Monday, March 28, 2016

A New Perspective

I killed all my houseplants when my first child was born. It wasn't intentional; I simply did not look up for months, and so the half-dozen plants perched atop the entertainment center and bookcase perished from drought.

Those were dark days, literally. Our first home was in a forest at the bottom of a ridge. The sun disappeared below the mountain from October to April, and we could count 100 redwoods just sitting on our porch.

Our first house surrounded by trees

And for the next decade, my gaze was low even in summer—on the diapers I changed, on the floors I cleaned, on the children I kissed goodnight in their beds, children who were almost always within sight as well as arm's reach. But as they grew taller and their world grew broader, my sight line shifted up a foot or two—to the speedometer as I drove my girls to school and dance and gymnastics and play practice, and to the classroom and stage and gym when they performed.

Our view expanded when my husband and I bought property in a two-acre clearing with an old orchard across the street, and a ridge rising behind it. For the first time in 11 years, I could see more than 30 feet from my kitchen window. The scene was even sweeter when our neighbors penned their pet cow Betsy in the orchard.

I could see Betsy amid the gnarled old pear trees when I sat at my computer to write sermons and stories, and the ridge rising behind her and a slice of sky above that. I could also see down the road aways. When my children were old enough to walk home from the bus stop in junior high, I waited for them to come into view, growing larger as they neared home. Later they got driver's licenses and I kept an eye out for their cars pulling into our long driveway.

Rose garden in our open space

For much of my life safety was the reason I scanned the horizon with the vigilance of a fire-spotter in a forest tower. I was on the alert for danger, ready to run or cry for help the instant I spotted trouble. Now my children are grown and the responsibility for their daily safety is no longer mine. Now I no longer behave like a lifeguard yelling "shark" and "riptide" each time the water ripples and someone I love nears the shore.

My husband and I moved to the Pacific Northwest under the dark cloak of the winter solstice to a house with a wall of windows that looked out onto a wall of cedars whose branches draped to the ground. By the time my husband's job prospects fell through, it was late February, and we hired a tree climber to limb up the branches. We didn't know what our future would hold, or what our new view would look like.

Bainbridge Island home trees before

Bainbridge Island home trees after

It turns out that both were expansive. Removing the low-hanging branches not only opened up our view of sky and sea and Mt. Constance in the Olympic range, it allowed our expectations and ideas about employment to branch out from the corporate trunk they'd been grafted to for 25 years.

Now, we're in business for ourselves renovating homes. After a year renting a house with incredible views of Puget Sound, the Seattle skyline, and the Cascade Range, we moved into a fixer-upper last summer that sent us straight onto a stepladder and out our south facing office window onto the roof in order to watch the sunset light up Mount Rainier.

We've been here nine months, and I've been tracking the many moods of Rainier. Often, it's completely obscured by clouds, but sometimes clouds ring it, with just the peak, and/or base exposed. On clear mornings I can see it backlit at sunrise while lounging in bed. What I can see is constantly changing. What remains unchanging is my curiosity.

Mount Rainier at sunrise from my bed!

"The landscape sustains me," I told my prayer partner today while were lifting up the uncertainty about what's to come in our lives. The gaze into my future is cloudy, but my gaze into the world from my home became broader today. We had some trees removed that were growing too close to our neighbor's home, and some others were limbed up, and more of the bay and peninsula and sky now meet my eye.

View from kitchen window before

View from kitchen window after

View from master bathroom before

View from master bathroom after

It was gray and foggy when the tree crew began their work this morning, but the fog burned off, the clouds lifted, and the sky became clear as they carefully dropped each limb to the ground. I stood at the windows, watching, waiting to see what would be revealed next.

Clouds lifting

Tree climbers in action

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Poem for Holy Week

Today marks the beginning of Holy Week--when the church re-lives the harrowing events in the final week of Jesus' life. Today is also, according to posts I've read on Facebook (citing UNESCO), World Poetry Day.

In honor of both, a poem:

The Road Ahead

To journey with Jesus this week
walk tenderly along the rutted road
your feet bare and dusty 
doggedly plodding toward trouble

When hope is all that remains
to hold onto and your palms
are rope-burned red
make of faith and doubt
a lifeline, not a noose
and grasp tight despite the pain

Gather up grief and despair
and weave for it baskets of reed and tears;
then lay the world’s woes before
The One who cannot be entombed

The One who has built an altar

in your heart and animates
your every breath from birth to death
and (sometimes all too soon)
cradles you home

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Fasting from Indifference

“This Lent, let us fast from indifference towards the poor.” – Pope Francis

The man stepped out from a doorway and asked for money. When I told him I didn’t have any, and kept walking with my husband, he kept pace, leaned close, sneered, and spoke: “Lady, you’re heartless.”

I thought he might spit on me. I thought he might yank my purse off my arm and run, riffle through my wallet, and throw it in the gutter later, disgusted that my credit card would be of no use to him.

I felt myself shrink as my husband picked up our stride and guided us into a crosswalk. The man stayed on the corner. “Bitch,” he said.

I was trembling by the time we arrived at the restaurant a few blocks away. My husband and I had left our two teens with his mother for what was supposed to be a romantic Christmastime getaway in San Francisco’s Union Square neighborhood. We were supposed to be wowed by the huge outdoor tree lit and tinseled, awed by the beautiful gingerbread houses on display in hotel lobbies, transported by the festive sparkling storefronts.

I was overwhelmed, instead, by the constant city noise—traffic, sirens, construction—and the crowds of shoppers and those in need on every corner. Earlier in the day, I’d given all my spare change (I never carry much cash) away, first to buy a “Homeless Times” newspaper for $1, then to a Salvation Army bell ringer, and finally to a man collecting change in a paper cup to buy a hot meal.

On my home turf, ferrying my daughter to gymnastics lessons afterschool, I knew where I’d encounter the needy with their cardboard signs at the freeway onramps. And if I hit a red light, I’d roll down my window, hold out one or two of the energy bars I kept in the pocket on the driver’s side door, and ask, “Would you like a Power Bar?” I was safe inside my car; nobody pounded on the window or yelled at those who didn’t help.

My husband and I were seated at a table near a fireplace in a pricey low-lit restaurant one of his coworkers recommended. I glanced at the menu, looking for the least expensive entrée, and sipped my ice water.

“I’m not heartless,” I said.

“I know,” my husband answered.

“He doesn’t have any idea.”

The man who called me heartless didn’t know that my velvet dress came from a thrift store where my grandmother volunteered. Didn’t know I usually shopped at K-Mart, that I wouldn’t be buying anything from Nordstrom’s or Neiman Marcus, even on sale. He didn’t know how hard my husband worked for his paychecks and that we didn’t have any savings because we gave our money away.

The man didn’t know that I was serving as pastor of the small church I attended without a salary, or that I donated money to every charity that phoned, unable to turn harden my heart when told horror stories about the treatment of farmworkers or the deaf-blind or the environment or the children in our valley whose only Christmas gifts would come from me, and others like me, posing as Santa.

The man didn’t know my heart was burdened, always, by the plight of my extended family. He didn’t know that my husband and I had provided first and last month’s rent and security deposits for my sister so many times that we sold some of his stock options and bought a condo for her and her son, and paid the monthly HOA fee so she wouldn’t be evicted again.

He didn’t know that we went on title when his sister couldn’t afford her house payments; that we’d refinanced and covered most of her mortgage payments for years. He didn’t know that we loaned (and were never paid back) as well as gave thousands of dollars to other relatives and friends in emergencies.

The man didn’t know about my generosity, or my guilt that I could never do enough to help or fix or save those I gave to. I believed in Jesus, and I also believed I was his hands and feet and wallet here on earth. It’s a heavy responsibility. What would my few dollars do for the homeless man, when a special offering at church for a struggling member was only a temporary fix, and when a house wouldn’t guarantee safety and security for my sister?

The man saw me as a heartless rich white woman. But I didn’t have a neat category to fit him in. I didn’t know what desperation drove him to approach strangers for handouts, or how many times he’d asked for money that day and had been denied it. I didn’t know what led him to the streets—addiction, mental illness, or bad choices like my relatives and church members—or if it’d been circumstances beyond his control, such as racial discrimination, systemic poverty, and inner-city lack of opportunity, all of which I felt powerless to change.

I picked at my fancy chicken dinner, wondering if the man would sleep in a shelter that night, if he’d find his way to a soup kitchen or food bank, or if he’d be on the same sidewalk, waiting to rebuke me again after dinner. Our waiter returned my unfinished meal wrapped in foil, shaped like a swan, before tucking it inside a paper bag. I held it to my chest as my husband and I walked back to our hotel in the drizzle.

I scanned corners and doorways, looking for the homeless man, ready to hand him my bag of leftovers. It was a paltry peace offering, but enough, I hoped, for him to remove his judgment of me, that “heartless,” might be replaced with “thank you,” or “bless you,” to ease my conscience once my husband and I stepped into the warm and welcoming hotel lobby.

I looked, but the man was gone.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Cathy at the Controls

After nearly two months of being housebound and still a bit unsteady on my feet, I had the privilege of attending one of the Upper Room's 5 Day Academies for Spiritual Formation last week. (I am grateful for the scholarship, the nearby location in Federal Way, and the kindness of the organizers who minimized my need to walk.) 

The time was wonderfully rich, spiritually nourishing, and thought-provoking. Among other blessings: I reconnected with Pacific Northwest friends from my 2 year Academy for Spiritual Formation in Burlingame 10 years ago, listened deeply in a small group I had the privilege of convening, wrote lots of poetry and reflections in response to our presenters on the theme of "From Contemplation to Action," and cried, and laughed—mostly at my own foibles. 

One of our presenters, Seattle spiritual director Suzanne Seaton, talked about "The 7 Deadly Needs":

The Need to Know
The Need to be Right
The Need to Get Even
The Need to Look Good
The Need to Judge
The Need to Keep Score
The Need for Control

 Ah, how humbling that was! I saw the way I'd lived my life for decades (until I was nearly 50). I needed to know, and to be right, but mostly to be in control: Control, for me, would guarantee that I'd know and be right. And, I remembered when all my attempts at control were not working, and when I finally risked stepping back from long-ingrained patterns to try and live a life that truly relied on faith and not on my works. And sometimes, all you can do--or want to do, or should do--is laugh at yourself. 

So, have a laugh at me, on me:

Picture a gated community, a private compound where upon arrival you key in your code and the iron bars slide open, then close behind you. Once inside, you circle the plaza with a gleaming bronze statue of the woman who planned, designed, and founded this neatly gridded subdivision.

The epigraph on the statue’s pedestal reads: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares Cathy, “plans to prosper you and not to harm me, plans to give me hope and us all a future.” It is, of course, a quotation from the holy book of the prophet Cathy Warner, chapter 29, verse 11.

Welcome to Warnerville, where Cathy is in control of everything and everyone, devoting herself tirelessly to creating a safe stable, clean, orderly, and undeniably beautiful city, a shining beacon on a hill, a utopian paradise where no homes are splintered by dry rot or divorce, no relationships broken by discord or disease, where no one drinks anything other than sparkling artesian water, and epithets are never hurled.

In Warnerville, Cathy’s expectations are always met, cheerfully, and on time. The residents are responsible, tidy, and amiable. Here bipolar refers only to the Arctic and Antarctic, a borderline personality is simply neighbors conversing over the back fence, and depression is a hole dug for planting.

On any given day, you will find Cathy perched high in her control tower, radio tuned, binoculars in hand, scanning the horizon for trouble. Her vigilance is designed to guarantee only health and happiness for those she loves, and the world at large. To that end, she monitors the coordinates of family and friends as they work and walk, sleep and shop, in her walled city, following preapproved plans drafted by Cathy herself.

At first life in the enclave is perfect, but over the decades, decay takes root in Cathytopia. Walls are being scaled, chain-link fences sliced, and gate codes given to unauthorized persons. The statue is toppled, the control tower vandalized. Homes are abandoned and the population dwindles until Warnerville becomes first a slum, and then a ghost town.

Left alone in the tower to ponder her lack of power over the land and its former inhabitants, Cathy wonders if she ought to let someone else with more experience and skills take charge—God perhaps. With nothing left to lose, she takes a step and tentatively puts a hand on the ladder and starts to slowly descend. It’s a long way down.