Archive for August, 2009

The Wrath of Creation

Rob and I spent a weekend in retreat, but we couldn’t escape the major news of the area: a fire that, at this point, has consumed over 85,000 acres. Here’s the Saturday evening view from my parents’ house, about thirty miles from the closest point (to them) of the fire:

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Apparently this fire is so strong that, despite calm winds, it is creating its own weather system. The radio just announced that 21 homes have been burned thus far and 2 firefighters have died as a result of the blaze.

Wildfires happen every year in Southern California, and many of them destroy homes (both human and wildlife) that are part of outlying mountain communities.  Ironically, they spin out of control because we work so hard to try to control them; we prevent the natural cycle of small-area burning that would have been common to this area before we decided to so densely populate the area.  Consequently, we end up having these “superfires” that wouldn’t have happened if the normal burn cycle had prepared the earth to resist such devastation.

It’s another reminder to us Southern Californians that, despite our best efforts, we still aren’t the most powerful force on earth. Earth is.

The August Experiment

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As August comes to a close, it’s time to reflect on our one month experiment of going through the month of August with only one car. This has been part of our deepening commitment to simplicity, sustainability, and solidarity–and the challenge was to figure out a way to live in Los Angeles and simplify down to only one vehicle between us.

I think this month has been full of both unexpected delight as well as expected challenges.  Certainly it wasn’t always convenient to only have one car, especially when we needed to go in two different directions at the same time. In some ways, August was an easier month to undertake this challenge, because I haven’t started the Fall quarter yet and didn’t have to be 30 miles away at any given time. But, on days when I had to run errands, or go to tutor my brother 40 miles away, we definitely had to figure out what to do.

Our solutions were a mixture of coordinating schedules, reconfiguring the order of when to do things (sometimes to a time of greater inconvenience, but that was part of the challenge), walking, and riding our bikes. My husband and I both wrote about our biking adventures, which can be found here (his) and here (mine).  About halfway through the month we realized that if I dropped him off and work and picked him up, I could use the car to do errands during the day if I needed to. Sure, this took a little bit of timing and planning, but all in all, I think it worked out just fine.

One of the greatest benefits to this experiment was a feeling of unity with my husband. It wasn’t always convenient, and sometimes it felt like a pain in the butt. But we worked together on this commitment, and I really liked dropping him off at work and picking him up. I was able to see him off to the very last moment and be the first one to greet him at the end of the day. I felt honored and blessed to be able to have just a few more minutes of my day with him. In addition, I felt that putting ourselves in solidarity with families that must face these circumstances involuntarily also put us in closer solidarity with one another. I appreciated that we were in it together…it deepened my respect for him and for his character. It was just one more example of the things I love about him.

I also was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed riding my bike. It slowed me down, it made me conscious of the earth and my body. It made me value the work that it takes to get me from one place to another–work I often take for granted.  It was yet another unforeseen blessing.

I have a feeling that, just like with the Stuff Diet, when our personal challenge is over that we may very well carry the lessons learned and habits formed into our “regular” goings-on. It seems to be part of a constant awakening to what we want and what we really need; what conveniences we become used to and, in the process, what mini-blessings we miss out on. On September 1, I hope to take my husband to work, even though our challenge will be officially over. Not because I have to, but because I want to. In this, I suppose we also continue our practice of sustainability…because it helps to sustain and nourish our marriage as well. Who would have guessed?

Death in a Faith of Life

As I finished typing the last few words of an outline for a talk I’ll be giving in a month and a half, I felt a the creaks of a body that had been sitting for far too long today in front of a computer. The weather was beautiful and the sun was calling me outdoors, so I decided to stretch my legs and appreciate my body through a walk outside.

I was enjoying the warm shore breeze when I looked down and saw, in my path, a dead squirrel. It didn’t look like it had died from anything unnatural; in fact, it almost looked like it was sleeping. It lay there, on its side, eyes closed, as the breeze gently blew tiny blossoms across its fur.  It looked strikingly peaceful.

And yet as soon as I saw it my instinct was to speed past and not look down. I’m not sure why…I just wanted to avoid it. I didn’t want to see a “dead thing.” I wanted to enjoy my walk.

Within 3 meters I recognized the hypocrisy of my reaction…after all, I had just finished writing a talk on the beauty of creation, and how we needed to appreciate the way in which all of creation gives glory to God.  And even in this small death was part of that glory–this tiny body, which once housed a living, breathing being. A creature, now lifeless,  in its own way glorified God just be being, well, squirrelly.

I walked back and decided to be present to the death. It’s part of our existence and what we depend on to continue living, and yet so many of us are uncomfortable with death. I’m one of the first in line. I’m so uncomfortable with death that I get tearful even reading about it. Yet walking by that squirrel today made me feel like it was very important that I recognize the dignity of that creature in its death. Its lack of life didn’t suddenly transform its body into somehing disgusting; rather, the body just began to play a new role on the earth. And, at least in my belief, its spirit went on to be with God, because God calls all aspects of creation to Godself.

The body still honors God even when the spirit is no longer present. It decomposes, (ideally) puts life back into the soil through its decay process, and makes way for life to spring anew.  It is not something to balk at or avoid, nor is it something to glorify in and of itself. Rather, it is a process that glorifies God. It is a beautiful recognition of eternal renewal.

Even as I write this I know that death still scares me, because I struggle so much with the necessary change that accompanies it. The soul-filled physical presence of someone is no longer able to be accessed or experienced. Those of us left behind are forced to deal with the transition into a new, less tangible relationshp with our deceased loved ones.  It’s also a relationship that relies more heavily on faith, and if one’s faith life is not strong, that transition can be very, very difficult.

I know that there are so many comforts in Scripture about how to deal with death. But I’m still worried about the day when I will have to face it in the form of the death of someone very close to me.  This is one of the reasons I had to stand in front of the beautiful body of the squirrel this afternoon. I had to honor the process of death, of the necessity and inevitability of it, and honor the body that once mingled with breath to make this world a little more alive.

I prayed over the body of the squirrel. Yes, I did.  I prayed for all deaths in this world, for the dignity of the bodies that previously carried the breath of God, for the process that will carry those bodies back into the dirt and begin the cycle anew. I didn’t pray for the spirits or souls, because I knew those were safe and joyful in the arms of God.

But I did pray for those of us that have to stay behind for awhile.

Patience and Time

Patience and Time. These seem to be important messages in my life lately, but it became a very physical, very unavoidable message yesterday.

I don’t know how I did it, but I did it. A sudden, excruciating pain in my lower neck which made it difficult to look up, down, right or left suddenly overtook me as I was researching for an article I am writing. I still have very little tolerance for sitting in front of the computer, so forgive me if the post is short.

The neck pain left me unable to do much else other than lie on an ice pack, read, and pray. I did that all day yesterday, interspersed with some phone calls. It brought me back to my knee surgery recovery, when I could do little else than look at the ceiling all day and try not to move.

If there was ever a day I wish we had TV in the house…!

But I think it was an important lesson for me. Because the neck pain wasn’t some terrible injury or illness. It was most likely a strain or sprain, an inflammation that simply needs patience and time to heal.

Patience and time. A difficult thing when the body and mind are whirling with ideas and dreams.

But it called me back to the present. It made me conscious of where I was, today, here, now. I couldn’t live in any other time or any other reality. Tomorrow would have worries of its own. For today, I had my assignment: hurry up and wait.

I suppose, though, it’s all a matter of perspective. If I see this time as waiting for something to come (in this case, getting mobile again), then I will live in anxiety and constantly feel called away from the moment. I won’t appreciate the opportunities that now has to offer me. I won’t enjoy the fact that I rarely have a day where I can spend time reading for enjoyment instead of research, where I am not busy cleaning and cooking and laundering, where my prayers are contemplative, meandering conversations with the Creator. So maybe my assignment isn’t really to hurry up and wait.

Maybe it’s slow down and be.

Guest Post: Overcoming Inertia

Here’s a post from my husband on his bike commute to work yesterday:

As part of our commitment to a month with only one car, I knew I wanted to do something that I’ve been meaning to do for a long time, but never had the courage to try–bike to work. As far as commutes go, I have one of the easiest in Los Angeles. In a town where people regularly sit in one to two hours of traffic, I am blessed to get in my car, and drive less than 10 minutes. Furthermore, the route that I take is also one of the easiest to bike: it is almost entirely flat, near the ocean, with a dedicated bike lane the entire way. LA is definitely not known as a bike-friendly town, which makes this all the more remarkable.

So why did it take me so long to start biking in to work? Mostly convenience, partly inertia, and a little bit of trepidation starting out on an unknown adventure. Even with the one-car commitment, I was more than happy to be driven in to work rather than go to the trouble of filling my tires, packing a change of clothes, getting up a half hour early, and rolling out the door on my bike.

But one of the great blessings of married life is that you are never alone on an adventure into the unknown. My wife, somehow sensing my reluctance, suggested last weekend that we take a ride together to a place that’s in the general vicinity of work. Once I saw that the ride was manageable, I knew I could summon the courage to face it on a workday.

I headed out on the road this morning and discovered that not only was there nothing to fear, but that it was downright enjoyable. It’s funny how a change in context brings things into focus that we formerly ignored. I was conscious of every crack in the road, every conspicuous stone, every bump and rise of the road in a way that I never am in a car. Also, without the distraction of the radio, I was alone with my thoughts, my exertions, my sensations. How often do we turn on the radios in our cars without even thinking about it, not really embracing the possibility of a small moment of solitude?

As I made my way along the route, I came to a red light where another biker was also waiting. He was dressed in racing gear and had a professional looking bike. He was a Serious Biker. This is the kind of guy you see traveling in a flock of multicolored bike riders on a Saturday morning; but he was traveling alone today on his own commute. I said good morning, but he did not acknowledge my presence. Perhaps, he was still mentally in his car, shut off from the other commuters, safe behind close windows and air conditioning. Or perhaps this was a meet-not. In romantic comedies, there’s always the meet-cute, that first memorable time the two main characters encounter one another. Los Angelenos have mastered a whole new technique: avoiding actual connections with people by pretending that they just don’t hear them, or see them. The typical reaction one gets walking past someone on the sidewalk is no eye-contact, no words spoken, no acknowledgment when you say hello. They do not want to meet you, even at the most cursory level.

After my meet-not with the Pro, he took off at a faster pace than me. That was fine with me, since we were coming up on a small rise. Even a small hill still poses a challenge for one of my modest abilities, so I was happy not to have someone stuck grumbling behind me. Yet once I crested the rise, I saw that he had stopped and was drinking some water. Was he catching his breath? Maybe he was showing off and ended up over-exerting himself. As I passed him, I felt a small tug of pride–I had overtaken the Pro. I rolled down the other side of the rise and came to a stop at the traffic light, waiting for it to change. When it went green, I started pedaling, picking up speed, when I felt the whoosh of air beside me as the Pro flew by. He had been waiting at the top, timing his descent for the change of the light. All my pride was deflated in that moment, which was probably the best thing the Pro could have done for me.

At the end of my ride, I had spent 30 minutes on a bike instead of 10 minutes in my car, and every bit of it was worth it. Instead of the misplaced pride of my earlier episode, I felt the pride of work truly earned. I also felt a deep gratitude for the gift of being able to choose this for myself and not by circumstance. For those who cannot afford a vehicle, a bike is often also a luxury item. They must commute by bus, which may mean a significant amount of extra travel time. For example, the same 10 minute car commute would take at least 45 minutes with a transfer in between. I also felt gratitude for being able to face my day with the health required to make this ride, and joy in being able to share the experience with my wife, who was with me in spirit the entire way.

As my wife would remind me, we always have a choice about how we can approach something. Today, I chose to approach my commute with joyfulness, gratitude, and an open heart. I can only pray for the grace to live thus everyday.

Solidarity

Over the past year, I’ve found that one of the most profound practices of solidarity has come from making my own clothes. Today I made myself a shirt:

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So I’m not Donna Karan or anything…I mean, it’s certainly simple. But it’s the work of my hands and I’m proud of it.  Here’s a skirt I’m working on:

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And one of the most important part of this experience is that I was thinking about how people all over the world are laboring to make us blouses just like this, and that it isn’t by choice or an act of enjoyment. Their next meal may depend on how fast they do it and how accurate the stitches are.

This is a simple act of solidarity…and tonight I hold in my heart all those who labor unjustly, and who cannot take joy in the work of their own hands.

P.S…We’re coming up on the one year anniversary of my husband’s and my one year “Stuff Diet”…stay tuned in the coming weeks for our personal reflections on the successful and not-as-successful aspects of our commitment, and what we learned from our experience (and where we’ll go from here!).

Counting My Blessings

Coachella_panoToday I feel like it’s important to take a moment away from the hustle bustle of my brain and simply be grateful.

-I am grateful for a wonderful summer of closeness with my mom. We’ve had a lot of silly times, serious times, and all around happy times. I’m so grateful to be her daughter.

-I’m grateful for my whole family. I’ve spent a lot of time with them this summer, and in moments of play and work, I feel like we’ve grown in a closer appreciation of one another.

-I’m grateful for my in-laws. They are my East Coast family! Whether it’s an in-person visit or a chat on the phone, I never stop feeling their love.

-I’m grateful for our garden and for the farmers we have built relationships with at the farmer’s markets. They have provided us with fresh, ethically produced/harvested food, and it has nourished our bodies.

-I’m grateful to have discovered the pleasures of our local library as well as the resources at Fuller with a passion. It seems like I always have between 20-30 books checked out at any given time, and am thumbing through them all.

-I’m grateful for this apartment that we have made into a home. I don’t know how much longer we will be here, but I cherish every moment because it was my husband’s and my first home together.

-I’m grateful for our jobs. My husband has a secure job that provides well for us, and I am able to supplement that through song every Saturday and Sunday. I know that many people are struggling with lack of work right now, and I don’t take our paychecks for granted.

-I’m grateful for hopes and dreams for the future. They give us hope, make us nervous, make us excited. They continually call us to try what we may have thought was an impossible task.

-I’m grateful for my faith community. Whether at our local parishes (we sing at several) or at Fuller, I have learned a lot from both the Catholic and the Protestant communities of which I am a part.

-I’m grateful for our animals. For now, our only animals are two cats, but these beautiful creatures continually remind us that we humans are not the only beings on earth that have the capacity to love.

-Lastly, I’m grateful for my husband. No matter what happens, he’s continually been my rock, my biggest supporter and source of encouragement. I thank God every day for the gift of my husband in my life. Whatever the future holds, we’re in it together.

Often, it seems, prayer is directed at asking God for something. But I think it is equally important to continually remind ourselves of the blessings we have in our lives, big and small. This includes the meal that is nourishing your body as we speak, the water that you are able to drink without hard labor and risk of disease, and the safety and shelter of your home. This includes the ability to read these words. It includes everybody you love and who loves you back. Gratitude is one of the most fundamental aspects of a faithful, conscious existence…for without it, there is nowhere for compassion to set its roots. And compassion is what makes you extend your heart outward to your neighbor. It all starts with a “thank you.”

What are you grateful for today? Count your blessings….literally!