Daily Prompt: Harmonize

Last weekend, my husband and I visited the Morris Arboretum, mostly because we had other business to do in Chestnut Hill and didn’t want to make the drive to only be there to run errands.  We had visited once before, for a wedding (which was beautiful, of course), but didn’t see much of the grounds.  This was our first real visit to explore and enjoy and experience what the sanctuary has to offer.

I use the word sanctuary because it felt like that to me.  Don’t get me wrong, of course I pretended I was the Queen of Highgarden while strolling through the carefully designed gardens, pretending my life was a medley of beautiful dresses, carefully prepared feasts, audiences with highborn nobles, and clever chatter with my ladies in waiting.  Of course.  No nerd can walk through gardens like that and pretend anything otherwise.

But as we left the orchestrated beauty of the gardens and found ourselves in a forested area, on an unpaved path, walking downhill towards a wetland area filled with bullfrogs and turtles and what felt like every insect in Pennsylvania, the desire to make-believe fled as I was filled with a sense of harmony, completeness, and joy.  I was stunned into silence by the music of organic life and earth around me, harmonizing into a chorus of complexity and completeness.  Every living thing in that wetland had its place, its role, its purpose.  Every living thing belonged there, and was placed there for a reason, to play its role in creating the natural music of life on earth.

Experiencing nature in such a way provides me with moments of peace and clarity, and fills me with a sense of belonging and intimacy.  Just as all these insects, trees, grasses and wildlife belong, just as they each hold a place of vital importance in the harmony of the world, so do I.  I am connected to each one of them, to each one of you, to every other thing in this world, in a web of love, need, solidarity, purpose, and life.  Without my part in the chorus, the harmony would be missing a beautiful piece created just for me by God, that only I can perform.

We all have this role to play in the harmony of the world.  We all must work to harmonize with each other, with the Earth, with those who agree with us and who disagree with us, with our loved ones and our adversaries.  This living harmony is the fabric of the world, and its beauty depends on us: our thoughts, our words, our actions– our moments, each an every one of them.

Take a moment, now.   Listen.  Can you hear it?

 

via Daily Prompt: Harmonize

Book Review: Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe… and a discussion of white privilege

I missed out, somehow, on many of the classics, both classic classics (there has to be a better way to say that – literary classics?) and more modern classics, in my high school and college experiences.  I love books, and the act of reading; the experiences we can have through literature are endless, and I appreciate a good novel for the truth it holds, the escape it provides, the questions it stirs, the emotion it imparts, and the reckoning it brings. for the reckoning it brings.  I consider myself well-read, but I realized a few months ago that my classic and modern literature repertoire is significantly limited.  So I embarked on a journey to expand my classic library.  In the last few months I’ve read Dickens, Steinbeck, Wells, and Atwood.  And while I’ve never been an avid book reviewer, I’m thinking that no harm will be done in trying to piece together my thoughts as I work my way through the literature.  This is as good a place as any to do it.

Recently I finished Chinua Achebe’s bestselling novel Things Fall Apart, widely considered to be the cornerstone of modern African literature.  It begins the story of Okonkwo, a powerful warrior within his village, and his fall from grace, culminating in the effects of Christian missionaries and European colonization in Nigeria.  I worked through the book quickly, though as I read I noticed opportunities for exploration and study, such as the labeling one of Okonkwo’s daughters as an ogbanje, or an evil spirit that would be born a child, die young, and enter its mother’s womb to be born again, maintaining a constant cycle of death and rebirth.  Achebe builds traditional and cultural beliefs and values into his story, giving the reader explanation necessary to understand, but leaving enough to encourage further learning.

Achebe writes simply, and I felt that words often came off as blunt: brief, to the point, steadfast.  This style, though it may not be for everyone, suits the story he tells, and suits the main character, Okonkwo, as he works through his own internal and external struggles with tradition, duty, and change.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, for me, Things Fall Apart provided me with the opportunity to consider my privilege.  It is not a new experience for me; I have made a point to study and acknowledge the privilege I have because I am white, middle-class, Christian, and heterosexual.  The concluding paragraphs of Things Fall Apart, however, made me again consider my advantage and force me to recognize the reality of, in this case, white privilege.  Let me explain, without giving too much away.  Upon immediately completing the book, I found myself annoyed, because I thought that that the final sentences unfairly generalized and hyperbolized the thoughts and actions of white, Christian missionaries in Africa.  I was disappointed with what I thought was a “cheap” ending to an otherwise outstanding novel.  I understood the irony Achebe was going for, but, for lack of a better phrase, I was offended by it.

It took a few hours before I realized that, once again, my privilege was showing.  Here I was, unhappy with the ending of a book because I thought it made white Christians look small, petty, and ignorant, when in fact Achebe was using his story to demonstrate what white Christians did to an entire race of people: made them out to be small, ignorant, and uncivilized.  And those actions continue to dictate our world order today, to the point that someone like me has to grapple with a few sentences in a book while millions of others grapple with achieving equality in all facets of life.

I know this post went a bit sideways, but this encounter with white privilege ultimately ended up as my largest take-away from the book.  I enjoyed the story of Okonkwo; I was fascinated by the mythological and cultural traditions illustrated; and I appreciated the subtle pacing and flow of the story with history and emotion.  But in the end, my most lasting impression is of the vital importance of considering ourselves in the scheme of history and our understanding and recognition of both our privilege and oppression.

to do vs. have done

I looked at my to-do list yesterday night with a sense of dread.  On it were three unchecked items; I hadn’t done any laundry, I didn’t get to church in the morning, and I barely began the week’s assigned graduate reading.  Nevermind that I did have a lovely brunch with my family to celebrate Father’s Day, I did clean the bathrooms and the kitchen floor, I did take the dog out for a walk, and I did celebrate Father’s Day with my husband’s family that evening.

For years I have depended on my to-do lists.  I have insisted to myself that in order to be productive, I need to see the tasks written out, to enjoy the feeling of crossing something off when it is finished, to not worry about what to do next, but to have it planned already.  The problem with my to-do lists lately, though, is that at the end of the day, all I can see is what I did not accomplish.  Maybe that’s motivating for some people; it motivates them to do better tomorrow, to try harder, to use their time more wisely.  It’s done that for me, in the past.

But what it’s done lately is convince me that I’m lazy, that I manage my time poorly, that no matter what I’ll never meet the expectations that I set for myself, that I’m not good enough.  It’s not always I feel that way, but it’s right now, and I realized last night, as I sat there silently berating myself over my unfinished to-do list, that the current system isn’t working.  Instead of helping me, it’s hurting me.  No, I do not want to spend nine hours a day watching Netflix.  But neither do I want to belittle myself and break down my self-worth because I didn’t finish all the laundry.

So I’m switching it up from a to-do list to a have-done list.  Last night I thought this was a completely novel and new and innovative idea I had come up with all by myself.  Then I ran a Google search and realized it’s not a new idea at all, and I’m way behind on the times not thinking of it or hearing of it before.  It’s a good alternative, though, to manage your time, see how you are spending your time, and put the focus on the accomplishment rather than the lack.

Because let’s be real, to celebrate Father’s Day with two different families, clean the bathrooms, clean the kitchen, and still get out to take the dog for a thirty minute walk on a Sunday is not a failure, but rather quite a nice way to start a week.

We are Mike and Laura

When I was a kid, we lived in a twin home in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  Our next door neighbors were a young couple named Mike and Laura.  Now, I recognize them as a young, newly married couple.  To my six-year-old-self of 1994, they were grown-ups.  Nice grown-ups, but still grown-ups.

I remember that Laura loved frogs, and had little stone frog statues all over her yard.  Whenever she would come outside I would run into their half of the yard and count them, and ask her if I was right, and ask her if she had frogs inside her house too.  One day she invited me inside, and I ran through their house, counting frogs.  When my mom realized where I was, she told me it was fine to talk to Mike and Laura, but not to become a nuisance.  I couldn’t see how I was possibly being a nuisance.  Mike and Laura were my friends.  Mike and Laura thought I was fun.  Mike and Laura loved hanging out with me.

Twenty-some years later, and I stand in my own yard, with my own husband, talking to the three kids next door.  They’re sweet kids.  They’re also kind of obsessed with our dog.  (Though with a face like hers, who wouldn’t be obsessed with our dog?)

Colette
Hi! I’m Colette! Want to play?!
Every time she is outside in our backyard they yell from their trampoline, “Hi Colette!” and ask to give her treats, pet her through the fence, and throw a ball to her.  It doesn’t bother me.  I like that they like her, that they’re comfortable talking to us, and that my dog gets loving attention from some very nice kids.

But what I realized, with a frightening start yesterday as I made dinner, listening to the kids play with Colette in the backyard with my husband, was that I have become Laura.  Without even realizing it, I have grown from that seven-year old kid counting frogs and bothering my grown-up, newlywed neighbors to the newlywed neighbor of three kids who just wanted to play with their grown-up neighbors’ puppy.

I am the grown-up neighbor.  We are Mike and Laura.

It’s funny how we don’t notice it happening.  I know that we do, in a sense, but it happens so slowly, we don’t realize what’s happening until one day it hits that we’re not growing up anymore, but we’re grown.  And we realize, then, as grown, adult people, what myths we held about adults before.  The world we understand grows with us; always, we fit and understand just enough world to make us feel small and insignificant.  As a child, the world felt so big, but as an adult, I realize how much bigger it really is.  What will I learn in the next thirty years?  Will my world grow yet again to be twice as big as I know it to be now?  Will my perception of what it means to be sixty change from what it is now?  I don’t doubt it.  I hope it does.

We talk about the wonder of children, and the loss of it as adults.  I disagree.  I am still filled with wonder as an adult.  My wonder is different, now, though, as I see the world and the people in it from a different perspective.

Renewed Creation

“Let today… be the first day of my renewed creation.”

For about the last six months, I have been mostly free from the symptoms of depression, but recently, within the last few weeks, I have again begun the struggle against self-hate, doubt, anger, worthlessness, and hopelessness.  This has been one of the first times I have recognized the symptoms creeping up on me, rather than only realizing my situation after I was in the depths of full-blown depression.  I consider that to be a minor victory, in that now I can put to use the strategies I’ve learned to avoid reaching the points of complete despair I have experienced in the past.

That said, the past month has been difficult, and I have been struggling with the aforementioned feelings and emotions, ongoing negative self-talk, and acceptance of my value, worth, and purpose.  Each day has been its own private struggle; not the worst I’ve experienced, by any means, but not easy.  Not even close to easy.  This daily struggle and the emotional toll it takes to work against depression have therefore, understandably, dominated my thoughts and actions.

It was on my mind again this morning, as I sat waiting in my car to meet up with some family for an event.  I used the time to read today’s Sacred Space reflection on today’s Pentecostal Gospel reading; this is a practice I used to do almost daily, but recently, and regrettably, have not made time for.  I use the Sacred Space e-book, which guides readers through about 5 minutes of prayer, including the daily Gospel and a short reflection.  A piece of today’s reflection resonated positively with me today, as it addressed renewal and the ability to begin each day anew in the Lord.

“Holy Spirit, I welcome you now into my small heart.  Let today be the “first day of the week” for me… the first day of my renewed creation.  Let us celebrate this together.”  Let today be the first day of my renewed creation.  Each day, we are given the opportunity to meet not only ourselves but the Lord in prayer, reflection, action, stillness, and honesty.  Every day is an opportunity for renewed creation, no matter what happened yesterday, or last week, or last month.  I am not asked to be a perfect creation; for I will never be.  But to be renewed, is to be open to the possibilities to love and live as God wants us to.

The phrase speaks to me of something that is empowering in an entirely non-aggressive way.  In it, I hear that it is okay that I don’t feel my best right now; it is okay that I take it slow; it is okay that to have doubts, fears, and unhappiness.  I am not asked to be something I am not, rather, I am renewed each day to the possibility of something more: of healing, love, hope, revival, understanding, knowledge, and mercy.  These things God wants for all His creations, if only we allow ourselves the opportunity.

Thoughts for a Sunday evening.

Let today, Lord, be the first day of my renewed creation. 

 

Preoccupation and distraction

I love the use of preoccupation as a noun.  We use the word more commonly as a verb, “to be preoccupied,” but as a noun it has more teeth.  “I have a preoccupation with Victorian-era sea shanties” is significantly different than “I am preoccupied by this Victorian-era sea shanty.”  As a verb, the word can be temporary, fleeting, but as a noun, it denotes something that is long-lasting and defining.  I like it.

Distraction, too, is a lovely noun.  “You are such a distraction,” works beautifully as both a compliment or an exclamation of aggravation, depending on the context.  But whether it functions as a verb or a noun, it is quick and transitory.  It is less heavy and more momentary than a preoccupation.

So here we have two words, one enduring, another more temporary.  Our identities, too, have facets that are enduring, and those that are more temporary, changing with a day, a season, an event, a mood.  Can you see where I’m going with this?  The task I’ve set myself is to describe my identity through my preoccupations and distractions.

I have a preoccupation with literature.  Good books, bad books, novels, novellas, classics, science-fiction, fantasy, theology, quick reads, long reads, poetry, songs.  The art of words on a page fascinates me and pulls me in to places my mind would otherwise not know to explore.  Literature in all its forms is one of my enduring preoccupations, something I have never and will never release.  The knowledge to be learned, the emotions to be felt, the ideas to explore, and the revelations to experience through literature is a gift to the world, one that I relish unwrapping day after day after day.

I am distracted by clutter.  My bedroom is a mess, but I don’t work in my bedroom.  If my workspace is cluttered, my mind is even worse.  Nothing is completed until the clutter is cleared.

I have a preoccupation with perfection.  This is a tough one to own up to, but it’s such a force in my life, to ignore it would be untrue to myself.  Sometimes my preoccupation with perfection helps me to do jobs well, work with precision, and see things through in the best possible way.  Often, it cripples my ability to finish something, it draws out projects into days and weeks and months, and it seeds self-doubt, destroys confidence, and paralyzes me into inaction.  It produces extreme anxiety and fuels depression.  My acknowledgement of this preoccupation, however, has also produced a desire to embrace imperfection, love myself, and fight the demons brought forth from within.

I am distracted by people.  What they say, how they move, who they’re with, why they’re there, what they want, why they want it.  People are interesting, their personalities and decisions are unique, they are guided by such varied goals, dreams, fears, and passions.  Don’t mix this up with the idea that I like talking to people.  I am an introvert through and through, and while I like the one-on-one conversation as much as the next introvert, the crowds of people in a busy city or push of people against me at a crowded party are not on my list of favorite things.  But put me on a park bench with a cup of tea, a good book, and a few people scattered throughout the park?  I love those people.  They are fascinating.

I am distracted by cute puppies, hot beverages, and loud music.  I am distracted by uncomfortable clothes that fit too tight, soy candles that smell like the past, and that one person who won’t stop texting at dinner.  I am distracted by birds perched on my backyard fence, the sound of running water, British television, reapplying sunblock at the beach, and beautiful old houses that look like they could be haunted.  My list of distractions goes ever on.  It must stop somewhere.  Here it stops.

I have a preoccupation with dreams.  Dreams of all sorts: daydreams, lucid dreams, nightmares, average dreams, dreams for the future, and unrealistic or unobtainable dreams.  I see nothing wrong with staring out a window and daydreaming about how my life would be different if I were a warg, or what our marriage is like from the perspective of my husband, or why God created ticks.  I wake up from a particularly scary or inspiring dream and consider it for the rest of the day.  Dreams, no matter what they are, have meaning to the person dreaming them.  They represent, in all their forms, our fears, aspirations, emotions, fantasies, relationships, anxieties, and affections.  They are beautifully odd, and truthful, and sometimes incomprehensible, but I think that human souls are all those things too.  They are worthwhile of a preoccupation.

Here, then, is a small piece of me, through the lens of distraction and preoccupation.  It is an incomplete, but still solid, beginning.  A start.  It is imperfect in many ways; and I will admit that it makes me uncomfortable.  But discomfort is a sign of motion, of action and change.  It can be distracting too, yes, and some people may become preoccupied with it.  Let me not be that person.  Not today, at least.

Today, I am present.