Category Archives: articles of faith

Signs

img_2191I saw this on the sidewalk on my walk to the train station. The mute, hungry person was nowhere to be seen.

Then, a few steps around the next corner, a heart appeared at my feet, glowing in the early morning light.

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The Guest House

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Mary, my Mother-in-Law

Another profile in the NY Times magazine, this one about a doctor who lost three limbs when in college and now tries to bring a “good death” to those who reside in what’s called the Guest House, part of the Zen Hospice in San Francisco.

“Good death” is something I thought about when I visited my mother-in-law, Mary, who lives in a memory care facility in Orlando. She has severe dementia and, after falling and shattering an elbow, was in a rehab that simply wasn’t equipped to accommodate patients with memory loss. We spent a weekend relieving Steve’s sister, Laura, who also lives in Orlando and is mostly tasked with her care. Observing Mary, in pain, in an unfamiliar place, in adult diapers, not remembering not to lean on her elbow, addled by medication, I wondered about sustaining life after the mind goes and the body breaks down.

By most yardsticks, hers is not a good life. Would a “good death” be a better choice? Simply put, it’s not a choice we can make and it feels like heresy even talking about it. And that is exactly what Miller spends his life working at: inviting death into our lives, our relationships, our conversations. He’s looking to “disrupt the death space,” a mission statement that sounds perfect for the Silicon-Valley VC community he solicits.

The article never links Zen Hospice’s “Guest House” to the Rumi poem, but I did, so here it is. Perhaps it’s something of a cliche to rely on Rumi for Life’s Big Ideas. But it continues to amaze me how the work of a 13th-century Sufi poet endures. (Some of his relevance is explained by this New Yorker article.)

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

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Taking the God out of Good

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Get Right With God

From a profile of Bart Campolo: “Atheists and agnostics have long tried to rebottle religion…to get the community and good works without the supernatural stuff. It has worked about as well as nonalcoholic beer. As with O’Doul’s, converts are few…”

Campolo is a one-time evangelical minister who lost his faith suddenly — or so he thought — as a result of a bike accident and concussion. When he finally fond the clarity and courage to share his loss of belief with friends “they treated me like an obviously gay man coming out of the closet. ‘People were like, yeah we’ve known this for a long time.'”

His story is also about the rise of secular humanism, which neither excludes nor insists on God. Do good deeds, devote your life to them even, but don’t blame yourself if you can’t conjure belief. Crucially, humanism gives ex-believers like Campolo a platform to stand on that’s called neither atheism nor agnosticism. This makes me wonder: why do we need platforms? Why not just be good and do good? Maybe it makes the fall from belief less precipitous. Maybe it makes for a softer landing as compared to the drifting downward into the blackness of atheism. Maybe we just need to call ourselves something.

The article stopped me hard at “supernatural stuff,” an offhand catch-all for things (for me anyway) like Jesus as the son of God, his immaculate birth and miracles, his resurrection. What if Jesus was a prophet who tried to bring people into a more goodly (but not Godly) way of being? What if he was the son of a man, say Joseph, and not the son of God? What if there is no God? Can’t we still believe — in goodness, in helping others, in giving to others?

To read, perhaps: “Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe” (Gary Epstein, 2010).

 

 

 

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A noble life


This book from Lily and, along with Anne Lamott’s Small Victories, I am inspired to write again, after a long dormant spell. The change of scenery helped as well — a week in the desert with views like this every day: 

Here is what I wrote poolside at the Desert Hot Springs Spa, courtesy of Lamott and triggering a vow from me to leave them behind: Resentments are wire-monkey mothers, something to hang onto because we believe we have — or deserve — nothing better.

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A Mother’s Prayer

There’s a secular kind of prayer I make when I fear something in my life is about to be lost. It goes like this: Please, please, please, please.

On an everyday basis, that thing is my phone and I am asking the Maker (of Apple Products) to reveal it to me as not lost after all. Please, please, please, please, I think. And there it is: my phone, tossed heedlessly into my bag, hidden in the black recesses among sundry other black things. I feel a little spangle of relief; it’s a company-issued phone, and I simply can’t tell the tech-support guy I lost another one. On most occasions, I remember to send up a thank you to the Maker that goes something like this: “You have saved me so much inconvenience (not to mention groveling) on this day, and for that I am grateful.”

As a mother of two “children” now in their 20s, I’ve had far too many occasions to send up that prayer to another Maker …

Read all about it >

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More on forgiveness

“There was love, an abundance of it; we just had to respect and accept that it was not the love of happily ever after. No, we would not be celebrating our 60th wedding anniversary, or even our sixth, but we would always be celebrating our children and the physical and emotional bond that brought them into being.

As it turns out, the world of moral absolutes is ill-suited to divorce. It isn’t a question of good/bad, success/failure, right/wrong. It is a recognition that what existed is irretrievably broken and that something else must be built in its place.

The decision to end a marriage is not about quitting; it is about letting go of one relationship in exchange for another. The equation isn’t love/not love. Divorce, at its best, is a love reborn — birthed from heartache and rage and despair and ultimately, forgiveness — that creates a different kind of family.”

Such a good essay. I read it, in the cool sunshine of my porch, the church up the street tolling its bells on the hour. Around me, fall is obligingly fall like: clear sky, dry leaves rattling in the breeze, the haze of summer dispelled.

Also, apropos of nothing, her characterizing child-rearing as feelings of love (of course) but also “corrosive boredom.”

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days of awe

I like the sound of this much better than Days of Repentance, which is what I thought the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was called.

In fact, the two appear to be synonymous, which makes me wonder how much awe I find in repentance. I read that: “it is common to seek reconciliation with people you may have wronged during the course of the year.” Further: “to atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible.”

Interestingly, I felt terrible this week that a friend found that a rug was damaged after he lent us his studio for a photo shoot. I wasn’t aware of the damage but that he felt ill of me made me feel ill. I contemplated how hard it is for me to hear criticism, to learn that I’ve let someone down. I know this must be rooted in a precarious sense of self-worth — more about how I feel about myself than how others feel about me. Regardless, I felt swamped by self-recrimination. But then the words “an honest apology, sincerely offered” came to me. Is this a quote? Something I myself have written? Not sure. But I did it, was forgiven, felt better.

My own Days of Awe experience

Yamim Noraim (in Hebrew)

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Worship

Get Right With God

Get Right With God

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. ~ David Foster Wallace

Explain doubt to me

… because at that moment I ceased to understand it.
In return I’ll tell you everything I know about love ~ Ann Patchett on when she knew she was meant to marry the man she had been uncertain about for so long.

A truer expression of love I myself have never read.

Read this book.

Read this book.

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please, thank you

There’s a secular kind of prayer I make when I fear something in my life is about to be lost. It goes like this: please, please, please, please.

On an everyday basis that thing is my phone and I am asking the Maker (of Apple Products) to reveal it to me as not lost after all. Please, please, please, please, I think. And there it is: my phone, tossed heedlessly into my bag, hidden in the black recesses among sundry other black things: a black wallet, a black notebook, a pair of black tights (whaaaa?). I feel a little spangle of relief; it’s a company-issued phone and I simple can’t tell the tech-support guy I lost another one. On most occasions, I remember to send up a thank you to the Maker that goes something like this: “You have saved me so much inconvenience not to mention groveling on this day and for that I am grateful.”

As a mother of two “children,” now in their twenties, I’ve had far too many occasions to send up that prayer to another Maker, who, although not well known to me, probably doesn’t reside in Cupertino.

 

Please, please, please, please, I would think as I pounded the playground looking for a lost Lily, who was not over by the swings, not underneath the life-sized concrete hippos, and not where I last saw her at the teeter-totters, before I fell into a conversation with another mother, complaining about our kids, in all likelihood. When Lily is found — trolling for food from the sanctimonious mom who always remembers to bring baggies of raisins and Goldfish — I don’t care that Mother Superior gives me a side-eyed look for losing my daughter and having no snacks. I send up a thank you to Whomever for restoring Lily to me, for making this day a perfectly ordinary one. I remember, at least in that moment, to stop wishing that extraordinary things would happen to me (“Hey lady, you look like a novelist! Got a book we can publish?”) and appreciate just how sweet ordinary life can be.

“Thank you,” I think, brushing the Goldfish dust from Lily’s round cheeks. “I will never complain about my children again.”

Fast-forward many years and Oliver, Lily’s younger brother, has offered to drive to Vermont to pick up his sister from college. It is Thanksgiving break and we are too cheap/broke to fly her home. As darkness is falling, some five hours after he should have arrived, Lily calls to say: “No Oliver.” I try his phone, which goes straight to voicemail but I don’t really worry until Lily calls two hours later with the same message: “No Oliver.” I try to go about my ordinary activities, shopping for the holiday, but my brain is scrambled with anxiety, and the grocery store is making me more nuts than usual: the bafflingly numerous choices when it comes to buttermilk, the throngs of shoppers in that supermarket-stupor of torpid movement, the grocery baggers in their grating Santa hats (it’s Thanksgiving people! If you feel you must wear a holiday topper, why not a pilgrim’s hat?). I am blinded by visions of Oliver, all of them catastrophic: car crashed into a tree or car out of gas and he’s walking down the road accosted by a crazy person or forced to sleep in the car, temperature plummeting, his vehicle black by the side of the black roadway, an obstacle the other car can’t see until … and so forth.

Please, please, please, please, I think, praying, in my way, for my ordinary life to resume. And it does, with an annoyed Oliver calling from a gas station up by the Canadian border, having missed his exit, having had his cell phone die, having had to listen to ten (he: “seriously, mom, ten?”) increasingly frantic messages from me. The next day I am still weak with relief over having both my children — and many other people I love — around the table. And even though the turkey is on the dry side and the gravy is on the thin side and the biscuits are a little weird (wrong buttermilk) and the cranberry relish is hated by all, I couldn’t be more grateful when my guests compliment me on the lovely meal.

“Thank you,” I say to them and also to Whomever. “Thank you so much.”

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