One Square Inch of Good

img_5908Often whatever art I’m working on in some way reflects my interior life.  Right now I’m making one inch squares of decorated paper, and I think I know why.

From a practical point of view, I’m able to use up some paper scraps from other projects.  And we’re having family for the holidays, and I’m pretty sure it’s bad hospitality to take up the dining room table with an art project.  Making one inch squares of paper doesn’t take much space, and it’s portable.  So there’s that.

But mostly I’ve been feeling as though, indeed, the world is too much with us, late and soon.  Despair like I have not ever known creeps in every morning as I read the news, and but for the many graces that surround me, I would give in.  So I’ve been reminding myself, and my family, and my congregation, that in spite of all that is hard and tragic and infuriating and frustrating and sinful, we still have good to do, and we still have to do good.

Maybe every day I can do something good that would fit in a one-inch square.  Maybe most of us can.  I’m not sure that we mere mortals have the capacity to do great good, but most of us can do a little good every day.  Be kind to the grocery store checker who is chatty but so slow and you’ve been waiting in line for forever.  When you see the guy on the street corner with the sign, look him in the eye, say hello, give him five bucks, and then donate twenty to the local homeless shelter.  Talk in person with someone whose views are diametrically opposed to your own, and don’t debate him, and don’t hate her.

Not hating is a good place to start doing one square inch of good.  Not putting others down is probably good, too.  Lamenting with those who lament, and marching with those who march, and calling out all forms and expressions of bigotry and prejudice work too.  Stepping away from the screen, from the newspaper, from the radio now and then going for a walk is good – one square inch of good for yourself.

Anne Lamott first suggested (to me) doing hard things in small pieces.  In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she says, “I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”

It works for joy, too.  I keep looking for great big huge joy to combat all the great big huge ugliness, but I need to put my readers on and look small.  One square inch – and there it is, meeting with the preschoolers who share the building with us; there it is – meeting the congregation’s newest baby; there it is – my daughter reciting Shakespeare for her upcoming performance in Hamlet.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my squares.  I’ve made about 120 so far, and I plan to make more with no particular end in mind.  Maybe a quilt-like thing.  Or maybe little boxes, following the words of the poet Rumi, who said that “joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box.”  Maybe I’ll give them away to people to remind them that good and joy can come in jumbo size, but if we all tried to just make one square inch of joy a day, that would be enough.

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Breathing deep

img_0262I have, in my lifetime, experienced both panic attacks and anxiety attacks.  I’m not talking about nerves, the rumbly stomach before stepping on stage or into the pulpit, but the real thing: an impending sense of doom that is completely out of control.  A fear of nothing and everything.  A heart pounding so hard I think it might explode.  A sense that I might die.  It is excruciating.

The first happened while I was in seminary during a guided meditation, which you would think would be a pretty safe place to be. Not that day. Another happened a few months later while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, something I’d done dozens of times before. Bridges have been hard ever since.  The attacks are a rare occurrence nowadays, partly because of age and partly because of work I’ve done to manage them.

I find myself using those anxiety-managing techniques again these days.  I don’t experience that impending sense of doom from nowhere, but I do experience a high level of worry about many things.  I worry about funding for programs for people on the margins.  I worry about war.  I worry about economic collapse.  I worry about people never speaking to each other again.  I worry about the state of the world.

As a person of faith, I am well aware of the many, many things Jesus said about not worrying and right now I find them – and him – annoying.  I also know that constant worry is not good for me or the people around me.  I’m keeping an eye on my eating and my sleeping.  I’ve started coloring postcards, an activity I find relaxing.  I cut myself off after one too many articles from the New York Times, Washington Post, or the Atlantic.

I pray that God will lift my sagging spirit.  I pray more regularly.  I practice deep breathing.  I read daily things from Father Richard Rohr (you can sign up for them here – today’s was particularly helpful.)  I turn off the tv and computer. I look for the good, and hold fast to it.

raftEvery night before we go to sleep, my husband, our daughter, our dog, and I all sit on our bed reading (except the dog).  I tell them it feels like we’re on a life raft, this big bed of ours, all together, safe, for the time being amidst the chaotic currents of the day’s events.  They laugh at me, in the good way.  Still, they are my life raft. And that helps me to worry a little less.

Until the next day comes.