Saturday, June 16, 2012

Quiet Nights


Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorl├Ęd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
--Gerard Manley Hopkins, "The Habit of Perfection"

John and I spent a quiet night at home yesterday, drinking tea, talking, listening to the rain, reading poetry. It was lovely, and I was surprised by how much I wanted to resist it--the quietness. I've gotten too used to constantly doing, watching, listening. I suppose I must retrain myself for stillness. Even for quiet, book-loving folks like me, it is all too easy to get pulled into our busy, technology-obsessed culture. We forget how to be still together (or alone, for that matter).

It's unfortunate, for these quiet moments are what change us, allowing us to open up to new ideas, to really hear one another, to reflect on our lives and take stock. Without quiet nights together, we drift, we forget, we fail to live on purpose. 

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Word of Advice

Don't have cell phone conversations in public restroom stalls. It's rude and ridiculous and just plain weird.

Yesterday I had the lovely privilege of overhearing a woman who works in another suite in my office building do just this. But she wasn't talking to her mother, her girlfriend, or her great aunt. She was interviewing a potential employee. I could hear papers rustling, and she kept saying, "I'm not in front of my computer right now."

I was so tempted to go into every stall and flush every toilet repeatedly. I somehow quelled this urge and left the bathroom shaking my head. But seriously, people. Is anyone really so important that she can't get off the phone for 5 minutes in a public restroom? Is anyone's life so cluttered and insane that she has to go potty and have professional conversations at the same time?

Ponder ye these things.

Friday, October 23, 2009

...a thousand times more stunning

Sometimes I think I love poetry too much to study it formally.

To dissect and investigate it to death, to impose upon it, to presume, to say that it is this or that, that it means X, that it doesn't mean Y. To have a handle on it. To have an opinion about it.

I'm afraid it might lose its charm for me then, its mystery, its ungraspable loveliness. That's a bit how I feel about theology--it is ridiculous to say what God is, when we are really only guessing, throwing our theories about like pebbles into a lake. What impertinence. What insane arrogance.

How much wiser is it to let the beautiful words of a poem wash over you like the sweetest, clearest waves of a benevolent ocean, to admire it as you would the sunlight in a meadow as it weaves rays of pure gold into the grass. How much better to allow God to be mystery, beautiful as a poem and a thousand times more stunning. If we really saw God at all, I suspect that we would speak much, much less.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Reflection on an A-

I was not one of those kids who try with all their might to hide their report cards from their parents and invent all kinds of strange tales about the grades they make. I didn't bother showing my parents my report card half the time because I always got the same response and it didn't really motivate me much: "Good job." I made good grades because I wanted to, because I could, and because it was a natural byproduct of a love of learning. Talk about intrinsic motivation--I had it. Yet grades could still get me really upset, really worried. I almost dropped a class in college because I thought I was going to get a B. (I didn't.) I've always been used to making A's on everything because I've always tried really hard to succeed (well, except on math, but math doesn't even count for me.)

I think my undergraduate professors graded me too easily because I got my first graded paper back in graduate school last week and was disappointed...by an A-. Seriously. That A- told me I needed a reality check and made me pause to rethink the things I value, the things our society values. I worked really hard on that paper and I enjoyed writing it. I revised it at least three times. I felt pretty happy with the finished product. My TA liked it, too. But she also found things that were wrong with it. Things I probably need to work on. I'm going to need to revisit some of the claims I made in that paper, rethink them, and revise. And isn't this learning process infinitely more important than the grade she marked on my paper? Absolutely.

I still do well in school because I want to--I'd better want to or those loans are all for naught. But those grades mean a little more to me now than ever. They are proof that I'm smart, that I'm capable. They decide if and where I get to pursue a PhD. But I still don't want to get too excited about those grades, or too distraught by them. I don't want to lose sight of the reason I'm in school: because I love to learn, because I grow as a person when I read and think and write and talk through new concepts. Because I think that education is a powerful force for good.

Our society has lost sight of this goal. Everything is about grades and test scores. These things have a place in education, but we have given them too much power, too much time. We have let them speak a little too loudly about our self-worth and the worth of others. They have become instruments of domination, and they do violence to our children.

My classmates are just as worried about their grades as I am. I was nearly stampeded trying to reclaim my test paper in class a few days ago. We all had that sickening feeling in our stomachs as we walked down the hallway towards the stack of doom. It was the first major exam of the semester and it would tell us whether we were wasting our time and money on this degree.

So grades matter. But learning matters more. I want to remember that for the next two years as I work towards the completion of my Master's degree. Perhaps I can learn to practice the Hindu concept of action without attachment--devoting my acts as worship of God, without attachment to the fruits of those acts. Okay, so that's not going to happen, but maybe something a little like it: I will study for the love of it, read for the love of it, and write for the love of it. The grades might worry me, but I will not love them.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Welcoming October

I allowed all of August and September to slip by in silence. I didn't write a single blog, and I only wrote a few short journal entries. Honestly, I haven't had much time to think about myself, about where I am and what I'm doing. I've only had time to act. To catch the bus, to go to class, to drive to work, to sit at my desk and work, to read, to write papers, to make dinner, to wash dishes, to make appointments, to cancel appointments--to do and act and get done.

Today I told a new friend that all the weeks were going "zoom zoom zoom" (with race car hand motions). She thought it was funny, and maybe it is, but it's also kind of sad. I feel like life is rushing past me and I'm just caught in its wake. So today, even though I took the day off work to study for the most terrifying test of my life, I am writing a blog to welcome October.

A few weeks ago I had the unbelievable privilege of attending a reading by my favorite poet, Mary Oliver. Her words are the some of the most beautiful I've ever read, and I hold them very close to my heart. Hearing them from her mouth was like heaven--like being caught up in this beautiful transcendence. She read a poem I like, one whose ending is always a challenge to me:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I have no idea what career I want to pursue or where I want to be in ten years, but I do know a few things that I want to do with my life. I stole a few moments of silence last week to write them down. I think they are true and authentic for me, and perhaps matter even more than what I get a PhD in or what job I do.

First, I looked around my simple, not quite shabby little apartment and felt very content. I realized that I want, always, wherever I end up, to live very simply. I don't want my life to become cluttered with things or the love of things. I want the old chairs, the faded colors, the quaint and quiet charm of simplicity. Anything else would be too much.

I also want to leave space for quiet and attention in my life. I don't want to go very long without reading poetry, praying my rosary, staring out the window at a funny little bird or a tree swaying in the wind. I want to sit in silence, to let beautiful words wash over me, to take walks and admire this astonishing world in which I find God in every leaf and quivering dew drop. I want to live a life of loving attention.

These two are all I know so far. I don't know if I want to be a feminist theologian or a crazy writer or a social activist, or all three. And I'm okay with not knowing. I am more concerned with who I am in the mundane, quotidian moments of life and what I do with the quiet spaces of my heart than in being important or successful. If I can live my life simply and with a sense of presence, then I think perhaps I've done something worthwhile, and maybe even admirable, with my own wild and precious life.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Heads, I accept; Tails, I flee for the hills

I really hate making decisions. Big ones, small ones, short ones, tall ones. I hate them all. It takes me months to find shoes, years to buy furniture. I'm lucky if I can decide what to make for dinner. But I have recently had a very huge decision thrust into my face and given a mere two days to resolve it.

I'm not going to lie: I flipped a coin, tried that old point blindly to a spot in the Bible trick--I even tried typing "Erica should..." into Google search. I realize that all of these are incredibly pathetic, but, hey, I was desperate. I agonized over the decision, talked it over with friends and family, prayed for some semblance of peace, changed my mind constantly. And then I realized something so huge: I didn't need God to give me a sign or tell me what to do. The decision was my own and God would be with me whatever I decided. I think that when I was younger, I wanted God to tell me what to do so badly because I was too afraid to make my own decisions. I hid a lack of moral courage and a refusal to take responsibility for my own actions under a pious desire to "do God's will."

So today I decided. I made the best possible decision that I thought I could. I may regret this decision somewhere down the road, but I did my best. And I feel peace about it, maybe a little excitement, too. And I know that God will be with me, helping me, just as God would have if I'd chosen a different path. I think this is what God's will is really about--not a single act, not a direction chosen, but choosing to trust in goodness and love, to have faith in benevolence.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Thanks, Garth

I am much more afraid of things than I would like to be.

Cats, for instance.

Sometimes squirrels, if they look especially twitchy.

Most other human beings.

I don't like this about myself. I want to be one of those confident, nonchalant people who walks like she's bullet proof. I would like to not have a panic attack every time a dog barks at me; I would like to not suspect that all of my neighbors are rapists and axe murderers. I really would. And I would like to not have to cede ground to stray cats every time they cross my path.

I know where this fear comes from. And I know that although it is overblown it is not unfounded. There are, after all, some really screwed up people out there (and some really mean cats), and I'm not exactly an impossible target. Still, I want to be able to take a walk in my extremely safe neighborhood and smile at the people who pass by without looking over my shoulder and wondering if I've already seen that blue van drive by once or questioning the motives of the guy with the limp walking thirty feet behind me.

Today I took a walk and coached myself to look at the birds and the trees, to think about all the beautiful things around me, to take note of the basketball hoops and wading pools and rose gardens. To think about the good. And I was doing very well until a bug flew into my eye and I was immediately after accosted by a large young man with long brown hair, a black T-shirt, and a face full of acne, who wanted to know my name and shake my hand. I hesitated, sized him up: He was a lot larger than me and he had big hands. I gave my name but decided to forgo the shake; he said that he was Randall and then asked abruptly who my favorite country music star is. I realized then that he was harmless and tried to come up with a country music singer even though I don't listen to that stuff. But before I could answer, he shouted excitedly that he loves Garth Brooks, that Garth Brooks is the greatest country music star ever. I laughed and said that yes, Garth Brooks is a pretty cool guy. Then Randall walked off down the road talking to himself about Garth in a loud voice and swinging a plastic bag. I went the other way, rubbing the bug out of my eye and laughing that I was scared to shake that guy's hand.

I didn't feel afraid the rest of the way home. Well, except for when I passed my neighbor who looks a little like Freddy Krueger.