Monday, March 21, 2011

remember, the first pancake always sticks to the pan

Integrity is not a conditional word. 
It does not blow in the wind or change with the weather.
It is your inner image of yourself, 
and if you look in there and see a man who won't cheat,
then you know he never will. 
Integrity is not a search for the rewards of integrity.
Maybe all you ever get for it is the largest kick in the ass the world can provide.
It is not supposed to be a productive asset.
John D. Macdonald

[In the film, "War Games"]...a computer stages a massive Soviet first strike with hundreds of missiles, submarines, and bombers. Believing the attack to be genuine, NORAD prepares to retaliate. The hero convinces military officials to cancel the second strike and ride out the non-existent attack. The computer starts an attempt to launch a second strike, however, using a brute force attack to obtain the launch code for the U.S. nuclear missiles.  All attempts to log in and cancel the countdown fail. All weapons will launch if the computer is disabled. So they direct the computer to play tic-tac-toe against itself. This results in a long string of draws, forcing the computer to learn the concept of futility. Once the computer obtains the missile code, it cycles through all the nuclear war scenarios it has devised before launching.  All result in stalemates. The computer concludes that nuclear warfare is "a strange game", having discovered the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction ("WINNER: NONE"). And concludes that "the only winning move is not to play." The computer then offers to play "a nice game of chess", and relinquishes control of NORAD and the missiles.
Wiki synopsis

"A fight is going on inside me," said an old man to his son. "It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf is good. he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you."
The son thought about it for a minute and then asked, "Which wolf will win?"
The old man replied simply, "The one you feed."

Wendy Mass

Live simply that others may simply live.
—Mother Teresa

Let me win.  But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.
—Special Olympics oath

Winners are simply experienced losers.
—Your mother

In a world that celebrates winners, a not-so-subtle message reverberates: if I lose, then I'm a loser. I beg to differ.

I have been simmering over this since a friend recounted a recent conversation that was peppered with adversarial overtones.  He closed with, "In relationship, I believe 'win-win' is the better choice." This from an athlete. One who likes to win.

Taught that perfectionism was the goal rather than a character defect, I recall the shock - and relief - that ran throughout my body and soul when this discovery registered with me. The old mantra - "Don't do anything unless you can do it perfectly" - was quickly replaced with "Fun is good." New and pleasurable options appeared when execution counted less than the attempt. Self-criticism was replaced with satisfaction. Yay! I learned to swim at fifty-two. Badly. But, hey, I learned to swim! And now I've learned to snorkel! Another yippee! This dive into my dotage has even trumped my fear of swimsuits. I've noticed how friendly my fellow swimmers are. They don't seem to care that my technique has no discernible label. They encourage me.

On the other end of the spectrum are my gifts. Skills or traits that were not attained through effort but came with the package. I hid them under a bushel because someone else might do...or have...or be...better. Or, because I knew these attributes were unearned, I was uncomfortable in the spotlight.  Another friend put this into perspective. A talented musician, he passed along advice he'd been given.  "When you receive a complement or applause, picture yourself receiving a rose. And then, in your soul, lift that rose to God in gratitude for the gift." Inevitably, another is, or will be, better. This is life, not a competition. Sometimes, the only winning hand is not to play the game. But to P-L-A-Y... joyfully, with gusto. And integrity.

Don't give me a passing grade because I got into the pool. My pride doesn't need stroking. My strokes need practice. Show me where I went wrong and teach me how to  swim better. I need to see my limitations, experience some failure. My ego is healthy enough. My humility isn't. Sometimes the fight is within me. Help me feed the right wolf.

For those who meet defeat over and over again: help them find their victories...and some self-respect along the way. If I'm too busy to stop for them, my life is too complicated. Mother Teresa was right: live's not all about me and what's mine.  Relationship is soul-ful, soul-filling. It's a win/win proposition. If I fall down and you pick me If you fall down and I pick you

So here's why I think it's important to remember that the first pancake always sticks. First tries are rarely perfect. Anything approaching fantastic on the initial attempt is pure luck. But each attempt will feed me. I will be nourished and grow. On the other hand, I could starve waiting on five-stars. I know. I've cooked a lot of pancakes.

Maturity lies in accepting reality, not in demanding perfection.
I am not perfect.
My life is not perfect.
No day is perfect.

Mature people resist extremes, 
have realistic self-images and reasonable goals, 
and have learned to accept responsibility for their own actions. 
The only expectations they have are for themselves. 
The only inventories they take are their own.

Maturity is the growing awareness that you are neither all powerful nor helpless. 
It could be said to be the knowledge of what is, what might be, and what cannot be. 
It is not a destination; it is a road. 
It is the moment when you wake up after some grief or staggering blow and think, “I’m going to live, after all.” 
It is the moment when you find that something you have long believed is not so; 
and, parting with old convictions, you find that you are still you; 
the moment you discover that someone else can do your job as well as you, 
but you go on doing it anyway; 
the moment you do the thing you have always been afraid of; 
the moment you realize that you are forever alone, but so is everyone else; 
and the hundred moments when you see yourself as you are. 
It is letting life happen in its own good order and making the most of what there is. 
It is “Letting go and letting God.”

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

learning to live between "don't know" and "not yet"

God’s grace for the journey always transcends the courage required to answer a call.
What seemed an end has become a beginning.

Life is journey. Lent reminds me of this. I was raised in a non-liturgical church. We celebrated Easter with a mention of Good Friday. Later, much later, I would begin an annual walk through this season of Lent. I was especially drawn to Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. The long hours between death and resurrection. I have spent months, years even, in this territory. A bad place to live but a good place to visit. For it is the place where hope has no place to go except to faith. Dogma and doctrine will not satisfy. Just faith. Beyond emotion and feeling. Madeleine L'Engle paints a vivid picture of this place. 

Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion of heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God Himself...I will have nothing to do with a God who cares only occasionally. I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights.  It is when things go wrong, when good things do not happen, when our prayers seem to have been lost, that God is most present.  We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly.  We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly.

A friend is walking the Appalachian Trail.  Again.  He may follow the same path as before. But he will not merely re-trace his steps if he keeps the eyes of his soul open. A thunderstorm will halt progress in a spot that he passed without notice on his original trek. Fellow hikers will bring new tales. Second glimpses will re-frame first impressions. The familiar will be born again. The gift will not be fame, recognition, or praise. The reward will come with each step. With humility born of asking. For strength. For daily bread. For protection. With humility born of being carried, picked up over and over again, when faith dims.The gift is the journey...not the destination. The gift is Love.

I am living in a season of personal limbo, of active waiting...solitude, long walks, meditation, prayer, discernment. A deeply personal Lenten season.  This year I am thinking of the disciples.  Like them, I typically set out with excitement, passion.  And like them, I usually had a destination in mind.  But the labyrinth that followed slowed my progress until I wound to the center and stopped.  The only way out was to re-trace my steps and re-visit all that had gone before. 

By Palm Sunday, the disciples' journey had carried them from the heights of a radical ministry to a time of terrible confusion and fear. The week that followed would close with a rip in time. Two long, terrible nights sandwiched a day of darkness.  These hours stripped each of illusion. A painful time. Just ask the crab who outgrows his hard shell and sheds it to survive. And then must survive - naked, unprotected, vulnerable - until a new shell forms. Growth demands that this cycle repeat countless times

Holy Saturday: the day between the Cross and the Empty Tomb
the longest day
all my moments between small deaths and renewal
all my fretful days and endless nights
fingers drumming
as if time is mine to command.

Storms happen. Life unfolds with serendipity. Without regard for my plans. But I know the rest of the story. The tomb that was empty that first Easter remains empty. Lent is a time of remembering. That Christ lives. That love is gift. And that Love arrives complete. Each day is an unwrapping of some never before seen facet. If I choose to look. The Good God watches as I wander in the wilderness and return, His great Love undiminished by my failings. 

I have come into port for a season. The rope is lightly coiled, in anticipation of future voyages. For now, I will steal away into the solitude. I leave you with this beautiful poem by Jennifer Woodruff.

Not only what we thought we could afford,
Not only what we have the strength to give is asked of us; 
the grace that makes us live calls for a death,
and all we are is poured onto an altar we did not design
And yet which holds us in His perfect will
And in both flames and darkness holds us still
and is the strength, the pillar, and the sign
Of all that never fails, though we are weak,
Of He who calls, and asks us to embrace our weakness, and our cross, to see His face 
and, made most strong in weakness,
He will speak.

Monday, March 7, 2011

traveling mercies

Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; 
fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.
C.S. Lewis

I didn’t see the couple board.  Too busy settling into the single seat on the left aisle of the express jet.  My pre-flight routine consists largely of getting ready to nap. I am frequently asleep before take-off.
My eyes were closed, ready to rest after a morning flight delay.  But I was aware of a mild commotion across the aisle one row ahead of me. I didn’t want to look. How else to honor private boundaries in a congested public space?  But the noise continued and I gave up any notion of sleep. This is when I first saw her. She was frazzled. In every way. Her hair. Her clothes. Her eyes. Her soul.   
I heard him say that these were definitely not their seats. A tad irritated but not rude.  She sat and began tussling with her seatbelt. He removed a newspaper from his computer bag, then returned the case to the overhead bin. Things settled a bit and I tried once again to nap.  
A flight attendant came back and said, “Sir, you are right. You should be in the seats up front. I’ll ask the other couple to swap.”
“No. No. We’re fine.” He spoke quietly but firmly. “We’re fine now.”  
Another settling. Then a voice, higher in pitch, crossed the aisle. “But we should ALL be wearing them.”  She was all tangled, head up, hands reaching beneath her legs. “This is a dereliction.” I could see her face, brows knitted together, eyes feral.  
“Shhhh!  Hush, dear.” These words would be repeated many times in the hour-long flight. Sometimes they heralded a brief respite. At other times, the directive was ignored.  “Everything is going to be fine.”
More words, spoken quietly, passed between them. Then, she became strident again.  “This is WRONG.  WRONG.”
He touched her hand and spoke again, again firmly, this time with less patience. “Calm down. We are fine.”
But she wasn’t fine. Not even close. She was a wounded animal caught in a trap. “It is wrong. We should all be wearing life vests NOW. We are in a potentially life-threatening situation.”
I had never witnessed such fear of flying before. My first thought when I heard her remark was, “Ma’am, if the pilot sets this thing down in Lake Purdy, we have bigger problems than life vests.”  I ached for both of them by now.  An irrational person cannot see truth.  Every moment is a potentially life-threatening one. A driver two lanes over could have a heart attack and create havoc on the interstate. One laugh during a dinner and a morsel of food could get stuck.  I’m a fatalist.  I’m going to die.  I don’t know the circumstances.  But I am going to die.  
We had not yet begun to taxi. I looked at him for the first time. Tall, erudite, no wildness present. He wore a impecabbly tailored navy blazer over a deep blue v-neck sweater and pale blue oxford shirt. His softly draping khaki slacks had a knife-edge pleat. Socks of the same hue showed slightly when he sat. Expensive leather loafers befitted one who sported a Cartier tank watch. As precise as she was disheveled, down to the second hand.   
Then she spoke again, tearfully. He held her hand as she said, “I know you were afraid I’d be more upset if we sat in the  back instead of the seats you booked. I’m okay.” The words and expression didn’t match but the gratitude rang true. He patted her hand and she became quiet again and doubled over in her seat.  
We finally began to taxi. Suddenly, she sat bolt upright and leaned over the seat in front of her.  He reached for her but could not quieten her again.  “I’m so sorry,” she said loudly, “but I have to get off this plane. I have to get off.”  He pulled her down and whispered to her.  This time when he sat back, the fatigue was obvious. She whimpered and I saw him grimace. She moaned and he rolled his eyes slightly upward, a silent prayer for help.
This continued for a while and then silence. He picked up his paper, folded it, and began to work a crossword puzzle. They laughed a few times even. But the panic resurfaced when someone raised a window covering. Silence seemed to terrify her as well. She fought it, created chaos with her constant chatter and incessant twitching. Much like a nephew who refused to go to his bed, saying, “Bad dreams live in there,” she would not visit the quiet. Her husband smiled as one accustomed. He frowned when too accustomed.  
When we landed, I reached for my computer case after he retrieved his.  I noticed that she had somehow managed to cross over from her window seat. Five people ahead of her husband, she pushed ahead, panic written on her face. He proceeded calmly. They had danced this dance before. A tango of love and fear.
I never saw them again. They had reached their destination. I had a two-hour wait before my next flight. The time passed quickly as I walked through the Houston airport until departure. I thought of what I had seen. He had her back as much as humanly possible.  She knew this.  But he could not remove her panic.
In her fear, she could not, did not, listen but heard only words that gave a temporary fix. In her fear, she was totally alone. Terribly, completely alone. In his awful role of Her-god, he was equally alone.  

To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit,  from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, 
from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.
Henri Nouwen

I pray for solitude for each of them. 

For a lightness of being and a more beautiful dance. 

For quiet days and quiet nights.

For a passionate life.  

For safe travels, within and without.