Morning Musings: On compulsion and freedom

Ten is a wonderful age. So was nine. And eight. And seven.

Age three to about six? Not so much!

Anyway, one of the things I love about watching my newly double-digited daughter develop is her growing self-awareness at this age, especially about how she wants to appear to others, or fears she will appear.

Every time she tells me about one of these things my heart leaps with joy. Firstly because of the great privilege of being made privy to private details of her heart and soul; And secondly because I know that with this kind of awareness about her desires and fears, she can grow to discern the motivations behind her actions more clearly, and with such discernment can come a great and glorious freedom.

She shared such an insight about herself this morning on the way to school, and it was obvious that realising and acknowledging this fear she had about how people might perceive her because of a certain action had already brought her some freedom. As we drove through the -22˚C morning, in a similarly frigid car, we talked about how, without this awareness, she would be driven to act in certain ways without even knowing why or feeling she had a choice. But once she could see what she feared and what she wanted, she had a choice not to be driven by those fears or desires. And her decision this morning was to carry on with the action she had chosen, despite how she feared it would look to others, and just enjoy it! A beautiful victory!!

And this is the gift of an examined life – freedom and joy. Be it through pondering while lying in bed, through journaling, through praying, through processing with a friend, it is worth it to take the time to examine and reflect on what motivates us. Without awareness, it’s too easy to be tricked into believing that we have no choice but to avoid the thing we fear, or fight for the thing we desire. But we DO have a choice, and we DON’T need to follow the path mapped out for us by these powerful fears and longings.

Here’s an experiment for you – a dare, if you wish! The next time you become aware of a desire or fear that is driving you, especially if it is making you feel as if you have no choice but to act in a certain way, consider whether you can actually act in a very different way than you habitually would! Can you say what you really think to a friend instead of holding your tongue as you normally feel you must? (This pattern is very familiar to me!) Can you say ‘no’ despite what you fear the asker will think of you or how you will feel/appear to yourself? Can you… [fill in the gap with your usually avoided action]? Go on, give it a go! And then come on back here and let me know how it goes! 🙂

An inclination

 

This week I seat myself on a high stool behind the coffee bar, facing the wall of windows that bring in winter’s fragile light, a steaming mug of rooibos chai between my cold palms. We begin with silence, and as I open the pages that I open every Sunday, I remember the old Hasidic tale that gives me reason and hope to repeat the familiar words once again:

The pupil comes to the rabbi and asks, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.” (Parker J. Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness)

Today, the oft-repeated words that fall into my heart are these:

“Why do you spend your money on that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Incline your ear and come to me; listen, that you might live.”

These are Isaiah’s words, but intoned as a weekly invitation and reminder, and they speak to me today not of how I spend my money so much as how I spend my energy. Suddenly, in the light of these words, I see the ways in which I have been miserly with my energy in recent weeks, maybe even months. Especially at home, I have been trying to conserve and protect my energy – somehow viewing it as a severely limited resource – and have felt a self-righteous justification in resisting external ‘demands’ on this resource. But I can see now that what I have spent myself on has not been bread, and it hasn’t satisfied. Yes, it has felt at times as if it were bread and should satisfy – there is wisdom and goodness, after all, in caring well for oneself as well as others – but in fact my choices have not been true, joyful self-love, but have on the whole been making me more selfish, stubborn, harsh, and this is not who I want to be. At long last, the pain of my choices has broken my heart open, wide enough for these words of life to fall in.

The heart has reasons which reason knows nothing of, and I may never know when, where or why the subtle shift occurred that moved me into self-preservation mode. I have functioned in this mode before, many times, and I know it isn’t good, doesn’t work. I have also experienced the expansive freedom of trusting that there is enough for me, and that I am deeply and lovingly resourced for every day and every action. But somehow, somewhere, I turned imperceptibly off that good path and find myself now at this dead end. How true that these shifts in our motivation and behaviour are almost always subtle and hard to perceive, because the lies behind them are often so close to truth. But now that my current path has taken its course for some time I can see its twisted ways for what they are, and I can respond to this morning’s gracious invitation by making another subtle shift:

I can incline my ear, and live. I can incline my heart towards the Ground of my Being and the Source of my Strength.

‘To incline’ suggests to me a gentle turning towards, a bending in a new direction. I do not have to expect myself to turn around 180˚ on the path. My movement can be tentative at first, just trying it out, carefully testing the waters of grace and my own willingness to cooperate. I have tried too many times to make drastic turnabouts that I cannot keep up, and too often these are fueled by guilt, shame, a desire to prove myself, or the allure of dramatic and visible results – and none of those are energies that sustain me for long.

So my inclination of ear and heart may at first only be the simple noticing of a self-preserving choice – though noticing is in itself a gift, and sure sign of a new direction. It may be just a remembering, in the harried moment, that I am not alone and can draw on strength and love, patience and wisdom from both deep within and beyond myself. And with each noticing or remembering, I can also incline my heart with a quick apology or a small, perhaps wordless, prayer for help.

Such small movements. Like a door allowed to swing open a crack, or a faltering flower turning its face indiscernibly towards the light.

Yet these inclinations, however small they might be, are powerful.

For as an inclination is both a direction of movement and a disposition, so each little movement can build on the one before to become a tendency, and together these movements can grow into a natural urge that draws, powerfully, along the new path.

So with cold hands cupped around the mug and broken heart cupped around the words, I incline my ear and say yes to the door ajar,  the bowing bud,  while hoping for the full creaking swing and the unfurled blossom ablaze in love’s sun.

 

doorknob

The Story of Zoe-Tree

 

One day a woman lost a baby.

The baby had not yet grown past the size of a large pea but already the woman loved it.

The woman wasn’t even sure she wanted a baby, now, so many years after her first and only child, but still she loved it and, yes, of course she wanted it.

So it was that tears began to fall when the blood began to flow. The woman carried body-memory, three times over, of this futile waste, this unceremonious loss of life that was destined to be quite literally flushed down the drain, as if it had never existed, never been loved.

But this time the kind universe gave her a special gift: the tiny pea baby fell into her hand.

And it was real. And perfect. And precious.

The woman named the baby Zoe – meaning Life, True Life, a quality of Life not a quantity – because she had dreamt some three months earlier that she had given birth too soon, too easily, to a baby too small but so perfect; and the baby in the dream was called Zoe, and she had marvelled that this baby was named after Life itself. Though in the dream the woman had protested that this baby had come too soon, the midwife had reassured her that it was just in time. And then the woman had realised that, without planning it, her family had moved house just in time and made space to welcome this new Life to come and live with them.

So the precious pea baby was Zoe.

The woman carefully wrapped Zoe up and vowed to bury her one day under a tree she would plant.

Many tears fell those first weeks. But the tears were good. They were love and tenderness and desire, softening and opening and awakening. They were the water for a seed-bed of hope and joy and compassion. They were Life coming – yes, even through death, loss and grief. They were Zoe coming to live first of all in the house of the woman’s own soul.

The woman’s mother wrote from the well of her own love and tears and said, “Who’s to say eight weeks is not a whole lifetime of loving and being loved?” And it was true – real Life is quality not quantity. And real Life is Love.

As weeks turned to months the tears dried up, and that was good too. Gratitude came on the back of grief, love from loss, joy out of sorrow. So Life did come and live with the little family.

Twelve months went by and no tree had yet been planted for Zoe. The woman loved silver birches and she thought at times of planting one of these. But then – twelve months plus another three – she saw a weeping pussy willow sapling and she loved it. And her precious firstborn daughter heard and remembered, and bought it for the woman for her birthday.

This was the perfect tree for Zoe. It was small too, but perfect, beautiful. And it was weeping too, as the woman had, but the tear-branches were life and beauty and strength.

At first the tree waited inside, and then outside, while everyone discussed where it should be planted, and this was harder to decide than they expected. It needed lots of sun so some of the suggested spots were unsuitable, and everyone agreed that it would be a shame to plant such a pretty tree too far from the house. Finally, the woman’s husband suggested a spot at the front of the house next to the patch of flaming orange day lilies and it was agreed that this would be the perfect place.

But before they got the tree in the ground, they noticed that all the leaves on its lower weeping branches had turned grey and had died, and that the dying seemed to be spreading.

They hurried to dig a hole so that the tree’s roots could be given new space and soil and water in its new home-place, but even as they did so they feared it was too late, that they had waited too long. The woman’s husband dug and the woman weeded and cleared, and it was rushed and unceremonious, and the woman threw in what was left of Zoe just before the tree went in the hole, with a quick word of explanation to her husband and with a sense of dread about the fate of the tree, which she tried to cover up by feigning nonchalance.

But she didn’t feel nonchalant at all. She felt afraid and guilty; resentful that this tree had become symbolic enough for her to care about; expectant of the worst; and unhappily resigned to a fate of not being able to keep anything alive – not Zoe, not even her tree.  The dying of the tree represented everything she feared about herself and about life: that really, truly, Life does not come out of death, nor beauty from ashes, love from hate. There is so much to regret, so much to fear! How is it even possible to welcome Life in the midst of all this mess, all this death and dying?!

One night, all this tumbled out on a river of tears with the woman’s wiser, older friend. And the tears and the compassionate listening softened again those places hardened by fear and disappointment, and awakened again those plantings of desire and hope.

So the woman dared to stop feigning nonchalance – because, really, how and when can you welcome Life if not in the midst of all this mess? – and dared to hope that the tree had been planted just in time. She touched the tree with love while she watered it. She spoke with the Great Life-Giver and she spoke to Zoe and she asked the tree to, please, grow.

She told her young daughter how afraid she was that the tree was not going to live, and she asked whether the daughter would speak tenderly to it as she had. The daughter coaxed and sang, and then suggested they name the tree; so the woman decided to tell her for the first time about Zoe.

Then together they made a decision that the tree should be called, simply, Zoe-Tree.

There were days of anxiety over Zoe-Tree; and perhaps there are more to come, because surely there are no guarantees in this world. But a nurse of people and plants gave reassurance that some loss is a natural part of transplanting (death a part of new life?!), and she urged the woman to wait and hope. And though the dead leaves remained below, tiny buds and then the bright green of tender new leaves began to appear on higher branches, so that one day the woman dared to pinch off the dead leaves, leaving only what is alive.

Now Zoe-Tree stands with the orange beauty in full flame behind her, growing and thriving full-green herself, a stone’s throw from the house, the first sight to greet each visitor. She is nourished both by soil, water, sun, and by love, tears, and vulnerable hopes. She holds death in her roots, and dying marks her weeping branches. But she is alive.

One day, she greets the woman and her daughter as they return to the House Where Life is Welcome, and the daughter remarks:

“Zoe-Tree is doing well.”

And she is. In spite of it all, and perhaps because of it all, she is.

weeping tree

Why my daughter’s dance recital made me cry (And it’s not what you think)

Dance crying

I suppose there are a few reasons that one might cry at a children’s dance recital.

I have been to a couple of recitals, for example, where I could have cried from how impersonal, mechanical, prematurely sexualized, commercialized – and therefore boring and joyless – much of the show felt.

Of course, it would be more common to cry at a dance recital from parental pride at watching one’s own child perform. And I can’t deny I was proud this weekend when my sweet girl took all her courage in her hands to push through the heavy red curtains before a packed auditorium and sing ‘O Canada’ acapella – and beautifully – to open the show. I must admit, though, that I was too busy nervously pacing backstage to feel weepy! However once back in my seat, my Mummy-presence no longer needed in the wings, the graceful dance that she and her two ballet classmates had spent months working on did wrest a few tears from my eyes.

But it was something else that had me wet-eyed and choked-up during much of the show. To start with, the atmosphere of this recital couldn’t have been more different from those joyless ones I’m trying to forget. From the moment that the audience first clapped, cheered and whistled for my daughter’s brave and beautiful opening song, there was a sense that everyone was rooting for everyone else’s child as well as their own. As a friend put it later: “Everyone had fallen in love.” And we had; it was one of those wonderful moments where a different sort of spirit invades a group, creating a harmonious and loving whole from the disparate parts.

The tone of the recital was set by the fact that, on top of the choreographed and practiced numbers, each performer – from the very youngest to the most experienced – was given the chance to come out one after another and do a little solo of their own creation. This allowed them to enjoy stringing together their own moves, and aimed to encourage confidence in performing, but mostly it gave each of them a chance to shine. For just a few moments the spotlight was theirs and theirs alone, and the applause belonged only to them. And it was a beautiful thing. Because the aim wasn’t polished choreography or ‘perfect’ execution but celebration of the individuality of each perfect-just-as-you-are human being, and of the joy of a body moving to music. Sometimes the wonderful dance teacher would pick up a tiny stagefright-struck youngster in her arms and spin her around in the spotlight before carrying her off-stage. How can you not cry when the least and littlest are treated with such tenderness and dignity?

My wet eyes turned to tear-stained cheeks, though, when a young woman who would be considered considerably overweight by most standards came on stage to perform a solo ballet routine to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t expect what followed: she was graceful, strong, poised, and beautiful, and her dance was poignant and inspiring to watch. Again, though, what moved me most was that she was being given the chance to shine – and, oh, she did! – when our twisted culture would usually disqualify her body from the realms considered ‘beautiful’ or worthy of being watched and admired. Another shame-faced confession: if I saw her walking down the street I am sure that ‘graceful’, ‘strong’, and ‘poised’ would not be the first descriptors to pop into my twisted mind, just as they are often hard words to access when I evaluate my own larger-than-‘normal’ body. But right now I’m fighting tooth and nail the warped perspectives I’ve picked up along the way concerning body shape and weight (mine and others’) and their correspondence with beauty, strength and worth. I need to do this for my precious daughter, and for me. And I’m just hoping that I, that we all, can get our grubby little fingers off ‘beauty’ and let it be the indefinable, inexpressible, surprising gift that it is! At one point in the show Dear Husband turned to me and commented how amazing it was that the girls were such different shapes and sizes – all different and all beautiful. And at what age does that stop being true? Who are we to think we know what and who is beautiful or not? And who am I to judge my own attainment of beauty/perfection/worthiness/… [fill in the blank] measured against some nebulous and perverse ‘norm’?  Can’t we stop all the judging and dividing and just dance?! We were made to dance! We were made for joy… We were made to shine!

As this unknown girl moved her body so exquisitely to the stirring music, the tears streaming down my face reflected sadness for the deception and pain our cultural norms and notions can inflict on so many of us (whether ‘skinny’, ‘fat’ or somewhere in-between), and grateful recognition that those norms can be quietly but powerfully challenged by a single courageous human.  But they also expressed a hopeful longing for the ongoing healing of my own wounds and distortions.

And that’s as good a reason as any to cry at a dance recital, don’t you think?

 

Rachael Felicity Grace: Old name, new blog, ongoing journey

 

I love my name.

(Now)

But I didn’t always.

 

And that, in a nutshell, is why I’ve chosen to start a new blog space with a new-to-the-blogosphere but 39-years-old- today-to-me name!  My lifetime journey of shifting feelings about my name – a story for another day? – largely mirrors my feelings about myself. For most of my life I would say I haven’t liked myself all that much, and definitely not LOVED myself very well. But over the years my capacity for self-love and self-acceptance has slowly but surely been growing as I have been loved well – by family, friends, and God. I have gradually, GRADUALLY, learned how to accept and internalize a little more the love I’ve been given, trusting it (mostly!) to be real love that I am worthy of, and not just well-meaning but misguided charity or codependent neediness masquerading as love!  {I know, I have issues… That’s why I’m doing this!}

It’s definitely an ongoing journey – I think I still love my name more consistently than who it designates! – but thank goodness that love never gives up. Because… can I tell you what I believe? That all those small choices to love each other and love ourselves really do make a difference over time, even if sometimes all we are aware of is the brokenness, the apparent lack of love, or the bottomless pit that never seems to get filled. At the moment I’m feeling the difference those small choices make, as if a watershed moment is approaching and I had better get ready. For the last year or so I’ve been sensing a significant shift in how I see myself and how much I can love, forgive and accept myself, and I’m basking in the corresponding ability to enjoy my life and be more present to people and events. But I know I’ve still got a long way to go… Some mornings I still wake up feeling inexplicably loveless, unloved and unlovable; the difference is that I now know my feelings aren’t always the best truth-tellers out there (!) and I’m determined to learn how to live more wholeheartedly in the unshakable truth of how deeply loved I am, as we all are. Hence a new blog for a new leg of the journey.

It was the desire to really learn to savour life that pushed me to start my first blog, as a way to notice the everyday gifts of life through slowing down enough to write, and as a way to both process and chronicle my learning curve. It’s been good. (Though admittedly sporadic!) And now – with a blank slate on a new blog – my desire is to take this journey a step further and really learn to savour myself: Rachael Felicity Grace!

Just the fact that a big part of me cringes as I say that is indication enough of why I need to write about this, journeying through the baggage that would still have me believe that learning to love and delight in myself is 1) self-centred, unholy and ultimately unloving and 2) (not at all disconnected to #1) a foolish and pointless endeavour due both to my inherent unlovableness (sorry Spellcheck, it should be a word!) and the dire needs of the world and people around me. But here’s another thing I have come to believe through my own lived experience: that the world IS in dire need of compassion, and that I am in no position to give it if I don’t have compassion on myself.

I have heard countless talks or sermons in which it has been pointed out that implicit in Jesus’ Great Commandment to “love our neighbour” is the mandate to love ourselves. But I wonder how many times I’ve really believed that message? It has sounded to my self-despising ears like a selfish cop-out at worst or an anachronistic, ill-advised wish-dream at best. And yet haven’t you found this puzzling equation to be true yourself? That real self-love only leads to MORE love for others and for God, and on the cycle goes? And, conversely, that trying to ‘love’ others when you hate yourself – or because you hate yourself! – just gets very sad and futile, or very messy and painful, very fast? I have! Even “loving the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength” has been – and continues to be – impossible for me when I have no clue that this God loves ME first! And so, more and more, I really ‘get’ Bernard of Clairvaux’s (12th C) mysterious ‘Four Degrees of Love’ from the inside out. I used to think that attaining “Love of God for God’s sake” would be the ultimate realization, and of course it trumps “Love of self for self’s sake” and “Love of God for self’s sake” because it means having reached the highest level of selflessness and Other-centredness possible. But Bernard describes the highest degree of love, one step beyond loving God for God’s sake, as “Love of self for God’s sake!”

What?! And YES!! Though I don’t completely comprehend this rationally, I can feel its truth in my core. (Can you?) And that’s what I want.

 

So this is me.

Rachael Felicity Grace.

And this is my space to write about who I am, what I love and what I don’t love; and what it means to love (myself and others and God), including the all-important but challenging journey of loving and caring for my body; and what it looks like when I don’t love me and those around me and can’t feel that I am loved or lovable at all; and what the heck I can do about that! My hope is that writing regularly and honestly about these things can be significant both as a mini ‘coming out’ about who I am and what’s important or difficult for me – which helps hammer another nail into the coffin of my shame issues every time – and also as a context to connect with others in a way that encourages me and you, and lets us know we are not as alone or different as we imagined.

So. Maybe you are exploring some of these same things? Want to join me?