Epiphany

In high school, somewhere around the time I began to expand my vocabulary, realize the power of words – and prep for the SATs? – I came to love the word epiphany.

This phenomenon also coincided with my own spiritual awakening, but ironically, it had little or nothing to do with the three wise men heralding Jesus’ birth.

I would excitedly proclaim I’d had an epiphany when some amazing truth would whack me between the eyes. An amazing idea or affirmation. When the whoosh of a flock of shorebirds made my heart swell with the certainty of who I was as I stood sentinel on a sandbar.

As life rushed in to fill the free spaces, however, the epiphanies got fewer and fewer – until at some low point, they stopped. A noisy, dissonant place where even the chorus of bird calls could not be heard.

And yet, I still maintain our Christmas tree until January 6th. I still display Jesus and His cast of adorers in the creche. I try, I try to push back the doing, the speaking, the thinking – to open space for His coming.

And in short bursts, He has. I’ve opened windows just small enough for a spark to shoot through. A movement in a certain direction. A push toward a way of being.

I want the lightning bolt, but it can’t strike as readily under all this stuff. The circuit is closed. A spark will have to do. But great flames can burst forth from a tiny spark. And purify everything in their path.

from tcc-online.org

from tcc-online.org

In the Dark of the Night, Born is the Light of the World

side left

front of church

creche

 

All photos by Jennifer Butler Basile

Give Thanks for 3 Things a Day – Guideposts

Give Thanks for 3 Things a Day – Guideposts.

 

Varied pieces contributing to the cohesive, fulfilled whole.  This article provides some good things about which to think.

The Red Tree: A Child’s Story, A Depressive Tale, and an Allegory All in One

Imagine not wanting to get out of bed in the morning. Not because you stayed up too late or the air is too cold – but because “the day begins with nothing to look forward to.” Forcing yourself out of bed only makes “things go from bad to worse.” You maneuver through a world that “is a deaf machine”; where “darkness overcomes you” and “nobody understands”. Ironically, you are on the inside – locked there by regret – looking out at the “wonderful things [] passing you by.”

Now, imagine you are a child.

In Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree, a young girl is the one going through all these machinations, these miserable feelings. The book jacket summary lists them as “inexplicable feelings”, which though they are, will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has had them. The swirling, at times, surreal illustrations Tan has created to accompany his text add an otherworldly depth that show their meaning perhaps more than the words can. Upon repeated inspection, you find more and more layers of detail and meaning.

This could be a story of a child trying to find her place in the world, which certainly can be daunting itself. I, however, saw deeper evidence of despair. Perhaps my dark lens of depression is translating the clues to match my view, but Tan’s story seems very much to match the trajectory of depression. This book is an amazingly evocative, yet straightforward treatment of a condition that words often fail. It would be perfect for children who may be suffering – either themselves or through someone close to them – to understand what’s happening and that they are not alone. My depressed self sees utter value in that. My paranoid mother hen heart breaks at the thought of a child suffering this way, scared that my own brood may be subjected it. I would call this required reading for struggling adults and extremely-valuable-but-hope-you-never-have-use-it with children.

Still, there is a thread of hope at the end of the story, that doesn’t always come with depression. Just as “the day seems to end the way it began, [] suddenly there it is right in front of you bright and vivid quietly waiting just as you imagined it would be.” In the book, it is a red tree growing from the center of her room that makes the girl smile. I wanted to shake the book and say, “But what is it? Why can’t I find the solution so easily? Just make it appear?” That’s when I thought maybe I was approaching this as a downward motion rather than from the bottom up.

I leafed through the pages once more, searching for the flashes of red I’d only slightly registered the first time. As the girl awakens on the first page, a red leaf is mounted on the wall above her bed. While black leaves swirl around her, the red leaf follows her through every scene. At times, it lies forlornly on the ground or is buffeted by the wind, but it is always there. When she returns to the quiet reflection of her room at the end of the day, there is a small red sprout, which quickly grows in the beam of light shining through the door she opens.

Though I didn’t realize it until I had reached rock bottom, that red leaf of the Holy Spirit followed me around the whole time. It waited patiently for me to open the door so I could flourish in God’s light and love. So instead of some magic trick I hoped to perform, healing myself, I just had to open myself to the guidance and care that was there all along.

How perfect that this epiphany came in time for this Good Friday. Even when Christ was at his lowest, He called out to the Father. He suffered so that we may have peace. And just as importantly, God never abandoned Him through all his trials.

Now I just need to be open to God’s uplifting power rather than the downward pull of depression.

* All quotes from Tan, Shaun.  The Red Tree.  Vancouver: Simply Read Books, 2008.

 

No Such Thing as a Coincidence?

 

“There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from.”   ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

For the most part, I believe this.

Yes, we could drive ourselves crazy analyzing every bit of beef for meaning – when, indeed, it simply may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato” (Dickens, A Christmas Carol) – rather than a spectre of our own fate to come.

But I do believe the universe serves us up soul food at precisely the time we are starving. If we take the time to really see the menu.

Over the last four years, there have been moments I’ve really hated the concept behind this platitude. What kind of sadistic universe would send me depression and anxiety to teach me a lesson? Some would say such a struggle is meant to bring me closer to God, to trust in His care since I could not do it alone. Some would say it equips me to communicate with and possibly console others in a similar situation. Maybe it was meant to break me, to distill me down to my most raw entity to make me grateful for all I have despite all I’ve suffered. I don’t know the grand scheme of things and how I fit in. I wouldn’t be able to offer a treatment of it in one blog entry anyway.

Yesterday, though, as I listened to my priest reveal the healing power of an exorcism he’d performed (yeah, mind-blowing), I suddenly felt the pull of the universe on the strings of my soul. In thanking God for the gift of the human being in front of him, the evil harbored inside that being – whether in the form of guilt, regret, or an actual demon – was excised, freeing the person to live in love.

Now, before you sign me up for an exorcism, no, I am not possessed. Not by a demon, anyway. But as I listened to my pastor, I realized the shame and resentment I’ve harbored this long journey since the birth of my third daughter. The blame I’ve laid on myself for ‘succumbing’ to depression. The weakness I felt I exhibited by allowing myself to feel anxiety. The overall failure to be the master of my own body. The alternate guilt and anger at having such a beautiful life – aside from mental illness – and not being able to appreciate it.

So another platitude: acceptance is the first step?

I’m not sure where I’ll go from here or how much I’ve truly learned from this coincidence, but it’s a starting point. The answer, I know, has something to do with mercy – for myself.

Peggy

I almost didn’t take that road home this morning. Its twists and curves in and out, down and around the hills and forest might not bode well for a commute through the fresh covering of snow left last night.

I didn’t want to stop when I saw the woman chipping away at the chunks of ice barricading her house from the rest of civilization. It was cold, my house was warm, my writing beckoned.

I knew I would think of her all morning if I didn’t.

I slipped and slid my way through a sloppy three point turn and peered into the unfamiliar driveways until I found the beacon of her yellow jacket.

“Would you like some help?” I called.

In the time it had taken me to circle back, she’d started back up her driveway. She had paused when she saw me pull over and now made her way back to my car.

“I was just headed inside for a break,” she said. “I go in for about 45 minutes to warm up, then come back out. It’s a lot easier today than it was yesterday, I’ll tell you.”

I noticed now that three-quarters of the driveway had already been cleared, presumably by the metal shovel and approximation of a turf spade she held in her hands.

“Are you a neighbor?”

I explained where I lived in relation to her house. Not exactly neighbors, but I passed by her house quite frequently en route to mine.

“Let me ask you, have you had any problems with your mailbox?”

She pointed out the naked post next to her driveway and explained that in the five and a half years since her husband died, she’d had three mailboxes knocked over by plows. Her granddaughter and husband reinstalled one one spring; her son shored up another. She’d called town hall. A plowman who came out to her house told her in brusque tones it was the snow, not him, that was responsible. When she objected to his tone of voice, saying that town hall never would have spoken to its residents that way in her old town, he said she’d paid more taxes in that town.

“But I worked in that town hall,” she said. “I was the voice of town hall.”

I discovered her motivation to clear the driveway: so she could haul her mangled mailbox to town hall.

She asked my name and introduced herself, telling me to beep and wave the next time I went by and then she’d know who it was. When I turned around a few houses down from her house in the other direction and passed back by on my way home, I saw her yellow jacket at the top of the driveway, heading into the open bay of her garage.

I’d still think of Peggy all morning, but not with guilt for not helping her; in gratitude for having met her.

Whatsoever you do for the least of my people, you do for me.

A Will Isn’t Always A Way

Yesterday, I labored to remove the soaked shove-off from the city plow. I missed out on completing the errands I’d planned. This morning, I slid sideways down my driveway.

Once I righted the car and went on my way, the sun slanted through the trees, illuminating the white lines traced along the branches of the forest. Intersecting angles everywhere there weren’t mounds of snow hulking in the foreground. Pine boughs bent in supplication. As I traveled this snowy tunnel, I wondered whether I hadn’t been transported to Vermont while I slept. It was truly a winter wonderland.

Overcome by the beauty, I realized that a snowstorm, the resultant ice, and the resulting snafus in our daily schedule wouldn’t be such an issue if we weren’t trying to sublimate nature to our will. If I accept the fact that I need all-wheel drive and a fair amount of ice melt to enter or exit my driveway, I won’t be as frustrated the next time it snows. If I expect to drive slowly and downshift through the gears to slow rather than jamming on the brakes, I will be able to marvel at the sublime scene all around me.

And just like that, God sneaked up on me again.

Much the same way I’d be able to see the beauty in a winter snowstorm if I laced up my hiking boots and moved through the forest unencumbered by wheels and sheet metal, if I didn’t spin my wheels trying to navigate a path God never intended for me to take, life would flow more smoothly. Be more meaningful. More fulfilling. Though it may not be in ways I ever anticipated. That caution and care, that easy-going spirit would allow me to bend, but not break, just like the tree branches bowing to the ground. Accepting my circumstances as they are would allow me to see the value in what is rather than languishing about what might have been.

Image

Photo: Jennifer Butler Basile

Really Hearing the Sound of Music

Everybody’s talking about The Sound of Music lately.

Julie vs. Carrie. Film vs. live performance. Old vs. new.

Initially I was appalled at the news of a SOM revamp with Carrie Underwood.  Who could mess with Julie Andrews’ dulcet tones?  I pushed it out of my head and got too busy to set the DVR.  After putting the kids to bed the night it first broadcast, I wandered downstairs to my husband’s channel surfing.  The remote lighted upon Carrie’s rendition of “The Lonely Goatherd”, yodels and all.  Woo Hee.  Bouncing and dancing and yodelling.  Can’t fault a chick for that.  I was thoroughly impressed.  She has a lovely voice.  But that’s all I watched.  I wandered off in another direction.

A few days later, my oldest daughter had some friends over for a mini-birthday celebration.  The movie this newly-minted nine year-old chose to watch?  The Sound of Music.  (original on VHS, baby!)  And the four other girls who attended sat in rapt attention and sang along!  My husband turned to me and said, “There is hope [for the next generation]!”

We found the televised version on-demand this past snowy weekend and that same daughter begged to watch it.  The five of us squished on the couch and did.  I don’t know whether it was that this new cast did such a bang-up job or if it was the sheer magic of the story itself that bore me along in its spell.  I couldn’t keep from singing.  I teared up when the Mother Abbess implored Maria to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”.  I finished with a hope in humanity, the enduring strength and support of family, that standing for one’s ideals will pay off in the end.  My middle daughter requested to watch it again two days later when she returned from school.  All three girls sang and danced around the living room as if on alpine mountains.

What is it about this story that captures our imagination?

The music has become part of the cultural canon.  The refrains are easily learned and easily lodged in one’s head.  Their topics and the theme of the story itself is familiar in some way or another to us all.  We’ve all struggled with our life’s calling, finding a true mate, the personal vs political, facing up to or hiding from our problems.  Perhaps the most enduring theme of all is that love does indeed conquer all – even amidst dire struggle and imperfect circumstances.

For me, personally, the part that really struck a chord – that point in the movie when you could’ve knocked me over with a wisp of Edelweiss – was the conversation between the Mother Abbess and Maria when she balks at returning to the von Trapp home.  Maria asks, “How will I know which life is mine to live?” or some approximation of that (a line I don’t think was even in the 1965 film).  The abbess (portrayed by Audra McDonald) tells her emphatically that she must go out and look for it, at which point she breaks into a soul-stirring rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”.  Are you supposed to have life epiphanies watching network-television rip-offs of classic cinema?  I had a moment.

This conversation, these words, the Mother Abbess’ exhortation, the orchestral arrangment – they spoke to me of things I’d forgotten.  Things I’d known, but forgotten to pursue.  Things, necessities that have been dulled by constant use or made commonplace by their very existence.  Things I learned as a child – most notably when I was presented with a cross inscribed with its own exhortation: “Christ is counting on you to search.”

Christ is counting on you

I may have been like Maria, sulking behind the abbey’s walls because life hasn’t turned out the way I’d expected.  Maybe I’d forgotten how to climb those mountains – or even how to try.  I’d gotten lazy in my search for a dream that will make me want to live and love it everyday of my life.  And I’d forgotten to listen for the sound of music in the hills all around me.

The Sound of Music (1965) was playing on the hospital TV as I labored with my third daughter.  I vetoed my husband’s choice of some flavor of Law and Order, saying I’d be witnessing enough blood and gore that night.  Somewhere in my subconscious, I hoped it would soothe and inspire me.  I can’t say that it necessarily did, but I can’t help but think that, now, it’s brought me full circle.  That labor signalled the beginning of one of the roughest times of my life.  Perhaps the Mother Abbess’ exhortation has been sent to me again to snap out of it and get out and climb.

The Secret to Happiness

I ordered a gift subscription to an inspirational magazine for my great aunt last year.  I signed myself up for their email newsletter as well.  Free spiritual advice and inspiration? Why not?

Over the year, I’ve amassed quite a collection of unread inspirational emails.  Their subject lines lure me enough to prevent deleting them, but not to click and read.  Usually, I save them to read at another time when I can devote my undivided attention to them.  We know how that usually goes.  It would be better to do a cursory review, pausing on a point that piqued my interest, rather than not at all.  Plus, most times, the title is the most appealing part of the missive, much like a short story that does not live up to the promises its title made to its readers, which I would find out if I took two seconds to glance at it.

Still, I let the siren song of one entitled “The Secret to Happiness” captivate me and I clicked – not right away, but the other day I finally did.  There’s a simple secret to happiness?  Do tell.  I must apply this magic solution as a salve to my weary soul.  My cynical side did cry out, saying it’s a spiritual newsletter, you dolt.  Of course, they mean to pray and worship and turn everything over to God – like you’ve been avoiding doing, but know you should.  You already know the secret to happiness, but refuse to do anything about it.  But, like most weak humans, I would much rather find a simple solution outside myself than do any real work inside myself.  I viewed the video expectantly.

 

Surprisingly, there was no explicit reference to spirituality except for one man’s personal testament in which he cited Jesus Christ as his Savior.  However, there were allusions to spirituality all over it; transcendent precepts such as gratitude, thoughtfulness, mindfulness, treating others as you’d like to be treated.  By not directly referring to it, the filmmakers even more strongly prove that spirituality must be woven into the fabric of everything we do, every interaction.  It must be innate, unconscious.  It will lead us to things like gratitude, which apparently is the secret to happiness.

The day that I watched the video, I had tried three times to get a snarky post out of my system.  While not full-strength, there was still some venom bubbling in my veins from residual stress and I wanted to purge it.  But the fits and starts of writing and watching of this video gave me pause.  Maybe what I needed to get it out of my system was to shift my mindset and get grateful!  Being so gosh-darn cranky, I wasn’t feeling it and I sure as hell didn’t feel like writing a letter to the person I was most grateful for, let alone calling them to read it.  But maybe just the shift in the current, the river rock blocking the stream, can divert enough to at least create the space for a change.

However, if in the meantime you should come across any quick-fix secrets to happiness, let me know 😉

Deep Within the Silence of Our Hearts

A woman told me the story of her mother, who found faith late in life. She had fallen away from God prior to becoming a mother and her children never saw her as a practicing person. Around the time this woman began having children of her own, her mother rediscovered her faith in a fervent way. No matter what trial befell her, she turned to God and leaned on her faith to see her through. She went from a woman intent on controlling every single factor of her life with an iron grip to someone willing to trust that God would take care of it and her as He saw fit.

I met this woman five minutes before she told me this story. I had no right to delve deeper into her personal family story – and yet I was transfixed by this last detail of her story: she relinquished control, fully. Like that. With a snap of the fingers, it seemed. And so, the words escaped my mouth before my mind realized what a prying question it was: What happened to enact this absolute turnaround?

The woman gave me an abbreviated, antiseptic version of her family’s history precipitating the change, which made both of us squirm a little, I think, sharing such personal details within minutes of meeting. But my burning desire to know trumped my sense of propriety because as far as I was concerned, this woman has achieved a miracle!

I’ve practiced my faith my entire life. There were times it was stronger, of course, but it’s always been there, God has always been there waiting for me. I say waiting because, increasingly, as I get older and more responsibility gets piled on or taken on, I whir into hyper-drive control mode. As much as I know slowing down and ‘letting go and letting God’ will make life a whole lot easier and enjoyable, I can’t. Can’t be done. Not gonna do it. I don’t think it’s a trust issue. I think it’s part of my perfectionism. No, I don’t think I can do things better than God; I just need to take my best crack at it or I think I’ve failed.

So, if I, as someone who considers herself a faithful lifetime follower of Christ and God, cannot relinquish control and this woman did so seemingly with the flip of a switch – what in God’s green earth is wrong with me? (Besides taking the name of the Lord in vain, of course)

How do I let the proverbial water roll off this duck’s back?

I wanted to hold this woman – or better yet, her mother – upside down and shake her till answers poured out her pockets. Alas, it wouldn’t work – never mind the lack of upper body strength and desire for assault charges – for I know the answer resides elsewhere. Somewhere deep inside the silence of my heart. That silence I haven’t been able to access in quite some time.

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