Beggars and Choosers

Close enough to see it in my rear-view mirror was a season in which I had to reconstruct my definition of being strong and capable. I was a single mom with a chronically ill child watching helplessly as all the parts of my life fell apart. There was no way that, on my own, I could find the time or money or even emotional resources to manage everything. But asking for help doesn’t come easy for this little peacock; nor do we live in a culture that invites us to ask for the help we need. To spiritualize the crisis I was experiencing feels trivial, even with the clarity and gratitude of hindsight, but that season confronted me with the murky ego of my own self-sufficiency. Easy to confess; hard to work out. In that rough spot, I needed something greater than the wordy prayers I’d been taught. I just closed the cover to Never Pray Again by Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson (aka Two Friars and a Fool) and found resonance and recognition inside those pages. “Beg” reminded me of that season and I went skulking through the pages of my journals to produce something that gave breath to what I was learning, to what I’d read.

 

that practical need felt like exposed skin

with goosebumps rising and shame creeping

shouldn’t she have it all together by now

so many whispers in pitched tempo

that I began to wonder if it was in my own head

this round of sharp notes

and maybe it was

or at least I could recognize my own voice

in the chorus

 

how quickly the patine of advocacy is muddied by fingerprints

when the one holding the begging tin

is the one in need

of those tossed coins

for their own broken-down

broken-out

broken-apart

self

 

god helps those who help themselves

those whispers again

but my bootstraps snapped off long ago

from the pulling

and the straining

accompanied by the exhausted grunts of lifting

such a burden

by those insignificant loops

 

I dutifully took my number

and sat in plastic chairs

lining square rooms awash in beige resignation

I stood in line at the counters of empire

and heard the scripts

no, sorry, and better luck next time

humiliation is not complete

until all the systems cease to recognize you

as human

until they call you by a number instead of a name

until they stop inviting you to Thanksgiving dinner

 

and I began to believe them

those whisperers

and in the boxes provided

I gave my new information

Flaky

Irresponsible

Hopeless

Moocher

Crazy

Bitch

 

but the dare to acknowledge the imposter

of my self-sufficiency

stood challenged

and I doubted my ability

to let my goosebumped skin warm

at someone else’s fire

while I formed my stubborn mouth

– the one I proudly inherited –

around that impossible word

help

help me

please

 

good men in starched collars taught lessons

on the bounty and beauty of

do unto others and the one who stopped to help the beaten man

blind men seeing and sullied women renewed

and I, with my patent leather shoes and earnest intentions,

held them close to my childish heart

oh, to be like Jesus

 

but there was another invitation into incarnation

one that had stuck forgotten

between the pages

of my pink Precious Moments bible

an invitation to a humilation

that could only be experienced by one proven insufficient

labeled unacceptable

and at the mercy of whomever might stop to listen

and in that big, empty space

where no one wanted to go

I found them glistening on the linoleum

those sparkling pieces of my humanity

that had been dropped along the way

the vulnerability

and raw hunger

the need for others

the need to be needful

 

last sunday that good man in the starched collar said

your inevitable loneliness is holy ground

 

yes, it is

 

and so I’ll sit here

in my plastic chair

in this beige room

and embrace the spiritual practice

of saying

help me

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On Recklessness

Every now and then, I have need of a visit to the hospital to shore up my crazy lupus. In the course of my many visits, word got out that I was a pastor, albeit a slightly unusual one. And before I could snap my fingers, I had a whole new hospital congregation made up of the sick, the dying, the pissed off, the too-old-to-care and the staff who tended to them.

It was almost six weeks ago that I was pulled aside by a nurse. “Paul’s asked to meet you. He just wants to say hi, I think. You smiled at him in the hallway the other day.” So she led me to room 1317 and pushed open the heavy hospital door, using her body to move it quietly and reverently, the way one enters a temple .

Paul was reclining half upright on the bed with his eyes closed, a well-built man with a head full of curly white hair. An open book rested pages-down against his chest. He had the creased look of a dying man. And he was. Paul was dying of brain cancer.

He opened his eyes and stared at me for what turned into an uncomfortable amount of time. But, when he finally spoke, how that voice sparkled! He wanted to meet me, he said, because when he saw me in the hallway that day, he was sure he’d seen a ghost.

“A good ghost?”

“The ghost of a love long gone.” He smiled at me almost apologetically. Paul and I became friends on the spot–right there, no questions asked. That’s the way it happens with kindred spirits.

Her name was Julia and she was a gypsy of a woman. Passionate, intelligent, fierce—with a mane of red hair that would shame the sun. She was an artist and a dancer. They’d met in the fifties, through a mutual friend, shortly after he returned from the war. The connection was evident from the beginning, full of fire and aliveness; but he shied away from letting himself imagine a future where Julia had some role to play. Whatever was going on between them didn’t fit into the conventional box he’d been told was right, safe, good, responsible. He was moving away for work within the year and that would be that. So three seasons worth of magical walks through the park, some beautiful nights together with long conversations that lasted into the small hours of the morning, and countless “accidental” meetings just to get a glimpse of her and then he left. Moved to Chicago, lived the responsible – i.e. expected – life and married his first wife, a kind woman he admits he loved but wasn’t in love with. And every single day he thought of Julia. He told me that I’d reminded him of her — the way I walked, the way I dressed, the way I laughed too loudly in the hallway.

To sit with him, even just for a little while and be the hologram of a woman for whom he grieves the loss is one of the great joys of my life these days. Paul feels some kind of absolution in telling me all of the things he never told her. No doubt, this is some kind of divine appointment to let him prepare for death and to teach me how to live.

Paul has coaxed me to say something out loud: life is too short to not be reckless for the things that matter. Be reckless about love, about compassion, about beauty, about opposing injustice, about the unexplainable miracle of a kindred spirit. This is such a cliche in some ways that I can’t even read my own words without seeing them on a bumper sticker or penned onto a coffee mug.

But I get it.

Recklessness is frowned on in our culture–at least, where it would count. We’ll be reckless with sex, money, our bodies, our planet; but not with our time, our passion, our own innate divine nature.

Most days I kind of suck at it, actually. Recklessness, I mean. I like knowing people approve of my decisions as being moral, good, smart, responsible. Despite all my gypsy sensibilities, a semi-predictable outcome is still the “right” way. And let’s face it, I don’t want to look like a fool and I bet you don’t either.

I’m chucking that notion from here on out. It’s no coincidence that the greatest commandment is love or that my greatest hero lived a life so reckless and so passionate, they killed him for it.

So reckless I shall be…with my dreaming, with my inspiration, with my love.

I asked Paul if he would have found a way to love Julia even if it would’ve required a foolish creativity to make it work, even if it wasn’t a sure thing. He just looked past me the way that memories do and smiled that Don Draper smile. “Oh doll, every man should be a fool for a love like that. A fool forgets that there’s anything to do but live.”

Preach it, Apostle Paul.

P.S. I love you, P. XOXO

Sometimes the Piano Is Too Big

I am the jack of all trades and the master of none. Or something like that…I spend most of my week bouncing my attention between my three part-time jobs (one of which is pastoring a church “part-time”…yeah, I’m laughing too…), caring for my fabulous children, attempting to be a friend + partner, and practicing, teaching & writing music and words. I don’t pretend that I’m amazing at anything I do, but somehow, I make it all work the way that most of us do when we have seemingly impossible tasks laid before us.

Sitting next to one of my most thoughtful child piano students the other day, I found myself with my arm around his tiny, slumped shoulders as he explained almost tearfully that there were just too many notes and not enough fingers. Too many possibilities and not enough time to sort them out. The piano was too big and he was just too small. I just wanted to sit and boo-hoo with him for a minute; because as it would turn out, life had been making me feel that way now for a while. Instead I scooted next to him on the piano bench and said,

“Let’s play just the black keys.”

Thirty minutes later, we both stood up from the piano bench, probably not more improved technical players, but certainly more at peace with our musicianship, with our relationship to our instrument, and with ourselves. That’s how it is sometimes…I just need to give myself permission to mess around with what I know will work. Words–stories, poems, liturgy–help me do that very thing and sometimes bring me back to the center and sit with it for a while. Doing what I know will work. No profound thoughts and, GOD forbid, no preaching here. Just words that we can share as poems, prayers, and the occasional story that I hope will provoke back to center whoever may stumble into this place. It seems that all of us, in some way, are trying to find center – whether that’s a melody, love, sobriety or a GOD that animates all of those things.

So I’ll start here. ‘Cuz if just the black keys are good enough for St. Stevie Wonder, they’re good enough for me.