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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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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My Favorite Axe-Murderer

My Favorite Axe-Murderer

I had the opportunity to speak with an interesting man in my pursuit to learn about faith. His spiritual practice was Buddhism and he was particularly passionate about meditation and contemplation. As he described these cornerstones of his faith, I became increasingly uncomfortable. My discomfort came at the thought of spending time in quiet thought and reflection. What was I afraid of? Was my interior such a frightening place to dwell?

I thought it might have something to do with my lifelong friendship with a fellow I call Jack. He showed up one day, crazed look in his eyes, sweat dripping off his forehead, axe firmly planted in both hands. He even wore a T-shirt that had the word KILLER boldly emblazoned across his chest. Anybody in their right mind would keep their door tightly bolted, when he came to call. But I, naïve or stupid, I’m not sure, welcomed him. We developed relationship of sorts, and now when he pays a visit, I eagerly greet him and say, “Come on in. What hopes and dreams would you like to kill today?”

You see, Jack is the axe-murderer that lives in my head.

I first met Jack sometime around my teenage years. He would pop in occasionally to offer helpful fashion tips like, “Everybody wears these jeans. If you can’t fit your big butt into them, there’s something innately wrong with you. Buy them anyway and every time you wear them, I’ll be there to remind you how bad you look in them.”

He encouraged me to always look my best by saying, “Do not go out of the house unless you have make-up on. You are way too ugly to be seen in public without doing what you can to make yourself more presentable.”

I realize Jack sounds a little mean-spirited, but he always had my best interest at heart. If I tried to do something stupid like make new friends, he’d hold me back and say, “Whoa, you can’t talk to those people. You’re not ready to sit at the cool kids table.”

Jack wasn’t around all the time, just on occasion. He especially liked to surprise me whenever I was trying something new. He’d point out the ridiculousness of my pursuits and how I was destined to fail. Sometimes I would heed his advice and give up before I even started. But there were times when I became so invigorated by the thrill of stepping outside my comfort zone, that I found it hard to hear his voice.

As I got older, I discovered that I could hear Jack most clearly when I was especially tired, hungry or lonely. This worked out particularly well, because Jack was full of dieting tips, which almost always left me ravenous and eager to hear more words of discouragement.

Somehow or another, I got so busy with my life, career, marriage, and children, that I almost forgot my old friend Jack. But lately, he’s been coming around more and more. I guess it’s because I finally have enough time to think about new ideas and try new things. Jack is understandably concerned about the folly of my new pursuits. He says, “You can’t do that. Are you crazy? That is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. It’s destined for failure.”

It’s hard to imagine my life without Jack; he’s become such a staple in my life, but I’m beginning to think our relationship isn’t a healthy one. Jack has become a little too cozy with me of late. He doesn’t even bother to knock anymore. He just comes right in, greeting me first thing in the morning before I’ve even gotten out of bed.

When I tell him I’ve had enough, and that we have to stop seeing each other, he grows desperate, dramatically insinuating that he can’t live without me. When I tell him to leave, he obeys, but he waits patiently in the shadows for a moment of weakness that we both know will come.

It’s hard to say goodbye to a lifelong companion. We can go for long stretches without seeing each other, then he’ll show up unannounced and it’s just like old times. There’s something about him that makes me believe we belong together. I mean who knows, the places I might have gone without his stabilizing force to keep both my feet planted on the ground? There’s some comfort in that it think; comfort in the familiarity of his voice. How does the phrase go? “Better to deal with the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

Who came up with that ridiculous advice? Jack probably. He’s full of these little idioms. But if I listen very carefully, I can hear a new voice. It’s very soft and I’m not sure where it’s coming from. I can barely make out the words as they whisper. . . “Jack, go f**k yourself!”

These words couldn’t have come from me because thanks to Jack’s tutelage – and my mother’s, I know that ladies don’t speak that way. But there it is again; a little louder this time, “JACK, please GO F**K YOURSELF! (and louder still) F**K YOU JACK! GO! BE GONE! YOU’RE NO LONGER WELCOME!  Sayōnara!” – I’m not sure why I added this last bit. I don’t think Jack speaks Japanese – either do I. It just felt good rolling off the tongue; cleansing my palette of the more crass verbiage.

And then he left. He’s gone, at least for now. If he returns, I’m pretty sure I can recall the words that sent him away. If I forget, I might have to consider a tattoo with a subtle reminder. Can you imagine me trying to explain why I have the words, “F**k You, Jack!” permanently etched into my skin?  Jack would hate that. But, it would make for an interesting conversation starter.

I don’t feel sorry for Jack; he has so many friends. If you see him, tell him I said, “Hello.”  But better yet, let him pass by without acknowledgement. There’s no need for you to be counted among his friends, or you too might be considering some novel idea about how to remember your own lost words.

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