Archive for June 26th, 2018

I am Not Rome

amywink June 26th, 2018

Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. John 14: 27

A friend of mine, with whom I engage in deeply satisfying theological talk, declared recently during a discussion of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, “I am Rome” as a way of illustrating his sense of his own privilege and personal history growing up in Dallas. I laughed. I continue to be amused by this description, partly because “I am Rome” is so brilliantly appropriate and while I do not think of him as Rome, that is often now exactly the thing I need to remember when we talk. But the idea of Rome–as the culture of social and economic privilege, the culture of what is “right”, the correct dream for everyone, the key to “success”–can be deeply seductive because Rome looks like a good life, a powerful life. It looks “right”. Claiming Roman citizenship, as the Apostle Paul did, protected a person from persecution (until it didn’t). One might be protected from being different even as one searches for a way to change Rome; one might even eventually use Rome to change Rome.

In recent weeks, I have been trying to comprehend the new direction my life is heading. Now that my immediate grief has subsided, now that I am rested and awake again to discovery and to understanding my own sense of who I am, I am deciding what I want to do with my time and my life now, what joys I will follow, what I am now being asked to do in the world. I did not have an idea about this part of my life, much less any plan for it, partly because it seemed like I wouldn’t ever get here and partly because I am still astonished that I am here. I am not a person who enjoys change but I have learned to change because that is what my life has been–that is what life is–even though I would prefer it remain stable, my life is changing. As Neil deGrasse Tyson so eloquently explained, “There is no fixed point in the Cosmos. All of nature is in motion.” Last spring, I noticed I was getting a little bored with my restful life, not unhappily bored, just enough to notice and I asked myself “Is this it? If this is it, I am okay, but I am not sure this is all for me to do.” I decided to let myself be bored because it had been so long since I had the luxury of boredom. I left the question hanging in the air, waited, and eventually forgot I’d wondered so dangerously out loud and honestly. Until an answer arrived “No, there’s more and you are only now half awake.”

I did not understand how true that was until I started writing again in the fall after I decided to take a risk (I had learned not to take risks) and accept the invitation to join the Disciple Fast-Track class forming at First. The invitation came at a moment when I had just decided not to follow an old idea of my future (and to leave behind most of the baggage that came with that old idea) but I had no idea where I was going and I really never would have thought, when I was taking that first step, that I’d actually be heading in the completely correct direction toward the life I had always wanted, one I thought I would never get. Inspired by our theological talk and Biblical reading, I started writing. Suddenly, I was a writer again and I was writing nearly every day, after not writing anything creative for a long time, almost a decade. Kathleen Norris described a similar experience when she described how the regular devotional pace of monastic life lead to an extremely creative period in her life; how the poetry just poured out of her during that time.

It was the same for me. I started writing poetry, and though I had written a few poems at the beginning of 2017, I can also describe this experience as poetry pouring out of me. And I let it. I didn’t even ask any questions about what was happening. I just wrote. By the end of the fall, and the close of the Old Testament Disciple study, I had written more poems in the 12 weeks than I had written in all my previous years combined. I wrote more essays, which I had also stopped writing, partly because I had not been able to think deeply. Suddenly, writing was no longer difficult, no longer a struggle, partly because I had the time and I was no longer completely exhausted, but mostly because some thing in me had opened and I was felt compelled to speak. I never expected (or even thought to expect) that the members of my Disciple class would be the most brilliant writing group I had ever had, though I did say at the start that maybe the class might make me a better writer. I never expected that First United Methodist Church would be the creative partner I needed for the return to my creating life (I do think Stacey would be amused and think it only right that the role she filled could only be refilled by an entire congregation of people). While I was surprised, I didn’t think that any of this was wrong. I felt a lot more like “Oh. I had no idea. Oh. ” I paid attention and I put together an entire book.

It was unsettling. Lovely, but unsettling, as if I was swept up in some thing much larger than myself that had moved me into the creative life I had wanted, the creative life I was meant to have. There was nothing between myself and the person I was meant to be any longer. I was reminded again how unconventional my life was. Can a poet ever be Rome?

I paid attention. I kept writing. I became a writer, finally, because all of me came together to write. All of me was suddenly present. It was an experience I recognized but one that had been extraordinarily rare. Suddenly and wondrously, I was completely present and writing. Someone asked me, when I tried to explain, “but you’ve written before?” and while that’s true, all I could reply was “Not like this, not at all like this.”

I paid attention. I tried to explain to those who had no idea why I was astonished or so happy.

I was open and I was the self I had always wanted to be, the person I had been working toward, the person I had set aside because I had other things I had to do, the person I thought I’d never get to be again. What had been in the way was no longer there. And I understood, with some horror, how very bored I had been. There is nothing quite like being fully engaged to reveal how very dulled I had become.

I paid attention, and almost without noticing, I was much further down the path into my next life than I expected, and I was surprised by where I was heading because in all the yes I was feeling, there was abruptly a new ask, a very different kind of “yes”, a quiet but arresting “oh, by the way, and also this.”

And. Also. This.

I stop.

And Rome catches me, whispering old fears I still carry deep within me, and those fears erase the “and”, cloak the “yes” in convention because I am asked to be something I haven’t the vaguest notion of how to be, except that it seems also a thing that I have always been, just newly defined. I am limited by my conventional understanding and doubt floods me even as I try to reconcile what I know to be true with what I am being asked to recognize is true. The safety of conventional understanding is also the danger of it and while I know this, I also suddenly lose that understanding in my confusion. While I have tried to live conventionally before, that life has never been mine, even if I hoped for convention (because that would seem safe) at some moments. My recurring nightmare of being offered a conventional life that I cannot afford to turn down speaks to my deeper understanding of who I am. I am not Rome.

But the voice of Rome, the voice of culture, the voice of convention, is seductive in ways that are confusing. The voice that encourages us to be who we really are is slowly drowned out by the voices that say “here is the one way.” Even as I am being asked to expand who I understand myself to be, (the “And. Also. This.“) I am faced with pressure to narrow “and” to “only” some of which is my own making and some of which is well-intended advice from friends, advice I have sought but which I find myself (annoyingly to myself and I’m sure to them as well) only able to answer at this time, “no, not that.” or “I don’t know” or “all I know is this” in very very vague terms as this writer loses her language, her means of being in and understanding the world. In his essay, “Self-Reliance”, Emerson wrote there are “voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in a conspiracy against the [humanity] of every one if its members . . . It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”

At this moment right now, I am without a name for what I am supposed to do, the customary understanding seems not exactly right and every time I press against those conventional ideas, I know it isn’t right even though I would love to know the end point toward which I am currently headed. All I know now is the direction I move will open if it’s right, and it may only open one step at a time because I can only take one step at a time. As a wise friend recently counseled, “You will know.” When I am quiet, I know this and I remind myself “follow what you love” to learn my newest direction. I remember I am a writer and what I do next must also support that. But, it is so easy to forget, so easy to want everything to be clear before it can be clear. So easy to want to be Rome, even though I am not Rome.

When I learned to drive, I started with no experience, not even riding experience. I learned from the very beginning and I learned how to have good hands, soft hands. For those who do not work with horses, it seems that we use our hands to steer by force, as if the strength in our arms might actually move a horse’s entire body. But what we are doing is counter-intuitive, softening the hands so the horse seeks contact with his mouth through the bit and reins. It is not the goal of a good driver to force a horse by pressure into moving, but to ask a horse to respond to the soft pressure guiding him where to go. This was very hard to learn and it is possible to use a severe bit and hard hands to move a horse but that is not good driving. Luckily, Will was forgiving and easy to drive. When I started driving my mare Blessing, I had to learn how to lighten my hands even more, so soft was her mouth, so sensitive to the slightest movement of my fingers. Sensitive to a fault, my trainer said, and slowly brought us both along. I don’t think she was speaking only of the mare. Blessing refused to listen to hard pressure so becoming stronger, using a heavier bit only made for arguments I would never win. We frustrated each other even as we wanted to work together.

I wanted to drive her. I wanted to be good enough. And I pressed myself hard to be good enough, yet I didn’t exactly know what we needed until I stopped pushing against what I thought I needed to do. I waited and thought instead about a different way to connect. I knew my limitations and I knew her needs, so I looked for the softest bit I could find. If I could not lighten my hands enough, I needed a bit that helped us communicate. I ended up with a riding bit, a French Link snaffle, a bit designed for horses with a low palate, with a large copper lozenge in the middle. It wasn’t a driving bit and it was entirely non-traditional, but with that light bit and my soft-enough hands, Blessing and I could drive together. Eventually, I also learned that if I took off my leather gloves (as is not allowed in competition or advised at home), we could drive even better. She listens and responds to the softest hands I can muster, the lightest squeeze of the fingers. She is a challenge to drive because I must always be mindful of our light connection but when we are together on our drives, we are present to each other and moving together with only the slight pressure of my hands. She is always looking for me and I am always reaching for her.

I was once asked why I drive her in a snaffle, by someone one who thought she needed stronger handling and a more severe bit to be made to obey, someone who seemed to think of horses as machines. I only explained that this was the bit that she liked, that I liked. I knew my mare. She wasn’t going to obey my hands if they were heavy. I looked for the way for us to work together because I wanted to work with her, not against her. We simply needed to listen for each other. She wanted to work with me, not against me. My wise trainer knew all of this. She also knew I would figure it out.

Right now, I am thinking of this lesson with Blessing as I think about the yoke I am accepting, the light burden I am being asked to carry. I am asked to understand “and also this” not as a limitation, but an additional understanding to the self that I am, an additional element in the creation of my fully human self that will enable me to do the work that I am meant to do in the world, even if I do not yet have a name for what that is. I am being asked to explore, to be curious, to learn, to keep going, not as a single-minded pursuit of one thing, but as a growing experience of who I am continually becoming. And I am being asked, not Rome, to bring everything that I am to this call because the work I am meant to do is also seeking me.