Monday, February 20, 2012

Chips, Salsa, & Spiritual Companionship

Two weeks ago E. and I sat in a bustling Seattle Restaurant eating chips and salsa, savoring roasted beet tacos and holy conversation.  Fitting that we broke bread, or rather tortillas together.  Our friendship began in a dining room when we were both pilgrims in a two-year Academy for Spiritual Formation in California.  At least once during each of the eight weeks we spent in residence there, E. and I would sit at a table talking long after the meal was over, engaged in earnest existential conversation.

There was something about the way E. leaned in to listen, her curiosity, the way she smiled and offered affirmation without interrupting or judging or giving advice, the way she called me “sister,” and said my writing moved her that made my soul leap.  During those long lunches and dinners I spoke my heart about my church, serving as pastor, and about my family, how I sensed God’s call, and the struggles I faced as I learned the limits of my ability to care for my family and congregation.   
I hadn’t seen her in five years, although we’d read each other’s blogs and Facebook posts and exchanged a few emails after the Academy ended.  I knew from her blog that she was discovering her vocation for the next part of her life, and she knew I had moved to the Pacific Northwest, just across the Sound from her home in Seattle.  It was a joy to walk into the restaurant, see her radiant smile, hug her and whoop, “I’m here!”  To laugh, eat and converse in person. To convey what the Internet cannot.  “Are you as happy as you seem?” she asked.  Without pausing I answered, “Yes!”  My happiness still surprises me.  I used to think it was an equation­­––If I did A+B X C divide by D, then I’d= happy, and the parts of the equation always involved doing what I thought other people expected of me.  Guarantee someone else’s happiness and then I could relax and be happy.

I told E. I’m beginning to understand at a soul level that happiness isn’t generated by any particular life circumstances––for myself or others I love––that it’s coming from trusting God/the Universe/the Higher Power and entrusting others to that power which was never mine to control.  I’m learning to let go of my agenda and to look forward to––instead of cowering at––how life unfolds.  It’s exhilarating with a tinge of scary, like learning inward one and a half somersaults from the three-meter diving board.  There was real potential to hit the board or splat on the water, but with each “failure” came the opportunity to try again.
E.’s path has recently led her to seminary, discerning a call as a spiritual director or chaplain to the incarcerated and their families.  She told me about conversations with people who suggest she keep her professional license just in case, something to fall back on, and the clarity she has that architecture, meaningful as it was in the past, is not part of her future.  Her experience resonates with mine.  Some well-meaning folk worried about my husband and me, and our decisions, which from the outside seemed reckless, lacking a backup plan.  From the inside however, committing to the nudge and leading of the unknown means trusting it, means giving it our full attention and intention.  Keeping contingency plans alive takes vital energy away from moving forward; it allows fear, doubt, and the past to maintain too strong a foothold. 
Faith in the future doesn’t guarantee instant or easy success.  E. spoke about a subject she feels gifted and called toward, and how her skills lagged far behind the strength of her desire.  She didn’t want to drop her class, but was frustrated, wanting to learn the tools she needs to live into her gifts.  I understand her struggle.  My first two quarters in grad school, I produced only one piece of writing my faculty mentor deemed finished.  I called it my $8,000 essay.  I had to live in that painful place learning to fail and learning from my failure to inch toward the place I longed to be.  I’ve made progress and I’ve accepted that I may never completely arrive.
Our lives are a long apprenticeship as we live into the fullness of who we were created to be.  At times the work is lonely and we border on despair.  At other times, we dip chips into salsa in a noisy dining room, celebrating with a fellow pilgrim the gift of the journey and a listening ear along the way. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Stripping and the Search for Meaning

I am stripping a room divider.  Last Thursday I pulled on my work clothes, donned my gloves, tied my hair in a ponytail, turned on my IPod, selected an audiobook, smoothed a tarp over the aging carpet, climbed on a step stool, slathered the piece with Citrastrip, and waited several hours while the cream colored paint turn orange as the latex bonded to the solvent, bubbling and peeling away from the shelves.  Gooey six-inch sheets hung from the wood like garish Peter Maxx bats, then sloughed to the floor, where they shriveled under my touch like burst balloon fragments. I scraped at the divider for hours, removing the rest of the tan paint, expecting to find wood grain.  Instead, an olive green surface awaited me.
  Daunted, but not dismayed, I applied a second coat of stripper, ate a late dinner, slept, and tackled the divider again Friday while following the narrative of Skippy Dies.  The green paint didn’t bubble or peel, it was impervious to the coating of stripper that slid onto my scraper easy as fresh icing.  I put all my force into scraping, managed to accumulate tiny globules of green paint, barely smudging the shelves, as if I were removing permanent ink with a pencil eraser.  The plot of my book kept me occupied long past dinner, past my planned quitting time.  I kept stripping, trying to make headway before the stripper dried.  I kept at it even though I was exhausted and my hands were sweaty in my gloves. 
It was after eleven p.m. when I quit and headed to the shower.  I tugged off my gloves to expose ruined fingers, especially on my right hand, the one I’d gripped the room divider with as I pushed against my scraper.  I’d worn my work gloves, with nitrile palms and fingers, stretchy nylon on the back of the hands.  My gloves weren’t waterproof, or chemical proof, and working alone, I’d failed to notice.  The latex paint had given way easily the first day, sparing my hands contact with the stripper.  The second day, my gloves were coated in solvent that seeped through the nylon, sucking moisture from my fingertips, leaving the skin hard, painfully puckered, and sore to the touch.  I showered, thinking water would help, toweled off, and searched the Internet for advice.  If I needed medical attention, it would have to wait until morning.  It was near midnight and I didn’t want to drive myself forty-minutes to the nearest hospital on the peninsula, or take the ferry to Seattle and navigate alone through unfamiliar streets.  The thought of gripping a steering wheel hurt.
I telephoned my husband in California and plunged my hands in the sink to soak for twenty minutes.  I’d wanted to complete a project in his absence, not just to keep busy, but to contribute to our remodel in a significant way (like my husband does) with my limited construction skill set.  I don’t know if it was my lack of stripping experience, my zeal for accomplishment, or my divided attention (IPod book), that led me make such a fundamental error, when the first instruction on the label clearly stated wear chemical resistant gloves and goggles.  I didn’t know if the chemical burn was a message about the consequences of valuing doing over being.  I did know that I needed and wanted my spouse, a witness and an ear sympathetic to my plight. 
I whined on the phone feeling sorry for myself, thinking I would miss much of The Search for Meaning Book Festival at Seattle University the next day.  I would miss the poets David Whyte and Mary Oliver and lunch with a student in my MFA program.  I was looking forward to venturing to Seattle for the first time since Christmas Eve, and having a conversation with a person I’d actually met before.  After the call, I coated my hands with antibiotic ointment, pulled on cotton gloves and slipped under the covers envisioning a morning spent at urgent care on the Island, hands bandaged in two giant mitts, unable to steer a car, change clothes, hold a fork.
I woke at 6 a.m. to find my hands much improved and decided I could skip the doctor if I wore the cotton gloves and basted my fingers with ointment often.  I caught the next ferry and debarking, trailed a discreet distance behind a group of women also headed to the festival.  Looking germaphobic, I browsed the book display in my cotton gloves, offering my Visa with shrouded hands.  I settled into the auditorium, peeled off my gloves, greased up, slipped them back on and listened.
 David Whyte is a fabulous speaker, reciting his poetry aloud from memory, speaking a poem twice with different stresses and pauses in each recitation.  In kindness to my hands, I didn’t take notes, and I have lost much of what Whyte said.  Two things in particular I remember.  One is his statement that we get to a certain point in our lives when we realize the narrative we have constructed is not large enough to contain our experience.  The script we operate under, the story we tell ourselves about our life and our possibilities is too narrow, not expansive enough.  As he spoke, I recognized this in myself, and how I’m revising my narrative, living with gratitude and a sense of spaciousness that fear used to constrict.  And second, someone else, looking at the circumstances of our life, will find it absurd.  I thought about this, too, my husband and I moving to an island 900 miles from our former home without jobs, buying a house in which everything needs to be replaced.  Our great adventure, that others might name folly.  I glanced down momentarily startled by the white gloves in my lap and laughed.