Gratitude and poop, an Ash Wednesday meditation

ashesI recently began seeing a spiritual director, something I’d been thinking about and finally committed to after a colleague who reads my blog sent me the kindest message which read something like, “Honey, I just love reading your blog and I’m wondering if you would like a spiritual director.”   I could just hear that silent prayer “Bless her heart.”  One of our ordination vows is to be a friend to our colleagues in ministry and I’m grateful to this friend in particular.

So in our first meeting my spiritual director and I started talking about meditation.  I confess that I spend about as much time meditating as I do working on my core and learning Italian, which is to say, no time.  I think my spiritual director got my number pretty quickly and she suggested working meditation into something I do everyday, to be mindful as I go about that task, to breathe in gratitude and breathe out beauty or hope or something as I go about this daily thing.  Really, it’s multi-tasking, which I love.  I don’t know if it’s good for my spirit, but we’ll see.

Every morning I take our dog Max out for his morning constitutional.  Rain or shine or wind, light or dark, out we go.  We’re like the U.S. Postal Service.  Except for ice.  I always make an exception for ice.  Anyway, every morning I take Max out so that he can pee on every bush that all the other dogs have peed on and so that he can sniff All Things.  We make it over to school and he chews on some grass, and growls at the other dogs who have the temerity to pee on his bush.  We keep walking until he poops.  Then I pick it up, and we head home with less peeing and sniffing.

So I have incorporated mindful breathing and meditativeness into my morning walk.  I breathe in gratitude – gratitude for the abundance of sun we’ve had this winter (and as soon as that negative thought about ‘this means a dry summer’ pops into my  head I send it scurrying off); there’s gratitude for my sweet dog whom I love, for the crocuses and daffodils that are blooming so early, for my neighbors and neighborhood, for the gentleman down the street whose morning fire always smells so good, for the kid who was sent out to pick up the trash that didn’t stay in the garbage can, for the school full of amazing, crazy kids, for so much.  I am just bursting with all that gratitude I’ve breathed in, and pray that I’m breathing out all that hope and love and grace or whatever it is I’m supposed to be breathing out.

And then, the dog poops.

The whole point of the morning walk is to get the dog to poop so that he does not do that inside while we’re at work.  It is the culmination of the walk, the finale, the big finish.  It should be greeted with confetti and kazoos and huzzahs and treats.  But I greet it with a sigh and the compostable green plastic dog poop bag.  And we head home, the denouement of our time together.

But I must admit that picking up the poop grounds me – really – in the way that saying “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” grounds me.   There is an earthiness to life that we cannot avoid, and everybody and everything living thing poops, and everybody and every living thing will die.  To dust we will return.  And hopefully no one will pick up the dust that once was us into a little compostable plastic bag, a sad denouement of a life well-lived.

Obviously, I have some work to do with my spiritual director, but I think some how with all that breath going on, and little groundedness will help.  A good Ash Wednesday to you.

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p.s.  I will not be giving this meditation at our Ash Wednesday service, but if you’d like to see the liturgy I wrote, go to my Liturgy page and the sub page of “Random Liturgy.”

 

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To the planter of trees

tree_lined_street_lgTwo of my frequent routes include an arcade of trees.  One is at an intersection I drive by every day, the other on 99E heading south towards Milwaukie.  Neither is very long – one just a block, the other maybe a quarter-mile.  But even in winter, when the branches are bare, the trees form this graceful archway that we drive through.

As I went though one the other day, I started wondering about the person or persons who planted those trees.  Were they young?  Did they see the fruits of their labor?  Did they measure carefully the space between the trees, imagining how far apart they needed to be so their branches could grow without touching?  Did they plant them hoping that in eighty years, one hundred years, the trees would still be alive, healthy, providing a bower for motorists?

It seems to me that planting trees is a pretty selfless act.  You may get to watch a sapling get strong, but you will likely not live to see it in its prime.  And planting trees is an act of hope, too – hope that someone else will take up the care of the tree, that in the future when the planter is gone someone will look at the tree and offer thanks.

We have two enormous oak trees on the west side of our house.  I imagine they were planted when the house was built in 1925.  They are now two and a half times as tall as our house, and they are beautiful, whether with bared branches or in the lush fullness of summer.  They are beautiful and more often than not I do not appreciate them.  February is the one time of the year when they aren’t dropping something.  Come spring, it will be helicopter seed pods, then green acorns in the summer.  In the fall the brown acorns drop, aided by feuding squirrels.  Once the acorns are done, the leaves turn brown and drift down; we are very generous and share our leaves with the neighborhood.  In the chill of winter things are still unless there’s a wind storm, in which case we have branches adorning our yard and roof.

laugh inI wish I appreciated our two oaks more than I do.  They provide habitat for squirrels, and I think the crows are doing their own version of Laugh In in them.  They shade half the house, a relief in the relentless sun of summer.  But they are messy and trimming them is not cheap.  Their root system means that we have a basement in only half the house.

Would I cut them down if I could? That’s the question, isn’t it.  It would make our lives and landscaping easier.  We wouldn’t have to wear our bike helmets when we dine al fresco.

Would I cut them down if I could? No.  No, I wouldn’t.  They are things of beauty, among the most grand in the neighborhood.  The crows make me laugh.  The squirrels drive the dog nuts and give him something to do when we’re gone for the day.  The shade is lovely.

And there’s something plain wrong about cutting down a magnificent healthy tree – the inconvenience to us is far outweighed by the patience it took for that tree to go, the hearty conversations with neighbors in the fall when we’re all raking the leaves, the sheer beauty of something that towers over our man-made home.

So, to the planter of trees, our oaks, the trees that line the avenues: thank you.  Thank you for your foresight.  Thank you for your dream.  Thank you for your part in creating something beautiful that maybe you never saw.  Thank you for the trees.

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Kindness/Despair

“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things.

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
* * * * *
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.”

excerpted from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye,
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (1995)

despair“Despair is strangely the last bastion of hope; the wish being that if we cannot be found in the old way we cannot ever be touched or hurt in that way again.  Despair is the sweet but illusory abstraction of leaving the body while still inhabiting it, so we can stop the body from feeling anymore.  Despair is the place that we go when we no longer want to make a home in the world and where we feel, with a beautifully cruel form of satisfaction, that we may never have deserved that home in the first place. Despair, strangely, has its own sense of achievement, and despair, even more strangely, needs despair to keep it alive.”
excerpted from “Despair” by David Whyte, from Consolations, 2015

Last fall my friend Lila killed herself.  She was a member of our congregation.  She lived a life I might have had: she was my age, never married, took care of her two beloved cats.  She probably heard that she had such a pretty face, if only she would lose some weight.  She was generous and kind and hilarious and lived with bi-polar disorder until she decided she didn’t want to live with bi-polar disorder anymore and she ended her life.

The other night my daughter and I were cuddled in the comfy chair and we started talking about people she knew who had died.  The list is short, and I am grateful for that.  But being the child of two pastors, my daughter hears about death more than the average eight year old.  She knows that sometimes we rush to the hospital, or are called away in the middle of the night.  She knows that sometimes she has an extended playdate on a Saturday because Mom and Dad are at church for a memorial service.

So we were talking about the people she knew who had died, and Lila was mentioned.  “Mom,” my daughter said, “how did Lila die?” We hadn’t told her.  Maybe at the time we were too bruised to try to explain to a child why someone so lovely would not want to live any more; maybe we didn’t have the courage or didn’t want to face the sadness.  But she asked, and I answered.  “Honey, I’m so sorry, but Lila killed herself.”

Sigh.

“Why?”  “Well, her brain didn’t always work just right, and sometimes her brain made her so wildly happy she couldn’t keep it to herself, and sometimes her brain made her so sad she didn’t think she would ever stop being sad.  I think one day she decided she didn’t want to be sad like that anymore.  I think it hurt so much and she didn’t want to hurt anymore.”  I did the best I could to explain despair to a child, all the while hoping and praying that my child will not ever know it.

This week two different friends on Facebook posted poems/essays, one “Kindness” and the other “Despair”.  They showed up in my news feed the same day, the day I would later have the conversation with my daughter.  I found deep wisdom in both and in a way, they were companions to each other, acknowledging the depth of these things, the paradox of them.  To understand kindness you must first understand sorrow.  Despair is the last bastion of hope.

I don’t want to diagram these words or exegete them but neither do I want to toss them away like last Sunday’s sermon.  They feel heaven-sent in a way, so thank you, Carol and Ken, for being angels in sharing them.

And I wish I knew what Lila would say about them.

“We take the first steps out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming fully to ground in our wish not to be here.  We let our bodies and we let our world breathe again.  In that place, strangely, despair cannot do anything but change into something else, into some other season, as it was meant to do from the beginning.”

“Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then it goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”

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