The Pinky Toe Challenge

pinky-toeI know I need to practice more gratitude, but sometimes it’s hard. I get stuck in my notion of how things ought to be and can’t get my mind wrapped around what’s right.

It makes me cranky and hard to get along with — I can’t even get along with myself.

Thus the Pinky Toe Challenge.

You know how you can accidentally kick a piece of furniture and have your tiny toe howl in anguish. It hurts so bad that you just want it to feel better. It’s like the only thing in the world at that moment.

Well, I think to myself, how’s your pinky toe? Safe, comfortable, not in pain? Then life could be way worse.

People have real problems. Sometimes so do I. But there’s nothing that can’t be made worse by banging a toe against a chair leg.

When I think about that, it opens a door into gratitude. Not only is my pinky toe OK, but the light casts a beautiful brilliance through the clouds. The hawk soars on a updraft. A million things, big and small, are going right. Maybe not everything is OK, but a lot of things are OK, and they put the not-OK into perspective.

To check on my pinky toe brings me out of my head and into physical reality. It disrupts the melodrama running through my psyche. It opens me to accepting what is and being OK with it.

I’m even less grumpy about things that are objectively annoying.

Up to the challenge? How’s your pinky toe?

What Is Patience?

patiently-waiting

I thought I was pretty good with patience. I hardly ever resort to more than a mild expletive if I’m cut off in traffic. I mostly refrain from shouting, “Will you hurry up!” when I walk behind someone slower than I am. I’m so good at patience that I get to use the “Patient Parking Only” spots when I take my kid to the doctor’s office.

But we were shopping before Christmas, and I was feeling pressed for time, but trying to maintain control. The kid was making a decision. I noticed my impatience, took a deep breath, straightened my posture, and waited. He said, “Don’t make that face.”

I didn’t know I was making a face.

I suppose it’s marginally better to not yell “Will you hurry up!” than to yell it, but maybe that’s not all there is to patience.

When St. Paul describes love as patient, kind, etc. (1 Cor. 13.4), he’s probably not talking about a white-knuckles restraint from flipping a stranger off on the highway. So what’s the alternative?

Maybe a better view of patience is to embrace time, to “redeem the time” as St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians (Eph. 5:16), to make the most of it, as if it’s an irreplaceable commodity.

There are reasons to be short-tempered with someone, excuses for being rude, demanding, irritable, and the rest. But the heart of impatience is the conviction that I’m stuck here and ought to be somewhere else. That can happen because of bad planning (mine), the other person’s choices, or external circumstances, such as the weather. There are actions to be taken, in the here and now, to respond to those circumstances, whether it’s a conversation about punctuality or a different route on the freeway.

But anger, recrimination, and resentment don’t change the past — whether it’s my fault, someone else’s, or the universe’s. And resentment doesn’t improve the outcome of my current situation.

But here’s what I think may be the deeper truth. I’m never in the wrong place, and it’s never the wrong time. It may be a bad place — from trivial to tragic. It may be between a rock and a hard place. But here I am, and my situation is the effect of billions of years of cause and effect, free will and external circumstances.

If life has meaning — and I believe it does — then this moment is part of the meaning. The trick is to find the meaning at the infinitesimal intersection of past and present.

What brought this to mind was a trip through traffic a couple of weeks ago. I had to be school at 4:15 to pick up my kid. It was important, but not urgent, because they weren’t going to drop him off in traffic if I was late. But it’s respectful to be on time. I had things to do on the way, some optional and some necessary, and I kept checking the map app and the time and thinking, OK, I can do this thing now. And even though the traffic was heavy, the path kept opening for me.

As I drove toward the school, I saw a train crossing the street several blocks ahead, and then within two blocks, the crossing bar lifted, and the cars started moving. I picked him up at exactly the right time with a sense that I had been in a flow of time for the past two hours.

Trivial, yes. But the triviality spoke volumes, maybe more plainly than it would have if the stakes had been higher. At every stage of the journey, I had been at the right place, at the right time, because it was this place and this time. The cars that cut me off in traffic kept me from waiting for the train.

The sense of flow — and possibly the flow itself — would have been absent, if I had spent the time thinking, “I’ll never make it,” “I shouldn’t have stopped there,” “Why does it have to be raining today?”

For a few days after, I held on to the feeling of being in the flow of time, and then it dissipated, as these things so often do. How do you hold on to a feeling?

Feelings are flitting things and trying to hold on to them is like trying to hold the wind.

But now I think patience is about inhabiting the moment. Accepting that you’re in the right place, even if a voice inside you says it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Because it’s not the place that matters; it’s the path.

Planning is good. Being prepared is helpful. Getting on the road on time to be there early is a good stress reducer. But where I am now is where I am now, and cursing myself or the other driver or the rain doesn’t change anything.

Everything takes as long as it takes.

This moment is always pregnant with possibilities. There’s always a lesson, something to be observed, a service to be performed, an opportunity for gratitude. “Redeem the time” means to receive its value in exchange for something. Patience is the price I pay to receive that value.

Patience is being fully present now, instead of running back and forth to berate the past and fear the future.

Efficiency may be good. Speed may be necessary. But knowing when to move and when (and how) to be still is patience. I still need to work on not making that face.

Photo by Amos Bar-Zeev on Unsplash

In which I Substitute Writing for Sleeping Meditation

meditating gnome

Meditation comes hard for me — or maybe too easy. I always fall asleep. It’s nice, really. I’m sitting there, trying to clear my mind, waiting for all the good things that come with that. Images flow before my eyes, and I watch them because they’re interesting.

Pretty soon, I realize that my chin has dropped to my chest and time has passed. Maybe 2 minutes, maybe 10.

Nice, but not meditating.

So I tried something different. Writing.

I sit down with a notebook and write for 60 minutes. I listen to the Alpha Chill channel on Focus at Will and keep the pen moving across the page.

After 8 days, I’m noticing a couple of things.

  1. The most interesting stuff comes out after I run out of things to say.
    It’s harder to lie to myself when I write for an hour a day. Getting at those uncomfortable truths was one of the benefits I wanted through meditating, and the writing version is working.
  2. Is it as good as the traditional sitting and doing nothing or doing something to focus for the appointed time? Not sure. But I think it’s better than sleeping.

And almost as much fun.

Photo by dorota dylka on Unsplash

The Problem with Prayer

reaching

Most prayer seems to fall into the categories of “You’re Great” and “I want.”

“You’re Great” is true. I believe it. And I have nothing against saying it. Over and over and over.

“I want” is also true, both in the send of “I desire” and “I lack.” Also “I need” — although probably not as often as I think I do.

But there’s another part — “You Are” — that doesn’t require my evaluation or judgment (because when we say something or Someone is great, it is a judgment).

For me, all the “You’re Great” and “I want” prayers became more chatter in my head.

I used to try to do the Jesus Prayer all the time, to “pray without ceasing.” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (“You’re great”; “I want.”) I used it wrong. I’m sure I did, because I was using it to drown out my feelings — to not feel anxiety, anger, fear, anything called “negative.”

So my prayers worked with my ego to protect me from reality I didn’t want to see. To help my Shadow hide from my eyes. I thought I was there because I “didn’t feel” the negative emotions. But they were the stories running under the words of the Jesus Prayer, changing the course of my life because I didn’t deal with them.

I don’t blame this effect on the Prayer itself. I did it wrong, obviously, because there is a great history of people who got to “You Are” through that prayer, but I didn’t know how they did it.

Where am I going?

Map

Photo by N. on Unsplash

After 64 years, I feel that I haven’t accomplished anything. I don’t know who I am after all this time, and don’t know what my “mission” is.

“They” say that you’re supposed to find some world-changing goal. Do something to make life better for the human race — or at least some part of it.

One of the things I wanted to do since I was young was to write. It let it slide for years when my kids were young and then after that, when the habit had fled. And now I’ve taken it up again, working on my new novel. I don’t know how that makes the world better.

For a long time, I didn’t feel that I knew anything. I should know something after all this time, but I don’t have a complete knowledge of anything.

One of my lapses was not publishing. I didn’t put anything out, because I didn’t want to “fail.” Really, I didn’t want to take responsibility for what I say.

So here I am, rounding the corner to the last section of my life, and I want to tell you what I know. It feels like I’m just learning, but maybe the point of all that time that went before was to find out what I needed to know.

Now, in a way that wasn’t true even a couple of decades ago, I have easy access to resources to enlighten me and give me material to think about. Maps guiding my way. They’re not all accurate, but even some of the oldest maps with big swatches of “Here be dragons” have helpful insights when correlated to other maps with other dragon-infested regions marked.

And maybe in the process I’ll figure out who I am and why I’m here.

Thomas Sunday — and the Resurrection as cosmic Kintsugi

Mug repaired with kintsugi technique
Mug repaired with kintsugi technique

On the Sunday after Pascha, the disciples were gathered again, still trying to process the death and resurrection of Christ.

Thomas, who had missed out on the events of the prior week, was there and asking the kind of questions that many honestly ask to this day: “How can I know that what you (the other disciples) tell me is true? If I don’t have proof for myself, I won’t believe.” The proof he asked for was to touch the scars of Christ.

Now, Christ had overcome death. As the One who promises to “make all things new,” certainly He had the power to make His own body new, to eliminate the scars that marred the “perfection” of His resurrected body.

But He didn’t.

Why?

This morning on the way to church I was listening (yes, listening) to a YouTube video that speaks to this question. The video’s author, Nerdwriter1, often posts about story structure and film. This video, from 2014, slid to the top of my “you might like this” list today, and I do like it.

The title is Kintsugi: The Art of Embracing Damage.

Nerdwriter1 points out that in many television programs and movies, after some shattering trauma, one character says to another, “Why can’t we go back to the way things were?”

He calls that a “red herring of reconciliation.” The character, he says, “wants the bad times to give way to good times but only on the pretense — the false pretense — that the bad times never happened.”

He says:

Trauma can be repressed but it can’t be erased. Lasting reconciliation is achieved by emotional self-awareness, by embracing the change agents of trauma, how they irreversibly reorganize elements of personality, identity, and social reality.

He goes on to describe the Japanese art of kintsugi, literally “golden joinery”— fixing broken pottery with lacquer resin, dusted or mixed with powdered gold.

Kintsugi is an art that recognizes the reality that (Nerdwriter1 again) —

The fractures on a ceramic bowl don’t represent the end of that object’s life, but rather an essential moment in its history. The flaws of its shape aren’t hidden from inspection, but emblazoned with golden significance.

When St. Thomas placed his hands in the wounds of Christ, he didn’t just say, “Wow. That’s amazing.” He said, “My Lord and my God.” In iconography, gold represents royalty and deity. The brokenness of Christ — whatever St. Thomas experienced as he placed his hands in those wounds — communicated royalty and deity.

But how can the perfection of Christ’s resurrected body be communicated through the brokenness of His scars?

The problem lies in our definition of “perfection.” As we ordinarily use the word in English, it means “free of blemishes.” Thus, it has to be youthful. Only the young sapling tree is perfect in that sense. The majestic old tree is scarred and blighted. It has broken limbs, and its rings bear the record of cold and heat and possibly even fire.

The bright spring flower is “perfect,” having no touch of death. “Perfect” is not the fallen fruit with its rotting flesh providing protection and sustenance for the next generation of seeds.

But the Greek word we translate as “perfect” — teleios — means full-grown, complete, mature. Thus when Christ tells us to “be perfect,” he’s not telling us to go backward into a blemish-free, childish innocence, but to go forward through repentance into maturity and completeness.

There is the majestic Douglas fir, with its scars and broken limbs and woodpecker holes. There is the apple rotting in the field. That’s perfect.

As beautiful as a child is, it’s a beauty of potential, not of completion. Maturity comes with scars.

Christ’s resurrection came through the trauma of betrayal, torture, and death. He earned those scars. They are repaired with the gold of royalty and deity. They may be terrifying for us who have not earned our maturity yet.

But they don’t need to be hidden away. They are proof for the doubting and beauty to those with eyes to see.