You do not have to quit Facebook

You do not have to quit Facebook.
You do not have to turn off your computer and cell phone two hours before bed.
You do not have to fast from social media for a month,
read a Russian novel, meditate for an hour every day,
or wake up before dawn to go for a run.

All you have to do is close your eyes for a minute.
All you have to do is take a deep breath for a change, feel the oxygen flow to your
arms and feet and head.
All you have to do is step onto your porch and notice the sunset,
sleep in an extra ten minutes
or maybe put some real cream in your coffee for once.

Rilke wrote to his “neighbor God”
That the wall between them was very thin:
A cry from either of them would easily break it.

Why have you been doing nothing, out of fear that you cannot do everything?
Listen, all that stuff is lovely, good for you even,
But all that is required is a word.
One real word, spoken through the wall.
Or if you can’t think of anything to say,

Just take a moment to listen.
One moment. And maybe one the next day, too.
And even if you spend the rest of the evening binge-watching Netflix
I promise that moment will be enough to break down the wall.

~Jessica Faith Kantrowitz

***

Go to my Facebook page to read the original Mary Oliver poem and the Rainer Maria Rilke poem.

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The Italian word for prayer

Basilica Facciata, Assisi, Italy

Basilica Facciata, Assisi, Italy

I have a somewhat big decision to make, one that I’ve been thinking about for several months, and I’ve been pretty stressed about it. I’m so bad at making even small decisions, and the big ones can overwhelm me. I keep settling on a course of action, and trying to make it stick, but then the pros and cons will start circling back again. I’m trying to focus on the pros, that there are good things to both paths, and everything will be okay either way. I know this. But it’s not just the cons that haunt me, it’s the decision itself. I get this way even when I have to decide whether to go out for the evening or stay in. Sometimes a migraine can come as a relief, making the decision for me, even as it frustrates me with my limitations.

My friend Judith McCune Kunst is teaching a poetry class in Italy this month. Before I tell you how this ties into my big decision, let me share one of my favorite of her poems, which was published in The Atlantic in March, 2000.

THE GUEST

When Chiqui asked me if my sleep in her house
had been good, I told the truth with a sweep
of my hands: The mattress sags, I said, and left
for Spanish class.
                     She dragged the mattress
off its frame and propped it in the narrow hall.
She pulled the larger, slightly newer mattress off
her and her husband's bed and hauled it
back to mine.
                     Now when Chiqui asks me
how I've slept, I lie: Just fine, I say,
though by this time I've learned
the Spanish word for shame.

I’ll give you a moment to recover from that. It took me several before I could breathe properly again.

Are you ready to continue? Okay. So Judith is teaching a class in Italy, and ten days ago she posted on Facebook that she was traveling to Assisi, the birthplace of Saint Francis, and said to message her with prayer requests and she would pray for us in that holy place.

If you had asked me what I needed to cope with this decision-making process, I would have probably said a better to-do list, a wise advisor, or for something to happen that irrevocably made the decision for me. I realize now that this was a serious lapse of imagination. What I actually needed, and what was provided, was for a poet friend to pray for me on a sacred pilgrimage.

The nature of my decision is that I can’t really take any action on it until the end of April. There is data I won’t have till then, either. So it will be a few more weeks before events are set in motion, before I can stop thinking about it.

But in the meantime, my friend’s prayer perches like a soft bird on my shoulder, like the gentle animals to whom Saint Francis is said to have preached the gospel. I always thought they must have known it already, that Good News that we humans try to pass on to each other in broken English and Spanish and Italian. I think the birds are born knowing it. I think that’s what they sing to each other about, on these April mornings when I’ve dared to leave my bedroom window open a crack, their sweet songs reaching me in my slumber and cheering me for the day ahead.

I think the birds of Assisi already knew the gospel, but I think they still listened intently to Francis as he preached, their little heads tilted as the medieval Italian words filled their ears. Jesus referenced birds when he said, “Your heavenly Father knows what you need.” He already knows. But we pray for each other anyway. I imagine the great-great-great — and far beyond that — great-grandchildren of Francis’s sparrows tilting their heads to listen to my friend as she prays by the slender cypress trees. And God is there, too, his head inclined, nodding intently, even though he already knows.

***

You can read more of Judith’s poetry and prose, including updates of her month in Italy, at her website, www.judithkunst.com.

Then not just my feet, but my head and hands as well!

Jesus washing Peter's feet

Jesus washing Peter’s feet, by Sister Marie Boniface

It’s Maundy Thursday, and this is one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible. I am busy and tired and overwhelmed, and I don’t have more than a minute to post this morning, but I am taking that minute to imagine myself as Peter, intense, passionate, often bumbling Peter, who loves Jesus with his whole heart and mind and, one night after this exchange is going to deny Him three times.

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.  Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;  so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.  After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean.

And I read this poem by Rainer Marie Rilke last night, from the book The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, and it seems to me to be the same thing.

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

God at the center, Jesus offering to wash our feet as we offer ourselves, bumbling, not knowing either exactly who we are or who God is, but moving ever around and through and for God, hoping that our life is what our Creator meant it to be, washed once and for all yet still tripping and falling in the mud, rising and soaring. And through it all, always talking to the One at the center of our being, shy but eager to know our role in the Passion. We want to wash our Lord’s feet but find Him, instead, knelt over ours as we throw up our hands in confusion and praise.

***

Soundtek, if you are reading this, you won the giveaway! Please email me your address at tenthousandplacesblog@gmail.com so I can send you Matt’s book!

Welcoming the dark

IMG_0478

Sunset at Arnold Arboretum

Sunset in Boston these days is at 4:12 pm. Today it finds me sitting on my couch finishing up an editing job, glancing now and then out my eastward facing window at the darkening sky. More than the cold and the snow, winter in New England is defined by me by these early sunsets. It’s still day by the clock, I still have two hours of work on work days and two hours till dinner on non-work days, and four hours after that till bedtime, but night has set in and the next six hours will be passed under artificial lights.

There is something called Seasonal Affective Disorder which means that the person becomes depressed in fall and winter, but I don’t know many people who aren’t affected by the encroaching darkness. It’s just harder to move about in the dark; even with all the lights on you can’t trick your body and spirit into thinking it’s light out. So I’ve found that it helps me to acknowledge the difference. I try to notice when the sun is setting, to take a moment to look out the window, say goodbye to the light, and welcome the darkness. Sometimes it’s just a brief glance and a deep breath, others I take the time to light a candle, say a prayer, or put my hands over my heart in anjali mudra, the gesture of greeting that is also how you set an intention in yoga. I would rather stay in sunlight, but since the night is here I welcome it, acknowledge the sadness and fear that accompany it, and set my intention to move through it as well as I can.

Anjali Mudra by Claudia Tremblay

Anjali Mudra by Claudia Tremblay

Scraps of poems and passages help me, too. I’ll share a few of them here in case they are useful to you, too.

Steadily and continuously that process went on, till now, as he faced his enemies, he felt the interior loss which had attacked him at other stages of his pilgrimage grown into a final overwhelming desolation.  He said to himself again, as he so often said, “This also is Thou,” for desolation as well as abundance was but a means of knowing That which was All.
~Charles Williams, War in Heaven

(Sometimes I say to myself simply, “This also is Thou.”)

And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins

I love to think of those lines while watching a winter sunset.

Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.
~Desmond Tutu

Light is stronger than darkness, even when it seems like the darkness is winning.

O holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
~Adolphe Adam

Gregory Boyle writes movingly about what it means for the soul to find its worth in his book Tattoos of the Heart.

The Welcoming Prayer
Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I welcome everything that comes to me today
because I know it’s for my healing.
I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons,
situations, and conditions.
I let go of my desire for power and control.
I let go of my desire for affection, esteem,
approval and pleasure.
I let go of my desire for survival and security.
I let go of my desire to change any situation,
condition, person or myself.
I open to the love and presence of God and
God’s action within. Amen.
~Father Thomas Keating

That’s a lot to let go of all at once; it helps me to just focus on one or two of those things at a time.

Do you have a ritual for welcoming the dark?

Love,
Jessica

 

 

How to write a blog post

Great blue heron

Discovering the Water’s Edge by Mark Slawson

“There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.”
~from How to Write a Poem by Wendell Berry

I’ve been feeling discouraged lately. I have some foot problems and a knee problem that have been keeping me from going for walks and doing yoga, and I need that exercise as much for emotional health as for physical. I also need it for my work. I do two marathon days of 10 hours each with three kids, and I need to be strong to make it through.

I also had an argument with a friend the other day, where we were crossing wires and each hurting the other. We talked about it and we’re fine now, but it left me feeling familiarly frustrated with how easy it is to say something stupid or hurtful — how in fact it seems like the harder I try the more blunders and absurdities I end up adding to the list of things that haunt me at night when I can’t sleep. And then I drive in Boston and people are so mean to each other sometimes, and so angry.

I don’t get outside much in my current jobs. The little kids go from activity to nap to activity, and the big ones have to go straight home from school to do their homework. The boy I watch on Fridays is just a (very cute) homebody, and if we get out it’s usually just for a walk around the block. So I was surprised and excited when he agreed to a walk around Jamaica Pond this afternoon.

I wish my phone took better pictures, but believe me, it was lovely at Jamaica Pond today. Still, I was feeling low and just kind of dull, and the autumn colors weren’t stirring as much joy in me this year as they usually do. Also, the first thing we saw when we stepped out of the car was writing scrawled on the curb — a variation of the “call Sally for a good time” except with explicit details about what the good time would entail, and what I assume was the poor girl’s actual phone number. And I thought — people suck. I suck. Why can’t we all get it together?

Still, I was at a gorgeous pond with an adorable four year old, so I settled myself into my job description as a writer (via Frederick Buechner): “Pay attention.”

The water level at the pond was much lower than it had been the last time I was there. J and I walked on a little beachy area below the landscaped stones that usually mark the edge of the pond. We threw stones into the water, and then sticks. We examined fallen branches and played walking games that J invented. I told him there was a really cool tree I wanted to show him, and he put the hood up on his sweatshirt and put his little hands in his pockets as we walked. We acted on suggestions from both parties: “Let’s climb that tree!” “Let’s go up those steps and see what’s on top.” “I’ll take one step then you take one step then I take two then you take two.” “Let’s go see where the old mansion used to be.”

My feet hurt a little bit, but the red and orange maples and the slope of the hills were beginning to get through my malaise. We traced the outline of the old mansion up on Pinebank Promontory and read the little plaques with its history and the history of the pond. Then we looped back down towards where the car was parked. We still had 20 minutes till we had to leave to pick up his big sister, so I tried to think of something to do.

“Do you want to throw rocks into the water again?”

“Okay.”

We went back down on the drought-created beach, and started walking but suddenly there was a large flapping and a great blue heron moved away from us a few feet, startled by our proximity. We quickly went back up onto the path and sat down to watch it. I’ve lived in this area for nine years, and this is the first year I’ve ever seen a blue heron at the Pond. It seemed a little precarious. I’m used to seeing them in more secluded places. Jamaica Pond gets hundreds of visitors a day, lots with dogs. J and I watched as it resumed its slow stalk for fish, its long, S-shaped neck moving in concert with its feet. I explained that it was walking slowly like that so the fish wouldn’t notice it, and that when it saw one it would jab its long beak underwater and snap it up. Funnily enough, the heron’s walk looked a lot like one of the walking games we’d just been playing. J told me a joke:

“Why did the pelican get in trouble at the restaurant? Because he couldn’t pay his big bill!”

Suddenly the heron’s head jerked forward, there was a splash, and it came back up with a perfect little rainbow trout in its beak. It was exciting and dramatic and beautiful, and in that moment joy broke through to me again, celebrating the heron’s catch with a little boy on the path by Jamaica Pond. We watched for a while longer, chatting with others who had stopped to watch, and I exulted in their happiness, too. The heron caught one more fish while we were there, and missed one. People took pictures and smiled at each other, and laughed at J’s cute and wise comments.

It was a sacred place we’d stumbled onto, just yards away from the desecrated curb where we’d started. But there are no unsacred places, Berry said, and it’s true. It’s just that I needed the heron, and the maple trees, and J to help me remember.

What kind of month has it been?

stepsI have a bunch of ideas for blog posts but life has been so busy the past few weeks that I haven’t had a chance to sit down and flesh them out. So I thought I’d tell you about what has been keeping me busy.

The most exciting thing was the Love Flash Mob over at Momastery. In 24 hours we raised over $475,000 dollars to build a new wing for the Heartline Maternity Center in Port au Prince, Haiti, and to buy warm clothes for mothers and babies from Syria who are still living outside in Berlin, even as the cold weather has set in. These Love Flash Mobs are my favorite times of the year because we take the power of community and turn it into concrete, practical action to love and care for each other. The maximum donation is $25 — the average for this one was $21. That means my $25 counts just as much as that of the millionaire or billionaire or anyone else. 21,000 of us got together and gave, and countless lives will be saved because of it. You just can’t get efficiency and joy like that anywhere else on the interwebs. Check it out here. And don’t be sad if you missed this one, just follow Momastery on Facebook and/or my Facebook page and we will be sure to tell you when the next one is happening.  I even stepped way out of my comfort zone for the flash mob to create and video tape myself doing a touchdown dance for every flash mob update. Enjoy!

I’ve also been busy with the launch team for Sarah Bessey’s upcoming book Out of Sorts: Making Peace With an Evolving Faith. The book is amazing — You are going to want to read it, trust me. I’ll have a review up soon, but for now you can preorder it on Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble, or support your local small bookstore by buying it there. The release date is November 3rd.

The launch team has been an incredible experience, not only discussing Sarah’s book with her and the others, but getting to know the other team members as well. I have two new favorite blogs through the launch team: Esther Emery’s Church in the Canyon and Tanya Marlow’s Thorns and Gold. Esther is a homesteader, deep thinker, and a brilliant writer. She crafts sentences like this, which I read several times over: “And even here I see God revealed — refracted, bent, and shattered — shining out the cracks of crooked people.” Tanya Marlow writes about struggling to find God and God’s will in her life while suffering from debilitating chronic illness, something which you know is dear to my heart. And it was also through the launch team that I found this beautiful, moving letter from a 19 year old girl with Asperger’s to her ten year old self. (The rest of Debby’s blog is well worth checking out, too.)

AAI_WritingContestAnother project I’ve been a part of is the Almost an Inkling flash fiction contest happening over at Mythgard. It’s a six week contest with a different prompt and guidelines every week. We’re in week five now, which is poetry. I just tried my hand at a Clerihew and a Triolet, two forms which were new to me. I actually won the literary prize for week three, the “Minute Mystery” which was very exciting for my twelve year old self, who didn’t dream of writing viral essays about gay weddings, but about writing stories. (She doesn’t really get blogging, even though I’ve tried to explain it to her. She just wants to know why we aren’t writing more stories about cats and unicorns.) My story for week two, with the prompt “Here Be Dragons” was dedicated to Say it Survivor, my friends’ Laura and Mary’s organization dedicated to helping women and men who have survived childhood sexual abuse tell their stories. They have workshops and talks coming up in Massachusetts and beyond — check it out on their website. The challenge for the story was to surprise the reader with an unexpected perspective on the dragon. My heart was full of Laura and Mary and the other brave survivors that week, so this is what I wrote:

She first saw the dragon the same night her uncle first came into her room. She was very young. After he left she lay there, choking back tears – he had warned her not to cry – and wondering, for the first time in her life, if there was something wrong with her. Then, suddenly the dragon was there, hovering over her bed, its green eyes shining in the darkness. It had brown-red scales, like muddied flame, and its wings spanned the room and, somehow, beyond.

She caught her breath and stopped crying, terror of the dragon greater than the pain. She waited for it to pounce, but it never moved, other than the slow beating of its wings and the whirl of its eyes, locked on hers. Time passed, minutes or hours. Then, despite her uncle and despite the dragon, her eyes began to droop and her small body fell into sleep. It was very late, and she was very young.

From then on, whenever her uncle came into her room, after he left the dragon would appear. Soon she found that she would wait for it, lying in the dark, holding her breath and blinking until its unblinking eyes appeared above her. She never really stopped being afraid of the dragon, but she was comforted, too, by its presence, its strong, sinewy legs and sharp claws, its tireless wings that beat the air, swirling it into a gentle breeze. Even though the worst had happened, even though she was so, so far from safe, she felt something her young mind did not have words for yet. Something like hope, something like confidence.

She only spoke to the dragon once, a year or so after the dual visits had started. One night she took a deep breath, lifted her small chin and said,

“Just go ahead and eat me, dragon. Do it.”

And the dragon lifted its own chin, and opened its jaw, and a blast of fire came out, heating the air above her head, but she was not harmed. She understood its answer: Yes, the dragon had said, I could fry you and swallow you whole, but I will not. And she cried harder that night than she ever had before.

The last time the dragon appeared to her was years later. She was older now, not young anymore, not at all young anymore, and the dragon came to her late one night. And she looked in its eyes and noticed something she never had before: They were the same color as her own green eyes, with the same brown flecks. And she saw that the mud-red scales were the same color as her own auburn hair, which shone in the sunlight.

Then she flexed her arms and legs and she felt the sinewy strength of a dragon flow through them. She felt the movement between her shoulders of powerful wings. And she stretched out her wings and she flew.

The Almost an Inkling contest is still going on if you would like to try your hand at a poem this week, or next week’s prompt which will be “Speculate and Subcreate.” Also at this link you can read the winning entries from the first three weeks, and vote on the poems from week five. The winning entries will be published in a special-edition ebook by Oloris Press and we’ll be reading our work aloud during a webinar at the end of the contest on Halloween.

restwellWhew, well, there’s more I could tell you about — what a busy month it’s been! — but I’ll stop there and give you a chance to check out the links I’ve included. I hope you’ve all had a good October so far! What have you been up to? Let me know in the comments. And if you haven’t been doing that much, that’s okay, too. The resting is part of the doing.

Love,

Jessica