Monday, March 2, 2015

Dolphins in the Intracoastal

Yesterday, the weather turned perfect:  bright blue skies and blazing sun.  My sister got increasingly dire winter weather alert warnings on her phone, but they were for Maryland.  We continued to play in the pool, although it's quite chilly.

Later in the afternoon, worn out by all the sun and phone, we took naps.  When we got up, some of us were groggy, some a bit cranky, and one person was ready for a walk.

We had about decided that we wouldn't go, and then we did.  We walked down to the Intracoastal Waterway, where we got to see the bridge go up.  I thought that might be the highlight.

But when we walked down to the marina, we got the real highlight.  We saw the graceful swoop of a dolphin's back.  And then there were more!  We counted about 7.

Some of the boats in the Intracoastal noticed them too, but some just kept zooming by.  The restaurants that line the other bank had some patrons taking pictures, while others seemed uninterested.  Uninterested or unaware?

It would have been easy to miss, after all.  The dolphins' backs were the same color as the water, and if you didn't notice the fin, you might have thought you were seeing a swoosh of water from a passing boat.

I thought of how we almost missed the sight altogether--if we hadn't gone for a walk, we wouldn't have seen the dolphins.  But that's not all.  If we had decided not to walk to the marina, we wouldn't have seen them either.

I thought of all the people who were there too, but oblivious.  And that led me to think about all the other wondrous sightings I might be missing as I hurry through the day.

It was good to have time to take a simple walk.  It was good to be reminded of the wonders of our planet.  I said a prayer of gratitude and a prayer of hope that I'll continue to notice them.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Monastery Dog: A Brief PhotoEssay

Yesterday I wrote this post which was in part about a monastery dog. 



Here is a picture of the dog at the retreat center where visitors stay. 



And here's a picture of the dog at the labyrinth.  Does he walk the labyrinth when we're not around?



Notice that the monastic vow of hospitality extends to dogs.  Someone built this stray dog a house, complete with a welcome mat:



If it was a week ago, I'd have already been on the road for several hours on my way to the monastery. I am grateful for this place, which extends hospitality to stray dogs and wayfaring strangers and fellow monks and anyone who comes to them.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Monastery Dog and the Coffeemaker that Speaks to Satellites

This week, I thought I'd write a poem about the monastery dog.  At first I felt sorry for the monastery dog.  She seemed so eager for attention.  I thought about all the children who would never be part of her world.

Yet as my week-end at the monastery proceeded, I decided that the monastery dog was lucky.  She had a never-ending supply of visitors who would likely pet her.  The monks would take care of her.  Not every community has taken a vow of hospitality, after all. She could have been abandoned to a much worse fate.

And she had vast fields at her disposal.  No cooped up back yards for her.  Her joy at racing across the grounds made me happy too.

So, did I write that poem?  No, not yet. 

Instead, as I was catching up on old NPR shows, this line leapt out at me:  "My coffee maker is texting me again."  The rest of the show talked about technology and smart appliances (meaning wired and communicative) and smart houses. 

I thought, oh great, just what I need, inanimate objects announcing their needs.  Get in line, inanimate objects.  I thought about the coffee maker, who assumes its needs should take priority, and its bleating of its needs by way of text--a metaphor for modern life, to be sure.

I thought about Mepkin Abbey and the new retreat center:



The roof is made of copper.  The guestmaster monk said that an unexpected benefit of the roof is that copper blocks cell phone signals.

All of these items converged in my brain this morning.  The quote above starts my poem:  "My coffee maker is texting me again."

And I end this way:

I dream of draping every roof
in copper to block connectedness.
Once it seemed miraculous to speak to satellites.
Now I long for silence.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Vow of Stability

I've been thinking about the value of returning to a monastery for the past 11 years. 

Even before I made my first pilgrimage to Mepkin Abbey, I was besotted with monasticism.  Blame Kathleen Norris.  Blame all those people at the time who were exploring ancient-future practices.

I remember going to a grocery store with a group of friends, and one of them asked me which bread was best.  I chose a bread that was called something like Monk's bread.  It had the most fiber, which is why I chose it, but one of my friends rolled his eyes and said, "Oh, sure, if it's made by monks it must be the best."

I returned from my first trip to Mepkin in October 2004 more besotted than ever.  I would have stayed, if I'm not such a practical, sturdy girl.  I realized that as a married, Lutheran woman, I couldn't make a permanent home there.  I realized that I have commitments that I cannot shirk just because I fall in love.

Sure, some women fall in love with dark, mysterious strangers.  Leave it to me to fall in love with an ancient practice and a monastery.  I've always been different.

When I was at Mepkin this time, I felt more tired than usual.  I didn't sink into the liturgy, the chanting of the Psalms, as easily.  I felt vaguely resentful about going to church multiple times, even though it wasn't required.

I confessed my feelings to the friends who always meet me there.  One of them said, "Imagine how the monks must feel."

I've tried hard to avoid idealizing the monks.  I've assumed that they must wonder about paths not taken.  I've assumed that if daily life wears me down, that monks, being human, must also experience that.  In fact, a few years ago, the monks instituted desert days, one day each month, days where they worshipped less and tried to avoid doing much work, so that they could rest and refuel.

I'll continue to return to Mepkin.  I expect that I'll feel rapturous again at some point.  I also expect that I'll feel that "Oh, what's the point of all this?" feeling again. 

I have experienced these highs and lows throughout my life.  I experience them as a writer, when some years I love my work, and other years I can't imagine why I keep putting words to paper/pixels.  I feel the same way about my job and about my friends and about my family and about my spiritual communities.

There's that line from Seinfeld:  "It's not you, it's me."

Monasticism shows us a way through and out of the despair.  Monks commit to place and practice.  Those of us similarly committed learn to avoid panic when we feel existential despair.  We have been in this valley before.  We shall move out of it eventually.  We know to savor the times when despair isn't nipping at our heels and freezing our faces. 

I would have learned this lesson even without my Mepkin trips.  I'm glad to know it as I consider my past trip.  I was fighting off a cold, and I was overly tired from a month of stress at work.  It's no wonder I felt more frazzled than usual.

I shall return to Mepkin again--but perhaps not at Lent.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 1, 2015:

First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Psalm: Psalm 22:22-30 (Psalm 22:23-31 NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25

Gospel: Mark 8:31-38


In this week's Gospel, we have an interesting portrait of what it means to be the Messiah: to be rejected, to be hung on a cross, and to die in a humiliating way.
Jesus makes it clear that just because we believe, we won't lead charmed lives. We will still suffer any number of losses, and perhaps we will suffer even more losses, precisely because we do believe.  Some of those losses may challenge our faith.  We may discover a depth of faith or we may realize that we have shallow reserves.

Over the last 50 or so years of the 20th century, many people came to see Christianity as just one more way to self-enlightenment or self-improvement. Many people combined Christian practices with Eastern practices, and most of them showed that they had precious little knowledge of either.

Or worse, people seemed to see Christianity as a path to riches. We see this in countless stories of pastors who took money from parishioners and, instead of building housing for homeless people, built mansions for themselves. We see this in the megachurch which is held up as an optimum model, the yardstick by which we smaller churches are measured and come up lacking. The bestseller lists are full of books which promise a Christian way to self-fulfillment or riches, while books of sturdy theology will never be known by most readers.

Yes, there are many ways to deny Christ.  My childhood belief system imagined that the worst thing I could do would be to renounce God in a public way.  I loved stories of people who resisted evil, often in the form of Nazis, people who would die for their faith.  As a child, I didn't realize how many ways a mature faith can be challenged and found lacking.

Think about the number of ways that we deny God in our regular daily lives. For example, many of us don't give our money away because we don't really trust that God will provide for us, as God has promised to do. We don't believe in Christ's vision of a redeemed world, because our senses (and our news media) tells us otherwise.

What does our behavior say to the larger world?  We may be willing to proclaim God with our mouths--do we proclaim our faith with our behavior?

Like 3 year old children, non-believers (and shaky believers) are watching everything we say and do. They will say, "If _________________________ claims to believe in God, and yet behaves this way, then I'm certainly not going to believe in God." And so God stands betrayed and abandoned.

The season of Lent is a good time to do some self-inventory. How have we betrayed our core beliefs? How have our behaviors and thoughts betrayed our Creator? How can we change to avoid any future betrayal?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mepkin Sojourn in Brief

I am back from Mepkin Abbey--let me capture some thoughts before I hurl myself back into the world of work:

--Some years, the drive doesn't seem too bad.  Not this year--the miles seemed long and endless.

--Some years, the landscape has more color.  This year, the winter has been tougher, leaving not much color to be found.  I only saw one patch of pansies at the Abbey.  One year, the azaleas were still blooming.  On my last day there, I did see a jonquil, which cheered me.

--The weather was very strange--it didn't get above 34 degrees on Friday, but by Sunday, it was in the 70's.  And as I drove south yesterday, the weather forecast included ice, snow, and freezing rain--it made me want to speed up, even though I was in no immediate danger.

--The liturgy is more austere, which one might expect at Lent.  But did the monks sing the hymns more slowly on purpose, or was the organist (who wasn't there last year) one of the less-sprightly types who would slow every hymn down?

--We wondered if the monks might have a more austere Lenten diet, but it seemed the same.  We had dessert twice on Sunday, for example.  And they have a non-vegetarian option to eat each day.

--I took my laptop, but never plugged it in. 

--That's not to say I did no work.  I did read through my memoir.  It holds together well.  I was worried it might repeat the same ideas over and over, but it did not.  And I had worried that even the longest essays would seem too short, but they didn't.

--I devoured two books:  Gail Godwin's Publishing:  A Writer's Memoir and Meghan Daum's The Unspeakable, perhaps not the best book to be reading as I'm working on my own nonfiction.  Daum is an amazing writer.  Godwin is too, but her book didn't tell me a lot I didn't already know.  Still, it was pleasant, like visiting an old friend.

--I'd have been much more interested in Godwin's memoir if it had included more about her religious life.

--We walked the grounds a lot.  I saw a beautiful sunset over the river.  In all the years I've been going to Mepkin, I've never made it to the river to see the sun set.

--The moon was also breathtaking.  A tiny sliver of waxing moon.  And the first night, the stars were brilliant--the rest of the time, clouds obscured the view.

--The monastery has a dog!  She wandered in as a puppy, and apparently, it was obvious that she didn't have owners who would miss her.  So, she gets to stay.  I shall write a poem about how the joys of being the monastery dog are abundant recompense for all that she won't experience in suburbia.

--Every time I saw her running across the grounds, I smiled.  And she always seemed happy to see us.  We left the last service at the end of the day, Compline, where the Abbot sprinkles us each with water from the baptismal font.  I feel so complete.  But this year, the dog waited outside with a wagging tail--twice blessed!

--Two friends from my community college days make the retreat with me.  It's great to catch up. 

--One friend had just finished organizing a dissertation retreat for the Writing Center at the university where she works.  Perhaps hearing about the retreat explains my dream that I found out I was pregnant and my first reaction was to say, "I better get my dissertation done by the end of summer."

--My friend has said the project I need to work on getting to publication is a collection of photo essays that I've been creating since last year's trip (here's an example).  I think I still need some additional material, but her passion for this project is something I want to remember.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Monastic Poetry Week-end: Thinking about Habits

While I am away at Mepkin Abbey, I'm leaving some poems inspired by my time there:  one per day.  And in case criminals read this blog post, don't think about breaking into my house; you'll meet my spouse, and it will not end well.

Back to poems!

Tomorrow it will be time to reenter the world, to wear the less comfortable clothes of the workplace.  Long ago, I wrote this poem which reflects on the differences between the life of monks, particularly in the area of clothing, and the life of women in the weekly world.  I originally titled it "Monk's Habits," but I think I like "Monastic Habits" better.



Monastic Habits

To put on a robe that would forgive
her for a heavy meal, so unlike
her tailored suits. A robe made of rough
material, no need of special laundering.
Goodbye to astronomical dry cleaning bills.
No worrying about matching accessories.
Always a drab color, day after day.

That robe could buy her anonymity,
invisibility in the world,
no eyes disrobing her, no leers.
That robe declaring her off limits.

And housework, those boring tasks, always renewing
themselves, would confer spiritual
discipline, instead of complaints about her ineptitude.

Even silence, that vow which mystified
her teenage self, more so even than chastity,
now calls to her. She sees herself enshrouded in silence,
no carping, complaining, or criticizing.
She sees herself surrounded by like-minded companions,
rising early in common pursuit, breathing
air perfumed by incense and rising bread dough,
as prayers rise to the heavens.