Weather Weirdness

The deep weirdness of this particular winter weather continues here in New England: day after day of brilliant sun with just occasional cloudiness passing through. The temperature goes down below freezing occasionally at night, but it’s up into the forties, fifties and last week, even low sixties during the day.

Sometimes I appreciate how beautiful it is. I try to go out walking most days for at least a half hour, sometimes over an hour on the many wooded trails that wind through open space — town owned — not far from my home. I watch the sun coming through the bare branches onto the bright moss as I walk, I notice the serene, pastel sky and feel the mild air on my face like a protracted blessing of spring.

But it isn’t spring: it’s winter in Connecticut, and this particular weather has been pretty much what we’ve had through December, January and now well into February. After the freak snowstorm of late October that caused enormous damage because it fell when the trees still held all their leaves, we’ve had exactly one snowstorm, and it left just enough on the ground to last us for two days. That’s it: one winter storm. There is a sameness to the days now, as they rise and fall away without the punctuation of weather changes, without the exclamation points of dramatic — and normal — winter displays of storm.

I know, as we all do, that weather is not the same as climate. I do not forget the extraordinary amounts of snow that fell a year ago, during which our driveway finally had to be cleared with a bucket loader because there was no more room left for any sort of snowplow to push the snow. We had over five feet on the ground that lasted for much of the winter. All over New England roofs collapsed from the weight, and Connecticut alone lost more than 100 historic barns to the weight of that snow.

Yesterday my neighbor told me cheerfully that she’s thrilled with the current weather and she doesn’t worry about climate change because she just averages our two successive winters: last year with so much cold and snow and this year with so little. But of course that isn’t how it works. This weather weirdness is not going to go away. We do the small things that we can to live more consciously — after working toward it for a couple of years my husband and I just bought a used Prius to reduce my commuting footprint. But the big changes that can only be made by government decree are not even close to being enacted. Instead of confronting the need to reduce our use of oil and gas, we’re facing battles over ever more destructive ways of feeding our appetites, like through hydro-fracking.

The sun feels lovely on my face as I walk. And I am filled with dread.

Time (Again)

In her new collection of poems, Jane Hirschfield writes,

A day is vast.

Until noon.

Then it’s over.

 

Yesterday’s pondwater

braided still wet in my hair.

 

I don’t know what time is.

 

You can’t ever find it.

But you can lose it.

Every one of those short lines resonates for me. Like Hirschfield, I don’t know what time is. But I know with awful intimacy lots of ways to lose it. Last week I spent one whole morning indulging a kind of fierce nostalgia brought on when two of my three children flew back out to Chicago where they now live. The Christmas vacation had been lovely, with all three kids under our roof for what seemed at the start to be an enormous stretch of unstructured time — but which was suddenly over.  With the house again feeling too big and too quiet, without even realizing it I found myself wandering in the land of memory, going back to their childhoods, baffled and sad that all of that time has passed.

Nostalgia is a classic way of losing time. If we think about it through a spiritual lens, we can recognize that it is also a form of suffering: willful, self-inflicted, delicious in a kind of perverse way — but still, in the end, suffering. We get seduced by a sweet memory, and  instead of lightly waving to it with an easy smile, we cling. Before we’ve even recognized what’s happened, the interior weather has gone grey and cold.

When I caught hold of my own nostalgia last week, it was because I realized — again and for the millionth time — that this is the truth about our backward gazing. I stopped myself and questioned this sadness swirling around me: Is there something I regret? Something I want to change or do differently? Not at all! The truth is more embarrassing:  I want to have done exactly what I have done with my life so far, lived everything that I have lived — but I don’t want it to have taken any time!  I want all the events, adventures, relationships and experiences, but I don’t want to have aged in the process, and I want still to have the same wide swathe of years in front of me that I felt I could count on when I was thirty.

What a greedy little mind, and how delusional! There are only two antidotes, as far as I’ve been able to discover. One is gratitude: we pry open these clinging hands of ours and lean into our gladness for all that life has brought us. And we bring our minds back here, to the present moment — the place where our bodies always live, after all, no matter where our imaginations wander — and greet this moment as a gift.

William Stafford wrote a poem about time called “The Gift”, which ends with these words:

It’s a balance, the taking and passing along,

the composting of where you’ve been and how people

and weather treated you.  It’s a country where

you already are, bringing where you have been.

Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,

turning the world, moving the air, calling,

every morning, “Here, take it, it’s yours.”

 

So welcome in this new year. Here, take it: it’s yours.

Cleaning Up Christmas

There is something about dismantling the Christmas tree, no matter when it happens — something that makes me feel simultaneously nostalgic and impatient. The pre-Christmas process of choosing, setting up and then decorating the tree is communal in our family. One of the great pleasures is hearing the kids recognize various ornaments as long-lost friends as they shake off the tissue paper and then choose the perfect place to hang each one.

But taking the ornaments off the tree is almost always my job as The Mother, and it’s the decoration process in reverse: as each ornament is wrapped up again, instead of that little throb of joyful recognition it’s something more wistful. It makes me deeply aware of time passing and my children growing up, and of all the changes coming our way now that even the youngest is about to head off to college. The impatience is there in the wake of it, a kind of stiff-upper-lip salvation that says, Okay then, since we’re done with this Christmas and all the sweet reconnections it’s brought us, let’s just get on with it! Pack it up already and let’s usher in January! For God’s sake, where’s the new calendar?

I’m not sure how Christmas clean-up ended up as my job, but I suspect it’s out of the same semi-masochistic tendencies that drive other mildly neurotic mothering habits that lead us to take on the hidden, rather onerous tasks that make a house a home (such as changing sheets or cleaning out the nasty detritus in the kitchen drain). No one likes to pack up Christmas. And every mother wants to make the holiday as pure and lovely as possible for her kids. So we gladly engage them in the anticipatory fun of preparation and the sated relaxation of the holiday… and then the Christmas tree and whatever other decorations announce the season become a bit invisible. No one is much motivated to turn on the tree lights on December 26th, and though everyone does a part of the post-presents clean-up, the scene itself just kind of fades into the background, though all the trappings are still there. 

And then here it is January and a new year already. We help our kids get ready to plunge back into school, or we pack up a box of lovely new stuff there isn’t room for in the suitcase and ship it out to them in Chicago or wherever it is they’ve landed for this phase of their lives. And after they’re out of sight we finally set to work to pack it all away for another year, like the stage hands who take down the elaborate set after the show is over, sparing the audience.

I don’t really mind. Every once in a while I do feel like announcing, in a slightly passive-aggressive way: Hey folks! This stuff doesn’t happen by itself! And then I remember all the years of my own growing up, how after Christmas there would be a day when I’d come home from school and suddenly realize that everything was back to normal — just a winter day, post-Christmas. My mother never announced that she had put away the decorations and gotten the tree out of the house. But I’m pretty sure she never had any elves helping out.

Greeting a New Year

Just Now, by Ted Kooser

Just now, if I look back down
the cool street of the past, I can see
streetlamps, one for each year,
lighting small circles of time
into which someone will step
if I squint, if I try hard enough —
circles smaller and smaller,
leading back to the one faint point
at the start, like a star.
So many of them are empty now,
those circles of roadside and grass.
In one, the moth of some feeling
still flutters, unspoken,
the cold darkness around it enormous.
(from Flying at Night)

The start of a new year is a good time to take stock of our lives — not so much in the framework of the typical New Year’s resolutions, but in a larger sense. At the turning of a year we’re more than usually aware of the simple passage of time. Are we doing what we want to do with this precious gift of life?

It’s not always an easy question to answer. There are so many elements of life that are out of our control, after all: we might be stuck in a dull job that we need to keep in order to pay the bills, or we might be hanging on to a sour living situation because we can’t afford to move. Maybe we’re struggling with illness, grief or depression. In those cases we’d say, “No, I’m not doing what I want to do with my life, but what are my choices?”

The concept of equanimity is familiar within the practices of Buddhism, and for a long time the word brought to my mind the serene face on a statue of the Buddha. That seems to be what equanimity looks like, but it isn’t usually the face that I wear, or that you wear, when we’re surprised by changes we didn’t want or stuck in a situation we’d like to exit. But then I learned that in Pali, the language spoken by the Buddha, “equanimity” translates more literally as “to stand in the middle of all this.” I love that definition, and I hold to its wisdom each time I take stock of my life at the turning of the year.

We don’t get to choose the good and the bad that will visit us in the new year we’ve entered, and it’s unlikely that we’ll greet the winds of change with balanced calm and serenity at all times. That vision of equanimity is more than we can manage. But “to stand in the middle of all this”? That’s something we can do. We can ground ourselves in spiritual practices that let us breathe more deeply and see more clearly. We can commit ourselves to a community of faith we trust and love. We can open our eyes each day with the intention to heal, in some small way, one of the wounds in the world around us.

All of these things help us “stand in the middle of all this” – in the middle of the rush of our lives. They help us see it differently, greet it differently, as we recognize both our feast of losses, and the preciousness of each stone in the road, each thing that comprises our sweet lives.

Veterans’ Day Prayer in a Time of War

Light a candle to name this hollow sadness,
to name the fear, and the tendrils of despair.
Watch the fragile light flickering there, and promise
in the name of all that is holy
that you will shelter within yourself an answering flame:
the call of peace, the insistence on peace,
setting other lights ablaze for as long as it will take.

Pray for the soldiers of our country,
warriors who battle in our name.
They are so young, these sons, these daughters.
They are afraid they will be killed,
afraid they will do grievous harm.
They are frightened of failure, and of what they must do
to succeed.
Pray for the safety of their bodies and the wholeness
of their spirits;
pray for some comfort to touch the ones who love them.

Pray for the soldiers of our enemy,
whose names are shaped by a foreign tongue.
Pray for their safety and wholeness as well.
Pray to remember that these are our brothers:
they bleed when they are wounded,
their hearts break in sorrow.
Like us, they long for a gentler day
when they might wake to the morning in peace
and know themselves to be safe.

Light a candle in a time of war.
Do not hide from the truth of what unfolds now
on the far side of the sweetly spinning earth.
Remember: swords do not shape themselves
into plowshares.
That work is in our hands.                                                                                                From Shine and Shadow, Kathleen McTigue, 2011 Skinner House Books

Welcome! What Are You Doing Here?

This post is a reiteration of a recent “Faith Matters” column in the New Haven register, which a number of folks missed and wanted to read:

The Catholic priest Henri Nouwen lived for many years in Toronto, serving as the resident pastor in a community home for mentally disabled adults. He liked to recall what he learned from the way he was greeted by two of the residents there. Each day, a woman smiled at him as if seeing him for the first time and said, “Welcome!” And a man looked at him quizzically and asked, every day, “What are you doing here?”

Nouwen said he came to think of these two members of his group home as angels who brought him important messages each day: the assurance that he is welcome here, and beloved;  and the challenging reminder to ask himself what he is doing with his life on the earth.

This anecdote is one that crystalizes the purpose of a faith community — a place in which we should hope and expect to find both embrace and challenge.  The message of embrace is simple: Welcome! You are welcome here, with your rough patches and flaws, your uncertainties and doubts. Your religious home is meant to be a place where connection and intimacy flourish, where love and respect bind people together across all their differences.

The message of challenge is more complicated, and just as important. What are you doing here?  Behind this question we can hear, as Nouwen did, the implication that we are all still works in progress. Though we are welcome and beloved just as we are, we also have some growing to do in order to be as kind, compassionate and open-hearted as we are called to be. We have some work to do — both on ourselves, and out in the wounded world.

The two messages of embrace and challenge are both essential. Through an open-hearted welcome, we recognize that we are all one people, we human beings — whatever our faith, culture, language or color, whatever lines and walls might divide us. Through our challenge to ourselves, we recognize that we are called endlessly to the task of growing into the kind of people we truly want to be. We’re called to ask: What are we doing here, on this fragile little planet, to bring peace and to ease suffering?

Surely this is the core question for people of every faith — a question by which we build our lives, and bind ourselves to one another.

The Wrong, Wretched Death Penalty

Like so many others, I was part of the long-distance emotional roller coaster surrounding the pending execution of Troy Davis in Georgia.  I signed petitions, wrote e-mails and made phone calls urging the powers that be to institute a stay of execution. I breathed a sigh of relief when the appointed hour came and then passed and he was still alive. And then I watched with both despair and disbelief as the last minute appeal to the Supreme Court failed last night and Troy Davis was executed by the state.

The Washington Post began their story by writing, “After a day of last-minute appeals, including one made to the U.S. Supreme Court, Troy Davis was executed at 11:08 p.m. Davis convinced hundreds of thousands of people, but not the justice system, of his innocence in the murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in 1989.” This is an absurd statement. The tens of thousands of people who opposed Davis’s execution did not do so because we were convinced he was innocent; we are not in a position to make that judgement.

We opposed his execution because there were so many contradictions in this case that Davis’s innocence was a distinct possibility: seven out of nine key witnesses recanted key elements of testimony, and there was no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime. We opposed his execution because our judicial system is weighted so heavily against black men, a bias starkly evident in the application of the death penalty. We opposed his execution because in states across the country, the Innocence Project has now exonerated more than a score of men — that is, absolutely proven their innocence — who, like Davis, were facing execution.

We opposed the killing of Troy Davis because the death penalty is a barbaric practice that costs our society an intolerable price. We pay for it in the moral contradiction between opposing murder while sanctioning state execution. We pay in the reprehensible fact of its racial bias. We pay through the financial burden of the many years of legal appeals that would not be pursued if the punishment were life imprisonment. We pay in the isolation of being the only western nation that still sanctions execution. And we pay through the soul-deadening willingness to enact vengeance: putting even an inarguably guilty person to death does not bring back the murdered loved one, nor does it make society safer. It just lodges us in the ancient violence of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

I am deeply saddened. And I am more than ever determined to bring an end to the death penalty.