You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘The Big Things’ category.

I got to hear my favorite modern poet read from his work tonight, and I realized how nicely this reading bookended my academic career:  I first heard (and heard of) Richard Wilbur during my undergraduate days at Sewanee, when we studied his poetry in a contemporary poetry class taught by my adviser, Wyatt Prunty (also an accomplished poet).  And then sometime that year Wilbur was invited to Sewanee, which is where I first heard him read in person.  Since then I have cherished his poetry (as well as his hymn, “A Stable Lamp is Lighted” which is in the Episcopal Hymnal).  What I love about his poetry is that it not only is amazing, beautiful, profound, brilliant, moving, and skilled– like the work of many of my favorite contemporary poets– but it is also, unlike many of those others– deeply optimistic.  Whereas some of the finest modern poetry can at best be called beautiful but bleak (I am thinking, for example, of something like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” which I love), Wilbur’s work is hopeful, with a deep and abiding sense of God’s grace and providence.  I don’t know much about Wilbur’s life of faith, but I know for certain he is a believer; his poetry radiates love for this world, and peaceful trust in it.  It’s not all Pollyanna and daisies– it can be somber and dark, true to life– but it’s just got this current of hope, a sense of divine order, running throughout it.  Someone once said of him that he has a “sacramental perspective” on the world.

What a gift Wilbur’s poetry has been to me since my undergraduate days, and how thankful I am to have heard him here at the end of my schooling, having just completed my PhD in English literature.  Poetry like Wilbur’s is why I do what I do, why I love to read, study, discuss, and teach poetry, why I could do it from dawn until dusk.   It also makes ME hopeful, that such a spirit can radiate in such a talent, that a man with an unabashed sense of God’s goodness can be a success in this world (he’s won the Pulitzer Prize twice and was U.S. Poet Laureate).  I asked him, during the Q &A tonight, how he hopes his poetry will be remembered, or what he’d like people to take from his work, Wilbur said that he hopes that his poems — as they are records of something that has touched him, has opened up his world or reorganized it — might do the same for someone else.  That he wants to be “in conversation” with others.  Speaking about metaphor– as the greatest poetic gift, the ability to say– and make true– that “this is that” (not that something is “like” something else but that it is “that” itself), Wilbur said that metaphor acknowledges the interrelatedness of all things.  Great poetry like his does that, it opens your perception up, changes your understanding of the world, connects things in such a way that you wonder that they weren’t always connected thus.   (Isn’t God’s creation in many ways one big metaphor?)  Looking back on my days at Sewanee, the path to where I stand right now seems so natural, so “of course,” and yet so mysteriously beautiful.  I’m so eternally grateful for the perspective and widsom Richard Wilbur’s poetry continues to give all who read his work.

Here is a poem from his forthcoming collection:

PSALM

Give thanks for all things 

On the plucked lute, and likewise 

The harp of ten strings. 

Have the lifted horn 

Greatly blare, and pronounce it 

Good to have been born. 

Lend the breath of life 

To the stops of the sweet flute 

On capering fife, 

And tell the deep drum 

To make, at the right juncture, 

Pandemonium. 

Then, in grave relief, 

Praise too our sorrows on the 

Cello of shared grief.

The other morning on the way into town I realized I’d forgotten to bring with me an overdue library book, so I dashed back home to retrieve it.  When I approached the front door, I noticed something different about the cherry blossom-branch wreath that I’d recently hung on it to celebrate spring:  there were two gray mourning doves nestled together cozily in the bottom curve of the wreath itself.  They looked so natural there, like the sort of decoration one might add to a wreath to make it homier.  I hated to disturb them by coming any closer but they’d already seen me and both fluttered away instantly.  But it was one of the most magical things I’d seen in a long time, like some sort of benevolent sign.  I mean, I hadn’t been gone that long, I’d just come through that door, probably in a flurry of bags and toddler and dog and lunchboxes and loveys.  And I’d been, as is my wont, obsessively worrying about what this summer and fall will bring, as my doctoral funding comes to an end and we add another member to our family– how was I to make enough money to pay our bills (and my student loans) for the next year?  how will my marriage bear up under the strain of even tighter finances, another baby,  less time for romance and rest?  But those two doves, snuggled together in my wreath, seemed like the mark of God’s presence, a subtle blessing of hearth and home. 

I was reminded somehow of one my favorite “love” poems, one I read as a toast to my sister and her husband-to-be at their wedding rehearsal dinner.  I was reminded in particular of the lines:  “whatsoever love elects to bless/ Brims to a sweet excess/That can without depletion overflow”– I felt like those little birds were the outward and visible sign of the unending abundance I enjoy, a sweet reminder that love does indeed conquer all, that we not only have enough,  we have “sweet excess” both in our marriage and in our day-to-day lives, that God not only will provide, but will bless.  I wish you, as I wished Les and Beas at their marriage, the same plenty of love and sweetness in your life.

WEDDING TOAST

St. John tells how, at Cana’s wedding feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That this world’s fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.

Now, if your loves will lend an ear to mine,
I toast you both, good son and dear new daughter.
May you not lack for water,
And may that water smack of Cana’s wine.

~Richard Wilbur

(I’m also reminded, just now, of the words of a former Archbishop of Canterbury that Beas told me about; this man was asked, in seminary, to discuss the miracle at Cana, and while his classmates scribbled away for an hour, he said only this– if I am remembering Beas’s account correctly– “The water recognized its Creator, and blushed.” 

Very cool.  Thanks, Beas, for blessing MY life so much already.)

Happy Easter!

When did she get so grown up??

 

…and Happy Springtime!  This time of year, the world– in blossom and bud, blue sky glories and cool breeze abandon– can’t help but reflect the vivifying power of Christ’s resurrection and our own perpetual renewal.  Start fresh!  Alleluia!

Or a Dissertation is Like a Baby…

Announcing the safe delivery of Dissertation-Baby, weighing in at 225 pages, black and white, Times New Roman 12, double-spaced.  I truly feel as proud as if I’d given birth to another human being (which, God-willing, I will do in the middle of September).  There are so many parallels in the process and product of both the writing and birthing process:

1)       A loooong gestation period in which things start to come together in an as-yet-invisible form, but with lots of hope and excitement and sitting around.

2)      An extended labor process in which said baby enters the world in recognizable, though as-yet-unfinished, not-able-to-stand-on-its-own form.

3)      Lots of tears, pain, wondering if or when it’ll ever be over, when it’ll be able to stand on its own, to give you some space to live a normal life again

4)      An experience of testing yourself over and over again—your strength, self-confidence, stamina, faith, patience, energy, commitment, your sense of identity

5)      Learning through the process that you had more in you than you ever knew

6)      An immense feeling of pride at watching your baby go out into the world, and a strange feeling of nostalgia for all those days of stress, pain, tears, and temper tantrums after all!

So I have until May 5 to prepare for the two-hour oral defense in front of my three committee members and two outside readers.  But for now, I’m just going to relax in the feeling that there’s nothing I have to do today!  Yippee!!  Thanks to all of you (you know who you are) who supported me throughout this whole process.

*The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland

A couple weeks back, I volunteered to write and read aloud a meditation for the Stations of the Cross Good Friday service at my church, a service I’ve always loved.  Well, today I received an email requesting the meditation itself, though I’d never gotten a confirmation that I was indeed on the  list and that the Station I’d requested was the one I’d been assigned.  This was in the middle of working on my dissertation final draft, which is due next Friday.   Needless to say I was a bit freaked!  Luckily, it’s supposed to be 200 words maximum, so it’s not like I had to scramble together 200 pages (like I’m doing now for my dissertation!). 

I’d requested Station 13, when Jesus is taken down from the cross and placed in Mary’s arms; I thought, way back a couple of weeks ago, that in the interim I might have some great maternal inspiration with which to write about Mary, mother of God.  Er, not so much.  But as I thought about the station more, I was reminded of one of my favorite sermons of my own mother, a Christmas sermon about Mary offering her baby son to the world to hold, even those who are most intimidated or afraid of such an idea:  “Here, you can hold him.”  So I went from there, trying to figure out how Mary’s actions were fulfilled in that final act of having her son returned once more to her arms.  As a mother now I cannot imagine being asked to give up my child to death, but I can identify with that bittersweetness of letting go, perhaps the ultimate sacrifice one can make.  (Thanks, Mommy, for your inspiration and sacrifices; thanks, too, to my brilliant, eloquent husband for the opening sentence!)

STATION 13:  JESUS IS PLACED IN THE ARMS OF HIS MOTHER

Jesus had lain in Mary’s arms long before:  in a stable, under a star.  Even then Mary knew, though the child lay in her arms at the moment, that He was not hers, that He could not stay forever, either as a baby in her arms or as her son on this earth.  Mary, whose name means “bittersweet,” must have known truly that sadness mixed with joy, that longing for things to remain the same along with the knowledge that they never can.  It must have been a bittersweet moment indeed, when she offered her baby son to the trembling, humble arms of the poor shepherds, or the powerful, richly-clothed ones of the Magi.  In that moment, Mary gave up her son to the world, holding his fragile body out to all people, as if to say, “Here, you can hold him if you like.”  And on this Good Friday, as Jesus’s body is taken down from the cross, the world returns Mary’s son to her arms again, and in this last bittersweet moment Mary bears Christ once more, and for all.

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.

~Robert Frost

Surrender:  (v.) To give up, resign, abandon, relinquish possession of, esp. in favour of or for the sake of another.  Also, to render, return (thanks, etc.).  (Oxford English Dictionary)

My church’s “Moms’ Group” is beginning a new book on Monday, called Surrendering to Motherhood, by Iris Krasnow.   Not knowing anything about either the author or, really, the subject matter or focus of the book itself, I found myself pondering the book’s title this week, turning it over in my mind to imagine what “surrendering to motherhood” might mean.

I thought about my aversion to major life changes, or at least ones I know will disrupt or significantly alter my routine, the way of life to which I have become accustomed.  Though I am deeply ashamed to admit it, when I found out I was pregnant in December of 2006, with a baby we’d been trying for and whom we truly wanted, it took me several weeks to fully embrace the fact that I was going to become a mother.  Rather than feeling the dreamy joy or giddiness every other expectant mother seemed to feel, I was terrified, wondering if this had been a mistake.  What the hell was I getting myself into?  How would this change my life?  How would having a baby limit my freedom or independence, change my identity forever?  I was doubly ashamed to admit this to anyone because I had so many friends desperately trying to have a baby, so I felt even more ungrateful and undeserving.  I found myself withdrawing, brooding in a not-healthy way, resenting already the changes to my life that this baby would bring.

Now, of course, looking back I can’t imagine life without AE, would not change a thing about becoming a mother or the new life that has meant.  And yet I already find myself, in thinking about a second child, resenting that child for once again placing me in that state of feeling tied down, limited to one identity and one way of being (at least when the child is a newborn), of feeling like nothing more than a milk machine, an exhausted, sore, weepy milk machine.  Because AE has gotten to an age where life feels “normal” again, where I have more freedom to have a life of my own.  And I am once again ashamed that once again I anticipate not receiving and enjoying the blessing of motherhood when so many friends would give anything for such a chance.

I know, of course, in my head, that life does get back to normal eventually, that I will once again feel human, feel more than a feeding/breeding machine, and that whatever child God blesses us with the next go-around will be, like AE, more amazing and breathtaking than I could possibly imagine.  I also know that the changes a child brings are all good ones, that children take you out of yourself in the best way possible, reminding you that there is more to life than YOU.   Embracing the period of the newborn baby reminds you just how dependent you are on God and on those who love you, reminds you that there is more to you than what you accomplished that day, that reminds you that you are not in control, and that all you can and should do is enjoy the present moment for the gift that it is.  I am so grateful for a God who blesses me even when I least deserve it, who forgives me my selfishness and ungratefulness.

But all this is to say, in pondering the phrase “surrendering to motherhood” I found that the word “surrender” opened up a whole new way of thinking about motherhood and about living life in general.  Once I surrendered to my new identity as mother, I was able to enjoy it.  When I am not spending all my time and energy fighting against something (most especially a blessing!), I can enjoy it, appreciate it.  What a life-giving way to be, to surrender to what life presents, both the good and the bad.  Because in surrendering you acknowlege your weakness, and you save lots and lots of time and energy fighting against things over which you have no control.

What if, instead of railing at minor frustrations like not being able to find a place to park downtown, or having to run errands I don’t enjoy (I know, poor me, what First World problems I suffer from!), what if I surrender to current circumstances, not in the sense of “giving up,” but of “embracing,” but also, as the OED defines it, of “giving back” my (fantasied) sense of control to God, the one whose plan is far better than any I could imagine or hope for.   (One of the moms in my church group once said that she’d learned she HAD to let the small things slide by, because if she used all her energy getting upset about those little things, what would she have left for the things that are truly difficult?  And I have found that to be SO true; those are some of the wisest words I’ve ever heard:  I’ll spend a day getting so worked up, so angry or resentful about small inconveniences, and find I have so depleted my emotional store that I’ve got nothing left with which to face the truly terrible, should it arise.  I mean, goodness gracious, if I throw up my hands in abject frustration or fury because the vacuum cleaner broke, what on earth will I do when something really goes wrong??)

And what if I surrender also “for the sake of another”?  In surrendering to motherhood, or to dissertation revisions, or to housework or to money worries, I relinquish my resistance, and I do it for the sake of those around me who witness a much calmer, more centered, and less self-focused me.  Surrendering to being AE’s mom means I give up part of myself (which also happens to be the self-centered, lazy part) to serve her as Christ wants me to and as Christ does every day of her life.

That is such a freeing concept to me, the idea of humble, grateful, selfless surrender.  And the added blessing is, of course, that in surrendering I gain more than I ever thought I lost.  I hereby surrender to today.

Two passages from The Very Rev. Kate Moorehead’s Organic God that really touched me:

“We are so afraid of losing our abilities, our skills, our possessions.   But to God all of that is nothing but trappings.  To God, we are a heart, a soul, a being that is naked and beautiful, like a lily of the field.” (pg 8 )

Wow–what if I lived as if I truly believed that, or more importantly, as if that was truly all that mattered to me.  What if I insisted, in the face of the world’s opposing and contradictory messages and in the face of my own insecurity, my own longing for affirmation, approval, for an identity that would look good to the world–w hat if I rested and rejoiced in the fact that I AM a beautiful soul, a lovely heart that God loves and with whom God is pleased?

“Worry is nothing but a spinning of the wheels of the mind.  It is an unproductive, unflattering waste of energy.  Worrying is useless.  I think that worrying for me is a way of trying to remain in control, of putting the brakes on my life. . .  Worrying does not add time to life, but rather robs us of it.  When we worry, we are not fully awake.  When we recognize that our thoughts are repeating themselves, when we go over and over the same problems, the same confusion or pain, we erase our presence from the moment.  And we lose that moment, for it will never return.” (pg 12)

That is and has been SO true in my life.  There are YEARS in which I have very few vivid memories, times when my worrying and my obsessive-compulsive disorder absolutely overwhelmed my daily life.  I was so NOT present in the moment that I can’t even remember what went on.  My body was there but my mind was turned inward, racing thoughts, trying to control my life by worrying it to pieces.  And I still struggle with that, because worry is an insidious thing– I will have been doing it for hours, days, weeks before I even realize I am doing it!  What worry has taught me, though, is that NOTHING is guaranteed except this present moment, and it too is fleeting.  For that reason I need to hold very lightly and loosely to the things I want and need, the things I feel the drive to worry over and protect– because what will happen will happen whether I worry about it or not.  And what will not happen, what is not God’s will, will NOT happen no matter how much I try to control it.

My goal today is to live fully and completely in this moment, letting all other fears and desires and needs and insecurities flow right on past.  To rest in the knowledge that I am NOT in charge, but that I am taken care of.  Even in regard to things I don’t understand or can’t make sense of, in the larger picture, the picture God sees, all manner of things shall be well and, as St Teresa of Lisieux put it, “Everything is grace.”

+ Riding the Metro into the city the other day, I saw a woman, probably in her twenties, who (like many people riding the rails) had her iPod on, earbuds plugged in.  Unlike many others, though, she was mouthing the words, and dancing to whatever she was listening to.   She wasn’t like some of our friends and neighbors often seen on the train– slightly nutty or inebriated–she was just, it seemed, happy.  And it occurred to me that you can’t dance if you’re unhappy.  I tried to picture myself wanting to dance when I was stressed or sad or angry or even tired, and I couldn’t.   I knew without a doubt that this girl was having a good day, because she was dancing– by herself, for herself–just because.  It was something I’d never thought about, but made me wonder:  what else is like that, what else do we only do when we’re happy?

+ Girls Gone Child had a lovely post recently about children playing in a playground.  How kids like her son will just walk into a playground, go up to the first child they see, say hello and ask, “Do you want to play?”  And then, friends in an instant, the children will play for as long as they’re there– making up games, playing make-believe, having fun, just being.  The author then notes how different the parents appear– all self-segregated, shy, sizing each other up, insecure.  And it is so true.  The children don’t see different socioeconomic backgrounds, they don’t talk politics, judge appearances, worry about looking like a loser.

     I’ve been thinking lately about how we as people really just want to be around like-minded people; that while we may have friends with whom we disagree, the folks we most enjoy spending time with are the ones who share our basic value and belief systems.  You can see people visibly relax when they realize the person to whom they’re speaking gets them, agrees with them.   While some of us may like to debate or argue with people, at the end of the day I’d bet we also just want to relax with like-minded people.  That’s when we can let our guard down, can trust that we’re not going to have to defend something we feel strongly about against the disagreement or skepticism of another.  I find myself feeling very lonely at times in certain circles of my daily life– like I don’t truly relax until I am back in the company of like-minded people.  I might enjoy spending time with those others, but I never feel at peace, at home.

+ I’ve also been thinking about all the things we don’t say to one another, either out of kindness or to avoid an awkward situation, or because we don’t want to offend or because we feel guilty or feel it’s not our place.  Even among our most intimate relationships, among those people we love and know best in the world, think of all the things we don’t say, for one reason or another.  Not that that’s a bad thing, by any means, it’s just interesting, the spaces that remain between us.

+  I had absolutely no idea, when I became a mother, how difficult the daily struggle would be, between balancing work and mothering.  I don’t mean the day-to-day stresses, but the emotional divide I feel.   Every time I drop AE off at daycare I am sad.  And yet, when I am in the midst of doing what  I love (professionally), I am so happy, so energized.  One day last week AE was in daycare for a full 8.5-hour day, which is rare.  And though I had a great, fulfilling, productive day, when I picked her up and realized that I’d missed an entire day, including the couple of hours we usually spend together in the morning, I felt so wistful, nostalgic.  I think it’s a case of “the grass is always greener,” because I know, when I sit there struggling with an essay and longing to just be with AE, hanging out, that that’s not always how it is, that it’s not always fun and games, that I am not, when it’s happening, enjoying every second of it.  And I know that if I chose to stay at home, I would feel this vague sense of something missing.  So instead I have a vague sense of something missing in both roles.  Which is fine, and normal, and healthy, I know.  But sometimes it’s really, really, emotionally taxing, to constantly feel pulled between two heart’s desires.  I knew that these kinds of feelings would arise from time to time; I just didn’t know it’d be every day.  That every leave-taking, no matter the reason, would be tinged with sadness.  Of course, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but one thing parenthood is teaching me is that almost everything is bittersweet, each moment is so precious and yet it so easily slips by.  In one moment you can feel the utmost joy and the utmost pain.  It’s a strange, new way of life.

HOLY SONNETS.

XIV.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
~John Donne