The Meaning of Grace

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of Grace. I like to capitalize the word when using it regarding an experience coming from God. It’s my way of honoring it, as recognizing it as something sacred.

The dictionary doesn’t quite do it justice – “unmerited divine assistance, a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine assistance, mercy, pardon, privilege.”

To me, Grace is the sense of calmness or peace that comes to me during moments of crisis. Once I was on a ship, sleeping soundly in the middle of the Caribbean. In the early hours of the morning, I woke to a succession of horn blasts. Jumping out of bed in a panic, I had a vague understanding of what the sound met since three days earlier; I had been forced to participate in a lifeboat drill. At the time, it had been a frivolous rite of passage for all sea travelers best done with an umbrella drink in hand.

Now as I calculated how many blasts I had heard and what it meant, the captain’s voice calmly answered. All passengers and crew were to report to their assigned muster stations immediately. There was a significant fire burning on board, and we were to follow emergency procedures. My husband opened the veranda door and pointed to live embers like tiny fireflies, landing on our plastic patio furniture.

I thought to myself, fire at sea. Holy crap this is bad! But when I opened the hallway door and saw my three kids pop their heads out of their interior room, I felt a wave a calm settle on my shoulders. Despite the distinct smell of smoke in the air and the sounds of panicked passengers shouting for loved ones, I felt no fear. I calmly told the kids to get their life jackets. I did the same, but only after slipping some clothes on along with my contacts. If I was going in a lifeboat, I wanted to be able to see what I was doing, and I wanted to be warm. It was like moving in slow motion, I knew all would be well, and I just had to follow directions.

We ascended the stairs with hundreds of fellow travelers and found our muster station. Lifeboats were prepared to lower. Crew members ran in and out, some blackened with soot. We participated in countless roll calls and wondered about the names repeated many times over with no response. Were these people lost, or worse, injured? Were they incapable of following directions? Who knew? What I did know, was there was absolutely no reason to panic.

Eight hours later, the fire which had destroyed several floors in the center of the ship was as last contained. The coast guard escorted us to safety, and we were sent home early from our seven-day vacation. One person did lose his life, and several were injured. I tell this story, not to freak anybody out about travel at sea, but because it’s the first time I could palpably feel that sense of calm coming, not from within, but from an unseen force beyond myself.

When I recounted the story to a friend, she told me what I had experienced was Grace.

Not being particularly religious, I didn’t have a name for it, but Grace felt right.

Since then I’ve had several instances when crisis surrounds me, and something overrides my natural instinct to run screaming from my circumstances and instead fills me with strength like a steel rod in my spine. Not every time has a happy ending, but strength and peace come.

Most people can think of a time when they felt this peace, this strength, this sense of calm. The challenge is to recognize Grace when no fires are burning. Grace is available to us, not just in moments of crisis, but all of the time, provided we are not too thick-headed to recognize it.

I asked another friend about the meaning of Grace, curious to hear his Muslim perspective.

He said, “We call it peace. Peace comes after realizing there is a superior plan and everything is under control. We don’t know the plan, which can make us feel uneasy, but wisdom comes in knowing the power of God and feeling harmony in that. We are but tiny humans with no power to control the whole system. So let yourself flow with the river of life. Don’t struggle to swim in the wrong direction.”

I couldn’t help but smile at the sound of Ellen DeGeneres’s voice as Dory saying, “Just keep swimming just keep swimming.” But I understood the Grace of his words. I often struggle with feelings of uncertainty. During a crisis, there’s nothing to do but just accept what is at the time – no time to overthink. That’s when Grace is most recognizable.

But, when I relax and allow the power of the current to carry me along, trusting that there is a divine plan at work, I know that is Grace as well. I like this. I feel my muscles relax ever so slightly and I become a little less thick-headed and a little more Graceful.

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Winter Solstice – Finding Balance

One of my favorite days of the year is approaching. No, it’s not Christmas day. That arbitrary date to acknowledge the miracle of Jesus’ birth has long since been hijacked by the overwhelming pressures of consumerism for me to truly enjoy. The day I really appreciate is the Winter Solstice, which comes and goes almost without notice during the days before Christmas. I can feel my sense of balance returning on this quiet day before the big holiday.

On the solstice, we reach the tipping point between dark and light when day and night are equally in balance. Technically, December 21, 2017 is the longest night of the year. It’s also the first day of Winter, which could be depressing, but I find comfort in knowing that from my spot on the planet (in the Northern hemisphere) the days will get incrementally longer. I find great promise in that.

Maybe I feel the stirrings of my Pagan DNA rebelling against the way in which we now celebrate Yuletide.  Although if anyone should be cranky about how the season plays out, it should be Jesus. The feasting and the gift giving and the general merry-making traditions were absorbed into Christian traditions, but their origins came from generations before Christ’s birth. They were a means of holding fast during the dark nights and welcoming the sun.

A Time To Be Awestruck

For me, it’s a quiet time to recognize my many blessings and to be awestruck at the magnificence of the heavens. Reflecting on the balance and symmetry in nature, I wonder why humans struggle so much with the concept. We labor against the push and pull of polar opposites, gravitating to one extreme or the other as if balance is not something that comes naturally.

Ask a child to select what they like at an all you can eat buffet and they’ll likely skip the healthy stuff and return with a plate full of goodies. Ask a young person to allot time for study or play and most will choose more fun than work.

I wonder though if parents didn’t interfere with kids, would they choose sweets some days? Then on others choose healthier alternatives as they learn to listen to their natural cravings? And if kids could learn exclusively through their play, as is often the case, would they have to choose between the two? I’m not prescribing a plan of letting our children do what they please without parental guidance. But I’m guessing, had we learned as kids to make choices about balance on our own, the skill would more naturally be instilled in us as adults.

How often do we choose work over fun out of some sense duty or obligation? We eliminate “bad” foods from our diet until we get a cheat day or find ourselves with overwhelming cravings. Is that balance? Discipline rules our heart now like our parents did in enforcing naptime. Would the world swing wildly out of balance if we allowed the heart to make more of our choices? Maybe a better question is, can we find a balance between our wants and our needs?

So Much More Than One Side Or Another

Balance is not easy in this world of dichotomy. We swing wildly from one extreme to the other. We point fingers at the other side without learning the value of balance and compromise.

On a deeper level, kids seem to know the importance of balance in the form of justice and fairness. Several early childhood studies conducted with unfair distributions of candy show kids will choose no candy for anyone over an unequal distribution. So maybe we do have an innate sense of balance.

I believe that most of us, given some time to find our center, would find a balanced approach to living. Ideally, we want to find that sweet spot between the two complementary forces of effort and ease; not so much ease that we become bored and not so much effort that life is a continual battle. We want the perfect state of grace where everything just flows.

I like Rumi’s take on it,

“Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds’ wings.”

So as Christmas approaches and the nights get longer, I will welcome the tipping point that is the Solstice and reflect on Rumi’s wisdom as I seek my own coordination and allow my wings to unfurl.

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Praying For Nazis – How Loving the Lowest Can Lift Your Spirits

Candle in the hands

In this world of divisiveness and false equivalencies, it’s easy to get pulled along with the tide of hatred. There are days when I want to scream at the television. I want to shake the people who seem blind to the injustice taking place. I can feel my blood pressure rise. I am drowning in hopelessness and cynicism when I hear a calm voice inside my head offering these words of advice, Pray for them.

“But I don’t want to pray for Nazis!” I scream to nobody in particular.

Days later, more horrible events unfold, which leaves me wondering how people can commit such atrocities. Again I hear the call to pray for them.

I argue, “Absolutely not! I won’t pray for members of ISIS or Al Qaeda.” Neo-Nazis, the KKK, ISIS, Al Qaeda I’m certain there are important differences distinguishing one hate group from the other. But, does it really matter? It seems to me, if you can look another human being in the eye and purposely take their life, you’ve lost all humanity and are beyond redemption.

Yet there is the voice, “Pray for them.”

Angrily, I concede. My jaw tightens as I muse. My inexperienced, half-assed prayers are about what a Nazi deserves. I mean, it’s not like my prayers are anything special. I don’t have a lot of experience with prayer. I mostly pray when I am in trouble; when I can barely croak out a feeble cry for help. Or when I see others in even worse situations, I pray for them. But my favorite time to pray and often the most effective is when I can’t think of anything else to do. I give up my struggle and plead to God or the Universe or whoever will listen, to please take away my burden because I simply can’t carry it anymore.

That’s how I feel now, as I read the news about the hatred in the world. I am powerless to do anything and it makes me miserable to know it’s going on. So I release my anger and frustration and sense of helplessness.

The only way I can imagine God fixing things is if He or She could somehow enter the hearts of these wretched creatures and ease their pain long enough for them to consider the possibility of another way. Maybe if I can see these unfortunate, disillusioned, young men as my brothers, they too can see their perceived enemies as fellow human beings who deserve the same happiness we are all seeking.

I picture their angry faces and try to envision a softening. I like to imagine them as children before their heart and their face became hardened by life’s circumstances. Part of me believes this is an exercise in futility. It’s probably naive of me to think praying for Nazi’s does a lick of good. But I notice my jaw isn’t set quite as tightly. My pulse seems to have slowed. I feel a sense of peace returning to my body.

Wouldn’t it be something if somewhere right now, an angry, misguided individual was feeling the same thing? Imagine if we all did this. It couldn’t hurt, even if we did it out of selfish reasons— to feel our own heart ease a bit, to feel the softening that comes from surrendering.

Why not pray for a Nazi or two? Why not pray for a terrorist or Kim Jong-un or Donald J. Trump? Why not pray for the people who are so miserable they’ve become hell-bent on destroying everyone around them? If anyone needs our prayers. It is them. And the process of doing so will help us far more than cursing them.

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Love Affair With Pretty Words

I’ve been trying to get a handle on why the written word is affecting me so deeply. Pretty words leap off the page and stick to me. I call these pretty words poetry, but I’m not sure that’s a good definition for what poetry is. Whatever I learned about poetry in school got lost in iambic pentameter and the formula for Haiku, not to mention, simile, symbolism, and alliteration. It’s as if I were shown the tools of the trade without understanding the purpose of what they are used to create.

Poetry got placed on a shelf and labeled “Not For Me” some time ago. Yet is it possible, I survived this harsh world without poetry? Was it there, like a guardian angel with me all along laughing at my ignorance when I can’t see the thing that saves me on a regular basis.

American Poet, Muriel Rukeyser said, “If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger.” Samuel Coleridge said of poetry, “It’s the best words in the best order.”

Well, that clears things right up.

Perhaps I’ve been sustained all along by this thing called poetry without ever knowing what it really is. I asked some creative types how they define poetry. I got explanations like, “Poetry evokes emotion, speaks to the soul, coveys depth and meaning, paints pictures.” One woman, obviously a poet said, “Poetry is the song that sings from the depths of your being to the vault of the heavens; without soul, pretty words are that gentle touch of a lover to awaken you in the morning for a sunrise and a coffee.”

I’ll have what she’s having.

A friend who has a way with language said this. “The aim of the writing is to just declare all of your thoughts and ideas. But poetry prefers to hide and set up games for the soul and imagination.”

I love all of these explanations. But it left me wondering if it is just pretty words I am so enamored with lately. Maybe poetry still isn’t something I have the sophistication for.

But what of the beautiful words found in literature? Are these not poetry?

“He stepped down, trying not to look long at her as if she were the sun, yet he saw her like the sun, even without looking.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

 

“She was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.” – Kate Chopin, “The Awakening”

 

“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.” – Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

What about music lyrics? Certainly these words paint pictures that convey emotion.

“Losing a love is like a window in your heart.

Everybody sees you’re blown apart

Everybody hears the wind blow” – Paul Simon, Graceland

 

“We were born before the wind

Also younger than the sun

Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic”

– Van Morrison, Into the Mystic

 

“They got an apartment with deep Pile carpet

And a couple of paintings from Sears

A big waterbed that they bought

With the bread

They had saved for a couple of years” – Billy Joel, Scenes from an Italian Restaurant

Whether it’s poetry or pretty words, their importance is underappreciated. If you ask people about poetry, you’ll get a mix of responses that can lead you to believe most are too cool, too busy, too ambitious to bother with pretty words. “What’s the point, they might ask?” Or, “It’s fine for some people, but I’m no poet.”

Maybe that’s what’s so incredible about the magic of art, whether it be the art of written words or some other form. It sneaks up on you and burrows into the recesses of your mind. You think you’ve chosen an expedited path filled with no-nonsense so as to get to your destination most efficiently. But beauty finds you whether you’ve asked for it or not.  It beckons you to slow your pace, rethink your path, or to be content when you find yourself lost in a forest of new discoveries and unknown possibilities.

I invite you to spend some time today watching out for beauty in any art form, whether it sneaks up behind you or leaps off a page. Take some time to savor it and ask what it is trying to teach you. I promise you won’t regret it.

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A Time For Nothing: How Doing Nothing May Be the Best Form of Resistance

A Time For Nothing: How Doing Nothing May Be the Best Form of Resistance

There is a thief who robs me of my happiness every time I see him. Yet every morning, I open my door via television or social media and let him in. Which one of us is the bigger fool? This individual is one of the most powerful people in the world. Why should I give him any of my power?

I can march, I can donate, I can call, I can write. But at some point, all the resistance in the world doesn’t change the fact that the party I align myself with has very little power right now. This leaves me feeling powerless in the face of what I see as a series of injustices. I won’t list them all. The exercise will only compound my worries, but I won’t forget about them either.

Do I give in to despair, ignore the news, or stay permanently agitated? None of these are viable options. That’s why I choose to do what may be the hardest thing of all: nothing.

This is difficult because it goes against every fiber of my being. I believe doing something is always better than doing nothing. But, doing nothing is what is required.

Doing nothing doesn’t mean giving up. Quite the contrary, I must do whatever I can to stay informed and make my voice heard. But yelling at the TV, pulling my hair out and waking every morning in a state of fear, does nothing to further my cause. That’s why doing nothing may be the most important thing I can do.

When I was a kid my parents warned me about what to do if I ever became lost. They said the first thing you should do is stand still. If you want to be found, stop running around in circles.

I take a deep breath. Stillness feels incredible after weeks of frenetic activity. I inhale knowing that I alone have the power to determine how I feel right now. I exhale my worry about the future. I inhale the love I have for myself and my fellow human beings. I exhale the frustration I have with the people who don’t see the world as I do.

Imagine if everyone could take some time out to do nothing. We could renew our sense of well being. We could check in with our source in search of guidance. We could see more clearly the best options for tomorrow even if those options include more of doing nothing.

If you think doing nothing will make you feel powerless, think again. Have you ever been thinking of a friend or loved one, when they inexplicably call? Have you ever walked into a room where people have been exchanging angry words and without hearing or seeing what happened, you pick up on the bad vibes? Have you ever spent time with someone who is so perpetually happy and fun to be around they boost your spirits, or felt depleted around someone who is angry or depressed?

We are Energetic Beings

We emit energy; some at high frequency (loving and altruistic thoughts), some at low frequency (base, primal, and fear based). If we hang out with a bunch of angry agitated people, we in turn begin to feel the same. If we spend time with people who are genuinely optimistic and light-hearted, it can’t help but affect you.

This is the hard part. Some of your favorite people, yourself included, may be pissed off, angry and agitated right now. It doesn’t matter if the anger is justified. If it’s not directed to specific action in a focused manner, it will burn itself out leaving everyone in its wake feeling depleted. It becomes a vicious cycle where we spread negativity to the people we’d most like to help.

I’m not proposing we all hold hands and sing Kumbaya together. But if enough people concentrated on the work of doing nothing. I believe we could harness a power capable of creating the change we so desperately seek.

I say doing nothing is work, because it is. Tuning into the super powers within requires discipline. When I’m tired, and disheartened, it’s even harder. My base instinct is to scavenge for more and more information confirming my fear that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. The availability of news makes this task seem effortless. But stepping away from that exercise and seeking peace internally is in fact the easiest and most effective method of working toward the common goal for us all to know peace.

This sounds a little “woo-woo” even to my ears. But I swear, if everyone could take a collective time out, we could at least begin to crawl out of the muck we’ve been drowning in. Peace is contagious. But it has to begin individually.

Here’s a Five-Minute Exercise to Get Started:

– Take several deep breaths, enough to center yourself.

– Imagine someone you love deeply: a spouse, a child, a parent a friend, even a pet. Allow the love you feel for that person to fill your heart with warmth. Send them the following loving phrases: May you be happy. May you feel safe. May you experience good health. May good things come to you. May your life be free of pain. May you feel love.

– Take those warm feelings and thoughts and direct them toward yourself. May I be happy, may I feel safe. May I experience good health. May good things come to me. May my life be free of pain. May I feel love.

– Picture a neutral person: a neighbor you don’t know well, someone you saw on the news, someone you see at the grocery store. Cultivate the warm feelings you wished for yourself and direct them towards this person. Just as I want to be happy, may they also be happy. Just as I want to feel safe, may they also feel safe. Just as I want good health, may they enjoy good health as well. May good things come to them. May their life be free of pain. May they feel love.

– Think of someone who causes you distress. Offer that person the same loving thoughts you sent to the person you love, yourself and a stranger. May they be happy. May they feel safe. May they experience good health. May good things come to them. May their life be free of pain. May they feel love.

– You can even direct these warm thoughts to your community, your nation and the wider world. May all beings be happy. May all beings feel safe. May they experience good health. May good things come to them. May their life be free of pain. May they feel love.

Meditation Doesn’t Have to be Difficult

This is a metta meditation that will absolutely make you feel better immediately after doing the exercise. You can spend as long as you like practicing this in a formal meditation. But it can be just as effective, certainly more so than not doing it at all, by slipping it into your life where you can. You can do it upon waking, while you lie in bed, or even, while you’re brushing your teeth. You can do it when you’re stuck in traffic. Or you can do it, just as you drift off to sleep.

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Here’s To A Non-Grinchy, Non-Scroogy, Christmas

My son, just home from college, asked if I was excited for Christmas. It was a reasonable question as I was in the middle of addressing Christmas cards. I thought for a minute, wanting to be honest without sounding Grinchy. The truth is my favorite day of the year is December 26; my personal “Hallelujah, it’s over” day. I reply, “I’m working on it.”

He raised one eyebrow – a genetic gift passed down from previous generations. Neither his father nor I have the ability to move our eyebrows independently.

I take a deep breath and respond to his one eyebrow question. “I’m really trying to be excited. I want to love Christmas, but it’s a struggle.” This makes me sound like I’ve suffered some personal tragedy; the holidays being difficult because of grief. That’s not the case. Although, now that I think of people who are legitimately struggling for those reasons, I get even more depressed and Christmas joy moves further from my grasp.

I add, “It’s just that Christmastime has become the epitome of what I hate about our overly commercial culture.” Images of our newly elected leader, the king of capitalism, flit through my head. Grumpily, I continue. “Everything is about buy, buy, buy. People have ridiculous expectations.” I flung my arm in the direction of the TV indicating an ad I’d seen. “We’re supposed to run out and get a Mercedes with a big red bow on it for Christ’s sake. When is enough, enough?”

My Ebenezer is Showing

My son smirked taking a sip of his hot chocolate. “So, Scrooge was right?”

I sigh, “No. It’s just that I feel like in order to get the warm fuzzy parts of Christmas, it should be more about spirituality and less about superficial stuff you know? I mean, If Jesus came down and walked around a mall for ten minutes he would say, ‘WTF?'”

Can you imagine what the man, who above all else, wanted us to love one another, would think about our rushing past a homeless guy in order to buy a chia pet for someone on our gift list? Then, we tell him we are doing it in celebration of his birth. Which, by the way, was in September. But, no one remembers the actual date, so December seems as good a time as any.

Jesus would want to throw his hands in the air and say, “I give up. These people are idiots.”

Luckily, I believe Jesus, or God, or the Universe, or whoever you like to think of when you need to believe there’s hope for humanity, forgives us for our many faults. I turn my internal rant down a notch and look at my son. He is genuinely looking forward to all the holiday traditions that I helped create. My Grinchy heart softens a bit. I look at him and say,

“I just want Christmas to be more about love and less about love of stuff. You know what I mean?”

He nods.

I return to the Christmas cards. I think about my image of the mall-cruising Jesus and his frustration over our methods of celebration. What would he have me do? He’d probably tell me to chill out, maybe take a sip of wine and reflect for a moment.

Checking My List Twice

I gaze at my never-ending list of things to do before December 25. Why am I doing all this? It’s not like someone put a gun to my head and said I had to do it. This is a list of my own making. I created it out of love; love for the people in my life and my desire to show them how much I care about them.

Mall Jesus looks at my list and says, “Do it or don’t do it. Your people won’t love you any more or less for having done it. But please, don’t do it on my account.”

its_a_wonderful_life_everytime_a_bell_rings_an_angel_gets_his_wings-clarenceSomething shifts within me. I notice my son grabbing a chocolate out of the advent calendar hanging on the wall. He held up the candy and said, “Only twelve more days.”

I remember buying the decorative countdown piece to help my kids manage their gleeful anticipation of Christmas. It had become a ticking time bomb to me. But now, seeing my grinning son, I see it for what it is; a holiday decoration filled with wonderful memories.

I look at my list with new appreciation. It doesn’t seem quite as unmanageable. I say a silent prayer to the heavens and thank Jesus for opening my Grinchy, Scroogy, heart. I breathe into the newfound openness. And, to my surprise, I feel a slight buzzing sensation. It’s the buzz of excitement, for Christmas; joyful, gleeful anticipation, not dread, for Christmas. I might even have time to watch a holiday favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life.

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