Lenten Meditation


Same as in years past, I will be observing Lent by following the Lenten Meditation Guide put together by the wonderful folks at Episcopal Relief and Development. I will try to blog my thoughts when time allows.

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Some interesting thoughts, carrying this reading around in my head today. Today is the first day I started a light daytime fasting, and I thought of these women whenever I felt hungry and tempted to stop by the coffee shop for a snack. What a luxury. What privilege that I can just go buy some food whenever I’m hungry. How do those afflicted with true hunger manage? I know how distracted I was by sitting in class just before dinnertime. How are hungry schoolchildren expected to sit still and learn when they haven’t had a decent meal?

But then again, I have no shortage of privileges. A house over my head, a very supportive and loving partner, a wonderful network of family and friends, so on and so on. It’s an important reminder that many of the things we take for granted are denied so many others.

What I love about this series of Lenten Meditations, and what brings me back every year, is that they cover so many interrelated issues. And I’m especially thrilled that the Ash Wednesday entry is so directly related to women’s issues around the world.

This is a welcome alternative to this shameful Lenten piece a friend shared on Facebook. I don’t really care that it’s misrepresenting feminism as anti-feminine. It’s such a tired old rag it’s barely even worth the energy to address. I can’t help but wonder what Jesus would have to say about what type of clothing a woman wears. Sure, it’s everyone’s personal decision to what they’ll do to, if anything, to mark the Lenten season. And I am well aware that it’s unfair to compare one person’s values against my own, but I can’t help to think that Jesus would be more concerned with how the women who sewed those skirts were treated than whether or not some women tried to honor him by wearing them.

But what I am truly angry about is the blatant anti-trans* message she throws in with her gender essentialism. No, it is not trans*people who are confused. In fact, of all the people I know, they are often the least confused about their gender identity. In fact, they have had to give a good deal of thought to their identity. No, it is small-minded people who cannot accept others who are confused. And it is for them that I pray, as well as for the safety of my trans*friends.

Never Enough Time


On this, the shortest day of the year, it’s worth remembering that even when the days are longer, there’s never enough time to do everything we want to do. Which is an especially important lesson to keep in mind during the Silly Season.

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The funny thing is that we’ve been sold a bill of goods regarding Christmas that was never anything more than a ploy to sell us more things. And even though I know this, I still feel the ridiculous pull to try to do ALL THE THINGS. Sometime in late October, I catch myself thinking about what kinds of cards I want to make from scratch. Then it’s the lists of items to make for friends and family — jelly, jam, cookies, brownies, bread, etc. And don’t forget the idea of endless parties and individual gifts, which I always promise myself I’m going to wrap in the cutest handmade paper, and (this year, I swear) I will mail them on time!

Over the last week or so, I’ve seen several of my friends post comments to the effect that they feel like failures because they can’t get everything done before Christmas — cookies, presents, parties, dinners, cards, and all the other little things we feel like we need to do to make Christmas the way we think it ought to be.  It’s like there’s this big rush to get it all done in time so we can enjoy the 25th. Like there’s some kind of deadline on doing Christmas, and if we can just get to the 25th with the proper number of items checked off, then we’ll have the perfect Christmas.

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Like we can even really enjoy the day after all that planning and worrying and stress. You know that sad, empty feeling you get after all the presents have been opened and the dinner has been eaten and the dishes are done and put away? Yeah, me too. It’s because no matter how wonderful the day actually is, it can never live up to the day we hold in our collective unconscious. The one sold to us by whomever produced the most tear-jerking commercial of the season — usually Folgers, but I think Apple is in the running for the 2013 prize.

It’s no wonder most people rip down their decorations and take down the tree on the 26th. They’ve just run an emotional marathon since Thanksgiving, and all they have to show for it is some ugly sweater and some useless fancy electric knife that will probably break down in the middle of carving the Easter ham.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. I love the social aspect of it. And I really do love doing all the things I dream about doing in October. But I just can’t do them all. Heck, I don’t even think I can do some of it these day. Not and pass my classes, write term papers,  and study for finals. It’s just not possible. Or, more accurately, if it IS possible, it takes an unGodly amount of dedication and perseverance. And lack of sleep.

I’m not willing to give up my emotional health on a manufactured version of a very serious and special holiday. I mean, I still WANT to do all the things, but I accept that I just can’t, and instead I will focus my attention on the things that bring me the most joy. And which doesn’t disturb my very fragile sense of peace. And isn’t THAT what Christmas is all about, really? Joy and peace?

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Maybe instead of focusing so much on this relatively recent version of Christmas, we should look further back into the history of the holiday. Instead of rushing around, stressing ourselves out, we think about the early Christmas celebrations. Or, if you want to go even further back, think about the Solstice observances. It’s winter, the days are short, and darkness is close. Maybe instead of forcing so much light and activity, we listen to Nature and what she says we should be doing. Going inside, gathering around the hearth, enjoying a period of rest and renewal.

It is this sense of peace and quiet that I have been trying to cultivate in my reinstatement of Sunday Dinners during Advent. It’s nice to sit around the table and talk with people without loud music or games or lots of drink. It feels like a real connection. Instead of feeling like I’ve added more to my worry pile, it’s as though I’ve spent two hours recharging my batteries.

I still have that urge to make lists and plan surprise gifts. But I’m giving myself permission to spread them out over the coming year instead of trying to get them all done in the next week. Which will not only make this Christmas more peaceful and enjoyable, but will likely have the added benefit of spreading a bit of the Christmas cheer throughout the year.

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Peace to you on this solstice.

Some other beginning’s end


It’s been a long while and I apologize for that. It’s too long of a story to really cover well in a blog post, so I’m just going to have to ask you to bear with me while I just jump back into my posting and cover the pertinent stuff when I’m ready.

I’ve been craving a quieter, slower connection with myself and the people around me. Perfect timing with the Silly Season upon us, right? I mean, I love Christmas more than the average person, but the way we celebrate it in our modern life is anything but quiet and slow.

Faith Hope

I’m not an especially religious person, but I do find some comfort in many church/spiritual rituals and observances. My own background is in the Episcopal church, and so that’s where I turn first, out of familiarity. Earlier this year, I mentioned to my dad that I was looking for an Advent wreath but couldn’t find one at any of the local craft stores, and asked him to look through their collection and maybe send one my way. Instead, I received a lovely new Advent wreath from my mom last week. Just in time for Advent to start last night.

So, with that as my cue from the universe, I restarted an old “family dinner”

tradition where we invite folks over for a nice meal on Sunday nights. We had a chicken in the freezer and lots of left overs from Hogsgiving. I invited a handful of friends . We turned off the TV and phones, turned on some nice music, and sat around the table and had some nice conversation. It’s so refreshing to really connect like that. Most of our meals are spent sitting, watching the TV or playing computer games. And that’s OK most of the time. But it’s also nice to turn everything off once in a while and really connect face to face.

Joy Hope

Before dinner, I took some time and read the Advent Message from the Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori:

Advent is a time of waiting and for many people it’s a time to reflect on what Mary must have experienced as she waited for the birth of this unusual child.

You may never have been pregnant or lived with someone who was, but put yourself in her place for a while. Consider what it would have been like to have a new life growing within you. And reflect on what new is growing within you this season of Advent.

What new concern is growing for the people around you? What new burden is on your heart for the woes of the world? What new possibility do you see emerging in the world around you, and how might you be part of that?

Advent is a quieter time of the year in the Church’s understanding. It’s a time to be still and listen, listen deep within to what is growing, ready to emerge into new life.

And as the season for the birth of the Christ Child arrives, I would encourage you to consider how you yourself will be present in the world in a new way this year. How will you give evidence of love incarnate to the world around you?

I pray that you have a blessed and joyful and peace-filled Advent. God be with you.

I’m intrigued by the idea of approaching winter as a time of new beginning. That’s usually a theme reserved for Easter, for spring. Or New Years’. It’s nice to start thinking about new beginnings in December, rather than January. We become so wrapped up in getting through Christmas, we don’t give nearly enough attention to the New Year. I know that Christmas is important for many people, but it’s only one day, or 12 days depending on how you celebrate, but the New Year is 365 days. How you approach January 1 sets the tone for the whole year. The goals you list are not set in stone, but they certainly color how you approach the new experiences.

On the flip side, as one thing begins, another ends. And while we spend so much time focused on the beginnings, and the next beginning, and then the beginning after that, we rarely stop and pay attention to the endings. People graduate from high school or college, and while there is a nice ceremony with lots of speeches and pageantry, most of us are focused on the next steps. And that’s important. It’s good to know what comes next. But there is less attention shown to how these endings affect the people involved. We are so exciting about the next chapter, we rarely stop and think about how the closing of this chapter will affect us.

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So, when we come to another chapter closing, we don’t have the skills to handle it as well. When a loved one dies, we are left confused, feeling like we’ve been set adrift. We are reminded that we are out of control. That we are not always the writers in our life’s story. We spend so much time trying to hold on to what we had, we have no way of know how to let go gracefully.

So, with this in mind, I have decided to spend as much time as possible in quiet contemplation over the next couple of weeks, both remembering the past and preparing for the future.

Caturday: A quick update on Mr. Bob


Before we left for Australia, Mr. Bob went in to the vet for a re-check ultrasound of his heart and general lab work to keep tabs on his kidney values.

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The good news is that the technician who performed the ultrasound said the condition of his heart had made a “significant improvement.” I liked that word “significant.” It gives me hope that the improvement is not merely because of the heart medicines, but also from the additional taurine we’ve been giving him. And if that is the case, it is likely that his dilated cardiomyopathy was caused by an inability to process the taurine in his diet. It would be very unusual, but from the research I’ve done online, it is possible.

But, even with that good news and the fact that he was more active and social than he’d been in a long while, we were still anxious about leaving him for three weeks for our trip to Australia. Fortunately, we have a great pet sitter who is a trained vet tech who came twice a day to give him his pills and check in on him. And our dear friend Kimberly came by most days to spend some time with Bob and Little Girl, so they had some human companionship.

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Since returning from Australia, Mr. Bob has been back to see the vet for more x-rays and blood work, both which still show him in good shape.

I know he’s old and I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that he won’t be with me forever. But it’s one thing to know that in your head, and a completely different thing to feel that in your heart. For now, I just make it a point to cherish every snuggle and nuzzle. Or, as I call them, “snuzzles.”

Into the Wild


I know I haven’t written in a long while. I’ve got so very much to talk about, and while it would probably help to put it into words, I just haven’t had the energy (read: emotional strength) to actually do the work.

I’m depressed. I’ve been trying to deny it for months now, but it has finally caught up with me. It started out as just a little anxiety a couple of months ago, and I was able to shrug it off or pretend it wasn’t there. Or simply ‘power through’ it and still get stuff done. But then more and more things started coming at me, needing attention and emotional energy. Some little, some very much not little. I tried juggling them all, and even started to purposely drop some of the little things hoping that it wouldn’t be a problem, that other people would pick up the slack, that in the end these little things wouldn’t matter.

Some of the little things turned into slightly bigger things when combined, and that …

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… I just can’t keep up with this juggling metaphor. I don’t have the energy to do the thinking necessary to make it work.

Basically, this blog post is a long explanation to myself about why I couldn’t finish a particular assignment for my Environmental Literature class, where we were asked to compare Thoreau’s Walden and the movie Into the Wild.

At the beginning of this semester, I knew it was going to be a challenging one. I’m taking more classes than I’d really like, and I still need to finish up my internship from a previous semester. So, effectively, I’m taking 14 units. Which isn’t a lot for some people, but it’s at least 4 credits too many for me. I was managing fairly well, but things started to pile up towards the end of February, and I started to slack off on readings and homework, and even stopped going to class as much as I should. I kept telling myself that it would be OK. That I could catch up once I’d gotten some rest. This should have been my first sign that something wasn’t right with me. And, to be honest, I was hoping that giving myself a little extra slack at this point would help me later on, so maybe I was at least somewhat aware of things not being right.

But by March, I was really starting to slide into full-blown depression. And then Bob got sick. Like really sick. Like I haven’t blogged about it because it was too scary and putting into words here would have been too painful. (Short explanation: We thought he was going to die. In our arms.) I was in shock and couldn’t function at all, much less even begin to think about school work.

I spent the first week after his diagnosis in an emotional panic. I couldn’t sleep or eat or think clearly. The only work-like thing I could do was endlessly search the Internet for an answer, a miracle, something to help me understand. For two weeks, I went back and forth between denial and severe depression. Sure, I tried to keep up with school work, and probably managed to get through about 25% of it, but even that little bit would leave me emotionally exhausted.

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It’s at about this point that the assignment mentioned above came up. Looking back, I can see where I was resisting watching the film for at least a week. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t focus on anything school-related. There was something about the film specifically that I was strongly resisting. I kept putting it off, telling myself I’d do a rushed watching of it closer to the due date for the assignment.

It’s also around this time that things started to look up for Bob (I’ll post more in a few days, I promise), and I found a thread of hope I could hold on to. Then, a few days later, my dad went into the hospital for emergency gallbladder surgery. While this may not seem like a very dangerous surgery for most people, my dad has special medical issues that complicate any kind of surgery. He had to go to the hospital to have dental surgery. Add to that the fact that I’m 2000+ miles away and unable to comfort my mom or talk to the doctors, and you can understand my worry. (After five stressful days in the hospital, he’s home and recovering fine.)

At this point, I was emotionally trashed. I had nothing left except the sheer will that has been keeping me going at even this low level. I told myself to pull up my big girl panties and get this project done, even if it was late. I ordered the film from Amazon and started watching it. And damn if it didn’t hit every single emotional trigger I had. Still, I made myself watch it, while allowing myself to take short breaks throughout. It took me 7+ hours to watch a 2 hour film. And, I’ll be honest here, I did not watch the last 15 minutes. I just couldn’t. This was a week ago. The paper was due last Thursday. I spent all day Friday trying my darnedest to make myself write the paper. And then Saturday and Sunday. And then Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. And now it’s a week late, and I’m just starting to come to terms about making myself watch the movie when every fiber of my being was screaming for me to stop. I won’t be turning in anything for this paper. In fact, this blog post is probably the closest I’ll come to even addressing it in writing.

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Interestingly, before this class, I hadn’t read either Walden or Into the Wild, but I had a pretty clear understanding of what they were about based on cultural references. I was 22 in 1992, the year Christopher McCandless went to Alaska. I think he was only about a year and a half older than me. I recall the news stories and discussions about his death. I don’t know if I had a distinct opinion about him other than it was a tragedy. And one I didn’t really care to explore further. Over the years, I’ve read other books by Jon Krakauer, but when friends recommended this one, I steadfastly refused. I never gave a thought to why, except that it made me feel uneasy and a little anxious.

Here’s where I’ll also admit that I haven’t seen or read plenty of stories about tragedy, and generally tend to steer away from them. I haven’t seen Schindler’s List. I can’t watch the end of The Anne Frank StoryLife is Beautiful left me a wreck. I routinely put down books that start to make me feel upset. I don’t think it’s because I have a rosy outlook on life and don’t want to explore these feelings. I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m very familiar with these feelings, and don’t need to add more of them to understand them. I see sadness all around me all the time. And while some may find comfort in exploring these themes in literature and art, I find that much of it leaves me feeling more upset than comforted. Especially when I’m deep within an episode of depression.

Looking at the assignment questions for this blog post makes me upset. Just seeing the name Alexander Supertramp makes me want to cry.

  1. Thoreau had strong feelings about materialism. What were they? How do they compare with the feelings of Alexander Supertramp?
  2. What do you think motivated Thoreau to live at Walden Pond? What motivated Alexander Supertramp?

Looking at the assignment questions for this blog post makes me a little anxious. Just seeing the name Alexander Supertramp makes me want to cry. I have opinions on these questions, but they are going to be a struggle to get out.

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Comparing McCandless/Supertramp to Thoreau is an interesting juxtaposition, but I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison. Honestly, I’d find it easier to compare McCandless/Supertramp to John Muir. Both had troubled childhoods they were eager to get away from. Both wanted to reject their upbringing and explore the world around them. Both went on long treks and took life-threatening risks.

As for comparing McCandless and Thoreau, their motivations were completely different, as were their circumstances and outcomes. Perhaps the comparison is justified in that they both tried to “go away.” And maybe this is why I have not ever felt compelled to read either’s story. I know from personal experience that one can not simply “go away.” There is no “away” to go to. But, for the sake of answering the questions, I will attempt to understand their motivations.

Thoreau went away, but told everyone where he was going and why. And he only went as far as a cabin on his friend Emerson’s property. Yes, he was living in the woods, but he was close enough to town that he often made the trip to visit friends and friends would come visit him. His goal was to separate himself from the influences of society, which in his case meant the daily expectations of city society, work, and leisure activities. His environment, although a bit more challenging than living in Boston, was far from that of true wilderness and seclusion.

McCandless/Supertramp left without telling anyone where he was going or why. Sure, he told the people he met while traveling, but they were powerless to stop him. Why didn’t he tell his family? Is it because they did have some emotional power over him, and he felt like he needed to break that bond by disappearing? Of course, we’ll never know the answer to that.

When I think about McCandless/Supertramp, I think of the folly of youth. He was ill-prepared, ill-equipped, and, in my opinion, literally ill. He was running away from something. Although he may have appeared to be running toward Alaska and his “true self,” it doesn’t take a degree in psychology to see that he was wrestling with an emotional monster. Maybe he hoped to overcome his troubled family life by leaving it behind, but by rushing headlong away from it, he put himself into greater danger. Not at all unlike other young people with similar backgrounds who turn to drugs or other dangerous behavior.

As regarding their views of materialism, I think this one similarity gets entirely too much attention. The rejection of material items is as old as society itself. Acetics from nearly every religion give up their personal belongings and take a vow of poverty as a sign of their faith. That neither Thoreau or Supertramp/McCandless ascribe to an organized religion is interesting, but both are driven by belief. Rather than discuss the expression of their belief as it manifests as anti-materialism, I find it much more interesting to explore the beliefs themselves.

Thoreau was part of the group of Transcendentalist that came together during the early part of the 19th century in the United States. It has long been interesting to me that the Transcendentalist movement comes around at nearly the same time as the Second Great Awakening, and that both seem to be a response to the growing industrialization and ‘scientification’ of the time. It is also interesting to me that both were attempting to have a stronger emotional relationship with the divine, one through crowded revival meetings, and the other through solitude in nature.

I don’t know if anyone has been able to link McCandless/Supertramp to a larger movement of sorts. Perhaps there are others who, like him, attempted to slough off their social requirements and are busy tramping around in the backcountry. There are a few who have gained some attention, like the Soul Pilgrim and those who have followed her. But whether these individuals can be grouped together under a title is difficult to say. I suppose that, like Thoreau and his cohort, McCandless/Supertramp was also attempting to make a statement about modern society. The movie only lightly touches on the fact that he studied issues related to poverty and other social concerns of the era. Perhaps that was part of his personal motivation, but I do not believe it was the driving factor that took him to Alaska.

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Anyway… it’s time for me to leave for class now. I guess I’ll leave it here. Interestingly, I feel a whole lot lighter having done this exercise. I’m still stressed and depressed. I still don’t really want to think too deeply about Into the Wild, and I certainly have no interest in re-watching it. But it has been good to finally get the fragments of thoughts that have been swirling around in my head for the last couple of weeks out into words. It’s like there’s more room for other things now — happier, more hopeful thoughts.

Bountiful


Happy Friday! I’ve been busy, and forgot to check in yesterday about my Thursday Lenten progress, so I’ll do that here, as well as today’s.

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I’m still doing pretty well on my efforts to focus on nutritious food and also found some time to do some spiritually nurturing activities as well. On Thursday morning, I had to take my car into the mechanic for what turned out to be a blown hose. They said it would take all day, so I dropped it off early and then walked the 3+ miles home, getting back just in time to go out to brunch with a friend. It was a nice walk, and I had lots of time to think about things. I came up with some ideas for future writing material and took lots of photos for a couple of other projects I dreamed up. In the late afternoon, they called to say that one of the parts they ordered hadn’t arrived, but that I could walk up there to collect my car and just bring it back today. Which is what I did.

When I dropped it off again this afternoon, I decided to walk up to Old Railroad Square and hang out and eat some lunch. This area of town has a large number of homeless people hanging around during the day, waiting for the mission to serve lunch and then dinner. When I arrived at my destination, I realized that I’d left my wallet in my car. Rather than walk back to retrieve it and then walk downtown again, I just sat in the park and read my book and felt hungry. This was a decision I was able to make based on being physically tired and also knowing that I was certain that as soon as my car was finished I would be able to come home and eat plenty.

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It’s interesting to walk around and see the other people who share the sidewalks. I overheard a couple of conversations that pretty much reinforced my belief that the system the homeless people operate within is actually quite challenging. One man was in a hurry to get back to the mission, hoping he wouldn’t miss lunch. He’d walked up to the County Center area to check on some paperwork, and then walked back. My guess is that he’d just hiked over 5 miles round trip, on an empty stomach. And here I was thinking I was pitiful for walking a little over a mile, and only a little hungry.

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This is something I’ve been giving a good deal of thought over the last couple of years. We have laws and social codes to govern our behavior, but they really only cover the bare minimum effort in terms of paying your taxes and tithing to your church, building a LEED certified office complex, controlling how much combustion your car puts out, and so on. Yes, when we meet this agree-upon minimal standards, we celebrate it. “Woo hoo! My car passed its smog test!” “Look at us, we’re LEED-certified!” Really, we’re just saying, “I met the baseline standard for polluting the earth and destroying resources!” That’s not really something to be proud of, when you think about it.

But, there’s no benefit to going above and beyond this minimum level, so we don’t. Why is that? Is it because these minimum standards are actually quite strident and difficult to reach? Or, more likely, is it because when less is expected of us, that’s what we aim for?

Same with donating time, money, or food. We give what we can easily afford to give. We don’t give until we actually feel it. Very few people actually donate so much that they have to go without something important to them. Even with my (to me) generous donation to Food For Thought, I don’t really miss that money. I suppose that is something I should continue to think about, and see where it leads me.

Sustenance


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My daily bread:

Birthday hike with Cat

I was going to type up a whole post about how I need my friends, and my love of learning, and maybe add something about spending time in nature. But, when it all boils down to the most important things in my life, they’re in the pictures above. I need at least one daily hug from Eric (preferably 10 or 20), and I need my daily snuggles with Mr. Bob. The rest is all wonderful and a true blessing in my life, but these are my sustenance.

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