Presence, spirtuality

Gifts of the Hands

Hard work is good for us. It teaches us the value of what we have and it builds character. My mother used to say, “Do something hard every day. It builds character.” There are so many things to learn and do in life–the world is full of a myriad of possibilities, and it’s satisfying to rise every day with a purpose set before you. Something I’ve been paying more attention to recently, though, is the need to let go of goals and take time to nurture being. Brian McLaren, in his book, Finding Our Way Again, the Return of the Ancient Practices, talks about seven ancient practices in the Abrahamic faith traditions: fixed-hour prayer, fasting, Sabbath, the sacred meal, pilgrimage, observance of sacred seasons, and giving. These life practices, McLaren calls humane practices, because they “help us practice being alive and humanely so. They develop not just character but also aliveness, alertness, wakefulness, and humanity.” Sometimes I get caught up in the pressures of goals I set for myself or the pressures or obligations I have or perceive I have related to work. Too often I let my mind dwell on this concern or that, then the pressures close in, and I fall into a place of forgetting that what happens in my life is not all up to me. If I can consciously accept limitations, and live with being incomplete, it can help me learn that I will never actually “arrive” in life. All of life is process, stretching, growing. My task is to grow more and more into myself. Inner fulfillment or satisfaction will not come through competition or through other’s vision of who I am or should be.

So, taking some time each day to purposefully go slow seems especially important when living in a fast paced or competitive environment. McLaren explains, “That’s why, through the ages, people have tried to find ways to tend themselves, to do for their souls what exercise does for the body, or study for the minds. Through these character exercises, they give birth to the person they are are proud of becoming, the person they are happy to be, the one who is trying to be born in them every day…Spiritual practices are actions within our power that help us narrow the gap…They are about not letting what happens to us deform us or destroy us…(They are) about realizing that what we earn or accumulate means nothing compared to who we are.”

Married to someone who loves to cook, I’ve learned to understand how preparing food for others is an act of love. Years of practice making a zesty salsa with the perfect balance of tomatoes, onion, lemon and cilantro, or hours in the kitchen making foccacias to get the perfect texture in the bread, sewing up the deboned turkey and filling it with oyster, cornbread, nuts, celery and pomegranate stuffing–none of this is fast food. It’s not meant to be, and taking it slow–the physicality of slicing the tomatoes, cutting the nuts, getting your hands in the dough, moves food out of the realm of a commodity of something that is bought and paid for, and back into realm of relationship. Greens in your hands as you run them through the water, you think of those have grown the food, and you become aware of your interconnection to others, to the web of life itself–the force of life that blesses us over and over with the earth’s gifts.

Today in the middle of a very busy time, we took time to have a gathering at our house, and tonight we are preparing a turkey for a gathering of friends for a belated Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. It can take years to make a good salsa or bean dip that makes people stand by your table for hours, but it’s a happy thing to notice when it happens. All week, all year we work hard, then we take time out to be with others, believing that somehow the rest of the work that’s pressing in and needs to be done we will somehow get done. We consciously choose to let time move slowly. The work can wait for a few hours or a day. Instead, we spend time pouring love into the food we make food to share with others, we spend time in the presence of friends.

Michael's focaccia
Michael’s focaccia

Feasting is a part of every culture and every religious tradition, but every day we can make our meals as a conscious act of connection to the earth and of gratitude for each other. Cooking a meal with the hands is a gift of love.


Coming Home to Ourselves

Today Michael and I spent time putting our house in order after moving to a different apartment here in Delhi. Getting things on the wall before we start work helps me to feel settled in. After we got all the various items up on the wall and were taking a rest, I began to wonder about what these objects, what they really are in my life. They all represent something of Michael and I and our journey, but they are also not us, not the journey, not even metaphors for what that journey meant. We are really none of the things on the wall. All of the things on the walls of our house and the objects on our shelves we have we obtained on our journeys since living overseas, and some of them were given to us. A number of the things I would not now select to take home with me, none the less we have them and they help make our apartment look lived in. Having things put up or away makes me feel more at rest and at home.

But what is it that makes a place home, that makes us feel at home underneath a place’s surface features of familiar objects? When I am on our land in California, I feel totally at home, at rest, complete, whole and fully alive, like I did when I was a child climbing the hills in back of our house off of Oak Creek Dr. in Lakeside. There I would roam the hilltops and hillsides through the dry yellow grass overlooking the valleys, and lie on the granite boulders, heat seeping into my skin, sinking into my bones, where I would stare up into the endless blue sky and the eucalyptus trees’ dry branches, watching hawks circle through. No thought of time or its shortness. I am lounging in the arms of the eternal now, just being. Now, when I am on my land in Soquel, again I feel this connection, though I do not really understand why. It has something to do with the land, that particular land with its unique geography. I feel aware of the earth under my feet, and I want to take care of it, to nurture it. The geography of a place affects our spirits, teaches us something of who we are. The Psalmist said, “The Heavens declare the Glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.” If nature reflects God, it helps us see who we are in relationship to the vastness of creation, as well as to its minuteness and particular qualities–it is a kind of microscope, mirror, or telescope, a powerful source of metaphor, and a source that helps us know and define ourselves in relationship to the world.

When I first knew Michael, I remember riding in the bed of someone’s truck when our own truck broke down somewhere around Auburn, CA. The sky had the back-lit blue light that it gets when the sun has just gone down. I looked over at him sitting there, his hair rustled with wind, and thought about how peaceful I felt in his presence, how it was like coming home to myself, and I knew he was my home, my spirit was at home with him. Home, then, is more than a place, more than the land we stand on or the house we live in. Home is about relationship, and has to do with the quality of being.

This morning while Michael was giving me a haircut, I was listening to a short YouTube where Parker Palmer  speaking with an interviewer from the Fetzer Institute talked about how many of us allow institutions to define ourselves rather than seeing that our identity comes not from what we do, but from within, from our own sense of being. We often go through the world thinking, Parker says, that “I am what I do …. my worth comes from my functioning. If there is to be any love for us, we must succeed at something.”  We are living with a kind of unspoken fear about whether we will measure up. Parker explains that seeing our selves not as a being, but someone in a particular role, someone who has become that role–who is identified with what we do, is why many people feel lost when they no longer have their job, or the role they have played for so long changes. Or when their body starts to fall apart, as well, I want to add. We are more than the role we play, or the job we hold, more than any one thing we do or what it is that happens to our bodies. We are deeper, more mysterious than this. We are alive. We participate in a mystery.

How do we learn more how to be when the culture we are from and the world we are in tells us what counts is what we do? I think it takes courage to look beyond the definition of life that is satisfied to stop with a definition of self or selves that can be quantified and labeled. We must find places to look to that repeatedly, daily even, bring us back to that place where we are aware of the mystery of life and of being–where we can wander through the yellow hills and know our essence is connected to the earth and to each other, not to a clock. I want to grow deeper into that place of being, acquaint myself further with who that person is. It will teach me more how to live, how to be alive.

Michael memorized this poem from Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River Anthology and recited it to me when I first knew him. It captures the relationship to life and to the world that I want to walk in, the way it is when you come home to yourself.

Faith Methany

AT first you will know not what they mean,
And you may never know,
And we may never tell you:–
These sudden flashes in your soul,
Like lambent lightning on snowy clouds
At midnight when the moon is full.
They come in solitude, or perhaps
You sit with your friend, and all at once
A silence falls on speech, and his eyes
Without a flicker glow at you:–
You two have seen the secret together,
He sees it in you, and you in him.
And there you sit thrilling lest the
Mystery stand before you and strike you dead
With a splendor like the sun’s.
Be brave, all souls who have such visions
As your body’s alive as mine is dead,
You’re catching a little whiff of the ether
Reserved for God Himself.