Mindfulness in our ordinary lives is an effort, albeit worthwhile, but the natural world will make that effort for us if we allow it. Related Stories - How do we frame these times? - Entering Shadowland - Corrective Lenses

 

Be Where Your Feet Are and more...




Be Where Your Feet Are

I first heard this advice from a camp counselor after a silly skit about texting, missing a sunset, and dropping a cell phone in the lake. “Be where your feet are” was the camp’s refrain. If you’ve traveled into the wilderness, be in the wilderness; pay attention to the natural world; open your being to the moment you’re in.

Being present is, of course, a perennial spiritual practice—for good reason—but there’s something about the out-of-doors that is particularly conducive. Now that the strawberries are ripening I spend ten minutes each morning harvesting in the back yard, brushing the wet leaves to find their red sheen. And while my mind certainly wanders, each berry calls me back. There’s one. Hold it gently between two fingers. Yank. Likewise while eating. A conventional strawberry floating in my bowl of cereal I might mindlessly enjoy, but a backyard, blood-red strawberry calls attention to itself; it fills my entire being with intense strawberriness. I am where my mouth is, wealthy beyond imagining.

Mindfulness in our ordinary lives is an effort, albeit worthwhile, but the natural world will make that effort for us if we allow it. Having come to Minnesota with a suburban New Yorker’s scorn for hunting, I’ve been awed by my students’ descriptions of spending hour after hour in a deer blind, whole body attuned to each rustle and scrape of the woods until they’ve dissolved entirely into autumn gold. Hunter turned mystic. The deer becomes irrelevant. We’ve all tasted this dissolution, at a sunset on a city lake or watching a family of ducks cross a busy road; it’s just most of us reach for a cell phone, hoping to record the moment in pixels. The mystic stands still. She records the moment with her cells.

The squirrel just is, and the purple aster, and the diaphanous web. They work their way on us if we let them. This summer let’s let them.             –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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Want to give yourself a week to pay attention in a beautiful place?  Join me this October 2-6 at the Madeline Island School of the Arts for the writing retreat, Alone Together: Living Revision.

Wishing you a good summer!

 

The Journal: The Writer’s Compost

The journal is a writer’s compost bin. It’s tucked out back, behind the fence or along the alley where the smell won’t waft into the kitchen and the fruit flies won’t irritate the gardeners. You add to it daily, or at least whenever you’ve got a heaping bucket of scraps (read: baggage) to unload.

Compost works best if you add equal amounts of “green” (grass, veggie bits) and “brown” (leaves). An occasional sprinkle of ash helps. Regular water and air speed up the decomposition, so it’s good to give it a stir. Likewise with the journal, which can be a dumping ground—and worthwhile as such—but with a smallest amount of intention grows fertile. How? By adding a bit of this, a bit of that: dreams, questions, memories, beliefs, secrets, as well as the daily flotsam and jetsam. As soon as you find yourself in a journaling rut, stir it up.

But for the most part you ignore the journal. Just let it cook.

There are two modalities of personal writing. The first I call “horizontal,” that daily generation of material that keeps you in the game. Journaling is horizontal writing, as is blogging and morning pages and any practice that gets words, sloppily but regularly, on the page. Horizontal writing, done over years, develops the writer’s voice, hones the writer’s capacity to listen to the deep currents of emotion and thought within, and strengthens the writer’s ability to heed inspiration.

The second I call “vertical,” writing where you take a single idea and dig deep. With vertical writing, you develop a piece. You revise it. You bring to bear on it craft and skill and time and intention. You complete it. When we practice the literary arts, we engage in vertical writing.

Writers frequently dismiss the journal or are shy about it; they don’t consider journaling to be “real” writing. But it’s all writing. Every gardener worth her salt and every wise farmer knows that caring for the soil is foundational to raising plump veggies or abundant blooms. The journal is a great place for writers to tend their soil. Let’s reclaim it as a vital and worthy tool.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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Hooray for summer! I hope yours is a good one.  June brings one last Spiritual Memoir drop-in session at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality, June 9 from 1:30-3:30.  Come for a dose of revision inspiration!

Looking Ahead:

Fall 2017: Second Fridays, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions, Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality. Topics to be determined.

October 2-6, 2017: Alone Together: Living Revision at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

September 24-28, 2018:  Alone Together: Living Revision at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

 

 

Original Sin—Original Blessing—Blessedly Sinful & Original

I was raised by a liberal, seminary-educated mother in a liberal United Methodist congregation, and both blanketed me with a theology of a warm, loving God. But the chill of original sin snuck under the covers regardless. How? It’s hard to say. Through the Adam and Eve of popular culture? Through my mother’s foundational guilt and insecurity? Through the Sunday morning stress of getting out the door on time, as though our lives depended on showing up for worship with clean hair and ironed clothes? Regardless, I understood myself to be fundamentally wrong, and faith was the antidote. Every time I screwed up, deliberately hurting my boyfriend, turning my back on a stranger in need, lying to my parents, my “sin” was a guilt-soaked reminder of my hidden, awful nature.

In my early twenties I encountered Matthew Fox’s book, Original Blessing, which exposed the inconsistencies of my faith life. I spent a few years doing theological housekeeping. Humanity’s beginnings, I came to see and know, are infinitely blessed. You are, I am, essentially good. Sure, we all make mistakes, but the life of faith (at least for a good Wesleyan) is dedicated to climbing the ladder of perfection. Besides, God is fantastically forgiving. I threw the doctrine of sin, all its shame-inducing associations, and Jesus’ consequent atonement, out with the bathwater.

Now I am in my late forties. I’m a parent coming to grips with how inevitably I fail my daughter. I’m an author who’s made bad choices in the content and publication of my books. I’m a teacher whose mistakes have large consequences. But these “sins” no longer send me into a cesspool of self-flagellation; my essential identity is solid enough in original blessedness that I’m no longer unseated by my wrongs. In fact, just the opposite is true: When I embrace the inevitability of my brokenness, when I know myself embraced, I experience unprecedented freedom. If there’s no hope of writing the perfect essay, I can do my darnedest because all that really matters is the effort, but I’m freed of any need to control the outcome. If there’s no chance of mastering Christian contemplation, I can show up, do my best at praying, and trust that even my failures—perhaps especially my failures—are how the light gets in.

Way back at the origins of Christianity, our monastic fathers and mothers saw human shortcoming as an opportunity for grace. We’re all Japanese kintsugi, broken pottery mended with gold, made more beautiful by its repair. These days I trust myself to do my best, but when I screw up, I’m grateful for the ways failure transforms me. My brokenness gives me constant opportunities to become more whole. And so I proceed, following Martin Luther’s advice to “Love God and sin boldly.”  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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The spring semester is wrapping up, but there’s still a few opportunities for us to write together!  Join me tomorrow, May 19th from 1:30-3:00, to write memories of the natural world, or June 9th from 1:30-3:30 to explore how revision can become a means of spiritual growth, both at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

May all the blooming energy out in the natural world enter our hearts and creative work!

       

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Writing as Listening

On a good morning of writing, the words leave my head entirely and reside in my fingers. Writing is a quiet business. Once I tried to explain this to a spiritual director—the way my heart stills and the room pulses with silence—but she didn’t believe me. How can you work with words and be quiet at the same time? Surely it’s impossible.

Maybe she was right; maybe a mature contemplative knows a quiet emptier than mine. But in my decades of meditation, releasing thought after thought, exercising that muscle of humility that lets go of my small, busy self in favor of the magnificent, empty Self who is also Source, I’ve almost never tasted quiet as thorough as the blanket that falls when I have a pen in hand or fingers on the computer.

In the heat of writing I am not channeling; I do not hear voices which I then live-stream onto the page; I am not a puppet manipulated by inspiration. Nor do I govern what emerges, forcing it out with my phenomenal will power. This listening is something entirely different. It’s more a give-and-take, an inquisitive conversation which demands complete presence and utter receptivity. I must generate and receive without attachment. Something flows through me, but I’m part of the flow and I must actively participate for it to happen.

Brother David Stendl-Rast says that “the more we come alive and awake, the more everything we do becomes prayer. Eventually even our prayer will become prayer.” Writing, I suspect, is how I inhabit that liminal space right before prayer becomes prayer. My mind is harnessed to the story, the galloping thoughts, and the language; it scampers off to play on the page, leaving my body behind. I sit still. The room balloons around me. Creation is a dense gravitational force at the tips of my fingers. I come alive and awake. My perpetual failure at prayer is compensated a bit by this moment, when my heart is at rest and I’m in the thick of creation. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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Upcoming Opportunities:

Second Fridays; 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions, Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

May 12: The Natural World
June 9: Looking Back, Seeing Again

October 2-6, 2017: Alone Together: Living Revision at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

September 24-28, 2018:  Alone Together: Living Revision at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

 

Mystic or Bust

“The Christian of the future will either be a mystic, one who has experienced something, or she will cease to be anything at all.” –Karl Rahner

Morality, ritual, and blind belief: contemporary Christianity is known for these. If you’re Christian, you adhere to certain moral standards (although these vary vastly between denominations and individuals); you go to church, and you “believe in Jesus Christ,” whatever that means. As best as I can tell, this is how Christianity is perceived by popular culture. For the most part, this is how Christianity is experienced by Christians.

Dig deep enough, however, and I suspect you’d find that many Christians have “experienced something.” For that matter, people of other faiths have, too, and those who calls themselves “spiritual but not religious.” As have artists, nature-lovers, scientists, community organizers, and anyone who volunteers their time to help others. You might call the “something” God or art or nature or love or truth, but regardless, you experience a mysterious happening that brings you alive and gives life meaning. You glimpse a source beyond the scope of human consciousness. You know a beauty that vibrates in your very cells. You sense significance that encompasses even tragedy, even rampant injustice, even death.

Much as I love the faith of my inheritance, much as I am still a devoted Christian, I’d rather see institutional Christianity cease entirely than continue to deny this relational, transformative force in the world. Recently I was asked to define what I mean by Christian, and out splurted this: A Christian is someone who considers Jesus a teacher, and Christ the essence of the created universe. Jesus is an “experienced something” walking around in the world, worthy of my respect, relationship, and emulation. Jesus is a story I live inside. That there are many other worthy stories is part of the wonder of it all.

Forget belief. Believing isn’t the point. Nor is following a prescribed set of rules or performing a set of rituals. The point is experience, opening ourselves to transformation, to awe, to becoming agents of change, to loving. The point is becoming. I sincerely hope that Christians won’t be the last to figure this out.

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Please join me this week for these exciting events:

On Thursday evening, April 20, 6:30-8:30, I’ll be in conversation with Susan Power, author of Sacred Wilderness and member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, about the role of imagination in the life of faith. Join me at Wisdom Ways for Playing in the Sacred Wilderness:  Fiction, Imagination, and Faith.

The MN Historical Society Press has re-released Kathryn Kysar’s anthology, Riding Shotgun: Women Write about their Mothers, this time in paperback.  I’ll honor my mother, who died a year ago, by reading my essay, “Enough,” at Magers and Quinn on Saturday, April 20 from 7-8 p.m. 

Here’s the link in case you missed the latest issue of Pen Feathers, my (very occasional) newsletter.

 

Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions continue through June on second Fridays, 1:30-3:30, at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

May 12: The Natural World
June 9: Looking Back, Seeing Again

October 2-6, 2017: Alone Together: Living Revision at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

September 24-28, 2018:  Alone Together: Living Revision at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

 

 
 
   
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