Friday, November 27, 2015

A Fusion of Gratitude

There is a tree on the way to somewhere ... I never quite remember where until Oh!  There it is! It stands tall and majestic in the middle of a vast and wide field.  It is magnificent and tall, branches reaching symmetrically from the trunk, up and out and all around, perfectly spread out like feathers in a tom-turkey's tail.  It stands alone in the field, so stately and beautiful.  It's the kind of tree that the cowboy takes his sweetheart to as he rolls along singing songs of surries.  It's the kind of tree the happy family lays claim to for idyllic family picnics.  I ache to know that everyone else passing by appreciates the solitary beauty of its symmetry.  Is it lonely for people spreading picnic blankets in its shade?  Does it pine for a happy little tire swing and laughing children scrambling up its branches?  Who will love this moment, this tree, this lovely ... if not for me?

I struggle with my Daily Gratitude practice.  It feels cumbersome. I'm thankful for all the good things in my life ... but I stress about doing the list right and saying the right things first.  If I don't put the big things first, does that mean I'm not grateful for those things?  Mightn't getting the order wrong convey I'm not thankful for those blessings?  Also I stress about the "rule" that you can't repeat things.  So I list my family members one by one, sorrowful that I can only list them once.

I get tripped up on the order.  Because that's how you should do it, right?  The most important things first.  So.  Like the child in Sunday School who answers every question with a whispered and reverent "Jesus" no matter how relevant it is, I'm for days feeling like I'm getting it wrong if I don't first state that I'm thankful to be a child of God, and for all the blessings that line up behind that one thing that makes all the difference.

And I struggle with getting the list right.

I know I am numbed to all the every day goodness.  I wade through, intent on listing the next big thing, never minding the small mercies, the singular moments that break your heart with their beauty, that exist seemingly just to be beauty.  Time goes by so fast, my heart longs to recount the days and to hold them close to my heart, to remember them well.  Not the big and significant events ... I'll probably - hopefully? - remember those ... but what about that moment when I was standing in the checkout line at Target on a nondescript Friday afternoon, and the sunsetting light streaming through the windows was so golden and full and bountiful that it burgeoned on the painful side of beauty?  Those are the moments that I want to remember ... those orphaned moments, that don't carry a profound meaning except singular lovely, solitary beauty, pure joy.

I consider this from Geneen Roth:

Sometimes when I look at the flowers in my garden I think: “Wow, if I really let myself take in how gorgeous one of them is, I’m not sure I could even get up off the ground.”
I’m not sure I could move. I’d be so speechless, knocked over by the beauty.
Most of us don’t take it in. And therefore we never feel like we have enough. Because we’re not taking in what we have.
So, taking it in means taking a moment to look and to see. And to actually take it in with your hands. To take it in and let yourself have it.
So take in an orchid for a moment, because it’s a thing of beauty. Do you let yourself have the gorgeousness already in your life? Can you try that for a second? Use your hands. Take it in, and let yourself have it. Just let yourself have beauty because it’s gorgeous.
Let your heart break. You don’t need to be ashamed of it: it’s beauty and it’s gorgeous and you deserve it. And why not?

I go back to her book ... the Ann with no "e" - Ann Voskamp, who spoke out loud the dare to count 1000 things to thank for.  And I'm astounded at the beginning of her list.  Her number one wasn't Jesus.  It was light across old floors.  Ah!  So counting the 1000 things, crafting a gratitude journal isn't listing the things I'm thankful for the in the literal sense.  Always, I am literal ... it trips me up ... it keeps me from flowing.  This gratitude journal can be a marking of the beautiful moments, naming the things I notice that take my breath away.  This is giving meaning and life to the glory streaming in the window of Target.  This is embracing and holding close the beauty of the solitary tree in the field.  This is collecting the beauty of my life and the beautiful moments that crowd around me and are like love notes from a God who provides abundantly, every day anew.

With this dawning, I understand what I knew with my heart but not my head all along ... it isn't the list of obvious things counted and listed in order of importance ... it's a place for the small and seemingly inconsequential things ... the poetic and lyrical moments.  Morning light streaming into the quiet room, streaking gold across the silence ... the quiet, dutiful, comforting tick of the clock ... the sharp hard cold sparkling of the frost on the grass.  I want to recount the inconsequential things that take my breath away in the fast forward motion of my life.  Unremembered, uncelebrated, unmarked moments slide my life right by so very very fast, and the memories and the days and the events flatten out into nothingness.  But deliberately pinned in the tapestry of time, remembered, named, stop-motioned, reviewed ... and life stretches out, wide and vast and resonant.  I remember.

Now I'm counting moments, snapshots of beauty that make me ache and I see what my heart intuitively has known all along - that this counting practice is the answer to what I've always ached for ... a way to capture the beauty of life, to mark the moments and so remember them, encase them in amber glow, to make everyday life gloam and resonate with marked beauties ... they help me remember, they remind me to savor, they call me to thankfulness and fill me with gratitude.

Wishing you the most joyous and thankful of holiday seasons!

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Fork in the Road

Over the past few weeks, our 21 year old son has contemplated the most significant decisions of his life thus far.  LtDan and I would like to think we've helped, but in truth we haven't, much - our boy has done it all himself and we stand by, like spotters at a gymnastic tournament.  After years of providing guidance on things like the red shirt or the blue shirt? which book to read next? which summer job might make the most money? ... it's surreal to be in proximity to monumental life decisions.  Wasn't this "boy" just experiencing waves of joy over his new game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, battling King K. Rool in Donkey Kong Country, and belaboring which pack of Pokemon cards to purchase? 

The exceptional young man grappling with significant life choices is the main plot, and there is the subplot, where his mother takes hold, albeit with weak hands, of a new perspective on predestination and human will.  As I considered what counsel to give him, my greatest and most obvious word was first to pray, but what came next surprised me: not to ask God to help him pick the "best" path, but to pay closest attention if he felt God saying, "Not this path."

I remember one golden fall Friday afternoon heading out from my college town to spend the night with my aunt and uncle.  I was pampered and indulged, wrapped up in their warm  hospitality with congenial conversation, a savory homecooked meal, and a fire in the fireplace.  When Saturday afternoon came, I couldn't decide whether to go back to my dorm, new and exciting and full of possibilities, or stay one more night in a familiar and beloved home.  The decision was supremely difficult - I wanted to do both, and both were equally enticing options.  While I struggled with the decision, the seed was planted that sometimes - maybe all the times? - what matters isn't so much choosing one good choice over another good choice, but simply making a choice and going with it wholeheartedly.

It's exciting to stand with your child at a crossroad.  And it's scary.  And it's hard.  Having been this far down my own road, I have perspective enough to see all the choices before him are good choices.  But it's different, this standing at the fork of someone else's road - you can't make the choice for them.  I've been at my own forks in the road.  I know the inertia that swirls inside the fear of making the wrong choice.  I understand the paralysis of not being fully in control of the outcome.   My son walks through his days preoccupied, the weight of the decision evident in his bearing.  Always, I've believed God leads us to make THE right choice.  But as I watch my son consider the possibilities and the vastly different paths before him, I begin to sense that maybe God doesn't position an angel with a flashing arrow beside the "right" or "best" path because maybe there isn't one best and right-est path. 

While the mother in me wants to guide, influence, and direct, the fellow-traveler on the road of life is intrigued to see which way he'll go, knowing how abundantly well equipped he is.  As a parent, I want to say,  "I know you can do any one of these things well.  Tell me which one you want to do, I'm 100% behind you."  From beside this fork in his road, I think maybe all the paths are good, and God says, "This is the path you want to take?  Good!  Move! Let's do this!" 

I begin to see maybe that it isn't so much   t h e   path that's the important thing.  No matter which path I choose, God will mold me into who He wants me to be.  He promises to do that.  Each road might bring me down the home stretch with different bumps and bruises, and different sets of victories, but the ultimate purpose is that life refine me into God's intended best version of me, wholly dependent on Him.  His plan for me, and for all of us, is that we become as much like His Son as possible in our individual and unique version of humanity.  Obsessing about choosing the "rightest" path - and it's terrifying opposite, chosing the "wrong" path - isn't necessary.  It's really about evaluating which sights you want to see along the way, because God promises He'll finish the good work He began in each of us, whether we chose the road that goes over the mountain or the one that skirts around it.  His promise remains constant, that He'll never leave me, nor forsake me; He'll always be with me whichever the path.  He's going with me, and He'll use whatever path I take to get me to who He wants me to be. 

There's a kind of fearless freedom in that … delightful room for creativity, for collaboration, and for adventure.  And it makes watching your first-born consider those first few steps past the fork in the road not nearly so scary.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

Thought Whisperer

The dogs stand on the back porch, and they bark.  
They bark.
And they bark.
And they bark.

I know that if I shush them, shout their names angrily, and demand that they be quiet, they will advance upon whatever lurks there in the gloom beyond the trees, barking all the more, louder and louder in response to my hushing, adamant about a confrontation, intent on making sure everyone within 25 miles knows: something is there.

I also know that if I go out on the porch to them and stand in the chill of the morning and peer into the misty air, the dogs will come to me.  If I go out to them and acknowledge something is there, perhaps even something nefarious, something that doesn't belong - if I just acknowledge it, the dogs will come stand quietly beside me.  If I acknowledge their agitation, and praise them for doing their job and assure them everything is all right, be it a deer, or a coyote, or a wild hog out there in the dark, they will snort indignantly, bristle their hair and emit a quiet "woof" now and again ... but they will quiet.

This is like my mind with the frustrations, the limitations, the injustices, the worries. If I hush and shush my thoughts, they clamor all the more loudly.  But ... if I stand quietly with them, and acknowledge they are there, they will settle.  If I acknowledge the parts of me that are frazzled, overwhelmed, indignant and hurting - and maybe offer a little compassion and care - they quiet.  The frenzied thoughts no longer clamor for my attention.  They've done their job to alert me of a tender place in my heart that needs some gentle care, and they stand quietly with me ready to be directed toward more beneficial paths.

It's taken me a lifetime to learn ... I have to be the thought-whisperer to my own thoughts.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Why I Keep a November Gratitude Journal

When I flip the calendar over to November and Thanksgiving hovers just a few weeks away, it's always a reminder to focus on gratitude.  I've tried a few times to keep a daily year-round gratitude journal, but I loose steam after a discouragingly few days ... not that I lack blessings to be counted, that's for sure.  But November rolls around, and I find committing to keep a gratitude journal for a month as part of the Thanksgiving holiday feels doable - it's only 30 days. I know from years past that my experience of Thanksgiving becomes more deeply meaningful and the Christmas season more joyfully content after spending a month feasting on daily gratitude.  So I begin.

Modern life is so abundantly bursting with blessing, and honestly - please don't judge - I find my heart a little bit hardened to gratitude in the day to day.  Blessings are so prevalent; I'm so accustomed to them.  I'm the child overindulged with gifts on Christmas morning, and the focus swings away from the gifts and becomes an obsession with keeping the river flowing.  I remember the parable of the rich man, who threw himself into building bigger and bigger barns to hold all his blessings.  He didn't get to take anything with him when his life was over.  That's right, I remind myself, the tangible things won't go with me.  The ones that so easily rise to the top when I count my blessings will still be here on earth when I'm gone.

The first few days of a gratitude exercise are always easy - maybe a little superficial.  The obvious things (though not less deserving of gratitude) clamor to be counted:  employment, plenty of food, a home we love, automobiles ....  When mid-month rolls around though, and all the easy things have been inventoried and tagged, I'm forced to get still and focus on what lies beneath.  The "what am I thankful for today" contemplation  moves me past the temporal and toward the eternal, and helps me see just how deeply the layers of blessing in this life really go.

Here's what I love about a November gratitude journal:  sitting with gratitude for a month boils off the easy things, the obvious and maybe even superficial things that can be counted off in rapid succession.  I become focused not so much on the blessings, and I dwell on being blessed.  What rises to the top is a deep savoring of my one and only life, and I'm left - not with the barns full of inventoried blessings that I expected when I began, but a shimmering, resonant knowing that if it were all stripped away, I would still rise up blessed.  For this, I'm immeasurably grateful.

Are you counting blessings this November?  What are you grateful for today?