Monday, March 6, 2017

Through the Loneliness: His Eye is on the Sparrow

Sad, soulful eyes. That’s what I notice when Maiesha McQueen takes the stage in His Eye is on the Sparrow at Portland Center Stage. It’s mesmerizing, the way she embodies this character in every dimension, the way her eyes rove over the audience with depth and knowing – and it’s easy to be swept into the story of Ethel Waters’s life, so beautifully expressed in word and song. 

I have always been fascinating by tragic childhoods. As soon as I was old enough to know that my own home was not “normal,” I watched anyone closely who found happiness after early tragedy.

Ethel Waters’s 1896 birth was the outcome of a child’s rape. Her grandmother tried to provide for the destitute household in Whore’s Alley. “And me always hungry,” says Ethel.

The hunger, and the emotional hunger, were devastating. 

“Ethel I born you,” her mother responds when Ethel seeks a sliver of caring. “Ain’t that enough?” Her grandmother can barely stand on her feet at the end of each hardscrabble workday, and has no affection or support to express. I love the way McQueen makes us feel these characters, even though they never appear onstage.

Neglect, to a child, leaves a deep aching loneliness. It is a feeling that can haunt you the rest of your life, even when you’re surrounded by love. It surfaces at the strangest times: walking city streets in the sunshine, rounding an aisle in an antique store, holding out hands to receive a dozen roses. It refuses to be pushed away.

And so I understand when Ethel is brought to a Catholic school and left with the nuns, and her heart cries, “Alone.”

When Ethel gets into trouble, one of the nuns makes an astonishing invitation: “Eat lunch with me.”

Whenever one being offers presence to another, the chance for something miraculous happens. We learn that, despite what that old nagging feeling tells us, we are not alone. A door opens, and we become aware of other presence, Divine presence, an uncanny expression of our own being.

This presence unfolds us creatively, helps us discover all that which lies in the moment, including creativity, art, and music.

Every time Ethel sings, it is clear she has something incredible and rare.

And yet that loneliness resurfaces, time and again. By the time Ethel leaves the nuns, she has grown to love her school. “Only now me all alone,” she says.

The insidious thing about loneliness is that it can cause you to hold tight to the wrong people, for the wrong reasons. “Someone wants to marry you,” Ethel’s mother says, when a man shows interest. “Now you ain’t gotta be a whore.

All of this is made a thousand times harder and more complicated  because of racial mistreatment. When Ethel gets in a horrible accident, she is sent to the state poorhouse because “there are no hospitals for coloreds.”

Once again, a kind soul appears, someone giving the gift of attention. “Keep that light inside you honey, and find the way out of here,” the helper says.

Ethel’s persistence, her singing, her talent, her sense of humor, and her ability to seize every chance – they vault her from injury, injustice, pain, and poverty.

Yet loneliness dogs her steps. “Do I even know how to love?” she asks, well into adulthood and struggling in her marriage.

Oh man, if that question isn't familiar to me! 

And then she sings, and learns, and relearns to sing:

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, 
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home, When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

She is singing herself back to the awareness of that Presence, back to the open door of love, despite all the locks and fears and bars that convince the mind of its utter aloneness. 

Seeing, with those sad and soulful eyes, that she is always seen. 

It is the work of every lonely human. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Wild Geese & Abandon: What We Need is Here

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer's end. In time's maze
over fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves.
We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed's marrow.

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye, 
clear. What we need is here.

--Wendell Berry, from Collected Poems 1957-1982 (North Point Press) 


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Zero Barrier: A Found Poem

Zero Barrier

(A poem of word scraps collected in a tea bag envelope over an 11-day silence.)

Break out of established years:
be peace brewing.

created magic
fizzy life brew.

First carry water.
Pick desired experience,
pull petals,
color yellow,

sprinkle triple green goodness,
serving, gentle cycle,
wholesome balm

Emerge root strength - 
grand, free, leaf home.

Feeling verified.
Made perfect, complete.
Spirit herbalists in the world. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Anchor and the Feather: Inner Secrets of Attraction

I've had it in mind to write this post for months. But then I talked myself out of it.

These truths are difficult, personal, and still in formation.

And yet, a young woman friend said this meant so much to her, and would I please share it?

So here's the story.

It started with attraction.

My life was in a state of flux, my first marriage was dissolving, and I was working for a temp agency, never sure how long each assignment would last. I was an inconsistent, confused parent of two little girls. I was scared, but embracing new things.

I took up hiking, discovering unexplored vistas.

That's where I met Blue Eyes.

I was riveted by this single dad and his concrete way of being in the world. He'd had the same career his entire life, had lived in the same house for more than a decade, poured milk over Shredded Wheat every morning at 5:25 a.m., drove the same way to work every day in his aqua blue Honda Accord. Everything about him was solid.

I fell hard.

Two and a half years later, we were married. This man who was so dependable and committed brought me the stability and schedule I craved. His strengths reinforced all that we did as a family, and helped our kids to become beautiful young adults. He was my anchor.

Thirteen years later, Blue Eyes and I started going through a Marriage Shift.

Our nest was newly empty. I felt lost.

Indeed, there's nothing like a partnership to test personal growth. Our culture gives us the idea that relationships should be an endless round of getting your needs met by an intimate partner. It isn't so. Relationships are reflections. A relationship reflects the inner you.

Ever notice that the same issues come up, over and over, with different people in your life? Even if you have the same lifelong romantic partner, your relationships with kids, friends, neighbors--they all reflect what is going on within you, they all point to where you need to grow.

And we are attracted to what we need to cultivate and create within.

And so, in this place of confusion, something happened to me.

It was an attraction.

I was on a committee with a guy friend. He started occupying my mind. It was a magnetic pull. I couldn't shake it. I tried to reason it away, pray it away, ignore it, squelch it, even entertain it. Nothing brought peace.

This guy was playful, changeable, creative, always trying new things. Not the kind of man I considered relationship material. Not one to be tied down. A minimalist. Free. Flighty.

A feather.

I felt guilty, disoriented, and devastated. As I struggled with my feelings, I started finding feathers--

along trails
in parking lots
on beaches
in forests
on streets
afloat in puddles

It came to me, my own heart needed to recognize the feather qualities. My attraction wasn't about the other person. It was about needing my self.

That woman who had navigated change, all those years ago. The one who faced dangers, took risks, explored. What had happened to her? I was yearning for lightness. Play. New horizons. Flight.

I'd pushed these qualities away, and now my heart was crying out, trying to get my attention. I needed to unfold wings, to change. To trust.

And so, rather than pursuing another human being, I fumblingly started pursuing my own nature. It propelled me on the Camino de Santiago.

I spread my wings for a solo journey to Spain, and though I felt nervous and clueless, I did it: I flew.

When I came home, I felt renewed appreciation and love for the husband waiting for me, my anchor.

Then again, the anchor's strength and stability are a reflection of me, too. I need both sides, I've come to understand.

And I need to recognize where they play out within my soul. The anchor and the feather both call, and can't be ignored.

I need to honor my heart and home commitments. I need to be there for my family. I need to give myself space, time, territory, and still, deep waters.

I need to live on the creative edge. I need to push myself to unknown heights. I need to soar above whatever holds me back. I need to fly to new things, risking failure and mistakes.

The greatest adventure in life is to love. That love is first kindled within our own hearts. It won't always feel comfortable, or appear to be giving us what we want - but ultimately, it fulfills every longing.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Weather of the Heart

Emotions. Sigh.

I envy those people who power through their emotional states without seeming to slow down or be affected.

That's not how it is with me.

Yet I know that my capacity for deep feeling ties into my creativity and empathy. Shutting down the emotions of body and soul only diminishes my human experience.

And so I learn to weather the weather of the heart.

What this means is:

I have to be aware of the signs of shutdown. It starts with a tightness in my chest, a clenching below my throat. I must stay close to this sensation. I need to keep my heart soft.

I spend much time processing my thoughts and feelings, paying close attention to their connection. This is where a journal is an incredible tool, providing an outlet to write down whatever it is noticed, felt, feared, denied. 

Sometimes it can take a while before I uncover what I'm feeling beneath every other feeling. Again, shutting down often seems the easier choice.

I used to prefer the shutdown. I became very good at it, actually.

Inevitably, though, all the repressed feelings would erupt and I'd find myself battling addictions, ignoring my true desires, and hurting others. 

Shutting off my feelings is simply closing doors and windows to the weather, living in a brick house untouched by the world. This isn't the living you and I were meant for.

As a 48-year-old woman, I'm told that emotional turbulence can have chemical roots related to perimenopause. That rings true. And yet so many of my mentor women didn't experience this turbulence, or didn't talk about it.

So I'm talking about feelings.

Once I stop being afraid of them, emotions can be as beautiful as a sneak blizzard or a summer storm. They want my attention, and when I give it, I'm able to live fully in all the elements as they change and bluster.

And I'm ready when the sun comes out. 


Friday, December 12, 2014

We Interrupt This Broadcast . . . with Now

So I'm humming along with my futuristic visions of creations and collaborations, possibilities and projects, and how I'm gonna change things in my life, and how I wish some things would change sooner rather than later, and what everything is going to look like when . . . WHAM!




What's that?


Well, yeah, but . . .



(Clearing throat). Well then. That means my wheel-spinning of plans and schemes and doings and hopes is all in vain. That means what I call my "envisioning" is filling my head with wishing nonsense. That means I'm forever thinking the future will be better while ignoring the beauty and beautiful people right next to me.


And maybe my imagination would be better served loving my life the way it is, experiencing who is with me in this moment and where I am, exactly the way I am, here.


Uh, okay. Got it, I think. For now, anyway . . . 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Camino Lessons: You Will Be Directed

When we are in a lost place, it can take a long time to find our bearings. We may start blaming ourselves for not knowing where we are.

And then we blame God. She must not want us to know anything. He must be hiding the signs. Maybe there aren't any signs at all.

Last year, I felt lost in my marriage. Our sense of direction as a couple was playing Hide and Seek with us. And when so many things were changing in my life, I began to think I would never know my direction again.

The Camino reminded me, in a gentle way, that Divine direction will return.  

Intermittently along the Camino, waymarkers show the path. Sometimes they are feet apart. Sometimes they're distanced by miles. And sometimes the markers are there, but the pilgrim can't see them - because she has looked away, or is hiking in the dark, or the rain has worn down the image. 

The sign of the Camino is the scallop shell. Shells are embedded in pavement, raised on highway signs, carved into stone pillars, or painted on rocks. 

Also, there's the yellow arrow. Arrows show up on fences, buildings, boulders. Or in other creative formations . . . .

"Did you see the arrow?" my hiking partner and I would ask each other a dozen times a day. This became shortened to a point and a gesture, or we'd simply say, "Arrow," and move on.

When you're road-weary from a day on the trail, and haven't seen a marker for the last hour, the absence of a sign fills you with despair.

The day's trek seems a waste. Everything hurts that can hurt. The stomach yowls with hunger.

And you feel forgotten. Overlooked. Incidental.

And then . . . there it is. The sign that says, "Yes. You're right where you belong."
Your heart does a happy handspring.

Indeed, the road winds through strange places. 

It twists behind a tumbledown shed, zigs around an alley, darts through a village overrun with chickens, plummets down a rocky traverse. But it is all okay, because you know you're on the right path.

Sometimes you have to wait for direction.

The waiting can be hard.

This doesn't mean you'll never know your place again.

When the assurance comes, it is sweet.

For me, sometimes I felt like crying, or singing. I wasn't just learning about yellow arrows and scallop shells, but what it is to trust.

In my life, in my marriage - it all began to unfold with possibility. With connection. With renewal. I saw the path forward.  

Since I've been home, that instinct to look for the signs has stayed with me. Once I saw a scallop shell in a wall mirror. I blinked, looked again, and recognized a pleated lampshade.

Another day I was feeling crunched at work and drove up the highway. Stopped and walked in a small town neighborhood. My heart recognized the shell before I knew what I was looking at.

Again, I was in the right place . . .  

The signs are everywhere.

Because we're meant to know.