My Cat as Spiritual Practice

YonderAt our Wellspring retreat back in September, we talked about spiritual practice as being regular, intentional, and deep. And it occurs to me that my cat has become a spiritual practice in my life, one that brings me joy and contentment.

 Her name is Yonder. She’s not allowed to sleep with us because she weighs more than a bowling ball, takes up a lot of the bed and tends to walk on my face early in the morning when she gets hungry. So when I get up, she’s waiting for me at the bedroom door, the first thing I see every morning. I pick her up and hold her close and pet her and feel her joyful purring against my body. If I could purr I would, because I’m so happy to see her again and to feel that unconditional love.

 Of course I know that she’s probably purring because she knows she’ll be fed soon, but it’s more than that. She’s purring because we’re together and I’m happy because we’re completely present with each other, totally in the moment.

 This little reunion with the holy happens every morning, with regularity and intent. Yonder deepens my connection to love, to the present moment, to joy. How could this cat not be spiritual practice?


Grandma and the Go-Kart

8493676_sSo who knew that go-karts could be spiritual? Not me, for sure.

For years, my son has talked about go-karts, and I have always been a little surprised at his enthusiasm. My righteous mind said it was just a lot of noise and unnecessary pollution.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of sharing time with my son and his wife and their two active and delightful children. We stayed at our family’s cottage on a small, deep and peaceful lake in the North Country, a place I’ve been almost every summer of my life. I am completely content to laze away my days reading on the porch or relaxing on the dock as the kids romp around in the water. It’s my idea of heaven.

But Thursday was gray and drizzly, and they decided it was time for a field trip to a go-kart track near Alexandria Bay. I went along only because I wanted time with the kids, not because of the go-karts. I fully expected just to watch.

When we got to the track, though, I changed my mind. We all strapped on our helmets, big round clumsy things that made us look like outer space creatures. Then we clambered into the low-lying, broad-based go-karts, one kid with each parent, Grandma alone in my own machine. The track helper started us up one by one, and off we went.

Before I had time for second thoughts, I was hurtling around the track, laughing so hard I could barely steer. I’d never driven so low and close to the ground, or so fast. I was speeding along the twisting track, my hands clenched on the tiny steering wheel, the loud engine roaring behind me, and my laughter as loud as the engine. I seemed to be going incredibly fast but couldn’t catch up to my family, who kept disappearing around the next curve. Laughing and laughing, I drove as fast as I could, taking the turns as they came because there wasn’t anything else to do, until finally I pulled back into the starting gate, still laughing.

Laughter. Letting go. Unexpected joy. I don’t pay enough attention to all of this as valid spiritual practice. I’m so focused on stilling my mind and body, listening quietly for the still small voice within that I don’t allow myself the enormous delight of unexpected, unrestrained laughter. But out on that track, laughter was the only response, and being fully present was a given.

The spirituality of go-kart racing — who knew?


Deep Listening and the Navy Pilot

CoursairMy husband and I recently went to see family and friends down South. Driving through Charleston, SC, he said he wanted to visit the main library. The man at the visitors’ center was convinced that the downtown library no longer existed, and I wanted to go to the beach, so we didn’t get to the library there. In Wilmington, NC, we spent a day with dear old friends. We talked about how to find old newspapers on microfilm but didn’t have time to go to the main library. By the time we got to Charlotte, where my daughter lives, I was feeling pretty negative about his insistence on going to the library. I thought my husband was on a wild goose chase for information he could probably find on the Internet, and I dreaded dealing with downtown traffic and parking.

My daughter, though, responded differently. She listened deeply to what he said: That this search was part of his history, that he might not have a chance to visit a library down South again, and that it was the only thing that he specifically asked to do on the whole trip.

She listened, and then she offered to drive him to the central library. Her two teenaged kids, my gorgeous grandchildren, wanted to go along on the adventure, so the four of them drove off without me. Within an hour, my daughter texted a picture of my husband and the kids peering at microfilm, and shortly thereafter, another text arrived that they had found what my husband was looking for!

They came back with printouts of six articles from the Charlotte Observer in December 1951 about the loss of two Navy pilots and the discovery of their wreckage days later. They were part of a group of pilots flying Corsairs back to their home base in Sanford, FL. My husband and most of the other pilots had turned back because of the terrible weather, but those two continued on and crashed in a swamp. Finding the articles about this catastrophic event meant bringing back a piece of my husband’s history.

In Wellspring, deep listening is the foundation of everything we do, and it is second nature in our Wellspring groups. But it doesn’t always happen easily in other situations. It took my daughter’s really listening deeply to my husband for me to understand that deep listening isn’t just for Wellspring — we need to listen to the truth behind the words in everyday relationships. We need to suspend judgment and quiet our minds to hear what someone is trying to tell us. It may surprise us.


The Wholeness of Spring

spring flowersThis morning I woke to light snowfall and thought, “Oh no, here we go again.” Two days ago it was gorgeous: blue skies, temperatures in the 60s, robins hopping around outside. Daffodil shoots have been brave enough to poke up new buds, and snowdrops have been blooming for a while now, despite the snow still hidden in the shadowy woods. Two days ago, there was reasonable hope that this long, cold winter was over. Today, it’s cold and blustery. I needed mittens and a hat and scarf on my walk and was grateful to get indoors again.

Hope and despair, light and shadow, warmth and chill, all in the course of such a short period of time. It’s all part of the whole.

It’s like that with my spiritual life as well. Some days I think I’ve discovered spiritual insight and that it’ll be clear sailing from here on. Other days, I rail and rant against the minor inconveniences of life, the indignities of getting older. There are days when I feel compassion for everyone I meet, and other days when my judging self has something critical to say about everything. Much as I’d like to think I’ve found the spiritual path, it’s not always straightforward.

What helps with the ebb and flow is my Wellspring group and the constant reminder that spiritual practice matters. Spiritual practice doesn’t mean I’ll ever be perfect. “That’s why they call it practice,” said some wise writer.

Just as I have complete faith that spring will come eventually, even with all the fits and starts, even with the return of blustery weather, I also have faith that my spiritual life is richer for being multi-dimensional. It allows me to hold both the easy calm and the more turbulent parts of life.

It’s all part of the whole, and I am grateful.


Bring Light to the World

CandlesIn this season of Advent, as we wait for the light to return, I find myself ever more conscious of the pain and suffering of the world, especially with what’s gone on recently in Ferguson and New York and so many other places.

This week in UU Wellspring – Faithful Action (the newest Wellspring curriculum, still in the pilot phase), we wrestled with the complex topic of privilege, the benefits we garner simply by virtue of belonging to certain groups.

The opening reading for the session expresses the need to keep our eyes open to our own privilege and our hearts open to those who are suffering, struggling with injustice, in need of kindness.

May we all bring light to the world.

A Franciscan Benediction

May God bless us with discomfort

At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships

So that we may live from deep within our hearts.

 

May God bless us with anger

At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God’s creations

So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

 

May God bless us with tears

To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,

So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and

To turn their pain into joy.

 

And may God bless us with just enough foolishness

To believe that we can make a difference in the world,

So that we can do what others claim cannot be done:

To bring justice and kindness to all our children

and all our neighbors who are poor.

 

Amen.


Tea and Sympathy

In an odd twist, I’ve had opportunity over the past week to feel humble and grateful for service that other people offer me. I contracted shingles last week (yes, even though I’d had the vaccine) and have been knocked off my game. Normally, I see myself as the caregiver, the provider of soup and a hand to hold. Normally, I am the caregiver who never needs anything. But this disease — sudden, painful, not life-threatening but lifestyle-changing — has transformed my perspective.

teacupOur newest curriculum (UU Wellspring – Faithful Action, currently being piloted in two churches) concentrates on Wellspring’s fifth spoke, which is how we put our faith into action, the “so what” question. Over the course of a year, we reflect on the myriad ways we can be of service in the world, constantly reminding ourselves that service is not a one-way street. One of the questions we ask in the second session is, “When have I been the recipient of or been transformed by service from others?”

I’ve had plenty of chance to reflect on that question this week. People have been so kind. Everyone is sympathetic and, surprisingly, has either gone through this personally or knows someone who has. Our neighbors brought delicious soup, enough that we have several containers in the freezer for future needs. And my dear spouse has stepped up by bringing me tea in bed, offering gentle care for my every need. I’m so grateful. And humbled.

Jenny Weil writes in Not For Ourselves Alone: Theological Essays on Relationship, “Our covenant means that we’re willing to be transformed by one another and to be accountable for our effect on others. We have thrown in our lot together.”

I am so grateful to be in this together. I would much rather not be going through this episode, but it has taught me in a deep way that we are none of us exempt from being in need of others’ service, and that we are called to offer service to others when we can. We are all part of the whole.


Alone Together

In fourth grade, when my teacher told us to bring in our hobbies, I was a bit at a loss. My favorite activity was reading, escaping into other worlds, different times and places. My mother, bless her, brought my entire bookcase and library from my room as my exhibit for hobby week. But I never talked with anyone about what I read, or why I loved it so much. That would have meant giving away the pleasure of reading alone, of escaping reality as I fell into the worlds of The Borrowers and Little Women and Gone With the Wind. Reading was my solitary pleasure.

Wellspring booksUU Wellspring has changed this. I have grown to appreciate reading in community, and re-reading the writers who most feed my soul. I must have read Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness a dozen times by now, dipping into relevant chapters even more often. The joy in this reading comes not from solitary escape but from sharing others’ responses to the book, and from listening deeply for my own response to what’s been written.

Reading our history and theology is one of the five spokes that holds UU Wellspring together — developing our own understanding of what it means to be a UU through reading what other people have written about our history and theology. We read alone, and then we talk together, sharing what we’ve experienced on the written page — or the web site, or the TED talk, or any of the myriad other sources that inform our questioning. For me, the blessing comes in sharing my solitary reading with others, in the safe space that is UU Wellspring. The blessing comes in being together in community to deepen our understanding of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.


Resurrection, by Libby Moore

Easter, again. Sunshine and daffodils, the promise of new life after a long, dark winter. In the Unitarian church where I was raised, Easter meant getting flowers and wearing a new outfit, navy blue with white polka dots, red shoes and a matching hat. The Easter bunny brought colored eggs and jellybeans and lots of chocolate.

This year, though, I was challenged to think about the deeper meaning of Easter in our Unitarian Universalist tradition. In her excellent sermon on Sunday, our minister Kaaren Anderson preached on resurrection and the ways in which we resurrect one another through acts of kindness and love. She said that resurrection is what we do, not what we believe, but I think there’s more to it than that.

In our church we often say, when someone has died, “To live in hearts that love is not to die.” These past few months I’ve struggled against this easy-sounding phrase, one I have so often written on sympathy cards. A dear friend from my college days died in January and it simply feels too glib, too facile, to say that loving hearts make her untimely death less awful. Much as I cherish her memory in my heart, I miss her gentle, caring presence in my life.

But something else happened recently that’s made me believe that loving hearts do create their own kind of immortality. Putting my granddaughter to bed one evening, I felt a sudden surge of love from my own grandmothers – who both died too young – and an awareness that they had loved me with the same fierce devotion that I feel for Evelyn. During Kaaren’s Easter sermon, I understood that their love is resurrected in me, and that love is both giving and receiving – it goes both ways.

The blessing is that the love we give – to our friends and family and the world – resurrects us as well as them. It keeps us alive in the world, as long as we keep loving and the circle of love expands.

Happy Easter. Image_easter008


It’s not about the turkey, by Libby Moore

produce
Like many people, I love Thanksgiving best of all the holidays. I actually love cooking Thanksgiving dinner, preparing all those wonderful dishes and offering family and friends the bounty of our table. Thanksgiving is a time to gather and be grateful for so many things – for new snow covering the leaf-strewn streets, for the sun sparkling and making the day magical, for the blessings of heat and hot water on this chilly cold morning. For friends who feed us beautiful soup on a cold Sunday evening and greet us with hugs. For singing at church and the joy of being with others to worship and celebrate. For the small things – a cup of hot tea, the smile from a stranger in the bustling grocery store, a moment of laughter with a four-year-old.

Some years ago, the last year he was alive, my step-father summoned all of my siblings for Thanksgiving at my house. He had suffered a stroke six or seven years earlier and it left him with aphasia, a difficulty forming words, although his body functioned and he could communicate through a kind of Twenty Questions mode. When I was younger, he and I had battled it out. He was a strict high school vice principal and I was the rebellious daughter, the anti-war demonstrator, the counter-cultural dropout. Once I’d moved away from home, we rarely talked. If he answered the phone when I called, he’d say hi and then hand it off to my mother. After my mother died, we were cordial but remote until his stroke, when he moved to an assisted living places nearby and I became his “primary care-giver.” It wasn’t onerous, really, just taking him to his many doctors’ appointments and checking up on his medications, keeping him company now and again. But over the years, as I spent more time with him and he grew more frail, I grew to appreciate him and to understand that he was who he was. He was an important part of my life and he cared for me in the best way he knew how. At that Thanksgiving dinner with my all my siblings, we went around the table and said what we were grateful for. When my dad’s turn came, he pointed to me and said, “Her.” It was all he could say, but it was enough for me.

And so, it’s not about the turkey. It’s about gratitude, and the pain that sometimes goes with it, and the sadness and the hurt and the loss that go along with joy. It’s about knowing that there are others who don’t have enough and understanding that we share their suffering because we are all part of this human family. It’s about knowing that we are blessed with love and sharing and holding one another close in our hearts. May it be so.


Peace and Quiet, by Libby Moore

We’ve had some gorgeous fall weather in western New York over the past few weeks, although today has reverted to the typical gray rain that I associate with November. The colors have been dazzling, brilliant golds and oranges and reds on maples and oaks and Bradford pears. Some trees have held their leaves until now, but most have dropped in a colorful mosaic, carpeting the lawns and streets and creating a gorgeous kaleidoscope of color. And of noise.

No matter how beautiful they are, those leaves can’t stay on the ground where they fall. Somebody’s got to suck them up with a giant vacuum cleaner attached to a tractor, or blow them across the lawn to the pile on the street, or mulch them with a riding mower. Whatever method they use, it causes loud whining, screaming, buzzing noises that shatter the quiet peacefulness of my daily walk through the neighborhood and along the canal. I find myself recoiling against the incessant noise, wondering why people can’t do this when I’m somewhere else.

My hearing aids amplify the high pitch of those kinds of noises, bringing them to the foreground and forcing me to notice. I discovered something on one of my recent walks, though, that I could just turn off the hearing aids and ignore the buzzing and whining. It felt like a whole new interior world, quiet in my head and peaceful. As I walked, I could quiet my mind, listen to my thoughts and to the still small voice within. It felt powerful, to be able to shut off the world like that.

But turnng off my hearing aids also limited my contact with the real world. I couldn’t hear the bicyclist calling “on your left” or the ducks quacking near the house where they get fed twice a day. I couldn’t carry on a conversation with the lady walking her lovely golden retriever. I missed the connections with people along the route.

So I turned the hearing aids back on and returned to the real world, which is where I live and interact and connect with people. The noise of the blowers and mowers and vacuums is just part of life in our part of the world at this time of the year, and I’m grateful for all of it, for the beauty, for the colors, for the people, and for their caring about their yards. May we care for one another with as much energy and diligence.