Monday, February 26, 2007

February 26: Shiny

There was an e-mail waiting for me when I got to work this morning. It announced the presence of visitors on campus. Signs were posted on doors to conferences rooms and offices. They announced the names of students and committees of three ministers underneath each name.

Students traded their casual clothes for new dresses and suits. One man stood outside my door, tie pulled tightly around his neck. He tugged at his collar several times as he paced the floor outside my door. His hair was freshly cut, each one neatly brushed back and in place. He's shy. We've only spoken in the halls. Today he looks shiny, and handsome, and uncomfortable. After 10 or 15 minutes that lasted a year, he was called into the conference room. When he emerged a few minutes later, he ripped his tie loose as he walked out the door. A smile graced his face, he breathed easy for the first time all day.

It's called in-care, but students dread it. How can the process be caring, they wonder. "Will they ask me about my christology?," I hear a new student ask a veteran. "I'm not sure what to say if they ask me about my christology. I mean, I believe Jesus' teachings point us to the truth, but do they care if I'm skeptical about the miracles?" The older student assures her.

Another woman walked in, dark hair concealing the grey that was peaking through last week. She's lost weight and it shows. I'm accustomed to seeing her in khakis. Today she is wearing a jumper that stops just above her knees. She stands tall and proud. I have to look twice to recognize her and only when she speaks am I sure. I wonder if the confidence she's found in the way she looks comes through in how she presents to the committee.

I met my boss as I left the building. He was in charge of the day's interviews. He wearily mumbled goodbye, and said something about another day of interviews, and loosened his tie as he stepped into the warm sunshine, turning his face to the sky letting it refresh him as we walked to his truck.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

February 13: Context

They sat in the section of chairs to the far right in the "Celebration Center." Ten women dressed in brightly colored dresses with beads and beautiful embroidery spread out in a section that holds forty or fifty people. Some sat in silence, others nervously pulled at their clothes and paced around the front. One looked for a safety pin, calling out to all who gathered early, worried that her apron was hanging too loosely. Another checks to make sure all of them had their song books. One left hers in the hotel room. Her roommate laughs and asks, "What did I tell you this morning? Huh? What did I tell you?"

They are from different tribes, located in a region that spans three states. All of them are pastors, students, mothers, and employees in jobs outside the church and home. They were invited to lead worship for the second day of a conference of clergywomen for their region of the denomination to which they belong.

It snowed five or six inches the night before, so the conference participants were slowly trickling in. I arrived early to tear down my display and load it up to leave as soon as the opening worship is over. One of our students belongs to the group leading worship. I wanted to hear her prayer, to be a supportive presence. She shared with me the night before that she was nervous, that they were all nervous.

They opened with music, nine of them standing like a choir, each dressed in the traditional style for women of her tribe. Another stood in front of them to lead them. They sang several hymns in the different languages of the tribes from which they come. They are Methodist, so they have made a commitment to itineracy. For them, that means learning the languages of new tribes each time they move to a new church. All of them are multi-lingual.

I sat and listened, aware of a growing discomfort. I watched as they stood representing cultures that have been overtaken by western ways and felt sadness for the losses they've experienced. I heard the tunes of hymns so familiar to me that I could sing them in my own language without looking at a hymnal. They are part of my culture, many of them passed down through many generations, and the best way I know to describe the feeling in my gut hearing them sung in the languages of Native American people is disonance.

I wonder what they would sing if Christianity, the faith of a foreign people trying to escape persecution in another world, hadn't been imposed on their ancestors. The host pastor for the conference thanked them as we transitioned from worship to the plenary session. She told them what a blessing it was to have them share their culture with us.

I slipped out and got into my car to begin the long drive home, and as I drove, I was haunted by the questions, "Why does it make us westerners feel so good to hear our story sung in another's language?"

Saturday, February 10, 2007

February 10: Crimson

I stared out the window watching the scene unfold before me like an episode of CSI. Two police cars blocked the path in the park on either side of a concrete barrier. A shiny plastic yellow boundary encircled the space, swaying and stretching in the stiff wind. I saw an officer rub his hands together and stuff them deep into his pockets. It was a cold morning.

Another man walked away from a plain white van. He ducked under the tape, a measuring device with a long handle in his hand. He walked around to the other side of the barrier. My eyes followed him and for the first time I saw the object of their concern. The top of a grey, balding head encircled by a crimson halo that spread from one ear around the top of his head to the other side was barely visible behind the white concrete. A man lay motionless. The officer joined the man who was preparing to take measurements. Pages from a legal pad blew up in the wind. He laid it down on the barrier, just above the carefully stenciled words: "Honor," "Dependability." I watched as one of Tulsa's finest placed a coffee cup on top of the notepad to keep the pages from blowing.

I took in the scene like I did the countless hours of crime shows that blared on hour after hour when I lived with my ex. A man's life became an object, a curiosity. I felt ashamed, yet deeply aware of my disconnection from what was just yards from my window. I stepped away, poured some coffee, and tried to go about my morning like I do any other morning. I picked up my journal, and stared at the blank page. The cat jumped in my lap and rubbed her head against my stomach. I pulled her in close, clung to her. With her in my arms, I got up and walked to the window again. Two men dressed in black suits, ties blowing in the wind, black gloves covering their hands, stood outside the boundary, waiting, their heads turned toward the river. They paced around nervously. A black hearse had replaced one of the police cars on the path. The back door was open, waiting.

Was it suicide? Was he murdered? I squinted to see the words on another side of the barrier: "Decisiveness," "Faith." The two men in suits turned quickly and slid under the boundary. I walked away.

I turned on the water for my shower, and slowly undressed. I wondered about his life. Was he one of the homeless men I see everyday in the park? Did he stop there after driving around in the middle of the night? Did he have a family? Friends? Tears streamed down my cheeks. He was no longer an object to me. He was a person, a man who lost his life, whether at his own hands or the hands of another, a man who spent his last moments in anguish. I thought of my own days of anguish and torment, days not so far gone, days when all it would have taken for me to be that man was one small decisive step around a dark corner of despair. I shivered and stepped into the shower.

I poured the last cup of coffee into a travel mug and grabbed my car keys. I walked to the window to look again, one last distant glance. A fire truck was parked on the street near the path. Three firefighters busied themselves with a rake and a shovel and a bright red plastic bag. The life force of a man that once pulsed through his veins is now hazardous waste. I watched as they spread a grey powdery substance. They walked back to the truck and climbed in. I put on my coat and gathered my things.

I walked down the stairs and out the door. When I got to my car, I looked up. The scene was like any other morning. The emergency vehicles were all gone. The yellow boundary was removed. The crimson halo no longer glistened in the bright sunlight. A group of runners breezed by the barrier, their conversation light, their eyes fixed on the path in front of them. The space is sacred now; their actions seemed blasphemous. I walked across the street and stood on the path. I stared quietly at the place where the crimson halo encircled the man's head. Just above it was the word "Enthusiasm."

Rest in peace, my brother.

Monday, January 29, 2007

January 29: Square

Anne Lamott says to write enough to fill a box that is one-square inch. Even that has been a chore for the past few days. For some reason, I manage to resist even the bare minimum of goals when I can't focus, and I'm worried about not writing to meet my standards, and I'm busy, and I... Just excuses really. The busyness takes over and all discipline flies out the window. Prayer/meditation, journaling, running, and evening writing have been sporadic for a couple of weeks now.

I know the difference the disciplines make, though. I feel better, function better, and that's motivation enough to get back on track. No shame. No beating myself up.

Tomorrow is a new day.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

January 24: Officer

My neighborhood is safe, from what I can tell. I haven't had any need to be overly concerned about anything or anyone. I live on a quiet section of a busy road, about a block south of a major highway. From my sunporch, I can see the traffic traveling across the bridge over the river that runs in front of my building. When it's quiet, I can hear the roar of the cars passing by in the distance.

This morning I awoke to the sound of helicopters overhead. They were high up, I could tell, and it's not unusual to hear them. I live just a few blocks from a major trauma center, and with the highway close by, the morning traffic copters fly overhead frequently. This morning was different though. They seemed to hover overhead for a long time. I got out of bed, made the coffee, fed the cat and sat down to journal. My attention focused on the paper, I lost track of the noise outside.

Later I went out to run. I crossed the street and walked across the grass to the path in the park. After I stretched a bit, I headed south down the path, turning around to head back after 15 minutes.

When I got within sight of my apartment, I noticed the trash truck had arrived. I silently congratulated myself for remembering to take down the trash on my way out this morning. Then my eye caught the sight of a police car traveling south. The blinker went on just before it approached my driveway. I watched as it turned in, and parked in front of the garage in my building.

I wondered why the police were there. My imagination went wild. I remembered the helicopter. I had thoughts of a criminal running loose, holed up in the basement of my building. It's nice there. I spent the night on the floor of the laundry room once. I know.

I finished my run and stopped next to a concrete barrier to stretch a little. My eyes were fixed on the car, looking for any clue to tell me why the police were there. I glanced at the front door to see if there was a cop waiting on the porch, gun drawn, leaning back, ready to kick in the front door. Nothing. I crossed the street and started up the driveway. I could see someone in the car. Perhaps the officer was checking a computer to get information before approaching the door. Just then, I noticed a blonde head turn from the passenger's side and lean across the middle of the seat. A pony tail sprung from the back of the head. I recognized the face. It was my neighbor. As she reached across, the head of a policeman leaned in to meet her lips.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

January 23: Students

It was the last class of the day on the first day of classes in the first week of the first semester. My first, their first. Their faces showed a mixture of fatigue and excitement. Smiles met droopy eyes. I nervously picked at my fingers and made small talk while I waited for break to end and group time to begin. The room was warm, no need to break the ice.

I studied their faces while they talked, each one sharing the story of their journey to seminary. There is the mother of three grown children, widowed now. Greying hair is pulled loosely behind her head. Her bangs fall freely over her wire frame glasses. She leans forward when she talks. She's been in class since 8:30 this morning, but her excitement adds a freshness to her voice. She lets the eagerness overtake her fear. She is following her husband's legacy. A stranger in her city stopped her the other day, said, "I hear you're going to seminary." She's known by the powerful ministry of a justice-loving husband who died in August. She feels the weight of his legacy, yet she's buoyed by his love.

Another works a full-time job. He's the principal of an alternative school in town. His days are filled with the administrativa of education and kids whose lives are seldom ever easy. He talks about his name, mysteriously hidden in the initials he gave on his application which now stand out on his id badge. He prefers it that way. He took a new name after a spiritual experience years ago. The name is personal. He shares it only with those who will walk with him, truly walk with him in relationship. He makes it clear to us what it means for him to tell us his name, and then he shares it. I feel the responsibility of knowing it in my gut.

There are others, their stories etched into their faces. We will spend a semester together. I wonder where we will go.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

January 20: Men

I walked down the stairs from my apartment and knocked on the door to the apartment below me. I nervously checked my watch and adjusted the bottle of wine in my hand as I waited for an answer. I heard my neighbor yell, "Come in," so I opened the door and walked into his living room. He told me the party was for his cousin, whose 40th birthday was on Wednesday. He also said that his priest and his partner would be there. He has wanted me to meet them since I moved here, so when the invitation to the cocktail party came, and I had no other plans, I told him I'd be there.

The apartment was full, everywhere I turned there were men standing, drinks in hand, laughing and talking with each other. The dining room table was filled with hors d'oeurve, and a small birthday cake. I spotted the sausage rolls, and reached for one. I'd smelled them all afternoon. The scent of pastry shell baking rose through the vents to my apartment, reinforcing my decision to go to the party. The first bite melted in my mouth.

My neighbor introduced me to everyone, explaining that I live upstairs. One by one, I shook their hands and said their names aloud hoping to remember them. There was Bob who is Craig's partner, and Greg who is Mike's partner, and Robert and Andy, and John and Rick, and Mark the cowboy, and Mark the dentist, and another two or three whose names I don't remember. Scooter the schnauzer, dressed in a handsome black sweater, walked amongst us, carefully making his way through the maze of legs, looking for crumbs that were dropped as we ate.

And I was the lone woman. You must understand this is an odd experience for a lesbian.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

January 17: Demons

I've been staring at the numbers for days. They're low, just slightly over half the size of last year's spring class. No amount of staring makes them look better. In one moment I'm embarrassed, in the next defensive. Balance seems along way away.

An e-mail was sent to all new students with some instructions for a task they need to complete before orientation on Monday. The communication prompted quick replies from two. One e-mailed back to say she will be sitting out a semester. Her father is terminally ill. She wants to spend as much time with him as she can. The other has decided to defer for at least a semester. She's applied for a volunteer program that will require a two-year commitment if she's accepted. She doesn't want to start seminary and then drop out right away. Now we're under half the size of last spring's incoming class.

The phone rang all day. People who had put off completing their applications wanted to know if there's still time to get in. They're too late, but I was tempted to fudge, to let them in to save face. I resisted. It's not worth it just to boost the numbers.

The president came in to my office. He wanted to know what the numbers for spring are so he could report on them at the banquet tonight. I looked down, and refused to make eye contact with him. It's embarrassing to recite them for him. The first number I gave prompted him to put away his pen. He moved on to plan B. He would have to report something else instead. I gave him some good news on the new retention strategy we're using. He seemed satisfied, but my ego was bruised. It's not the outcome I want. It won't be the celebration I wished for at the end of my first semester on the job.

At the banquet, the person I replaced when I came on board sat at the table with me. All night I watched as student after student, alum after alum, came by to tell her how much she's missed. It was not personal, but it felt that way. Former director has been present at half of the meetings where I've recruited. She's everywhere, a constant reminder of the legacy she left behind.

I live with demons. They are not voices I actually hear. They do not possess my body and contort my face or change my voice. No medication will control them. Instead, they taunt me. They tell me that I've failed. They convince me I'm lazy, that I'll never be any good at anything I do. They won't let go.

I look deep inside. I want to see their faces, to hear their voices clearly to know who they are. I look deep. And I see my self. The same familiar face, the old voice.

So much has changed, yet nothing has changed.

Monday, January 15, 2007

January 15: Suspicion

I unlocked the door and stepped inside the apartment. She sat across the room and stared. She has a special way of greeting me when I come home. She walks over to me, and I give her a kiss. Then she scurries off to find something to show me. The custom was abandoned tonight. She walked over. I gave her a kiss, but she didn't scurry off. Instead, she looked me over, in that knowing way. Every inch of my clothing was examined. With the precision of a CSI, she checked me out from top to bottom. Then she sat down next to me and stared. No sound, not a peep from her, just a piercing stare.

I had been with another, and she knew it. With a suspicious glare, she forced a confession. In her deepest moments of paranoia, my ex never managed to inflict such guilt on me, perhaps because I was never actually guilty of the things of which she accused me. But tonight, it was different. I was guilty. I'd been with a dog. I enjoyed being with the dog. I let the dog rub against me and lick my hand. I petted the dog, and rubbed her ears. And for a moment, a brief moment, I wished I had a dog.

Do you think she knows?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

January 14: Church

Ropes blocked off the pews in the back 3/4 of the sanctuary, urging the hearty few to sit close to the front. The room seemed larger than it is. There were too few people to dampen the sounds of laughter and spirited conversation. The ceiling extended high above the tallest of those gathered. There was no symbol to adorn the walls or chancel, save the tall, clear windows on the sides, and the table in the rear of the chancel with flowers and two single candles on either side. A large, arched window in the front opened to the world beyond the walls of the church.

The soft, intricate sounds of acoustic guitar closed the space and brought us nearer to each other. I stared out the window. Evergreen gave way to the scribbled limbs of bare trees that reached high into the white sky. Power lines crossed at various angles, adding imperfection to the perfect grid of the window. A sheering curtain of sleet and freezing rain fell, gradually gathering on the limbs and lines, coating them and threatening to weigh them down with the ice that collected. And in the quiet of the sanctuary I heard these words lifted on a soft tenor voice:

Far beyond the grasp of hands,
or light to meet the eye,
past the reaches of the mind
There find the key to nature's harmony
in an architecture so entwined.
Like the birds, whose patterns grace the sky
and carry all who join in love expanding,
The message of peace will rise in flight
taking the weight of the world upon its wings,
With the oneness of everything.

Peace is in the dance of trees
who stir before the first breath of wind
is yet perceived
Trust in the song, becoming one with the dance,
and all mysteries can be believed.
Like the sorrow of the clouds,
whose tears fall caring on the soil undemanding,
Lessons of love are giv'n that we
might rejoice in the music they bring
Of the oneness of everything.

From the chords that sound of molecules,
spinning billions to a cell,
the call resounds afar,
To the sun who warms the dancing earth,
and whose song
holds it close on the journey of a star.
Songs of lives long past who touch our own
are written in the earth forever giving.
And now to maintain the harmony
gives to us all lives worth living
In the oneness of everything.

Still we seek to find a truth
that we might understand,
and reduce to terms defined
Vast and immeasurable time and space
all so overwhelmingly designed.
Oh passing years, just might I know the faith
that winters in the heart
to be reborn in Spring.
To hear and to feel the pulse of life
enters my soul as a song to sing,
Of the oneness of everything.*

*Words from the song "The Oneness of Everything," by Jim Scott who sang and played in our worship service this morning.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

January 11: Mania

Like a superball, the kind you get get from a gumball machine, I've bounced around from task to thought to project, aimless and out of control. Stimulation from out of the ordinary experiences and other people's anxiety have left my high as the day comes to a close. An e-mail from a colleague, phone ringing, anxious colleague who needs a 30-page document proofed today, program director unhappy with formatting changes in a document, new students with questions, prospective students wanting to apply to start in 10 days. Little was accomplished. I can't focus.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

January 10: Light

Swaths of light were cut out of the darkness along the winding path through the park. A hooded stranger dressed in black approached, his strides long and quick. Under the orange lamps that hover above the path, I could make out a nose and a mustache. No light was necessary to understand the greeting. His "good morning" brought me back into the space around me. As quickly as he passed, my mind returned to the distant bellowing of trains in the switch yard. The orange patches on the path gave way to the white and pink waves on the river, the lights of distant cars and apartments and the faint image of the flame that flickers atop the smokestack at the power plant. The various textures of the water met in imperfect angles, like strips of paper that form the chaotic pattern of a collage, smooth and silky in places, rippled and broken in others. The dark water glistened under the brightening pink and purple light of the sunrise on the distant horizon.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

January 9: Burger

I rarely eat them anymore. I grew up in grain-fed cow country. Beef was a staple of the diet then, but not anymore. I crave them on occasion. I almost always reward myself after a long hike with one, so often, in fact, that hiking has a sort of Pavlovian effect on me. The craving begins around the halfway point of the hike. Today, I went with a friend who just returned from a month-long trip to Kenya. She wanted a burger. I went along. I'd been craving one since Saturday's hike. Hank's was the place. Home of the Big Okie, the sign said. We inquired about the Big Okie. It's a one-pounder. We settled for the quarter-pound burger. I watched as "Hank" worked the grill. When we ordered, he reached in a metal refrigerator drawer and retrieved five or six perfectly round red burgers, separated by round wax paper disks, and methodically slapped them on the grill. The meat sizzled, as juice and grease bubbled around the edges of the patty. He patted each one with the spatula and waited with one hand on his hip, spatula resting on the grill, until each was ready to turn. Then with a quick flip of the spatula, he slapped them down again. Our burgers arrived in red plastic baskets with wax paper lining, thick, crisp french fries piled high on one side, a golden brown bun topping the burger on the other. Green wisps of lettuce spilled out from under the bun. I watched as my friend took a bite. A smile spread across her face. She said it tasted like home.

January 8: Pages

My desk was covered in pages of black on white, words and lines covering bright white paper that glowed in the blue light of the fluorescent lamps. Letters stood alone, forming words that went unnoticed. Words blurred into the lines. Block letters preceded blank lines, lines that would be filled by eager applicants anxiously choosing words to show their fitness for study. Was every "i" dotted and "t" crossed? Were all the lines the same thickness? Did the words make sense? Were they spelled correctly? Were the grammar and usage correct? Were the instructions clear? I've looked at the documents for weeks now. I can't see them anymore. Black on white, blurry and glowing in the light of the fluorescent lamps.

January 7: Tears

His face was distinguished. An older man, his hair was grey and thinning. He wore wire-frame glasses which rested on his long, crooked nose. Tall and lean, he sat up straight. A tailored blue tweed blazer rested perfectly on his broad shoulders. His lips were thin and slightly grey. He sat in front of me, to my left, immediately in front of the window to which I turned when the words of the sermon touched me. It was an intimate moment in the service, and the intimacy took me by surprise. The minister's words captured the human experience so marvelously, so powerfully. It felt like he was peering into the soul of each one there, knowingly telling of our failures and our need for grace. When I turned to the window, the light from outside sparkled in the thin stream of tears running down the man's face. He didn't move. For a moment, his lips trembled. He swallowed hard, then reached to wipe the tears with the palm of his hand. His wife moved in closer, putting her hand on his leg, and without looking at him, patted it, her shoulders square and strong. How had his life turned from what he'd planned? Did he make a mistake? Had he been betrayed by someone he trusted? What did the words of grace and promise mean to him? I don't know his name. I know nothing about him. But, in that moment, I knew him as my brother, another in need of the grace that redeems those things we want to forget.

A project for 2007

I've been craving a creative outlet. I'm not an artistic person, though I like to write. Words help me find meaning. They help me solve problems and understand my life and world. I want to experiment with using writing in a more intentional way as a spiritual discipline...something beyond journaling. I want to use writing as a way to help me pay attention, to notice people and things in the world around me.

The idea for this blog came from looking at a few of the Project365 blogs that were started earlier this month on which people post a picture a day. I like that idea, but I've tweaked it to work better for me. I'm going to post word pictures everyday instead. And at the end of the year, I can look back to see how my ability to be in the moment, to notice the world around me, has changed.

Would anyone else like to join me?