Wednesday, April 27, 2011

More Easter Thoughts

The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and her has nothing left to hold on to:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body.
He doesn't think about his actions;
they flow from the core of his being.
He holds nothing back from life;
therefore he is ready for death,
as a man is ready for sleep
after a good day's work.
-Tao Te Ching, verse 50

After I wrote this piece, it actually was Easter. I read Katryna my last post ("Follower of Jesus") and she quipped, "Maybe it's because I haven't slept in a few days, but I could hardly stay awake listening that."

Following through on my promise last year that Easter should be more about spring and bunnies and eggs and sugar and less about my existential angst, I joined forces with Katryna to create Easter baskets for the kids and spent the wee hours on Sunday planting Reese's peanut butter eggs and Jelly Bellies all over my mother's living room.

We hid the colored hard boiled eggs outside and marveled at the cuteness and generosity of our four kids, three of them making sure that the youngest got his fair share.

We then proceeded to church where the kids made God bells (don't ask) and we listened to such divine music (complete with tuba, trombone, marimba and gigantic organ) and a beautiful sermon by the wonderful, wise Aaron Fulp -Eickstaedt which reminded me that, no matter what one might ultimately believe, one strong message of Easter is that the story isn't over. It ain't what it seems to be.

Later that evening the grown ups sat around the dinner table talking about the Steven Mitchell book Tom and I had read. I was full of the day--letting go of all my wonderings about The Truth and Life and Death and Resurrection. And yet I found myself, as we talked about the ideas in the book, feeling disconnected again, lost in my head. It hurts in a way to be stuck in your head, thinking about ideas. In a way it's a kind of anesthetic. You forget you have a body when you are lost in ideas. But eventually your body reminds you, and you feel pinched and cramped and slightly sick to your stomach; at least I do.

We got to the part about Jesus parentage. I was putting forth Mitchell's idea that Jesus was shaped significantly by his illegitimacy, and explaining that historically being called "Son of Mary" (or of any woman as opposed to "Son of Jack" or "Son of Matthew" or Son of Any Man") was a slur. (Mark 6:3)

Elle raised her hand patiently until someone called on her. "Excuse me," she said, acting not at all as though she had consumed her weight in chocolate that day. "Was Jesus's mother Mother Earth?"

And we all said, together, Yes, she was.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Follower of Jesus

I didn't use to love Easter. Maybe it was the reoccurring failure to successfully give up anything for the whole of Lent, maybe it was the disappointment so often of the New England springtime weather, but more likely it was confusion I felt about the story of Jesus rising from the dead. Did he really? And even if he did, what did that mean for me and all my mortal friends? I could never accept the equation given to me in a shouting match my freshman year in college when I was collared by a member of Campus Crusade for Christ who with great frustration tried to get me to believe that Jesus was a kind of blood sacrifice in atonement for Adam's original sin. That God was somehow powerless to keep us from burning in hell, and that therefore He had to let His son die a miserable death in order to retract us all from the pawn shop. It seemed bizarre and completely unbelievable to me. And what about all those good people who believed in and loved God or Spirit or Allah or the Tao or Kindness and Goodness with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength? Or even the mean people who had bad lives and so were bad to others? They were doomed to hell because of some equation? No way.

And yet I have always loved Jesus. I felt his love as a little child, seeing myself in the scripture where he tells his disciples that one must enter the Kingdom of God as a little child, and then takes the children into his arms to bless them. I always loved the poetry of the Sermon on the Mount, the poetry in the story of the blind man whose sight Jesus restores (“I see men walking like trees!” he exclaims when he first gets his sight back.) I love the moment when Jesus pauses to stoop and write on the ground in the dust when asked if it is right to stone a woman for adultery. And most importantly, when I am most troubled, most challenged, the version of God I need always turns out to be Jesus.

This year, starting in early March, Tom and I joined a book group. The book group was led by our minister at the West Cummington Church, Steve Philbrick. Together we read The Gospel According to Jesus by Stephen Mitchell. This book takes as its premise that while there is much to love in the gospels, there is also much not to love, and much to be taken with several shakers worth of salt. It's Mitchell's version of what (with a nod to Thomas Jefferson, Leo Tolstoy and a group of scholars known as the Jesus Seminar) he believes to be the authentic sayings of Jesus minus what centuries of games of telephone, Roman Emperors, church councils and warring factions plugged into what we now read as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, littering them with polemic and attempts to prove Jesus's paternity and divinity (which, by the way, are already at odds with each other--how can Jesus be descended from the House of David via his earthly non-father Joseph AND be the son of God?) Indeed, in my own lifetime of reading the gospels I have always been troubled and confused by what appeared to be two Jesuses: the Jesus who says, "Why do you call me good? There is no one good except God," (Mark 10:18) and "No one gets to the Father but through me," (John 14:6).

Mitchell's book produces a streamlined Jesus, one who feels like a real person, more coherent, an enlightened human, completely lovable and charismatic, with a journey that makes sense to this reader. Born into bastardy at a time in history when this was akin to being a leper, he undoubtedly suffered unspeakable social torments as he grew into adulthood, watching his mother produce other brothers who were not afflicted similarly. He certainly must have wondered with frustration who his father was. Jesus's epiphany--his moment of awakening--comes at his baptism, where he hears the voice of his true Father, and realizes he is God's child in whom God is well-pleased. But, Mitchell argues, Jesus doesn't necessarily believe that this makes him any different from you or me. We too are children of God; we just have to realize it.

"But I tell you, love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you, so that you may be sons of your father in in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the wicked and on the good, and sends his rain to the righteous and unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44)

As Jesus came to forgive his childhood tormentor, he demonstrates that we all have this capacity to forgive within our hearts. His forgiveness of that which is most challenging can be a more slow-going process. A reading of the text supports the argument that it takes Jesus until the end of this gospel to come to a forgiveness of his mother (in the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery.) Remember that when Mary and his brothers bang on the door for an audience, Jesus says, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" and points to the crowd in the room listening to him. "These are my mother and my brothers" (Matthew 12:48-49)

Forgiveness is Jesus's great new teaching, the piece that Christianity brings to the world with more clarity than any other religion. God's forgiveness of us when we come to Him as supplicants is old hat at the time of Jesus. All religions posit a God who yearns for our repentance and delights in forgiving us. What is new to me in this translation is the concept that we must forgive each other and ourselves. Maybe this kind of forgiveness is uniquely Jesus's to teach precisely because Jesus had within himself so much anger and resentment. This possibility makes me like him even more than I did before. I am much more willing to follow someone who has actually struggled with what I struggle with and has overcome it. (Mitchell reads the story of the woman being stoned for adultery as a moment of insight into Jesus’s own anger with his mother--when he writes in the dust, perhaps he is rewriting his own "story", realizing as he does so his own teaching, that as we judge, so are we judged. He forgives the adulterous woman and in doing so makes peace with his own biography.)

Jesus preaches over and over that the Kingdom of God is at hand--here, now, in all that is around us, good, bad, boring, distracting. The tsunamis, the cancer, the babies born, the lilies of the field, the billboards, the filibustering on CNN, the miracle of life. When we align ourselves with the flow of it all, we lose track of time: this is the eternal life we gain. When we let go of our self-pity, selfishness, obsession with our status, wealth, waistlines; when we act out of love for our brothers and sisters, for our enemies and for the strangers we encounter on the road; when we see that we are all connected and that any small act we do for anyone else we do for Jesus (and for ourselves), we are reborn. We are made new. We are in heaven.

Mitchell does away with some of the most familiar parts of the Jesus story: the Christmas scene, Bethlehem, The Last Supper, and most importantly, the physical resurrection. This last is the part I flinched at. My own childhood fear of death, fear of annihilation, hope for an afterlife where I would be reunited with everyone I loved and where we would all live in peace and harmony with no billboards and filibustering, and where somehow we were not bored by the monotony of perfection, still remains. I don't want to not exist. I don't want to be nothing. I passionately want to BE! Death terrifies me. I want a heaven. I want a resurrection. I want to live forever with Tom, Jay and Elle, not to mention Katryna and Abigail and my parents, and all the writers and friends I love. I want to see my grandparents and Mimi again. Call me spiritually immature, but that is my truth. I have been tortured with fear ever since reading this book; real existential fear. What if this really is it, if it really does come down to this moment and nothing else? Then I am truly screwed every time I space out, check my Facebook status, worry about food and money and clothes, leave the Kingdom for my myriad of plans for tomorrow. I am wasting my one and only life.

I hate this thought so much.

So I have been praying. God, please show me what You really mean by resurrection. Show me what you mean by Heaven. Give me a new idea, one that I can embrace and pursue with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, all my strength.

I called a friend of mine, a lifelong Catholic and told her about my doubts. She surprised me by concurring with my questions about the veracity of the resurrection of the body of Christ. She said she had prayed during a retreat for answers to this, and experienced Jesus saying to her, "Here are my wounds. Take them. It doesn't matter whether I rose or not. What matters is that you have risen." Steve had said a similar thing when our group ended last week. “What matters is not whether Jesus rose,” he said, pointing at each of us. “But that you do. That Karen does. That Betsy does. That Tom does.”

Later, as I was pondering these thoughts on my run, I thought about the pain of Ego, the pain of wondering if my shows would sell out, if my work would be received well or poorly, the pain of judgment about my physical appearance, the pain of comparing myself to others. I thought about the pain of wishing I had what I don’t—everything from a gas/electric Wolf range to private school for my kids to free health care for all, to having everyone around me acknowledge at all times that I am right about everything. And suddenly, I got it. When I am thinking about these things I am not here. I am in my head, not my body. I am not in the present moment. And even when I am thinking about others and not my tiny limited self, I am still not present. I am not dwelling in Jesus’s Kingdom of God.

As I practice mindfulness, as I love my sisters and brothers and elders and children, as I act as a good steward of the Earth, as I do my Yoga (writing songs, tending the garden, teaching my workshops, coaching my clients), as I try to follow the teachings of Jesus, I move incrementally into a state of less self-centeredness, less ego. And perhaps someday I will lose my passion for having things go the way I think they need to go. If I do my work well, and am blessed with a very long life (for it will take this gal a very long time to practice thus!) then maybe I have a shot of rendering my mind fit for an afterlife of stillness, of unity, of oneness.

On Good Friday, Tom and Elle and Jay and I went to the airport to fly to Virginia for our show at Jammin Java's in Vienna Saturday night, and Easter with the grandparents Sunday morning. As we moved along in the terminal after our security check (we always mark each passing of security with a hearty family high five), I rose out of my habitual whirl of worrying, mom-planning, spinning in my small self, and gazed up to see Tom, Elle and Jay running and jumping and dancing as they made their way to the gate. At that moment, I didn’t need any help to be present, gleeful, with my chest blooming with love and joy. Perhaps this is my Easter moment, and perhaps it is enough.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Rites of Spring

photo by Jim Henry

About this time of year, I find it necessary to listen to Stravinsky's Rites of Spring, the 1913 ballet that caused riots at its debut in Paris. The piece depicts Pagan Russian fertility rites and supposedly features a girl who dances herself to death. I first heard the piece when I was a freshman in high school, where I promptly fell in love with all things early twentieth century, and choreographed my own version in my bedroom later that week. Each year, right around post-tax day, in the pre-tulip, pre-lilac, when it's still red-bud April I need to hear it.

I am not alone in yearning for a reflection of the season. Last night Katryna and I played a show at Shelburne Falls' Memorial Hall. In the green room on the second floor of that lovely old building, we looked out over the Falls and could barely carry on a conversation for the noise of all that golden snow melt cascading down, crashing over and churning it all up.

We played with a band called Flapjack Overkill, a stupendous student band directed by our own Dave Chalfant and fronted by three seventeen year old singers, who each possessed a lovely, unusual, gorgeous voice capable of sending the audience into riots of joy. The band was not what the promotor expected at a nice little folk show with Tracy Grammer & Jim Henry and the Nields. Instead, it was a 13 piece ensemble complete with horn section, keyboards and killer rhythm section who rocked the house. They joined us on "Easy People" and will remain one of my all time great musical memories. Something about the pure power of all that youth behind us made me feel as though I could handle anything this spring, even revolution.

By now it's a cliche to talk about all the other kind of adolescent disruption that seems to take place so often around Hitler's birthday which is April 20. April 19 was the day the 51 day Waco siege ended in fire, and a year later, the day of the Oklahoma City bombing. April 20 was Columbine. April 21 was last year's BP oil spill. Ugh. There seems to be something in the early spring when the sun is about to leave the first sign in the zodiac--the adolescent Aries, a ram kicking its heels into the air and butting anything before it with its blunted horns--and enter the more congenial territory of Taurus.
But before we enter the sweeter part of spring, I want to try to walk the razor thin line that runs between the intoxicating chaos of life coming back to life with the promise of all that energy I saw in the Falls and hear in the Rites and Slapjack Overkill, and the places where it threatens to spill over and engulf us all in the violence that I believe can only come from the same God that I worship as the gentle parent I know in my most quiet and centered moments. God is that big. God is that mysterious. God is that unfathomable.

Notice, PS, that there two other pretty large cultural/religious events that happen at this time of year: Passover and Easter. (Actualy, I am quite sure there are parallels in each of the major faith traditions the world over,and I invite readers to educate me about this.) In each case, life and resurrection, in the form of new patterns, new traditions, emerge out of shocking violence. Passover's seed story is of "God" asking the Hebrew slaves to mark their doors with the blood of a lamb so that "God" can spare them the last of the ten plagues: the killing of all first born sons in the land of Egypt where they are enslaved. Easter is the story of Jesus being brutally murdered by crucifixion. And yet in each case, these events gave birth to the fundamentals of each religion. The Hebrews were able to leave Egypt in the wake of the "passing over" of the massacre of the first born, and eventually come to the land of Canaan. More importantly, Passover is seen as the beginning of Yahweh's covenant and protection of the Jewish people. Christianity of course springs from the aftermath of the death of Jesus; his martyrdom inspires countless followers to go to any and all lengths to promote their faith.

Tom and I have a friend who is dying of cancer. We got a message last night that he has weeks to live. The doctors have taken him off chemo. His thirteen year old daughter has been told. This daughter, by the way, was adopted from China by our friend and his partner. When the daughter was five, our friend's partner died of cancer. How can it be OK that a kid lose not one not two not three but four parents before she hits puberty?

Steve Philbrick, upon hearing this said a couple of things. One was, "That kid sure must need to be here, if they're shooting out all the parents under her feet." He also said, "It ain't much of a God if you can easily discern His will."

Oh, right. What kind of a God would it be if it all made sense to me? If it were all predictable? If we all knew for sure that when they rolled aside that rock almost 2000 years ago and saw no body, if a risen Jesus had appeared on CNN and granted some interviews, there would be no need for faith, or for a leap. Faith without a leap is just more of the information gathering we do anyway. Then faith is just the ability to Google.

I played the Rites of Spring for my kids the other day. I crouched down on the middle of the carpet where the pattern makes a circular design and the three of us pretended to be small plants just below the crust of the earth. When the music got loud, we jumped up and danced around. But then I made the mistake of pointing out that the drums and bassoon might be a bear. Jay jumped in my lap at that point. Elle stated, "I am not scared like Jay," but then she too jumped in my lap. I abandoned our ballet to make tomato soup for their lunch and turned off the music, which I had decided was really about the same as playing them Marilyn Manson at their ages. Jay followed me into the kitchen. "Where is da beaw?" he asked. He wanted to see a picture of the CD cover. I picked him up and cuddled him and talked about how you can make up all sorts of things in some kinds of music and make pictures of them in your mind. He has been talking about the "beaw music" ever since.

Lots of good happens between April 19 and 21 too. Some of my favorite people are celebrating birthdays. Life is expensive, this period seems to remind us. In all the things we want, the things we fear, the things we push away, the places we grieve and mourn, we can forget that we have been given this most precious gift of all: awareness and a heart that beats. We don't know for how long we get to have this gift. But spring gives us great hope that even when we are gone, the gift remains.

Monday, April 11, 2011

You Are All Beautiful

I took the photo at the top of this post a couple of days ago, just walking down the street. I almost didn't stop, but the colors in the yarn caught my eye. Upon closer inspection, I saw that the artist had not only cozied up the meter pole; she had also stitched us a message: "You Are All Beautiful."

Monday was the first day where we could take off our shoes and let our tender pale feet begin to develop their summer calluses. It was the first day where the bugs were more than a curiosity to my kids; the first day we had lunch and dinner outside. I took the kids over to a friend's house and the two of us moms watched our older ones swing on her swing set while we cuddled and breast fed our little ones. She was telling me about a friend of hers who was expressing some distress about the fact that she was choosing to pursue her career full throttle at the expense of spending time with her kids. It seems like there's always some new variation on this one. In her friend's case, the mother was wistful about all that she was missing in order to not compromise her very successful career. My friend said, "The hard part is, in the beginning you are feeling bad for your child. All the mommy your baby doesn't get. But later, you feel bad for you--all the child and child-time you don't get."

I've taken on a practice this Lenten season. A Catholic friend of mine told me she'd given up negative thinking. How hard could that be? I thought. Way easier than giving up caffeine. I always like to take something on rather than give something up. And so I adopted the practice as well, and found almost immediately that just as with meditation I cannot do it anywhere close to perfectly, or even 25% of the time. But, again like meditation, the practice is actually in the noticing that you are not present, not positive, and then gently steering your mind back to a friendlier turf. You do this over and over and over, as Jack Kornfield says, the way you train a puppy to pee on the newspaper instead of on your rug. And while I haven't had a single day that was truly free from negative thinking, let alone complaining––which is the audible version of negative thinking–– I have to say I have never been happier in my life. I don't feel as compelled to make everyone do what I want them to do. I seen to be happy just observing and participating when called upon. People delight me. Everything seems fresh and amazing. Best of all, I have stopped beating myself up. I don't waste my time being annoyed with myself for failing so miserably at the task of thinking positively. I just go, "Oh, well. I am learning. Nice trying!"

The difference might also be that because I have to drop the thought, I don't get to fondle it, nurture it, explore all the intricate nuances of how right I am and how wronged I have been, how things really would have been so much better if they'd gone the way I'd wanted them to go, how rotten it is that the beautiful 77 degree day we had yesterday has morphed into 45 and drizzly today.

So when I start to feel my jaw tighten and my eyes get hard like a lion about to pounce, or when I feel that queasy feeling in my gut, I get reminded that this is not good for me. I think about something joyful--usually my kids or Tom or my writers making great literature and telling some crucial bit of truth, or that one detail about my kitchen that is going to completely change my life forever for the better (the filtered hot/cold spigot on my new sink!)-- and my mouth turns up, my forehead uncrinkles, my heart feels peaceful and the cycle is broken. It's as if I have a screened-in porch, where before I was at the mercy of the mosquitoes and yellow jackets. I still see them, but now they can't get at me.

Last Friday I got an email from Elle's pre-school. Her graduation is now scheduled for June 10 from 6-7:30pm. Also scheduled at that time is the Jam for the Fans dinner and Meet and Greet, and the open mic which we'd hoped my father would participate in. When I read the email I immediately spun into panic mode. I called Katryna, and she very calmly told me to just call the school and nicely ask if they can change the date.

"Why not?" she said. "The only thing you have to lose is their opinion of you."
So, with great dread (for I care deeply that people hold me in good opinion, but I care more about seeing my daughter's graduation) I did just that. I even tried to bribe them, telling them I would lead the graduates in some stirring folk song appropriate for the occasion, something like Aikendrum.

They did not change the date.

I indulged in some negative thinking. This stinks! I thought. Not only am I missing my beloved daughter's moment of glory, but I am also missing all her classmates, most of whose music teacher I have been for the past two years. It would have been so fun to get the kids to perform! And all those wonderful parents, friends I have made, shoulders I have cried on while we watched our kids go from diapers and temper tantrums to confident organized almost-kindergartners. This was one of those moments my friend was talking about. Elle might be fine without me, but I wasn't sure I was going to be fine missing this event.

And then I decided to see what might be good about this new schedule, or at least about this state of affairs.
1. Elle's grandparents will be in town for Jam for the Fans. Maybe they can shoot over and see a portion of the event.
2. Maybe Elle is meant to be mad at me. Maybe it's good that her dad is the good guy and they can have some special time together.
3. Maybe we can have a special Mommy/Elle celebration some other time. Ditto the kids and their song.
4. Maybe the Fans will tell me to come late to the Open Mic and see my daughter graduate.

Funny that Katryna had to think of this last one. It never occurred to me that I could ask my fans (who, after all, are my employers) if they could spare me for an hour.

Jesus said, famously, "Judge not that you be not judged." He didn't say this in a wagging-a-finger, Law-of-Congress-kind-of way. He said it as the Law-of-Physics-kind-of fact that it is. When we judge, we enter a state of judgment and judgmental-ism. The opinions start ricocheting off any available surface; they are like little arrows stabbing us constantly. Judgments create pain. The Buddha, a tad less famously said, "Opinions just go around bothering people." I am so lucky to have work I adore, work that feels more like a calling than a way to make a paycheck. Some moms when they give up their paycheck gig feel very clear and good about their decision. Some moms are able to keep doing the work they love while missing very few beats in the saga of their kids' lives. I wanted to be so comfortably famous and successful by the time I had kids that I'd be able to chuck them in the back of the tour bus with a full time excellent nanny who would also be one of my best friends and a traveling Kodaly or Dalcroze teacher who also loved to play soccer, and maybe my bandmates would have kids my kids age and we could all go around the country together, one gigantic preschool on the road. Katryna and I would be selling out shed dates and big theatres and then spending the mornings in the lobbies of the hotel, chasing our kids up and down the elegant carpets past flower arrangements the size of my Suburu. My kids would see the country, pooling into Yosemite and Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon whenever we toured these areas. I would have it all.

And that didn't happen. And what I have today is so much better, so much richer, primarily because it is real and not a projection of what if. The projection misses the mosquitoes and the yellow jackets--rarely do such commonplace villains get written into fantasy. But why begrudge the mother who has this? And why pity the mother who doesn't? How could I have predicted that the best moment of my recent life was getting to watch my daughter play a variation of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" onstage with a bunch of other kids on a Sunday afternoon while my son ran around on the grass outside. The best parts are always your real life. The best parts are when you stop, wherever you are--be it in the middle of your detested job, the middle of your never-ending afternoon, the middle of your peak moment onstage or in the operating room, the middle of your walk down Crafts Avenue--and let the voice tell you the truth. You are beautiful.