over my eyes, I am relieved that my self-made problem with the ferryman is over. A new attendant is now working the Edgewater to Midtown route. I am hoping the Cuban did earn his own boat and that he will still chase his American dream—a dream that, thankfully, now won’t include chasing me.

I step off the ferry and onto Manhattan—an island that is barely 23 square miles, where almost 4 million people live and work everyday. The high energy of the city and of its people peaks through me.  Even though much of our human contact is non-relational, disconnected, it is still a vibrant force, flowing through us all.

But I am not disconnected at the college where I work in Midtown. Here I have other professors to engage, students to guide, friends to enjoy. And all the while, the vitality of the city is pulsing, pushing through all that I do.

JJay refelction

And then? In the evening, on the water, when I am on the ferry that is churning across the river toward home, I feel it. What is it—this almost physical let-down, this sense of unnamed loss?

Back at my apartment, I shut the door. I am alone. Those of us who are single, or those who are in relationships where there is no real connection, come home from our work, close our doors, and find . . . . Silence. We have shut out the energy of the city. We have moved from tall buildings to small rooms. And we are alone.

I hang my sweater up on the rack and look into the mirror. Who is that? After seeing a thousand faces, I hardly recognize my own. The fury of the day, the bodies braced against each other—all that human energy—collides into the stillness. It is because of the contrast that aloneness threatens to suck me into a black hole of nightfall.

But is this real, or is it surreal?

In front of the mirror I tell myself that aloneness and loneliness are two different emotions. To be lonely is to long for someone who is not with me or for someone who never has been with me—to wish for connections that are not real. But to be alone is to be given opportunity. By shutting the door on that collective human energy, I can rest from over-stimulation. But more than that, in the silence, I can reconnect with who I am as a person, as an individual. I can choose to face myself—with all my fears and flaws—while also choosing to embrace myself, valuing my talents and triumphs.

In the night, in the stillness, in the large-brought-down-to-small, there is a smile in that mirror.

And I recognize it as my own.

 

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On crabs, castles, kids, and letting go

It was the last day of our beach vacation at Sandbridge, Virginia—the last night that my two young-adult children and I would be together for several months. Rachel was heading to college in Ohio, and Nicolas was just starting to live his independent life outside of our nuclear family.

We decided to build a sand castle, and while digging the trench, Rachel scared up a large crab. It ran away from the shore and under one of our beach chairs, camouflaging itself with a fine layer of sand. I tried several times to shoo it down toward the water, but it always ended up back under the chair.

“Mom, let’s go for a walk on the beach,” Nicolas said.

Wasn’t it me, not that long ago, that was asking him to go for walks—finding time and place for uninterrupted teaching moments?

“Mom,” Nicolas said sternly, “you’ve got to stop feeling responsible for so much! Let the crab go. He’ll take care of himself!”

crab castle

We talked then of how I can let go when I feel secure. Right now I’m confident Nicolas is equipped to take complete care of himself, and I believe Rachel is ready for her next adventure at her conservatory.

But it’s the NOT knowing–the wondering whether someone or something is suffering—that’s hard for me to take. My children seem solid now, but will they always be? What if something happens later that I can’t protect them from? What if they need help, and I’m not there?

“The crab is not yours to worry about, Mom. Let it go,” Nicolas repeated as he gave me a hug at the end of our walk. And so I resisted the urge to try once more to coerce the crab from under the chair and out toward the water.

Right at sunset we were down at the beach again, taking a few pictures for memories’ sake. As we were folding the beach chairs up for the night, I was relieved to find the crab gone.

“Mom!” Rachel said as she pointed to our castle. Sand was flying out of a hole in one of the top tiers.

We stood still and quiet. A crab that was exactly the right size came out of the opening, saw us all, and darted back down again.

Nicolas and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.

Because I let go, the crab got it’s castle. Because I am letting go, my children will sculpt their lives with their own hands.

And maybe, someday, they’ll even live in castles by the sea.

 

 

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States of Mind–the garden in the beginning

Several years ago as I was driving across the country, I began writing pieces that had to do with the states I was moving through and my thoughts toward what I had experienced in them.

Even if my blogs aren’t all connected to geographic locations, each illustrates the state of my mind at the time of writing. Since I am now relocating back to New Jersey (but this time to a New York City suburb along the Hudson River), posting this State of Mind feels like I have come full circle–back to the memories of a 5 year old, but forward to the wisdom that only age can bring.

Gardens (New Jersey)

The Garden State is aptly named. Even in our nondescript neighborhood there are flowering trees and shrubs everywhere. I take pleasure in smelling each blossom and talking to the flowers as if they were people.

Gardens SOM

I am 5 years old, living in a Philadelphia suburb on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. I find friends not just in the gardens but also at school. Carla comes from a middle class black family. Our favorite times of the day are recess, when she can teach me more jump-roping, and snack time, when we, if we are chosen for the privilege, wheel the squeaky red wagon down the hall to get the milk and cookies for the class snack.

It is 1970, and teacher strikes are rampant that year. Because I can’t go to school, I watch a lot of Mr. Rogers on TV. The gentle Neighborhood of Make Believe is more real to me than the evening news that is filled images of white police hitting black men. I miss seeing Carla, but I am occasionally allowed to spend the night with her, where our whispered secrets and flowery dreams shared in the double bed fade away into sleepy contentment. In the bathtub Carla’s black hand touches my white one often as we playfully fight through the bubbles for rubber duckies and Barbies. Neither of us feels awkwardness about our nakedness, our skin colors, our innocent touch. After our bath Carla’s mother feeds us pancakes with lots of syrup. She is soft-spoken, yet firm, and when I leave, she always engulfs me in a big hug. Besides the safety of friendship, Carla and her mother give me something else—respite from the hazards of home.

I am the youngest of 5 children who are all within 6 years of each other, and I am old enough for my stomach to tighten in knots because of the tension between my parents and the squabbling between my siblings. By stealthily turning a knob and opening a door, I can disappear into a different world of flowers and grass and sun.

But wasn’t there loss of innocence even in Eden? In my outdoor sanctuary I find a snake in the grass. Freddie is an overweight 6th grader with an appetite for little girls. His back yard abuts mine, and he is always on the prowl for me, with gaping eyes and groping hands. One time he traps me in the gutter under a huge pile of leaves, and another time he smashes me up against the garage door. I don’t know why, but I don’t even consider telling my mother or father about Freddie. And yet, despite Freddie, the beauty of the outdoors, like the embrace of Carla’s mother, brings safety.

There is an undeveloped lot across the street with bushes and mature trees that flourishes as my own little world. I take to climbing the trees to be out of Freddie’s hulking reach and into the arms of the swaying branches and the gentle touch of the blue sky. My ascents toward heaven cleanse me of my dirty Freddie feelings.

These times of serenity are too short, and I am continually forced back into the clutches of indoors. Somehow in the midst of the family chaos, one of my older sisters discovers that I cannot yet read fluently. She is appalled and takes me in hand—literally. She points to a word, and whenever I say it wrong, she punches me on the shoulder—sometimes lightly, sometimes harder. And so I learn to read very well, very quickly. Despite her unsound methods, my sister’s teaching is well-meant. She gives me the key that unlocks books, and I gravitate toward those stories in which virtue is cherished and wholesomeness is valued—other worlds with gardens more beautiful than I could imagine. I also develop the skills of escaping into the real outdoors and of climbing trees with a book under my arm.

One day Freddie slips on the ladder of his above-ground pool and slices his large leg open. Isn’t this his just punishment for abusing me? To my great relief, I find that Freddie cannot move quickly for several weeks. I laugh as I run through the snake-free grass. Then, shortly after his accident, my family relocates to a new state.

Some months later, even though I am out of Freddie’s reach, I am homesick for Carla, so when my mother has to travel north to New Jersey on business, she takes me to Carla’s for a visit. After the first few uncomfortable minutes, we are back to our old selves, sleeping in the double bed and splashing in the bathtub. On the drive south, my mother is tired, so she picks up a hitchhiker to keep her company. I watch from the back seat as he slides over in the front and attempts to touch her. My mother quickly pulls over. Fortunately the man gets out of the car without further trouble. But for me it is another way my eyes have been opened in New Jersey.

Many people define innocence as not knowing—having no understanding of evil. But I think it is possible to be both “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Good judgment comes with experience and perception. It tells us not to pick up hitchhikers and to stay away from Freddies. But wisdom also does not shy away from trying to understand the roots of hard things that don’t always make sense—like racial hatred. Looking at truth in the right way doesn’t cancel out innocence, but rather invites it. Is it possible that true innocence is seeing and experiencing evil without letting it affect who I am or how I think? Can I remain untainted despite the circumstances I live through?

Some of my adult friends have called me naive, but if this is true, it is purposeful. I still choose to embrace the child-like faith that produces wonder rather than cynicism. And while my New Jersey memories are mixed, all the flowers, trees, books, and blue sky—and what they symbolize—still win over bitterness and distrust.

And I hope that as a result of the awe I am still learning to cultivate, my innocence is the same now as it was during those days when my hands touched Carla’s as we splashed in the bathtub, and all of Eden was within my reach.

 

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On moving to NYC and other scary opportunities for change

I was laying on my back on one the benches that frame Columbus Circle, looking up at the massive buildings, trying to find the sky.

Columbus Circle buuldings

At home in Virginia, the view from my deck is of undeveloped mountains, and I’m used to enjoying solo hikes where I don’t meet any other person for miles. But I had just been offered a teaching position at City University of New York’s John Jay College, and I didn’t know if I could make that kind of drastic life change.

A couple thousand people had rushed through Columbus Circle within only a few minutes. The traffic noise, the skyscrapers, the overstimulation of it all . . . .

I’ve made many other scary changes in my life—leaving a difficult marriage being the biggest. But isn’t changing inwardly harder still?

A friend, who was offering thoughtful constructive criticism, recently told me that I sometimes take a superior stance toward others, especially when I think I know more about a subject than they do. I hadn’t noticed this about myself before. But now I’ve put myself on notice to make a change in this attitude.

When, to another friend, I voiced my fear of not being able to transform my inner flaws, he said, “What is there really to be scared about? If you find something you don’t like about yourself, you can always change it knowing you have God’s grace to do so.”

It is through that same grace that I will be settling into my new tiny apartment on the Hudson River and into my new large life—that’s scary in its vastness.

This change to the city is, for me, the best opportunity for growth so far. I’m moving to a strange place—alone. I can’t predict anything. But it’s not just New York City skyscrapers that can block out the sun.

Yesterday at my condo in Virginia the fog was so thick on the ridge that I could only see the trees in front of me. If I didn’t know the mountains were there beyond, with their height and beauty, and the sky was above that, with its blue expanse, I would have been afraid.

Fog on the mountains

Instead I was enchanted by a different view of life that the fog brought to me.

I am walking into an unknown—a fog that surrounds me and tempts me to be afraid. But just as there are mountains behind fog and sky above tall buildings, growth—both inner and outer—is beyond change.

And there is also this:

The unfamiliar can be a source of freedom.

 

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The Stars Beyond the Stars

During our Mother’s Day Skype, my 23 year old son, Nicolas, and I were talking about how I taught him to read when he was little. Our conversation reminded me of this piece that I wrote in November of 1995. When I told him about it, Nicolas encouraged me to post it.

My son is studying philosophy in seminary, so he hasn’t needed my help with reading for a long time now. But even 18 years after I wrote this, I know I still need help.

Because I am trying to read the stars.

 

The Stars Beyond the Stars                                       November 1995

I sit with my five year old in my lap. He is learning to read word by word, sentence by sentence, thought by thought. My heart swells with pride as he reads, as he understands. But sometimes he struggles. I fight the urge to read it for him. Instead I help him work through it, one word at a time. I know that if I read it for him, he will never learn to read it for himself.

His voice goes on, gaining confidence, but it has only become a background for my thoughts. I am learning to read as well—oh, not books or newspapers or nursery rhymes—but the deeper things. God is teaching me thought by thought, prayer by prayer, faith by faith. I am learning to read the stars.

Sometimes the brilliance of the stars themselves fills me with such awe that I am distracted from the story—the story of my life. And sometimes doubting clouds blacken the stars from my mind, and I wonder if the story was ever really written at all. But then, with the faith of a little child in her Daddy’s lap, I ask for help with the reading. He points to a star, and I struggle to gain its meaning. His presence and prompting encourage me to keep on. But He knows that if He reads it for me, I will never learn to read it for myself.

Sometimes I beg for Him to skip to the end of my story. I could understand so much now if I just knew how it would finish. But He tells me that reading is built on one thought at a time—one star at a time. The little words must be learned before the big ones. And as I understand each dim star, the next one grows brighter and stronger.

Every so often, when I am stuck on a star and feel I’ll never grasp it, I look back and remember the parts of my story that I have already learned. And then I gain strength as I see how much I have mastered earlier. And I believe again that, in my Daddy’s lap, I will find confidence to finish to the end.

I see the line of stars ahead, and their meaning is not clear. But I’m reading with eagerness because I have been told that this story is full of adventure, and hope, and faith. I know the story of my life stretches beyond what I can see—to the stars beyond the stars. And I am learning to read them, one star at a time.

“Mommy, I need your help.” My mind goes from stars in the sky to words in a picture book. My son sits in my lap, and I direct him as he struggles to gain their meanings—word by word, thought by thought, prayer by prayer, star by star.

 

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