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I have a friend who often talks about her resolution to be “a bigger I,” meaning becoming more inclusive, more caring, more open to other people. Granted, it can be difficult right now to feel that anything about your life is expanding, other than an uneasy, trapped feeling. But think about it: Empathy for those on the front lines — that’s enlarging your “I.” Maintaining social distancing, even when it means you’ll miss out on the last rolls of toilet paper in the store — that’s also enlarging your “I.” Everything you do now in the interest of others, in the interest of stemming the tide of this disease, is growing yourself beyond your former boundaries. And that is a good thing.

Though I cannot take up torches
or spears against my enemy,
though I can do no more than Milton,
(stand, wait), though my reaching out
must be touchless, limbless, still,
I stretch the seams of my soul.
Misery lurks and like a sponge
I sip it and, cell by cell, expand.
No one hears, no one sees,
yet empathy moves the mountain,
breaks capital I’s into a rubble of “us.”
Small though we be,
we will hold off the tide.

You’ve seen the memes, the stories on the news. People are having a difficult time with social distancing. I ran into a church friend at the grocery store last night, and it was all I could do to refrain from hugging her. Right now, being together is not good for us. But how can we cope with being alone? It will take a journey to the center of ourselves to find the answers.

Though you fill a room with silence,
you are not alone.
Though you thrash in a sea of panic,
you are not lost.
Instead, remember:
everything you do is sacred;
every movement a dance.
Let your touch be only healing.
Draw energy from the sun.
Turn with purpose toward
what is essential and cull
with tenderness what is not.
Do not lose yourself.
Let the holy within you rise
to greet silence as a friend
and enter into prayer
that moves and lives
and has being in you
for as long as it lasts.
Gethsemane surrounds us.
But Easter is coming.

Blind with panic, we cannot see
God working, fingers flying,
amassing miracles, accruing saints,
laying hands on the dying, the mourning.
Deliver us, Lord, from this plague,
and in return, we vow
to treasure blessed boredom,
the hole of silence round as a mouth
in mid-yawn,
to bless each ordinary day,
to remember how it felt to need,
keenly, and let no other feel it
though selfish safety finds us;
to see we snub the least of these
at our own quite pointed peril.

Maybe it’s not news to you, but it was to me: Human beings, scientifically speaking, are not designed to be truly happy. It has to do with evolution and the large frontal lobes in our brains — well, I’ll leave the explanation to the experts. Suffice to say, if you keep trying to be happy and can’t quite get there, it’s understandable. We’re not meant to. But why?

I think of happiness as a “whole-cloth” experience — it’s not something that one part of your life or experiences can achieve. Having money won’t do it. A good relationship won’t do it, if you are lacking in other areas. Happiness is holistic. And we really can’t get that totality here on earth; not if we have even a drop of human kindness running through us. And without that kindness, without empathy and fellow-feeling and mercy, personal happiness just doesn’t mean much. Does it?

We pluck at pieces:
this job, that pair of shoes.
It is empty in the face of want,
a bit of bread when a feast is needed.
If you can wrap yourself in happiness
and turn blind eyes to need,
you will find your coat is made of ashes
and will not keep you warm.
We rise together, a family of yeast
or we sink like a fish with a belly full of stones.

In light of Lent, let us contemplate perhaps the lowliest of substances, dust. Ash Wednesday was yesterday; it is a day on which we are reminded that we are all dust and that we will return to dust one day. But is that really so bad? I am reminded of a glorious poem by Carl Sandburg called “Grass.” In a similar vein (and with apologies), I present the following.

Stir up a commotion,
Watch me rise and fall.
I am dust; I persist.

And when the woman is caught in adultery
I will be Christ’s pregnant pause, his ledger.
And when blind men plead for a cure,
I will be made mud — and then, a miracle.
And when apostles shake me from their feet,
I will be a pronouncement against the inhospitable.
I can be swept, but never contained. I always return.
I am dust.
Let me settle.

In Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up and realizes he’s been turned into a horrible insect. I had a similar, though less pestiferous, experience last night. I was all cuddled up in my blankets, when I realized that my own heartbeat — in combination with the heartbeat of my cat, who sleeps so close to me I literally cannot move — was making the blankets reverberate: ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump. It was like being inside a cocoon. I wondered briefly, sleepily, what I would be reborn into.

Wouldn’t it be nice to end each day by completely shedding your old self, only to be born anew? Wouldn’t it be great to leave past mistakes behind — permanently? What if we treated each new day as a chance to start over?

How about today
you wake up and do not take
up your old soul (you know the one,
grubby and tattered, in need of baptism
or at least an industrial washing),
but put on instead fresh new wings?
Let them lift you above the expectations
and the petty seething of those so earthbound
they cannot fathom metamorphosis. Be today
an altogether better thing. Leave your old self
sleeping in your bed. Shed it like chrysalis, like a shell
you’ve grown too large for. And when you see someone
soaring, greet them with amnesia of what worm they were
before. Let the past go like pollen dropping from your feet.
Examine a new leaf. Let your vision go skyward.
There is nowhere you cannot go.

There was a time in my life that I seriously considered becoming a nun. Some people in my life are baffled by this. Perhaps I don’t fit into their idea of what a nun should look like or be. That’s common among those who have not spent much time among women religious. I have, and I know them to be individuals, humans. They are smart and funny and brave…they also drink beer and cuss and find themselves wanting. My calling ended up being to a life quite different from what I’d imagined. Still, when I think back to that time, I want to say to those doubters, “Do you not remember being young and in love?” Because I do.

I fell. Or rather,
I flew. I floated,
feet barely brushing
the sturdier surfaces of the earth.
You don’t forget your first and I do not;
we smuggle messages (he to me) in secret,
in sudden, stark realizations and serendipitous surprise.
Together we are children. We are as ancient as old bones.
Love lands lightly as a feather, as snow falling on the ground,
even now. After all I’ve done to desert it. After a lifetime,
we are still in love. One faraway day, we might even meet.
I can hardly contain my hope.

If I had to analyze my spiritual journey, I’m afraid it would look like a jagged series of hills and valleys — up and down, up and down. There are probably times when I even go backwards. The road to self-knowledge, to goodness and to God is hardly a straight line. Even saints take circuitous routes (just look at Augustine, a self-proclaimed sinner supreme who turned it around…eventually).

How do we chart our progress? Through actions? Prayer? Some sort of peaceful inner feeling? Only God knows for sure.

Time on the road has been fraught.
I struggle with a lack of maps
and too many mysterious signposts
for one weary wanderer to divine.
You’ve sent me, I see, on the slow course;
baptism bought me no bridges. But —
I catch sight of you often. There,
you peer at me through a sunset;
I sight you in the looped letters
of my own name on an envelope.
Again and again, you elude me,
a child playing hide and seek.
Why can I not keep up with you?
You ought to be less spry
after all these millennia.
Still, I plod. Put one foot down,
and then another, testing for
quicksand, for precipitous drops.
Knowing the way will be arduous,
but ending in green fields, rest,
and radiant reunion.

Radiant with faith, they arrived on my doorstep. Something, they said, had brought them here. We talked for a while about faith practices, about the search for God, and they left me with their literature, which I perused. And I considered. Most of it was a history, and as most histories are, fraught with conflict. But not all of it. There, scattered, were the jewels of most religions: ideas like forgiveness, mercy, justice, love.

If we could visualize a giant Venn diagram of all religious practices, the overlapping places — the places we converge — give us our best and most direct look at what and who God really is. The rest — the places we differ — are just housekeeping. Potato, po-tah-to. If only we could concentrate on what we have in common, rather than what keeps us apart, we would be the better (and dare I say, holier) for it.

Eradicate the pageantry.
Strip the faith down to its bones.
Lay it open as an autopsy,
as brutal and as frank: look.
There among the many threads
we’ve woven into coats (the coats
that mark us one from another)
is a single strand. It is red
with heart’s blood; it is white
with hope, pink with raw forgiveness.
Grasp it in your hand. It will lead
you out of the labyrinth of rancor.
Silence will visit you there, and
you will see what you are meant to see:
It was all set up ahead of time.
There was no mystery,
only abundant clues.

Some people dive into life head-first. Others hang back and just dip their toes in the water. I’m trying something new: forging ahead heart-first, the way Mary, Jesus’ mother, did. She could not have known or been ready for what life threw at her — teen pregnancy, raising the Son of God, watching that beloved son die on a cross — but she moved through it, keeping “all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:19) She could only feel her way forward by trusting in her faith and love.

If life is handing you unfathomable circumstances, mysteries you just can’t unravel, that’s okay. Trust your heart, rather than your head, and take the next step.

When all your soul is cloaked
in darkness as thick as the pelt of a bear
and as unyielding to the touch,
crack open the delicate shell of your heart,
allow it to illuminate what it can.
As for the rest, there is only faith
which of course moves mountains,
but rubble, too, the pebble in your shoe,
the slippery sand sliding underfoot.
The heart touches trouble in all the right places,
moves the wound, stanches the bleeding,
keeps the dike from cracking as we pass,
not with understanding perhaps, but with
the eye of the heart, which witnesses
but does not judge. Understanding will come,
in this or other lives, slowly or like a fist;
it doesn’t matter now. For now, let love lead.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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