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My Writing Space

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If I were to design a writing space from scratch, I couldn’t create a space more perfect than the one my grandmother left to me. To top it off, it’s a chilly, rainy day and my tea is brewed. Amen.

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write . . .”  — Virginia Woolf

 

“And there must be sunflowers and cats in her room . . .” Melanie Lynn Griffin

Am I procrastinating getting to work on my next memoir chapter? Why, yes. Yes I am. It’s nearly noon, and I have yet to ring my Tibetan singing bowl, the one that tells my head and heart it’s time to “center down,” time to seek memories and make meaning.

“How good it is to center down!

To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!”

— Author and civil rights leader Howard Thurman

Instead I’m taking pictures of my cat.

And now I’ve started a blog post.

Happy Saturday to you.

Alice in Wonderland

 

Coping with COVID, Cocaine, and a Cat

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COVID is Happening

I’m having a hard time right now. But who isn’t, right? I mean Donald Trump is president, so there’s that. And there’s the escalating pandemic that he has bungled so badly, there’s no relief in sight, short of escaping to another country — if any of them will have us.

I’ve already lost one friend to the virus, and another is intubated in an ICU in Baltimore, waiting for test results. So much grief and sadness in the world. The care-free summer months I always spend here at my family home in New Hampshire are hardly care-free this year. Nevertheless, I’m glad to be here where COVID cases are 1/1000 instead of 1/45, as they are in my Maryland county. But most of my friends are still there!

Still, there is so much beauty and quiet here. My grandmother named our place Quiet Hills, and except for the fact that one of my neighbors is a gun nut and was firing his rifle all morning, it’s mostly the chittering of birds and the breeze in the trees. At night, the racket of bugs munching on leaves is tremendous. I’m not kidding.

Cocaine Happened

I’m struggling with my memoir, but in a good way. Having a writer’s group gives me deadlines, so I’ve been cranking this week, writing up to two thousand words a day. The struggle comes with the memories, trying to remember what withdrawal was like when I quit cocaine, what it felt like to find my drug dealer in my bathtub with a loaded rifle. Trying to remember a night I’ve tried very hard to forget, when one (ex) friend got so ripped he raped another friend, after which the guy’s girlfriend beat the poor woman up. And of course being afraid to write all of that because certain people will be mighty ticked off if they ever read it. Memoir is really, really hard.

A Cat Happened By

My biggest news is that I’ve been adopted by a feline. Hooray and haroo! It’s been two long years (heck, the past four months alone have lasted at least a year) since my two elderly kitties went to the catnip farm in the sky, so I was beyond ready. But I never took the initiative to find a new kitten because they always seem to find me. I knew destiny had mine picked out, preferably two sisters, one calico and one black & white. I’m not particular.

But no, destiny chose a grown tabby, and if I had my doubts when she showed up at the door the first night I arrived, she did not. She was quite certain she belonged inside with me.

 

And she felt the same way the next morning.

I’m still here!

 

I told her that she was not the one I had ordered, being neither calico nor black & white. But persistence paid off, and she’s settling in.

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So life is doing what life does. It’s passing. Sometimes in trauma and sometimes in beauty, but always with love beneath it all.

A Mystical Take on Masks, Racism, & the 4th of July

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As always, I have arrived at my family home in New Hampshire happily laden with books and full of dreams of writing. I intend to post here on Writing with Spirit more often, I’m working on a draft of my memoir, and I’ll begin a month-long online writing class next week. You will likely hear about some or all of these pursuits. Meanwhile, I have finished my first book of the trip, Richard Rohr’s “What The Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self.” I thought I’d share a short review because it’s rare that a “spiritual” book so completely jives with what we call “reality.”

And what a reality! As if things weren’t surreal enough lately, the President just celebrated Independence Day with a speech attacking what polls show is a majority of Americans who support the removal of confederate statues from places of honor. He aggressively stoked fear and hatred and division. But all this is nothing new. As he tries to distract us from the deadly pandemic that worsens daily, there will no doubt be more race-baiting and ugliness emanating from the White House.

Orange Fireworks

But back to the book:

I liked this little book. If you’ve read much Richard Rohr, you will find it familiar, with good reason: it’s a book of excerpts from his other writings. I could quibble with the structure of “Mystics;” the “seven pathways” seem forced and kind of random. This is probably because the editor who came up with the idea died part way through the writing, so I think the big picture may have been lost. But since the readings are in small bites, and the book doesn’t pretend to be a straight narrative, the structure isn’t too distracting, and there are plenty of wonderful Rohr nuggets throughout. This makes a fine daily reader for meditation and journaling, and I think I’ll be using it for years to come.

If you haven’t read Rohr, I recommend “Everything Belongs,” my favorite. But “Mystics” is a decent summary of his beliefs about spiritual growth and enlightenment, including growing out of our egoic self-preoccupations and into more compassionate non-dualistic thinking, less “othering” and judging.

It’s unusual for a “mystical” book to track so directly with the day’s headlines, but it’s impossible not to think about my fellow Americans refusing to wear masks because it “infringes on their freedom” when doing so would literally save the lives of others — talk about sick egos! Or about millions of white people yammering about their their precious “heritage” of slave-holding while demonizing black people being murdered in our streets and jails by law enforcement officials. Some seem more concerned about statues made of stone than their fellow citizens made of flesh and blood. Wrong color flesh, it seems.

Also timely, the last section of Father Rohr’s book centers on transforming others and society, and is hopeful but realistic. He recognizes that in North America, “our economy, our self-image, our very psyche have lived in a triumphalist and paranoid stance for so long that it will be hard to change to a positive and creative mode . . . a new way of living based on faith instead of fear, peacemaking instead of moneymaking, community instead of competition.”

May it be so!

 

Writing of Racism and Pandemics

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Everybody says I must write. It’s what writers do. Words help us make sense of the world. Words can comfort and calm or inspire and challenge, all of which are sorely needed in this moment.

It’s just that I’m having trouble writing. I write in my journal most days, as I have for fifty years (??!!) but I mean writing for consumption by others. I had written a nice, hopeful blog back in May, before all hell broke lose in the white world — because of course “all hell” has been lose in the black world for a long, long time. The blog was about how COVID-19 is teaching us to appreciate the simple things and to live in the present moment. It started out thusly:

“‘Plan Ahead with Confidence!’ shouts the red banner ad splashed across my screen. I laugh out loud. I remember planning. I have years of journals filled with various versions of it: What, when, how, with whom? Nowadays the only thing I’m able to plan is my grocery list, which feels outlandishly vital. I know exactly what I’m going to get (if the shelves aren’t bare) and it’s all written in aisle-order so that I don’t waste any time wandering around with all those scary masked vectors who used to be my innocuous neighbors.

My grocery list gives me a sense of control in this time when so little is in my control, least of all, the future. Of course, the future never was in my control, but somehow planning gave me the illusion of control. In reality, all we ever have is this present moment, but these COVID days have made us more aware of this truth.”

. . . And then I prattled on about the present moment, how lovely it is to bake bread, how walking is sweet therapy, how my neighbors probably started their new gardens out of a survival instinct, but are learning to love digging in the dirt and watching seedlings sprout. Etc. It was a “nice” blog, which now reeks of white privilege to me.

Things Aren’t Nice Anymore

Since the week of May 25th, when George Floyd was slowly, tortuously murdered by a policeman in front of the whole world and we witnessed intentional, vicious white privilege in the form of a safe, professional white-lady-dog-walker, things aren’t so nice. The thin veneer of niceness that separated white reality from black reality has, at long last, been splintered into sharp shards. The President of the United States is using those shards to slash whatever vestige of American unity might have remained.

Local artist’s portrayal of George Floyd

Sitting in my living room tapping on my laptop keys seems pointless.

Instead, I’ve been on Zoom calls about systemic racism and white privilege, I’ve ordered books and more books, I’ve joined Facebook groups that help white people understand that their reality is not the only reality. I’ve had honest and uncomfortable conversations with my black friends. I’ve attended four socially distanced, masked protest vigils in my community and at my church, not wanting to risk COVID at the protests in D.C. 

Writing a New Story

 

I’m taking an online class called The New Story Community, about imagining a new human story based not on power and domination, but on community and cooperation. A speaker named Melvin Bray really resonated with me (if you click on that link, begin at 10:05). Melvin teaches that simply trying to change minds and hearts won’t dismantle racism. By the time you get to the emotional stage, it’s too late. Because racism started for reasons of gain and profit, not hatred or fear. Once you’ve enslaved a bunch of people and committed genocide against some others, you have to backfill with a rationale for your actions. So you conclude that those people are “less than . . . sub-human . . . beasts . . . need to be civilized,” or better yet, “saved” by your religion. From that rationale is created your society’s myth, the story that dictates how you live, and your emotions and beliefs. Hence, if you start with emotions and beliefs like white hatred and fear, you’re way too late. You have to start with action —  a “doing” — because that’s what started the cycle of racism.

 

These are not times for inaction or silence, and I feel restless and impatient. I pray and I meditate and I implore the cosmos, “What’s my part, what’s my role, what am I to DO?” And two words keep coming back to me: truth and write.

Writing Truth

Truth is a hard one, especially when we are experiencing a pandemic of lying, concealment, and “alternative facts.” Real truth, though, is an inner thing. It only comes when you still yourself, open your grasping hands, and sit with the grief and pain of losing whatever myths you believed about yourself and/or the world. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” I believe this, and I also believe that when anyone escapes their fearful, ego-centered thinking and opens their heart to true oneness and compassion, they are connecting with the same spirit I find in Jesus, no matter what they label it. 

So getting to truth is complicated, and confused with “reality” and “right and wrong” and “proof” and all the rest. 

But writing? Writing I can do. It’s what I’m called to do. I pray that my words and the spirit behind them will add mercy and kindness and truth to the world. I also pray that grief, confusion, cynicism, fear, outrage, guilt, and despair do not keep me from being who I’m meant to be and doing what I’m meant to do. Amen.

Amen

“Hallelujah Anyway”

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Greetings, friends & readers! I’m still alive, I’m happy to say. Folks keep asking why I haven’t been blogging lately, and my answers are all over the map. I wish I could say I’ve been working on my memoir instead, but it’s more that I feel I *should* be working on my memoir if I’m going to write at all. How dysfunctional is that? I started a writing group last year specifically so that I would be motivated to work on the memoir, but so far I’ve only shared Chapter One and a bunch of older pieces. Little new writing.

In Search of Hope

Blogging is usually is a spiritual practice for me, one which entails at least reflection, if not prayer or meditation. Sometimes I’m just processing, but usually my writing takes me to a place of greater understanding or even hope. I trust that my erstwhile readers occasionally end up there as well. These days, though, it’s harder to find my way to hope. The practice of reflective writing can take me to some dark places. I mean, the planet . . .

I think that’s one reason my posts have been scarce lately. When you’re working with kids in cages, porn star pay-offs, climate collapse, and our democracy teetering on the edge, well — hope can be a stretch.

“Hallelujah Anyway” **

The good news is, I’m learning to live life despite the outrage, grief, and dread brought on by our national crisis gone global.

My life has been full and rich and fun. I’m working five mini-jobs right now (I know, kind of nuts) and each offers some level of meaning and purpose. I appreciate the yin/yang balance of teaching middle school kids and companioning an older man with Parkinson’s. I recently opened my sweet house in New Hampshire for the summer, attended a spiritual writing conference in New Jersey, and took a two-week road trip in New Mexico. Since stepping away from my pastoral position last fall, I’m able to be more present and attentive to all of this. Sometimes I am literally brought to tears of gratitude for my church, my friends, and my crazy-blessed life.

There’s plenty good and edifying to write about. My annual pilgrimage to the Wild Goose Festival of spirituality, art, and justice is only a week away, and of course there’s the Democratic primary circus — you know how I love waxing eloquent about politics! I fear that in the end, though, “progressives” won’t like what happens in the primary and will either vote third party or not at all, thereby returning trump’s rump to the Oval Office chair. But since I’m eschewing dread and aiming for hope, we won’t go there.

Happy Monday, Happy Fourth, and enjoy life! See you back here soon, I hope.

** Borrowed from author Anne Lamott

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10

Preparing for Mueller’s Firing

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Hello, my fellow Americans! I am packing for my trip to the biennial Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Two years ago, I made it a point to blog every night from the Festival because there was so much amazing material, I had to capture it each evening. That was back in the halcyon days before we had a narcissistic reality TV star trying to play the part of the President of the United States.

Now, absurdly enough, before I travel I must check to make sure I know where the nearest emergency rally will be held should the TV star try to fire Special Counsel Mueller for investigating Russia’s hacking of our elections.

Today the reality TV star called the Mueller investigation “an attack on our country,” so it’s not unreasonable to assume that he may boil over, ignore all his aides, and try to get rid of Mueller very soon. (The fellow who usually makes trump’s unpleasantries go away, lawyer Michael Cohen, is reportedly otherwise occupied right now.)

So before I leave town, I want to make sure you have this link. Millions are set to rush into the streets should trump try to further obstruct the investigations by firing Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The website will help you find a rally near you. There are hundreds to choose from! And check back here at Writing with Spirit for news from the Festival later in the week.

It will be good to tune out our democracy’s distress for a few days and focus on something else. But if worse comes to worse, I will be in the streets.

Peace out.

Here are a few shots from the last FFW.

under tree

lawn2

Winter Writing

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I’ve just arrived at my beloved New Hampshire house, where ghosts and God abound. My writing muse is usually quite active here, and I’m hoping that’ll she’ll be romping around the place over the next two weeks. Lots to do to close up the house for winter, but I’m looking forward to quality writing time.

I usually bring a stack of books about writing, but I’ve limited myself to just one so that if I put pen to paper, I’m not just underlining someone else’s words about writing!

I’m excited about reading the copy of If You Want to Write that I recently found at a used bookstore in Vermont, because although the book is one of my faves, I have only listened to it on audio. Brenda Ueland first published this little treasure in 1938 and it was re-released by her estate in 1987. My favorite chapter is entitled, “Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It for Their Writing.”

While you are awaiting my glorious prose, I will share one of my favorite poems from Joyce Rupp:

Winter’s Cloak

This year I do not want
the dark to leave me.
I need its wrap
of silent stillness,
its cloak
of long lasting embrace.
Too much light
has pulled me away
from the chamber
of gestation.

Let the dawns
come late,
let the sunsets
arrive early,
let the evenings
extend themselves
while I lean into
the abyss of my being.

Let me lie in the cave
of my soul,
for too much light
blinds me,
steals the source
of revelation.

Let me seek solace
in the empty places
of winter’s passage,
those vast dark nights
that never fail to shelter me.

Wonder Woman, For Real

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WONDER WOMAN, FOR REAL

I met a remarkable woman yesterday, fittingly just after seeing the new Wonder Woman movie. I was standing in front of her in the checkout line when my great niece and nephew jostled past her, trying to get their last-minute acquisitions of peanut butter and jelly on the conveyer belt with the rest of our groceries.

“You guys, you’re being rude — apologize!” I demanded to no effect. “I’m sorry,” I said, turning to her.

“That’s OK,” she said. “I raised twenty-six foster children.”

“What??” I stopped arranging groceries and gave her my full attention.

“Yup, imagine having nine teenaged girls in the house at the same time. I was a single mom, too.”

I glanced at my nephew’s four teens, who always seem to generate a slight cloud of dust and a not-so-slight barrage of noise wherever they are, especially if food is in any way involved.

“Oh my God,” seemed the only appropriate response.

Me, after an average day with four teenagers

“Yup, I had a nasty divorce and I moved my three girls to a big farm in Maine with all kinds of animals and then started getting bonus children — I don’t call them ‘foster,’ I call them ‘bonus.’”

Twenty-six in all, she said, over five years. “Animals are the best therapy for abused kids,” she declared. “I had each each child choose one animal as their own. They had to do everything to care for it. It was great for them and great for the animals.”

I asked if she still heard from her grown “bonus” children.

“Yup, I’m a grandmother many times over,” she boasted. She was quiet for a few moments and then said, “Course, I couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t have the energy. I’m seventy-eight now.” She brightened. “I’m cooking for an assisted living group now and I love it. Best job I’ve ever had, and I’ve had plenty: I retired six times! Got the cooking job on my way home the same day I retired from my hospital job.”

I think at this point I was probably just gaping at her, wondering if she was about to shed her grey fleece jacket and reveal a Wonder Woman outfit underneath.

“I like to keep busy,” she said unnecessarily, and followed that with, “Someone told me I should write a book, so I did. Poems and rhymes, but every word of it is true.”

Surprisingly, I did not resent this as I often do when someone just tosses out, “Yeah, I wrote a book.” For an aspiring author who has spent years cycling through random ideas for a first memoir but has yet to land on a framework or theme, these can be hard words to hear. But from this woman, it was OK. If anyone deserves to have her name on a book, it’s her.

A Writer’s Attention Deficit Disorder At Play

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A WRITER’S ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER AT PLAY

Multi-day writing conferences are bad for my Attention Deficit Disorder. Or maybe I should say they’re good for it. They feed it, encourage it, even celebrate it.

“Rejoice!” such venues declare. So many ideas! So many stories! So many topics and characters to be enthusiastic about! And most of all: so many directions I could go!

Since I was diagnosed with ADD a few years ago, I’m more patient with myself in such situations. I don’t mind letting my mind out to play, to imagine, to dream. No harm done.

I know this hyper-excitement and bouncy brain syndrome will lessen within a few days of the closing session tomorrow. I’ll lose the business cards I’ve collected and forget all my new writerly best-friends.

The passions that are real and meant for me will stick, and the rest are harmless mental entertainment.

The time I’ve spent sitting in this quiet seminary library researching the possibility of a Princeton Continuing Education Certificate in Ministry and Theology will blend into one of countless similar memories.

Seminary Musings

Whenever I spend time with a bunch of pastors as I have at this Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop, I suffer from a mild case of WannaBe, even though I am technically already a pastor at my church. I feel like a pretend pastor, because although I’ve taken a few seminary classes and am a “certified” Spiritual Director, I’ve not done the real stuff, the painful stuff — the heavy duty Christian History and Comparative Theologies and Advanced Homiletics and Old and New Testament I & II.

Why would I? Life is short, and I’m fairly certain my studies wouldn’t help anybody. Nobody cares what I know or think about theology, it doesn’t help suffering people, and I’m sure I’d find some other reason to judge myself “not good enough.”

I never know where the Holy Spirit might lead me, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be to these hallowed grounds. Never say never, though.

Forget the Christians!

I did get some important clarity and focus today, which is, as any ADD-addled person knows, a nugget of pure gold.

Drum roll, please:

I think that I may have decided on the “audience” for my writing. Actually, if this sticks, it will be a huge step forward in my meandering wander towards an intentional, serious writing project.

Surprisingly, the clarity came during a ridiculously brief fifteen-minute meeting with a former editor of Christianity Today magazine. This teensy time slot came with my registration for the conference — time with an editor or publisher or author of your choice — so why not?

I went into the meeting with my usual random scattered thoughts and a page of notes that involved a number of question marks and read: outlets, publishers, trends, niche, spiritual, de-mystify, different kind of Christianity, CIA, environment, drug addict, pastor, memoir, audience.

Somehow in all that, my new best publisher-friend found a way to help me through my confusion.

“You are writing for the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd, and there are a lot of them. Not Christians. You’re not writing for Christians.” 

The relief and certainty I felt about this “not Christians” directive bordered on euphoria. I hadn’t realized it, but the thought of writing for Christians makes me tense, like I have to quote the Bible a lot and throw around names and phrases like Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and orthodoxy and reformation.

Christians have historically believed that they have the answers to all of life’s big questions right in their big book. They tend to like certainty. I got nothin’ for folks like that. No answers, no resounding Message.

Gratefully, I think an increasing number of Jesus’s followers are moving away from that fixed mindset. As Anne Lamott said on the opening night of this conference, “I don’t want to read ‘message stuff.’ I want to know who are you and what have you figured out here?”

That, I can write about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Words

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Frederick Buechner wrote in one of his memoirs that “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”

Or as Anne Lamott said last night, we want to say, “Me, too!”

The power of words to connect us seems to be a theme at this third annual Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at Princeton Seminary. At this morning’s keynote, author Diana Butler Bass referenced “the tender power of I,” suggesting that the word “I” connects us to one another and to God. When Moses said, “Here I am,” and God said, “I AM,” it connected them and placed them on sacred ground.

Dogwood on sacred grounds of Princeton Theological Seminary

Many times as Diana told her personal story, I found myself thinking, “Me, too!” Her journey along “the road to an unexpected vocation” resonated with me and made me feel just a little less crazy for chasing this writing dream.

“Writing is a spiritual path,” she said. “Cherish your own path . . . Who are you? To me, that is the central question writers must struggle with.”

Writing Good Into the World

As intimate and personal as writing can be — especially memoir writing — there is also a strong communal element to it. Who am I in the world? What is my calling? How can I be of help?

I don’t know if it’s the spiritual nature of this conference or the dire times we live in or both, but this sense of mission and calling seems to be another big theme this week. 

Like Anne Lamott, Diana expressed “deep distress” over what’s going on in America. She thinks it’s a critical time for people of faith to “write for the world” as a way to counteract evil and inspire people.

“We are living in the age of the anti-word,” she said. “There is evil surrounding words right now . . . amazing technology that could spread beauty is instead being used to spread evil. Words are being purposefully used to undermine truth and beauty and wholeness . . . Malevolent forces are taking words and using them for oppression.”

Diana urged the two hundred-plus people crammed into the auditorium this morning to “write to reach people’s hearts” and to “engage intentionally to build goodness and beauty and to embody the Word.”

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John 1:1

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