Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Delicate Balance: The Past and the Present

What a weekend! Family and friends gathered at separate events to celebrate our granddaughter's first communion and our youngest niece's graduation from high school. Each event was joyous and marked a transition from one stage of life to another. In our granddaughter's case, she is now participating more fully in the life and practice of her church community, and as she said, "I get to have wine every week now." Our niece is leaving home and childhood and venturing forth bravely and enthusiastically to her college years.

The words from the Lutheran communion liturgy fill my heart:
"Let the vineyards be fruitful, Lord, and fill to the brim our cup of blessing. Gather a harvest of the seeds that were sown, that we may be fed with the bread of life. Gather the hopes and dreams of all; unite them with the prayers we offer. Grace our table with your presence, and give us a foretaste of the feast to come."   

Each celebration was an acknowledgment of the hopes and dreams we have for these special young women whom we love and adore. We gathered at not only the communion table, but at buffet tables, eating and drinking together as a sign of our connection to each other. We looked at each of these loving presences in our lives as hopeful signs of the future  and prayed whatever they encounter that they may always be surrounded by such visible love and support.

In the midst of the festivities, however, a question kept nagging me. How do we continue to live fully in the present when so much of our life is in the past, when we have so much to remember? What do we do with all the memories of past events, events that we have lived before more than once, and now the event is here all over again? Different people. Different times and settings, but the same event. High school graduation. First communions and confirmations and baptisms. Weddings. Births and deaths. Changes and transitions.

I was flooded with memories. For example, as I stood in my sister's dining room, I recalled our own dining room when our daughter, the mother of our granddaughter now, was graduating from high school. My sister was pregnant with the child who we were now celebrating.   I felt pulled back to that same event only all those years ago when I was the mother who had been baking for weeks and had been cleaning and redecorating in anticipation of a houseful of guests, using the occasion as the excuse. I thought about that whole senior year when I had been in tears for every last event. How was it possible that my daughter was old enough to graduate from high school? How is it now possible that she has a daughter old enough for first communion? How is it possible that the unborn child is now graduating from high school and that my younger sister is now facing empty nest? Did anyone notice as I oohed and aahed at the array of treats and the "Oh, the Places You'll Go" decorations in the dining room that I was not fully present, that I was in the past?

And then I walked into the family room, and there was my father sitting in what is known as the Papa Chair, and he seemed to be quietly observing all the fun and fanfare, just as he had sat and watched earlier that day at the lunch after church. I realized how much more the past dominates his days.  I don't know if he was thinking about other celebrations, the open houses he and Mom hosted for each of us  kids or others he attended over the years. Perhaps he was thinking about his own high school graduation. There is a lot of past in his present and who knows how much future.

One of the challenges of these added years is to stay engaged with the present. The memories and lessons of the past are valuable, for sure, and should not be discounted and in fact, can make us enjoy the present even more, but I think it is tempting to lose ourselves in the past with its memories and stories. One clue perhaps is to realize that this present moment is transforming itself into the past right now. In order to remember it all--how our granddaughter glowed as she received the cup of wine, and how surprised she was to receive presents, and the sound of our niece's voice as she said "This is my Aunt Nan and Uncle Bruce" to her friends, and how our young grandson was so at home in my sister's house--I need to stay present. I need to open my heart, along with my eyes and ears, and rejoice in the now.      

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Discernment II: The Gifts of Sun, Water, and Warm Breezes

True, I had many tasks to do at home, but when isn't that true? The nudging inside my head was getting louder, more agitated, scratchier, itchier, and I knew this day without rain, this day of sunshine,was calling me to the water. I packed up pens and colored pencils, my journal and a couple books, including Natalie Goldberg's Thunder and Lightning, Cracking Open the Writer's Craft, and the big sheets of sketching paper where I had brainstormed options for my next writing steps, and a new composition book with these words on the cover, "Then swing your window open, the one with the fresh air and good eastern light and watch for wings, edges, new beginnings."  I headed to the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union Terrace on the shore of Lake Mendota, where I could choose the color of my table (green) and the color of my chair (orange). A place where I could sit among students and professors and alumni and enjoy bits and pieces of conversation, but be comfortably anonymous. A place of accompanied solitude. A place where I could pick up the strands of my discernment process.    
What drove me to create this "set-aside" time was the desire to uncover my purpose in my current life. To move closer to knowing what it is I want to do, am supposed to do. To examine the questions rolling around in my head and heart. To reflect on responses from friends and family. To clear the way for answers, direction, the next step.
I began by just sitting. Breathing and allowing myself to enjoy being in this favorite place. A light breeze created ripples on the lake. A hazy sky obstructed the view across the lake, encouraging me to focus on what brought me there. I started writing all the questions, the options, muddled in my head, including "Should I continue trying to write for publication or should I write only for private and personal use?" "If I decide to continue to try to write for publication/for the public what form will that take?" "Should I focus on doing spiritual direction?" And many more. I could hardly write fast enough, exploring these questions. I wrote without rereading, and the time was productive, but not in the way I expected.
I thought I had so much to uncover, so much more that needed to be revealed, a need to dig deeper, but what I discovered instead was that it is time to lighten up. I remembered the words on my easel, "Wait, The light will come," and there I was siting in brilliant light. Lightness seemed to be the key.  My normal MO is to create a plan with clear cut steps and timelines and deadlines and that works well for me--most of the time.  But right now I am willing to take a lighter, easier approach. I know I want to continue to write, but the product, the outcome, feels less important right now. I feel less driven, less rigid. I am willing to let go of the book I have been working on for a long time--for now at least. I am more willing to think about that book as the way I worked through issues of grief and loss and was also the path to writing in a focused way. And for that I am most grateful. Therefore, I don't have a major plan. I will let a plan or plans emerge. I will live lightly with my writing. That doesn't mean NOT do it, but to do it within the context of my whole life.
I left the Terrace feeling a sense of abundance and buoyancy and of being and having enough. If I let go, there is still enough, and maybe even more.

Here are some questions for you:
* What do you do to discern?
* How do you make decisions?
* What helps you clear the space?
* How do you know when you have the answer?
* How do you know the difference between AN answer and THE answer?
I would love to hear your discernment experiences.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Discernment: A Controlled Burn

         Last summer I spent a month in Door County and along with the pleasures of being in a place I love and having friends and family come visit, I set aside that time to contemplate the next step in my writing. I was having doubts about the book I had been working on for such a long time. Should I continue or not? One question. One simple question. I brought the essays with me and the chunky notebook with ideas and notes and plans and bit by bit I reread everything and wrote in my journal and sat and thought and walked and thought. And prayed. 
Much to my surprise, the answer appeared quickly. "This is worth doing, but you need to write more essays than planned and you need to make this your focus." I wrote and edited while I was there. I started working on a book proposal, and I returned home with high hopes and energy. I cleared the space, and the fall and winter were productive times for me.  
Well, it is discernment time once again, and this time there is more than one key question. And this time it doesn't feel as simple. I submitted my book proposal to a publisher and have been in conversation with the vice president of editorial and production, and her suggestion is to totally restructure the book. Now, first of all, let me say, how thrilled I am to even have someone take an interest in my material and to have a door open even a little bit, but her suggestion plummeted me into a muddle of questions--some were obvious (Should I do as suggested or not?) and some were hidden in some foggy place where I didn't want to go--about myself as a writer and about the material. And about purpose.  I allowed myself some time to wail and wallow and then moved into a time of intentional discernment. 
Fortunately, guides appear when they are needed. Most notably, two books. One is The Seven Whispers, Listening to the Voice of Spirit by Christina Baldwin and the other is Decision Making and Spiritual Discernment, The Sacred Art of Finding Your Way by Nancy L. Bieber.  These books offer gentle words of wisdom ("Move at the Pace of Guidance." "Wait. Let the light come.") and strategic questions ("What do you want me to do?" and "How do I need to change in order to do it?"). An attitude of willingness is encouraged. I am willing. Not I am willing to do x, y, or z, but simply I am willing. 
          "I am willing. What do you want me to do?"  
No answer. Darn it!  So many questions and possibilities were percolating in my head--popcorn kernals getting hot and ready to pop. Reading, meditating, and writing in my journal are my preferred strategies, but I needed something more.  
I spread several pieces of large sketching paper on my desk and got out my colored pencils and started mapping, seeing where one idea led and what other ideas opened up in front of me. Arrows and circles and lines and stars flowed across the papers. Lots of ideas. More questions. But no clear answer.
          "I am willing. What do you want me to do?"
A few weeks ago a controlled burn was conducted across the street from our house. I watched the team set underbrush on fire, dowsing the flames almost before they were allowed to burn, preparing the space for desired new growth. Already it is hard to tell where the burn occurred. I think discernment is like that. The burn needs to occur. The brush needs to be cleared away in order for there to be new growth and when the next step or steps are known, there will be only memory of what was there before. I'm trying to remember that. I am trying to be willing.