Monday, June 26, 2017

What's next? Rock painting

So, in addition to my sidewalk poetry endeavors, I've been painting rocks.

What the hell is a grown ass woman doing painting rocks? You ask.

I don't know, for the same reason grown ass women do yoga with goats. Or stage equestrian competitions using stick horses. Or dye their hair to look like rainbows. Or pretend to be real-life mermaids.

Because these days it seems like the world is just one Tweet away from becoming a racist, sexist, elitist, homophobic, xenophobic, bigoted, patriarchal hellscape and we are just grasping for something– anything– to offer reminders that our life here on this wacky spinning piece of space debris still has room for joy, silliness and magic.

To avoid getting swallowed into a pit of despair, I decided to paint rocks and then leave them in shared spaces around my neighborhood. At the playground, by the pool, on the walking path, outside the library. I recruited Lily and Jovie to join in the fun, too. Oh and a few neighbors (you know you've found your people when you tell them you've been painting rocks and they turn around and throw a rock-painting party complete with brownies and wine).

They're not masterpieces or anything. Not destined for the Smithsonian (unless, of course, I should happen to leave a couple on the Mall... which now that I'm writing this might have to happen). I decided on rocks because they're plentiful and free. Plus, I always have plenty of acrylic paint on hand. The girls and I stick with bright colors, fun patterns and sometimes a little glitter. 

We're not changing the world here. Not doing anything big and bold. Probably the opposite. Little and goofy. But it makes me happy and maybe it makes someone else happy, too, and that is enough. 

Yesterday, I received a sign from the great beyond that I'm on the right track with this rock thing.

I was helping my parents move out of their home in Lancaster, Pa. when Mom mentioned there was a bucket of river rock in their shed. She said I could take it if I wanted. To which I squealed and probably jumped up and down while extolling the merits of river rock for rock painting projects (they're soooo smooth and sooooo flat! The perfect little canvases). The bucket of rocks was really, really heavy. As buckets of rocks are wont to be. But I hauled it from the shed and into the car, next to the gallon of maple syrup I also scored from my parents (we took bets on which item would make Brad's eyebrows go up more). 

Last night I was scrubbing the mud off of some of my new rocks, something happened that  I think is pretty much the definition of magic. And that something, was birds:

It was as if a fellow weirdo had reached out across time and space to say, "right on."


The question for me recently (recently and always) has been, what's next?

What do I do next? Who will I be in this next phase of life? What things do I pursue? What dreams do I leave behind (or at least lay fallow for now)? Where do I find inspiration? What will drive me? What will pull me out of bed each morning? What will will lead me to my big I AM MOANA! moment? (Or, you know, I AM SUSAN! Which doesn't sound nearly as poetic and triumphant. I'm guessing it also wouldn't happen while I'm sailing solo across the Pacific on a raft).  

Such big questions. It seems we never get to stop answering this question.

The rest of the world asks this question at all stages of life post childhood. Where are you going to college? What will you major in? What will you do for work? When will you get married? When will you have children? When will you have more children? When will you return to work? Where will you live? What are you going to do with your life?

What next? 
What next?
What next?

And, of course, I ask it of others, too. It's how humans seem to converse with one another.

I asked Lily's high school-aged soccer coach the question at the team party. I asked the young woman on the train who'd just graduated from UVA that question. I asked my parents this question, too. Now that they've sold their house in Lancaster and are moving back to Colorado for the time being, Where will you go next? I asked. 

I've asked this question of myself for decades. After high school. After college. After marriage. After babies. And again recently. 

What next? 
What next? 
What next? 

We all spend a lot of our lives agonizing over this question. And because of that it makes it difficult to settle into our lives right now. Right now doesn't seem to matter as much as what's next.

Except when you are perpetually focusing on what's next, you're not really living your life at all. You're planning all the time. 

Or, if you're like me, you're not even planning. You're just sort of flopping about the floor like an overtired three-year-old who's just been told that, no, there won't be ice cream for dinner and that they also have to take off their own shoes. I mean the horrors! THE HORRORS! What a hideous, manipulative, demanding mistress this thing we call life is.

So here I am, still flopping about the floor. One shoe partially off dreading what will no doubt be the worst dinner ever because, as mentioned previously, no ice cream.

And I'm reminded of an anecdote Liz Gilbert shared during that retreat I went on

Just a few days before the program, Liz's partner and person for life (PFL), Rayya Elias, became very ill. I guess its not that she became ill. Rayya was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer last year. She's been ill for awhile. Except that on the Tuesday before the retreat she was extremely ill. Throwing up blood in the bathroom for hours ill. So ill Liz was convinced she was witnessing the last moments of her PFL. All she could do was sit on the bathroom floor and hold Rayya.

And of course, because she's human and all, ask the question, "What's next?"

What was she supposed to do next?

Liz said the answer about what to do next came from Rayya, who said she was cold. 

The next thing to do was to get a blanket. So she did. And she trusted that she'd know what the next thing to do was when it was time to do it.

Liz said life is like this. We'll know what the next thing to do is when its time to do it. We shouldn't discount all the teeny, tiny, incremental steps we're taking toward that thing. They matter. They keep our PFL warm. Obsessing over the towering colossus of "what's next?" does not answer the question "what's next?"

But living will. Living and honoring each teeny, tiny, incremental step will.


As I was taking a walk through the woods yesterday, I listened to an interview with artist Enrique Martinez Celaya. He said something I think we all need to hear:

"... There’s a tendency for us to think that to be a prophet or to do anything grand, you have to have a special gift, be someone called for. And I think ultimately what really matters is the resolve — to want to do it, to give your life to that which you consider important. And if you have no skills to offer, or nothing special to offer, it’s all the more amazing that you do it, the more remarkable. And I think that resolve is all that really matters. ... the reason I made the distinction between minor prophet is because I’m not trying to put any capital letters here or trying to say that you’re going to be remembered as such, because it really doesn’t matter. It’s a private journey that no one needs to really know about."

Maybe I won't have that Moana moment, afterall. Maybe I don't need to. Maybe I stick to doing the things that seem important to me– even if they seem insignificant to everyone else– and those are the things that will define me. Those are the things that will quiet the endless drumming of "What's next? What's next? What's next?"

What's next isn't as important as what we are doing right now. That's both the groundwork and the evolving masterpiece of our personhood. Even if I can't see what it all ends up looking like, it's OK.

As Liz Gilbert's friend Richard from Texas always said, "It's all gonna be alright."

And as my inside voices say, "It's time to paint another rock."

Monday, June 19, 2017

On big sorrows and golden skies

On Sunday afternoon I got a Facebook alert on my phone from a neighborhood group I'm a member of.

"Dranesville Rd closed for missing teen investigation, both directions between Rt. 7 shopping center & Sugarland Rd, Fairfax/Loundon Co border"

The area is just a couple miles from my house. I visit the shopping center regularly for groceries. I scanned the comments and learned the remains of the teen– a 17-year-old girl– from Reston had been found in a pond a few miles away.

Her name was Nabra.

It's shocking when someone so young dies. Shocking when you learn someone so young was murdered. Shocking when you hear she was beaten with a baseball bat. Shocking when it's so close to your home. Because these things never happen so close to your home, right?

Nabra and her friends had been participating in late-night prayers at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society about a mile from the shopping center.

The mosque hosts prayers at midnight and 2 a.m. during the last 10 days of Ramadan. Frequently, members stop by the McDonald's or IHOP nearby to eat a meal before fasting begins at sunrise, the Washington Post reported.

"According to accounts from police and a mosque official, a group of four or five teens were walking back from breakfast at IHOP early Sunday when they were confronted by a motorist. All but one of the teens ran to the mosque, where the group reported that the girl had been left behind."

I wonder about the kids who made it back to the mosque. How heavy they must feel today. One minute giggling over a late-night meal over the stuff of high school then terrified by an assailant then ... desolate. They are children no more. 

The police arrested a suspect– not much more than kid himself at 22. I find myself making assumptions. Trying to solve the question of motive. They aren't investigating the Nabra's  slaying as a hate crime, the police are quick to point out. Clearing up the easiest conclusion to leap to: She was Muslim and so a target. 

As if that makes the incident any less unsettling.

Investigators believe there was some type of an argument. Some conversation between this 22-year-old man and a group of teenagers that led to Nabra's murder. 

The contents of that confrontation I'm sure will wend its way into neighborhood chatter. Maybe it was road rage, the police say. I don't like to make grand declarations or predictions. But I'll say this– I can all but guarantee whatever was said was not worthy of killing a 17-year-old girl. 

While it might not always be classified as a "hate crime," murder is always a crime of hate. Even if it's not hate of a particular creed or race. It's hate of something at the tip of our tongues of buried deep within our hearts. No one extinguishes the bright light of beautiful, vital person out of love. 

If love is love is love, then hate is hate is hate.

Today I stopped by my neighbor's house. As part of Ramadan, one of their daughters had organized a toy drive on behalf of Syrian refugees living in Maryland through their mosque. I'd been meaning to drop some items off for weeks and finally got around to it today. 

While visiting, I asked if their daughter knew Nabra. They're the same age and ADAMS is the closest mosque. Her mother said she did. Her daughter was really upset.They were all shaken. All shocked. I told them how sorry I was that their community was going through such a terrible ordeal.

The kids always walked to that McDonalds and the IHOP, my neighbor said. I told her they shouldn't have to be scared to walk down a sidewalk to get McDonald's on a well-traveled road. Even if it was late at night. They were in a group. They were going back to their house of worship. 

And you know what, even if they weren't in a group. Even if they weren't going to their house of worship. There's no justification for murder. 

My neighbor said she'd heard the suspect was drunk. That he was probably a college student or something. He's young, too.

She was distraught about Nabra and her family. I could see her holding back tears even while we talked. But she said there were two families affected by what happened Sunday.

"I'm sure [the suspect's] parents didn't expect they'd have to deal with something like this either," she said.

How beautiful that there can be such grace and love in the aftermath of such hate. I admire that strength. The wisdom of mothers.

Before I left we hugged. I'm not sure whether I was comforting her, or she was comforting me. It was probably both.

The Post interviewed Nabra's mother, who's devastated by the loss of her daughter, "her first reason for happiness."

The reporter described how Nabra's mother had loaned her daughter an abaya– a long, robe-like dress worn by Muslim women– since Nabra didn't generally wear traditional Muslim clothes.

"She heard from a detective that when the man in the car started shouting at the teens, Nabra tripped over the long garment and fell to the ground, just before she was struck."

This image of her last moments haunts me. 

I never met Nabra. I probably never would've met her either, had she lived. I don't know her mother or any of her family. Only a few members of her mosque, who happen to live next door. I've only ever driven past the same sidewalks she walked down with her friends.

But I was 17 once. I went on late-night food runs with friends. I wandered dark sidewalks all carefree and giddy. And I'm a mother with two daughters who I look at on days like these, overcome by their sweetness and their fragility while pleading with the creator to keep them safe. To allow me keep them for as long as I'm on this Earth. 

And I'm a human being on this planets full of other human beings. And that should be enough to mourn for Nabra. To mourn for her family and friends. It is enough.


Lily just wandered downstairs– we'd tucked her in a few minutes earlier. 

"Mom, I want to show you something," she said– cutting off my lecture about how it was bedtime. "I was looking out my window and saw the most beautiful golden sunset. Do you want to see it?"

Of course I wanted to see it. 

So Lily and I sat on the driveway and watched the clouds drift and the sky shift from gold to pale pink. We saw blinking fireflies. And heard a bird singing its goodnight song. It started sprinkling so we went inside. 

"I just thought you would like it, Mom," Lily told me as I tucked her back in. She knows my heart as I know hers.

The sky is always so beautiful after a storm. 


My heart is so small
it's almost invisible.
How can You place 
such big sorrows in it?
"Look," He answered,
"your eyes are even smaller,
yet they behold the world. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Buzzards and Magnolias: Discovering Humanity in Nature

Photo courtesy of Mike Lewinski/Flickr

Driving to the grocery store and I spot a buzzard soaring near a strip mall. 

She dives, reverses and glides like a biplane in a flying circus. And I have to believe she is playing. Flying for the sake of flying. Because she can. 

Because she was designed to do it. 

Because it's delightful. 

The same reasons I like to sing and dance– though often I don't because maybe it's weird and maybe people will stare. Maybe I'm not all that good at it.

Watching the bird dip and sway and roll on those invisible sky waves gives me permission to sing and dance.

Does nature realize how wonderful it is?

Does it need to even?

Nature's all self-assured in its ballerina birds and lattice-work leaves and flowers that make painters fall apart trying to capture the exact shade of heaven. 

The giant magnolia tree in our new front yard is in bloom. When we first moved here it made me smile. There was a magnolia grandiflora in the front yard of the house I grew up in.

I find myself marveling at the flowers. The precise way the petals spoon around each other. How when they unfold the flowers are the size of a plate. The stamen the color of cranberries, crowned with an intricate lemony headpiece. How the bugs indulge in the pollen. I watched one beetle, completely enrobed in soft, golden pollen, roll among the creamy petals like a drunkard. Once the flowers bloom they only last a day or two before the petals become tea-stained, wilt and fall away. Nothing so perfect ever last forever, naturally.

I wish I could be like the vulture. Or the magnolia. Or the beetle living inside its divine embrace. I think we humans were meant to be this way. We're part of nature, too. We are all made of the same stuff. 

But we feel so apologetic about it. Or embarrassed by it. Or disdainful.

As if its unseemly or uncivilized to be ourselves.

Humans being our most human selves has become a thing of questionable importance almost. Maybe because it's difficult to quantify. It can't be predicted and put into a data set to be analyzed and used for marketing or product development. Or, maybe because it can and as a result self-expression and creativity feel pointless and unnecessary.

Which is frightening and unfortunate. It threatens our survival, I think. And it makes us devalue the lives all all the other species we share this planet with.

All the things we are doing that don't fill us– really fill our souls and bring us joy and peace– are unnatural. They separate us from the herd of natural beings of which the birds, beetles, flowers, trees and all the rest are part of.

Humans were meant to create. We were meant to tell the story of what happened here. It's what drives us to leave our mark. To carve our names on trees and etch pictures on rocks. To write poetry and novels and to build an internet filled with the history of everything and to keep digging and digging into what else there is to know. To unravel the story one discovery at a time. This is us.


The rest? 

 It's just killing time. And sucking the purpose and meaning from our short lives here in the meantime.

I think about this as I watch what might be one of nature's ugliest birds dancing on the air like Anna Pavlova.

Go outside today. Explore this extraordinary world and rediscover your own extraordinary self. Then dance, sing, write, build, paint. Create, create, create.

Photo courtesy of Jesse Wagstaff/Flickr

Monday, June 5, 2017

Filling my sidewalk with chalk poetry and fixing my heart with gold

Recently, I decided I wanted to inject a little more art and spontaneity into the suburbs. So after listening to something or other on the internet about a poet writing verse on the sidewalks of New York, I decided to follow suit. Not in New York, of course, but in my own front yard. 

I've been keeping an eye out for short poems or excerpts of poems that might lend themselves to sidewalk art (if you have a favorite, please share! Also, you should decorate your own sidewalks!)

While searching for poetry I browsed through past columns Omid Safi had written for On Being– he often includes verse in his writing– whether it's his own or the work of others. I love Safi's pieces– they're filled with wisdom that's rooted in parts of the world I'm unfamiliar with, ideas that challenge me to look past my own upbringing and life experiences. And they're also infused with mysticism– a willingness to play and float and muse in realms we can't quite wrap our grounded brains around. 

I came across a post from back in April called "Illuminating the Beauty in Our Broken Places". I remember reading it the first time– the piece explores the art of kintsukuroi– a centuries-old Japanese practice of repairing cracked cups, dishes, mugs, etc. with silver or gold lacquer. Of finding "beauty in broken things or old things."

Safi writes:

"Give me someone who knows their own vulnerability and sees mine. 
Give me someone whose cracked spaces are golden.
Give me someone who has helped do kintsugi
Give me someone who is open to me doing kintsugi to their cracked heart.
So friends, wabi-sabi me.
Let me wabi-sabi you.
Let’s repair each other.
Let’s seek what’s cracked in each other.
Let’s heal our broken spaces.
Let’s fill what’s broken with gold.
May we emerge more beautiful, more whole, and luminous.
So, my love, come and see the beauty in my cracked spaces.
I see the beauty in yours.
You are not a heart that I will discard.
Do not discard me.
We can emerge from this healing golden, more beautiful.
May all that is cracked and broken
be healed

be illuminated."

I borrowed an excerpt for my sidewalk.

 A friend happened by and read the sidewalk. 

"Brocken?" she asked.

"Brocken?" I replied. 

She pointed to the sidewalk.

"Oh no! Brocken*!" I groaned.

I'm a terrible speller. How I started my career as a copy editor is kind of a mystery to me.

My friend figured the error was just part of the poem. "Nothing a little water can't fix," she told me– all kindness and understanding.

So I repaired my damaged word– though with water, not gold.

And until the sun dried it, the poem kind of looked like a dog had had an accident on it, which I'm not sure is the type of liquid gold the Japanese intended, but was kind of amusing nonetheless.

Today there's a nice gentle rain, washing away all the broken and fixed words anyway. Such is life.

One of my oldest friends stopped by Saturday night and the two of us sat by the fire pit– appreciating the perfect night, catching up on the news of each other's lives and inevitably reminiscing about our long history together. 

Somehow we landed on a discussion about moments in our lives that we were ashamed of. Decisions we'd made that back in high school we never thought we would've made as adults, choices we knew had hurt people in ways we never could've imagined hurting people. You know, those deep, deep cracks filled with dust and spiders that we rarely shine a light in. 

With Safi's words at the front of my brain that day, I told my friend that I thought those choices she'd made, those actions she'd taken, while not something she could take pride in had shaped her into a better person. Someone who's softer and more empathetic. Less inclined to judge. All of which are true.

Those cracks won't ever disappear, but they can be filled and reinforced rather than chipped away at by self-hatred and shame.

I thought about the darker chapters in my own story. How there are chinks, dents and gaping chasms I sometimes stare at in my mind's eye, feeling overwhelmed. Like they are too massive to fix. So I just shut the door on them.

These aren't the wounds caused by others or the things that I can explain away by circumstance, upbringing or other people's cruelties. Those external wounds seem much easier to own and fix. 

For instance, I am more or less comfortable sharing about the scars covering my arms. Sure, they were the result of self harm, but more than a decade removed from them, I can acknowledge the pain they sprouted from wasn't shameful (though the cutting definitely was– we are just such a weird species aren't we?) I can easily picture myself going into a tattoo parlor and asking an artist to gild these physical scars

The road to healing from the things done unto us somehow feels more straightforward than the road to healing the hurtful choices we ourselves have made. Those are more insidious injuries. We don't like to speak of them, so they often lurk within us, festering until we treat them.

Left to seed, the shame and guilt will cripple us– we've all seen this over and over, right? We see it in addiction, in anxiety, in depression, in intolerance, in cynicism, in pride, in self-righteousness– in every post that makes us cringe on Facebook. 

Unlike with kintsukuroi, where there's an outside tinkerer mending what's broken, the work of healing shame starts within ourselves. It starts with forgiving ourselves. Which, what with my Catholic upbringing, feels impossible. But it's necessary. I know it's necessary. Because those dark places stunt our growth. They're the vines and weeds overtaking our happiness, our ability to love, our ability to serve, our ability to live better lives.

And not that I'm any sort of Catholic or Christian now, but I'll borrow the good book in defense. 

"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." 

As sinners we cannot throw stones at anyone, including ourselves (I'm speaking of metaphorical stones, of course, but should any of you be casting actual stones at yourselves, by all means, please stop!)

This is not to say you go on your merry way leaving a path of shattered souls in your wake. Only that you allow your moments of guilt or shame to be your teachers. You allow them to change you at a cellular level– because they can. I've seen it, just like with my friend. And while I might not be the best judge of my own growth, I think I've changed, too as a result of all the hard times I've been through and the ugly things I've put others through.

We all make bad choices. We all shift in and out of being people we like to being people we don't like all too much. Confronting the things we're ashamed of is just as capable of strengthening us as losing a job, a breakup, getting sick or losing someone. 

The girls are on bit of a "Moana" kick these days. I could go on (and on and on) about how much I love this movie but the scene that's getting me right now is one of the final ones. Moana walking through the parting ocean toward Te Ka, the raging lava monster.
"They have stolen the heart from inside you / But this does not define you / This is not who you are / I know who you are."

Rather than casting a stone, Moana looks the monster in the eye. She stops Te Ka from destroying the things that get close to her. She forgives her. She lets Te Ka know that she can see beyond her terrifying exterior. She restores her heart and as a result Te Ka transforms into Te Fiti, the Mother Island.

For those of us who need visualizations on what it means to confront our demons, this is as good an example as any. How often do we feed the demons within us that are desperate to be seen and forgiven? What purpose does that serve? Sure, the demon feels strong and looks like a badass, but she'll burn out eventually. 

We're not meant to be lava monsters, I don't think. We're meant to be verdant and life-giving. 

What's more, this is the only way we'll be able to escape this endless cycle of destruction we find ourselves in. We need to start by doing kintsugi on our own broken hearts. We have to be open to others helping us. And we have to be open to helping them, too. In this way, we'll fill all the cracked and broken spaces within us and among us.

* Sidenote: The Brocken is the highest peak of the Harz Mountains in Germany. So maybe my subconscious was trying to fix a mountain or something.