Archive for February, 2018

Lent: Act of Faith, Act of Presence

amywink February 24th, 2018

“For those who are authentically called to this profession, spiritual profits are enough.” John Gardner

Today is the 12th day of my Lenten practice of writing every day. I am not a writer who has ever written every day, as is often suggested as a good practice. Writers write, so write every day, create a habit in your writing so you do not have to wait for inspiration. Just keep writing; the ideas will come eventually. Just keep writing; it doesn’t matter if you don’t have an idea.

This has not worked for me. It may work for some. For me, it can flip a dangerous switch and I fall into rote production, paying more attention to the end result than the practice–I have written words today. I have achieved the goal. Check. Done. — I lose the reverence for the writing. I become more agitated and anxious, thinking of too much of the end result. Thinking too much of the outside, the external, the product. Thinking of what looks like writing, but is not writing; what looks like faith, but is not faith.

This is not how I am a writer. I lose the joy, the peace. I turn and walk away from the beautiful contemplative conversation with God.

I came perilously close to that turn on Wednesday and at the moment, I thought, “Oh, you should quit. What were you thinking?” I could have easily chosen some other Lent practice, something more recognizable like fasting, a something I could have given up–chocolate, Facebook, tv, clutter, rehearsing past events–because there are plenty of suggestions out there.

But I didn’t want to quit. I had thought about this very carefully and chosen this practice partly because it was difficult. I’d never been so intentional before (a daily practice) and because it seemed to represent the exact thing Lent is supposed to do, turn us toward God. When I am writing, I am most at peace, always in the presence of God.

Instead, I had to turn again and in so doing, confront the other thing we are supposed to do during Lent, the practice of self-examination. As a person who is a high achiever (though I forget), and a person who is also self-aware, I recognize this razor’s edge between internal and external motivation. I know my external motivator is an idea of unachievable perfection on which I will slice myself open if I come too close. And I have come close many times. I used to describe myself as not competitive, but now I know myself to be dangerously competitive, the kind of competitive that turns a joyful practice into the always impossible, the certain failure. It is the kind of competitive that destroys, the kind of competitive that decides to make things harder and harder so as if to prove my own worthlessness. It is an important thing to know about myself. It is an important thing from which to turn.

So, I turned. I opened a conversation. I listened. I wrote. I wrote as an act of faith, an act of presence. My practice changed and I remembered what I have always known about my writing, what I have always tried to practice, that I love the work of writing. That is enough. I owe this more reverent practice to my reader, so that I, imperfect, may reveal what is beautiful in this flawed and difficult world.

Lent: Witness

amywink February 23rd, 2018

I am standing
to witness his will,
this man I do not know,
simply because
I was asked
and he is clearly leaving
very soon, though he
looks into my eyes and
I into his so I see him
before he goes.

Between turning the pages
of his will, he rests, worn
from the effort of signing,
turning each page,
and answering the questions
his attorney poses
while I witness.
Then, I ask
about his name,
a long beautiful sound
I do not recognize
so I ask its origin
and he beams briefly,
breathing deep to
say proudly
“Armenian”
and we smile,
together.

Months later, when I am
called as witness
to explain what I saw,
for the legal appeal
of his will, the lawyers
ask, what I heard,
what I understood
about the scene.
Did you speak with him?
What did he say?
And I reply,
Yes, I spoke with him.

I asked him about
his beautiful name,
and he said “Armenian.”
and we were then
no longer strangers.

No

amywink February 22nd, 2018

No

I do not want to carry a gun.

I am a teacher.
The weapon that I am already
is far more dangerous.

If you do not understand,
look at how they try
to silence us.
Look at how they try
to demean us.
Look at how they try
to bind us.
Look at how they hope
to make us
into weapons they can own,
into weapons
they can understand,

instead of the weapons
we already are.

Lent: Be with Us on Our Journey

amywink February 22nd, 2018

“Make me to know your ways, O Lord,
teach me your paths.”
Psalm 25

I have passed the second anniversary of my mother’s heart attack. In two weeks, I will pass the second anniversary of her death. I am in the second anniversary of the weeks between, when the body does the work of grief. I have to pay attention to the feelings rising out of memory, to shadow the present and tint my current days. I know this is here. I know this is now but I respect the work of grief, accepting these tattered remnants of that passing time, the ephemera of those days between.

Time slowed down while my mother was in the hospital, as time does in hospitals, where there is so much waiting and nothing can be pinned to a specific minute. There are no appointments, just waiting. Just waiting in the unknown, even as we tried to pin what was known, like mapping our plan for a potential destination and yet having absolutely no idea of where we might be going. And so we sat, waiting, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my dear friend Sally who came for me, without my even asking and we waited.

We were not alone in our waiting, others waited in their own transitional times. One man, looking like he was straight from the ranch, in coveralls and work-boots, arrived to see his friend who had just had open-heart surgery. His nervous chatter like sandpaper against the quiet. My thoughts were not holy. I was grateful when he left to see his friend.

When he met me in the hallway after, he was filled with advice about the horror that he had seen, as if he could help me, prepare me, for what I might encounter next, and he rambled on as I stood there before him, with Sally at my back. I felt my shoulders rising, I felt the electric tension glittering in me as he so helpfully described his terrible encounter. I shouted in my head as I breathed, slow, steady, through the rising tenor of his voice, his panic. Then I moved toward him. I reached and put my hand on his arm, caught his eye and said “I will be okay. It will be okay.” And he stopped, suddenly grounded, tethered before his terror lifted him beyond my reach.

“I do not touch strangers,” I told Sally later, and I have no idea why I reached, except I had and it seemed to help. I think of that man, that moment, whatever came over me to move me toward his fear, out of my own irritation. I think of the people who were with me, friends and strangers. I think of those memories of presence, ephemera fluttering through those slowly passing days.

Lent: Redemption

amywink February 21st, 2018

“Stories are a gift to the tribe and stories have always been the best way for us to make sense of this hard world, or try to.” Greg Garrett

Reading the 19th-century diaries of Henrietta and Tennessee Embree taught me a great deal about compassion. The moment Tennessee wrote about backhanding her two-year old daughter across the face, hitting the child hard with her ringed hand and then her own horror at doing so was a moment I had to put down her journal and think hard about how I might judge her or understand her. I had liked her, felt for her, and suddenly, she struck her daughter in an unforgivable way and I could not like her.

Her fate in my writing would depend on how I responded. I could dismiss her. I could demean her. I could forget her humanity. She was racist, wealthy, abusive. What more did I need to condemn her? We are so much more evolved now, right? What value would there be in considering her humanity? Instead, I found my compassion in understanding the life she lived with her abusive husband, the fear that pervaded her life, and what must have been overwhelming moment, one that exploded into violence. I forgave her.

It has been over twenty years since I first encountered that moment in her 1867 diary and yet that moment stays with me today because my work turned on how I responded to her. A graduate student once wrote me about Tennessee Embree, asking “If there was basically a women’s shelter in Belton, why didn’t she just go there for help?” There was judgment in the question, like there is still today, but the answer I sent was very simple, very human: “She didn’t like the woman who ran the Belton Women’s Commonwealth.” That is the thing that stopped her. I never heard back from the graduate student. I suspect my answer might not have been what she wanted to hear, but it could also have been that my answer was just not exciting enough, not deep enough, for what the student wanted to write. I don’t know. I do know that Tennessee was a human being and it is hard to be a human being.

What does it matter what way I wrote about this long-dead woman? What does it matter how I chose to respond in a critical book on women’s diaries that so few people might eventually read? My response mattered because I was telling her story, the story she kept privately, the story I was reading, the story that now became part of my story. My responsibility to her story was also a responsibility to her, my responsibility to understand her humanity. I had to reach. I had to set aside my self (my PhD-seeking, make-a-critical-impact self) and reach, instead, for her.

When I eventually met Tennessee Embree’s descendants, they asked me “What made Henrietta and Tennessee special? What made them important enough for you to write about?” I answered, “Their ordinary lives.” I explained that they lived ordinary lives, in a community of people, and experienced ordinary human things, in the same way that we experience ordinary human things. The value of their diaries is exactly that, not in being extraordinary. When we read the story of ordinary living, we can come to understand what makes us human, the things that connect us to each other. The moments of ordinary failure, or ordinary achievement, help us understand, as Richard Rohr describes, the “shattering experiences of living.” Their ordinary lives, their ordinary words, reach across time and like a revelation, illuminate the difficulty and elegance of being human.

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