Monthly Archives: February 2012

Stopping a Moment in a Busy Day

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No time to write this week. That is what I had told myself. Piles of accumulated papers need to be sorted and filed. Pillows distributed throughout the house for 4 adult daughters and their husbands, and 6 grandchildren, arriving on Friday. Blue Diamond Original Almond Milk purchased for one daughter, and cucumbers for one of the grandchildren. Many other special requests to shop for. Dogs groomed. Airport transportation coordinated. All in preparation for a big birthday celebration for my husband.

But then I saw the jonquils had bloomed. Today. While it is still February. And I felt them call out for me to pay attention. Because who knows what the weather may be like tomorrow? Or, my life for that matter. For sure tomorrow I’ll be in more of a tizzy. But today there are so many of the jonquils I picked a few to bring in the house and put in my mother’s green vase.

I expect poet Mary Oliver has written a poem about Jonquils. She has written many about other species of flowers and animals. But the poem I recall is the one called Summer Day when she is celebrating the wonder of idleness, when she asks “Who made the grasshopper?” and falls down to kneel in the grass. And then, as if in response to one who would challenge her lack of accomplishment on a day dedicated to such reverie she proclaims:

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

~ Mary Oliver ~

(New and Selected Poems, Volume I)
And so, I am thankful for this rainy cold day when the jonquils bloomed.

We make each other strong

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Ginger, my 40 lb boxer-lab mixed 9 year old was afraid to risk falling on the treacherously icy steps this morning. And I was certainly not going to pick her up and take her out to do her morning business. Younger, heavier Desi, my beautiful English lab, bounds out and skids across the driveway coming to a stop when she hits the crunchy grass. I grimace, worried that Desi will twist her leg, as Ginger did a couple of years ago, and require surgery. Hmmmm. I never worried about my dogs hurting themselves when they were younger. Before Ginger got hurt. When I was younger. Before I had my own knee replacement surgery which makes me fearful of walking down those two slippery front steps as well.

Desi and Ginger

Desi and Ginger

Aging, and the experiences that come with it, can cause us to be afraid. I remember my elderly mother projecting her fears onto my brothers and me. Always a strong woman, she had become very aware of her frailties. It led her to become anxious about us, her middle aged children. An exotic trip to Bhutan with my husband? My mother worried the entire time we were gone. A trip to downtown Atlanta to see a friend while staying with my parents? Her cautionary comments exposed her fright.

Fear produces an out-of-proportion need to control – to control our environment, and to stop ourselves from feeling vulnerable. Abject fear is the only explanation I’ve been able to come up with to explain the comments and apparent convictions of certain Republican candidates and state legislators. I believe these men, and the women who share their beliefs, may have grown very afraid that the world is passing them by. They have good reason to be afraid. We will not revert to 1950’s ideologies. Women will continue to make progress. Perhaps not without a bump or two. But women’s surge towards equality of opportunity and responsibility will not be stopped.

Retrograde lawmakers and their supporters are not the only ones whose fears are stirred. Too often lately I find my disbelief at the discussions about how some legislators wish government to impinge on women’s choices concerning our bodies tinged with terror. Could women really sit by and let this continue? Can I sit by and do nothing? I carry quite a lot of wounds from the feminist fights of earlier decades and wonder at my layer of self-protectiveness which causes me to hesitate at the front stoop steps of public discourse.

But then I begin to read again from several of the poets of the 70’s and 80’s and am reminded that I am not alone. This may be a different era, but Marge Piercy’s poem “For strong women” still speaks to me: “Strong is what we make each other. Until we are all strong together, a strong woman is a woman strongly afraid.”  The internet world of women, of all generations, can help us make each other strong. We write and connect and reach out and stand together. And our men join us in this effort.

A second message from the poem is that for women to be strongly afraid in the current political atmosphere is an appropriate response. And being strongly afraid compels me to reach out to others, and look for ways to make us strong together.

Shoot. Even my little Ginger knows about this need to reach out and get things done as a team. This morning she gazed up at me expectantly knowing I had the wherewithal to offer her an alternative so that she could get her job done without risking injuring her repaired joint, or mine. So I closed the front door with its icy steps,  walked to the other side of the house, raised the automatic garage door and whistled for Ginger. As it slowly lifted, Ginger scampered under and confidently stepped from covered carport to grass. With no steps to negotiate she squatted down and had her necessary morning pee.

Another poem, actually a prayer, reminds me that age and activism are important companions:

Bless me

with the wisdom of the crone

who values every one

of her days

but who has not forgotten

in the core

of her aging flesh

the way in which

you make

all things new.

from Night Visions, by Jan L. Richardson

“Your playing small does not serve the world.”

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“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” by Marianne Williamson from A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles

I find myself bouncing around with each day’s political news. When I was in college in the early 70’s I led a demonstration to celebrate the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in both houses of Congress. I was passionate about the ERA. I was convinced that were it not adopted by the states, women would be forever in danger of having our rights retracted. Over the decades I admit I’ve grown complacent. Never would I have imagined that in 2012 we would be talking about a woman’s right of access for basic birth control. I strongly agree with Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s op-ed in the Washington Post on Feb 9 that the Affordable Health Care Act includes  “A Rule that Protects Women and Respects Faith.”

As a person of faith, and a respecter of the separation of church and state, I certainly want to acknowledge any church or synagogue or mosque’s right to positions that differ from mine. But my anger erupts at what feels like the manipulation of male dominated institutions to politicize what to me is a basic women’s health issue. Rep. De Lauro writes: “The administration exempts churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship. The rule applies only to institutions and businesses that serve the larger community and employ people of different faiths on a non-religious basis. This preserves individual conscience protections while enabling employees of all faiths to have access to the health care they need.”

When I was a college student, I took risks to “show up” and not “play small.”  That was many years ago now. Very rarely in recent years have I felt so confronted by the need to remember that my “playing small does not serve the world.” I’m not sure what to do. I do acknowledge some feelings of inadequacy, and that my anger frightens me a bit. I have learned that it is more true to who I am to act from a place of deep conviction rather than fiery outrage. And so I plan to use my triggered emotions to recall the passionate college student of long ago but seek out that in me which is currently “meant to shine, as children do.”  I want to challenge myself to stay with these angry feelings and to get to that illuminating sense of justice that can liberate my own fears. By so doing, I believe I can show up fully, and thereby “automatically liberate(s) others.”

Spiritual Activism through the Ages: Part 2 “Come on In.”

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The chimney sweeper came today. I felt badly because there are so many ashes in the fireplace. I’ve been using the fireplace as an incinerator to burn old tax records after the paper shredder wore out from overuse. Although paper is not ideal fuel for a living room fireplace, I learn that the build-up of ashes is a plus. The fire doesn’t get too hot for the bricks if the logs are laying over a bed of ashes. Ashes are a really important foundation for a “healthy” fire.

The fact that beds of ashes are good for fires strikes me as a wonderful metaphor for understanding what spiritual activism means to me now in the decade of my 60’s. I tend to equate “activism” with full tilt advocacy. In my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s that is certainly what it meant. Yet recently I watched a re-airing of PBS’  Freedom Riders and an exchange between an older couple and the Freedom Riders jumped out at me. The conversation reminds me of why that bed of ashes can be so important to the logs that are burning.

As you may recall, the brave women and men who made up one of the Freedom Riders’ groups were first jailed by Bull Connor in Birmingham. Then, in the middle of the night, they were whisked away and abandoned on an empty road near the Tennessee border. They needed desperately to find a safe place to stay. Read what happened next:

William Harbour, Freedom Rider: We didn’t know if the Ku Klux Klan was following us. We didn’t know where we was located. We saw no telephone to make any calls. We had to find a place to hide.

John Lewis, Freedom Rider: We came upon a old house that was fallen, knocked on the door, said, ‘We are the Freedom Riders. Please let us in.’
William Harbour, Freedom Rider: Older gentlemen came to the door. He said, ‘Mm-nh, mm-nh, ya’ll can’t come in here.’
Catherine Burks-Brooks, Freedom Rider: My mother had always told me that you need some help, then you try to talk to the lady of the house. And I said, ‘Let’s talk loud and wake up his wife.’

William Harbour, Freedom Rider: Few minutes later, we knocked on the door again, and his wife came to the door with him. And she– we told her we were the Freedom Riders, she said, ‘Ya’ll chil’en, come on in.’      (from the transcript of American Experience, Freedom Riders)

This image is so powerful to me. These courageous people on the side of the road. The understandably cautious “older gentleman.” Freedom Rider Catherine Burks-Brooks recalling what her mother always told her, and directing the group to talk loud enough to wake up the wife. And then, of course, the older woman saying “Come on in.”

Many ways exist to be a spiritually grounded activist. One is to be a brightly burning advocate that goes out into the world and confronts injustice. But sometimes we may be more like the ashes in my fireplace. We’ve burned brightly, or perhaps just steadily. We are present. We are ready. Maybe we are even waiting for a time when there is a knock on our door. We may hesitate because we know what trouble we can get into. But then we find ourselves saying to those others who have taken up an important cause and need a bed on which to rest,  “Come on in.”

Spiritual Activism through the Ages: Part I Activism

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On the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, my pastor preached a great sermon on spiritual activism. He defined it this way: “Spiritual activism is about connecting personal spiritual growth and community works of social justice.”  (From the Desk of Pastor Matt)

As I reflect on what this phrase “spiritual activism” means to me in my seventh decade, I recall how much I have learned in the political and social activism of earlier years.  Doors slamming in my face when I campaigned in Atlanta for Andrew Young for Congress. Serving on N.C.’s Governor’s Commission for incarcerated women seeking access to their children.  Working on the “rat patrol” in D.C.’s Adams Morgan to provide safe and adequate housing. Marching with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the first of many protests. Oh my. One thing I am clear about is that I have always been an activist. Sometimes in leadership positions. Sometimes one of many.

I find the activism much easier than the predicate word “spiritual.” The challenge for me is in Matt’s words “connecting personal spiritual growth.” How is my activism different with a sense of personal spiritual growth than it is without it? I need my spiritual activism to reflect the integration of who I currently experience myself to be. My energies are different than they were when I was younger. My interests are different. I don’t feel less committed. But the place where my passion meets the world’s needs, to paraphrase Fredrick Buechner, is not clear. Where are the helpful reference points to understand more fully what spiritual activism means for me now?

As often occurs when I’m struggling with a life issue, I turn to my illustrated children’s books. This time Ruby the Red Knight and Miss Rumphius.

“The sun never shines there and cold winds bluster all year round.” With such a description, Ruby the Red Knight learns about the evil wizard’s spell. The key to ending his enchantment’s power? That is for Ruby to discover. Using courage and a physicality as delightful as it was rare in the children’s literature of the 80’s, Ruby goes on her quest to free those who are suffering. She risks the wizard’s rage through confrontation that requires a feather, not a sword.

A second oft-read book of my daughter’s childhood was the quieter statement of Miss Alice Rumphius, who learned an important lesson sitting on her grandfather’s knee. In response to her sharing that she, like him, will travel far, and when she grows old, will live by the sea, he enjoins “but there is a third thing you must do.”  And what is that? “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.” “’All right,’ said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.

Wait. Can making the world more beautiful also be spiritual activism? It doesn’t exactly meet my traditional sense of  “community works of social justice.”  Ruby’s actions are more familiar. I mean she goes out to confront evil and injustice. Miss Rumphius on the other hand lives to old age not knowing how she is meant to make the world a more beautiful place. Then, after a season of having to stay in bed most of the time, she discovers her gifts almost accidentally. “She planted a few flower seeds in the stony ground.” She wanted to plant more seeds, but her physical limitations prevented her from doing so. Yet the next spring, feeling much better, she went out on a walk and discovered the wind had brought the seeds from her garden to the hillside. There was “a large patch of blue and purple and rose-colored lupines.”

Only then does Miss Rumphius become intentional about making the world more beautiful. She tosses five bushels of lupine seed over every hillside she sees, and earns herself a reputation as “That Crazy Old Lady.” But her great-niece sits at her feet to hear Miss Rumphius’ stories of far-away places. And is told, “little Alice, . . . there is a third thing you must do . . . You must do something to make the world more beautiful.” “All right,” says little Alice. “But I do not know yet what that can be.”

So is Miss Rumphius a spiritual activist? What do you think? I believe I need a further reflection on this “spiritual” aspect of activism. Stay tuned for Part 2.