Archive for the 'creative practice' Category

Enough Time

amywink January 9th, 2019

Enough Time

I am gathering
pieces of my mother’s
story, pieces I
did not know,
to join with what
I have long understood,
asking those who saw
at different angle
in different light
in the before
she could not see
herself, changing
by breadth and
reach the story I know
of her,
of myself
beyond her,
her story
before me
beyond me.
All becoming
my story
beyond her
that I will tell
of my own peace,
drawn together in
the illuminating grace
that is remembering.

The Waiting Horses

amywink January 7th, 2019

“You must give up the life you had planned to have the life that is waiting for you.”

~Joseph Campbell

Bracken, Texas.

In 1971, Bracken, Texas was not even a small town, more of a remnant of the German farming settlement whose red and white brick Methodist church had just celebrated its centenary. The steeple could be briefly spied through the fields and hills from the interstate highway. Off the exit, farms whose fields held cattle and often, horses. I, a six-year-old with deep abiding longing for horses, always searched the fields for the horses and was delighted when I spied them among the cows, or better yet, in a herd. The farm-to-market road curved in front of the church and east-facing farmhouse parsonage. From the front porch, a view of the church cemetery, opposite, behind a chain link fence and an arched opening, and beyond that a train track in the distance, that we would watch from the front porch, where we also watched thunderstorms roil and roll over the hills.

This is where my father landed in his last years serving the Methodist church as a minister. It was the seventh or eighth church he had served since his time at Perkins Theological Seminary in the early 1960’s. During that time, he and my mother had begun their family with my brother, born in 1962, and myself born in 1965. I have memories of some of our early homes, mostly punctuated details that remain with me to this day: the moment when I was two and a fire blazed through the backyard and I was left alone in the high chair as everyone ran out to fight the fire (a fire apparently started to burn a building so migrants wouldn’t stop there), the moment with my brother who ran ahead of me and leapt out the front door and over the snake I saw coiled at the doorstep and stopped, the moment I tried to follow my brother’s leap over a prickly pear cactus which I fell right into it instead (I learned to be cautious in following that daring brother); the time I was three and we visited my mother on the grounds of the hospital where she recovered from her first manic episode when she first diagnosed with what was labeled then as manic-depression, now termed bipolar disorder

But it was in Bracken that I began to come to awareness of the world and the beginnings of my self. There, in that rural parsonage and across from the beautiful German church, the continuity of my memory begins to coalesce into a more coherent narrative and I begin the story of my self, aware in the world. I started school at Comal County Elementary and met my first best friend, Sharon, and others I still remember. I spent time in that beautiful empty church listening to my mother practice piano, watching my father preach on Sundays as I occupied myself with coloring while in the pews. My brother taught me to tie the shoelaces of my roller skates as we skated on the sidewalks and volleyball court behind the church’s creaking and spooky Sunday school building, where we sometimes went to get a Coke out of the refrigerator. That volleyball court was also where I also learned to ride a bike.

We walked between the church and parsonage each Sunday and entered the house after to the glorious smell of the roast and baking potatoes my mother had left in the oven while we were at church. In the evenings, we watched the bats emerge from the now famous Bracken bat cave and fly swirling into the night. Looking east, across the rolling landscape we could see the trains and the cemetery where members of the community were laid to rest after their caskets were carried from the church, beginnings and endings right there together, and always the journey between them.

I wrote my first poem sitting on the porch swing near the fig tree that bore the most wondrously sweet fruit each year, and also swarmed with wasps. I started to keep a diary–not much more than drawings and the occasional sentence description of what happened in first grade. I had cats, dogs, and then eventually, the most amazing thing, a pony, who my parents made the wonderful and terrible mistake of buying and bringing into our temporary lives as if we would always be in that country place, as if we would always have the space for the pony they handed their sensitive, poetic, and animal-loving daughter, and a pony I had to give up.

These are the lovely memories of beginning consciousness but they are not the only ones and as much as I love these memories of my beginnings in that country place, I cannot also ignore the endings that happened there. My parents were not suited to the itinerant life of a Methodist minister and “pastor’s wife”, the constant judgmental pressure from the community to behave as they “should” and to make their children behave as they “should.” My father had lost the enjoyment of his work, my mother struggled to find her place while she finished the college degree she’d started at Southwestern ten years previous at Trinity University. The old house I loved, with its wooden floors, high ceilings, wide front porch was in disrepair and would eventually be torn down (much to my horror) to make way for something new and serviceable, and sadly, quite ugly. The school I attended was filled with the children of migrant laborers and farmers and, as effortlessly and strictly as they could, they enforced the racial and class divisions of the day. I wasn’t supposed to touch anyone browner than I and I wasn’t supposed to enjoy their company. I wasn’t supposed to sit laughing with them. I struggled to understand the term “wetback” which was used frequently. I wasn’t supposed to be kind to the little brown boy, Juan, who crushed for me. I wasn’t supposed to like the haphazardly-dressed white boy, John, who handed me a piece of jewelry I later came to understand was a tie clip, that someone suggested he must have stolen. I wasn’t supposed to call my mother Mom at school, but Mrs. Wink instead. The rules were clear. Stop being who you are and be some one else. While I loved school and learning, I began to be punished for speaking out with answers, for reading different assignments in the books, and for being an alert and bright girl, ready with curious questions and wanting answers. As much as I loved school, I was learning also what was not allowed and what happens when a girl is not what she is expected to be. It was not a place for me to grow, it was not the place for my brother to grow, and it wasn’t a place for my parents to grow. We had to leave that life behind and even though it was difficult, we had to start something new. As my parents changed their lives, we changed and we had to move.

I thought of that church last year when someone asked me about where my Dad been a minister. We were standing in the empty sanctuary of my current church, the only church I’ve attended since leaving Bracken in 1972. I had stopped to look at the afternoon light coming through the west-facing stained glass windows and glazing the tops of the pews in gold. I had been (somewhat relentlessly) pursuing a new creative project, gathering the information I needed to make my idea work but the light in the church made me stop and pay attention. I began explain about my memories of the empty church at Bracken, how I loved to be in the empty sanctuary in the quiet opening of the space, how I had loved that country place, the old house with an oval glass door, wood floors, and porch swing, even with its wasps, scorpions, and bats. I was brought back to that sanctuary of memory, like I had come back to the sanctuary I was standing in, and in the colored light of the afternoon, I remembered the beginning of me, that long-ago pony, and the life and the horses that had been waiting for me when I gave up the life I had planned.

One Stone

amywink October 6th, 2018

This dark grey stone
with lines of quartz
turned under the glacier’s
weight, not crushed
to dust but formed
and smoothed
by that solid shifting
ice until the one
degree made
all the difference
and out from beneath
that fracturing
blue and snow
this stone now
in my small hand,
waited as if
for Samuel,
a stone of help,
waited as if
for David,
one of five,
just enough
against Goliath,
waited as if
for me,
and just such
a moment
as this.

So Close to Help

amywink September 26th, 2018

This Saturday, I will be walking with the First United Methodist Church-Austin team at the Austin NAMIWalks event. There’s a little irony in this, or perhaps it’s more of a full circle coming around to meet me again and remind me of a moment when my life could have gone a different way, the juncture of two possible directions, to be influenced by chance or fate, or mistake, or simply missed opportunity. I do not spend a lot of time thinking about what “might have been” but this one, this moment, has been coming back to me a lot lately because of the grace I have found at First.

44 years ago this summer, my family moved to Austin. My Dad had left the UMC ministry to pursue teaching and I started, in the fall, at Eanes Elementary School. We did not live in the district, but in South Austin, in a rental house in a somewhat dicey neighborhood. Since my parents did not know what the quality of schools was in Austin just yet, they decided that my brother and I would go to Eanes where my Dad was teaching. I started the 4th grade and met my two best friends, Toni and Leah, who remain my friends to this day–and we have been through a lot together. That Christmas, my mother had a psychotic break during a manic episode. She had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, then called manic-depression, in 1968, and I now understand that the stress of moving, the stress of her father’s stroke, and the dramatic changes in our lives likely triggered the episode. But I didn’t understand all of that until a long time later, until I could look from a long distance and see what happened from the wider range.

At the time, we were new to Austin and did not have a community yet. But my father called for the only help he knew, the pastor of FUMC-Austin, and another friend, a former UMC minister-turned-psychiatrist. The pastor came, as I recall, but I remember little else except the fear and disorientation I felt during this inexplicable experience when my mother became a different person, right before our eyes. I have memories around the fringes of the experience but my memory of what happened is a blank space and I have not gone searching for that memory. I was 9. My brother remembers–he was 12–but his story is his and I can only tell mine. I know our lives were never the quite same after that. I know we are still learning to understand what happened and the depth of its consequences. My father did get help and my mother got better–she always wanted to remain well and was medication compliant– other people with BP struggle with that. And while my experience was not nearly as bad as some people I know, it was bad enough and there was enough damage done. Damage I didn’t understand until later, some damage I didn’t understand until after her death.

In 1974, bipolar disorder was not something we talked about in public. While we dealt with it as a family, sort of, we didn’t talk with anyone else about the experiences. She had been diagnosed in 1968, after, I suspect, her depression and mania were triggered by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, as well as the stress of being a pastor’s wife, with the unrelenting scrutiny of every congregant. I have a letter she wrote to me from the hospital, telling me, at 3, to pray to God to make her well. That we were moved suddenly by the Bishop from Leakey to Premont, mid-year, also indicates something about what also may have happened, though not why. In 1974, she did not write. I have no idea how long she stayed in the hospital. She got better because my Dad was able to ask for help and able to get at least some help. But we could have used so much more, my brother and I, and my father. We could have used church, if church had been there for us. If we had been able to look to church.

My dad had asked a pastor to come, and while he came, no one else did. We were not members of First and I have no idea if the pastor told anyone we needed help or if anyone would have come. Perhaps he did not himself know what to do. I cannot blame him for what did or didn’t happen. I just wonder what might have happened otherwise because we were so very close to help. The people I know now were there then, and have been like an entire group of church parents for me, now that I am 53, and I think how they would have folded around us then, to take us in when we needed help, to show up no matter what they found. At least I like to think they would have and I think about how very different our lives could have been if that had happened. I like to think they would have come and overwhelmed us by their help if only the call for help had been received. And I wonder if that call for help was ever even sent.

Instead we were left to cope and learned not to talk about this with anyone but certain family members, and not that often. We certainly didn’t talk about it at school or anywhere public. And knowing we were not supposed to talk about it mean we knew that it was shameful, something we had to hide. Shame is a powerful silencer and forces people into isolation.

I’ve thought about that time a lot as I have worked to unlearn some things I learned at the time, things that were reinforced later with other experiences, though they started earlier: how not to ask for help, how to manage on our own, how to take too much responsibility for someone else’s behavior. Even though I have resolved many of these things, I am often struck by understanding now, after my mother’s death, as I lay down the armor I needed to protect myself. I have learned just how much armor I was wearing, because I had to do so. And on occasion, I trace my reaction to the beginning at that difficult time when my mother changed, the moment I learned that people can turn on you, that help is hard to find, that change can be a terribly frightening and completely destabilizing , in a way other people do not understand.

My parents did the best they could and they did get help. And we recovered, and we kept recovering, but we were changed. To be able to reconcile with that difficult past, I have to be able to understand what happened, to know enough about what happened to know who I am because of it. I do no seek to fill in the black space of my memory–I have enough details to discern what likely happened to me, or what I overheard–and I know my brain is protecting me from that remembrance. But I wonder about what might have happened otherwise, since we were so close to help and help did not show up to overwhelm us in our need.

I think of this when I show up for someone. I think on this when I encourage others to ask for help, to be open to receiving help, even if asking is frightening, even if it seems easier to go through the difficulty alone so shame is kept a private thing, because being alone seems safer. I explain how very different my life might have been had things been different in 1974. If more help had come, stayed, and pulled us back to church, so we would not have had to be alone. Show up, I think, because I might be the help that is called to get close. And let people show up, even if they do not have a clue as what to do, if I just ask, I might discover how very close to help I actually am.

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.

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