Imperfect Serenity

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Originally uploaded by spcoon.
Here's a picture of the performance artists I described in yesterday's post. For more photos, go to this flickr page.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Peace March

For those of you who missed the ten seconds of television coverage that Saturday’s national peace march in Washington received, or for those who read the New York Times version, I’d like to give my own account. For starters, I wouldn’t say there were “tens of thousands” of marchers, as the papers reported. There were hundreds of thousands—300,000 according to the organizers. I have no idea how they figure that out, but I do know that 11 buses came just from our end of Philadelphia, 3 from our Quaker meeting alone. (For the 2000 Million Mom March, our meeting only sent 1 bus.) It was clear that we were not just turning out the usual crowd, as most of the recent peace marches have. This time there was a sense that the moment mattered, and ordinary people came: parents and children, grandparents who marched for civil rights and young veterans of the Iraq war, military families as well as your usual array of left-wing groups. It was a great event, well worth the hours on the bus.

The most memorable part for me was a piece of street theatre by a group called There were three women standing stone still, each with her right hand over her heart, gripping a piece of red ribbon. The first was dressed in a business suite with pearls and dust on her shoulders. It took us a few minutes to realized she represented 9/11 victims. The second was wearing a military uniform, and the third was dressed as an Iraqi woman. A container of cards showed that 1 inch of ribbon represented 12 casualties. The 9/11 woman’s ribbon draped from her heart to the ground and extended out a few feet. The soldier’s ribbon extended a little further. The Iraqi woman, however, didn’t hold a simple inch-thick ribbon. She held a cloth at least a yard wide that draped so far in front of her and the other ribbons that we couldn’t see its end under the feet of the onlookers. At some point, my friend realized the women were triplets: exactly the same, except for their clothes, the size of their ribbons, and the casualty numbers written across their foreheads. It was very moving.

The only disappointing thing about the day was the minimal media coverage. In Philadelphia Prince Charles’ visit dominated the news. There was only a quick flash on the local news that didn’t give a true picture of the size of the march and didn’t mention how many people had gone from Philadelphia. And we wonder why ordinary people don’t believe that what they do matters? But it does matter. Three women stood still with their hands over their hearts, and I’m quite sure they touched many other hearts with their quiet witness.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Downward Dog

This morning I tried to do yoga in the living room while the puppy nuzzled my feet. He thought downward dog was an invitation to lick my hair. When I got down on the floor completely, he thought it was an invitation to pounce. It seemed a fitting way to start the day. “Imperfect Serenity” is an apt description of my current mood.

I’d been humming along on my new book until last night when a friend’s comments spun me into a little crisis of self-doubt. It’s my own fault, asking for feedback after only two chapters, though it’s probably good to face the hard questions now, rather than after six or seven chapters. The question I’m asking this morning is how to tell the difference between making my writing accessible and dumbing it down or depoliticizing it to make it marketable. I already suspected that what I have so far is not as accessible as it could be. I had noticed that I had a lot of footnotes, which is usually a bad sign for a trade paperback book. I also know I can get preachy when I get into the political issues. My friend’s comments and those of my husband who had just read a bit confirmed that. But on the other hand, I refuse to change who I am fundamentally to fit into a publishing world that caters to celebrity cookbooks and self-help drivel. So the writing challenge of the day is how to be a more effective me, rather than someone else.

So I’m suddenly remembering that I sometimes pray for guidance with my writing. I need to trust that and do it more often. I need to remember that writing is a leading for me, not just a career, though I would like it to be a career, too. Remembering that may also be a way of making the book more accessible, staying with stories of people searching for God’s guidance about what they should accept and what they should change in their lives. This may also just be one more of those experiences designed by the universe to teach me trust and patience. After writing a book about motherhood that I wasn’t able to sell, my confidence in myself and Providence is just a little shaky. And yet I know trusting is the right thing to do.

I’m not a perfect practitioner. I have an image of how serenity is supposed to look, but just like my yoga practice, my spiritual life is often disrupted by the puppy mussing up my hair and the kids needing breakfast. But that’s what I want to write about: how we live a spiritual life in the real world of interruptions and distractions.

On another note, after my last post someone e-mailed me to ask how to sign up for RSS feed to get notices whenever I add a post. Here’s the advice of my friend Phil who is my mentor in these matters:
Here's a link to the blog subscription tool I use:
You set up a (free) account using your e-mail address and a password, and then you can subscribe to any blog that offers an RSS, XML or Atom feed. (I think you just right-click on the feed icon on the site, copy the link, and paste it into Bloglines' subscription form. But you can experiment.)

Thanks for reading!

Monday, January 15, 2007


We’ve just come home from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service at our school. As usual, we’re a bit sweaty and full of carbohydrates. Also as usual I have some mixed feelings about this “day of service” stuff. On the positive side, the day brings together volunteers of various ages and races and connects our school to the wider community. We also do work that’s actually helpful to people, from donating blood to packing up school supplies for children who can’t afford them. There’s an overall good feeling that I really treasure. But there’s also part of me that regrets that King is celebrated with service, rather than justice. The spiritual and political heart of his message only gets a few minutes notice in the introductory program, which is always running behind schedule and full of practical announcements. For the past three years we’ve added a letter writing campaign to the day to encourage the parents to write to their representatives about current issues while their kids are packing school supplies, but it feels a pretty tame way to honor the marches of fifty years ago. I’m feeling a need to remember today the courage of the people King represented—the frustrated courageous people who sometimes got their heads beaten in—and not just whitewash the memory of one man.

This morning during the program, we heard the story of how when King was speaking in Philadelphia in 1968 he was feeling sick and needed to see a doctor. The man who treated him is now a grandparent at our school, so the incident was related that when King came to his busy waiting room, he sat down and waited his turn, although he was then famous enough that he could have gotten away with cutting in line. The story struck me perhaps differently than others there because I had just been reading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In it King answers the white Alabama clergymen who were critical of the civil rights movement: “For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant 'Never.’"

The juxtaposition of King’s two responses to waiting struck me as having everything to do with “the wisdom to know the difference” which I’ve been writing about. It’s a spiritual challenge, knowing when to wait and when to act. In general, I think we learn more about how to wait, elevating the qualities of humility and patience that King exhibited in the first story, but neglecting to celebrate the confidence and courage exhibited in his willingness to go to an Alabama prison, and ultimately to give his life. Perhaps if part of our “service” included a willingness to serve jail time for our beliefs, we would remember King’s movement more appropriately.

But it’s hard to know what and how to protest today. Our schools are still largely segregated, but not because of one simple law that can be easily overturned. It has to do with the demographics of different neighborhoods, the tax system that funds public schools, as well as the choices of individual families. I’m not sure a march in the streets or even getting arrested would change any of it. It’s easier to pack up school supplies for kids who can’t afford them than to make sure that all our schools have adequate funding.

If I want to avoid getting disempowered altogether, I have to come back to the positive aspects of our day of service: the fact that our school is much more integrated than the United States in general; the fact that so many people worked so hard to help others; the fact that MLK Day is a holiday at all. King said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” I have to have faith that my children will learn enough from this day to keep bending the arc.

Monday, January 08, 2007


I’ve neglected this blog for three weeks, partly because I’m trying to discern where to go next with it. I’m feeling renewed energy to work on the Wisdom to Know the Difference book, exploring the last line of the Serenity Prayer and how we know the difference between what we should accept and what we should try to change. Since I’m not teaching this term, it would be exciting to just totally focus on the book, without worrying about whether I’ve posted once a week. What I’m thinking is that I’ll just post as I feel led (as Quakers say), without predicting how often that will be. For those of you who like reading my posts, I’d appreciate it if you’d sign up for RSS feed so you can receive notice when I do have a new post. Now that I have some regular readers, I’d hate to lose you!

As for today, the story I want to share has been in my mind since the week before Christmas when I volunteered with an inter-faith network that hosts homeless families in local congregations. Our Quaker meeting was cooking and accompanying the families, though this time they were staying at a large Baptist church that has grander accommodations that our little meeting. I had a frustrating time finding a way into the massive building, which had entrances on three streets, most of them locked. I was wandering around in the dark, carrying my portion of dinner, tired because it was the night after Megan’s sleep-over birthday party, which didn’t involve much sleeping. I had just passed the children on to Tom, who was driving around the block trying to help me find the entrance to the building and was near tears by the time he picked me up to drive me around the block to the entrance tucked off a side street. “Why are we doing this anyway?” asked my seven-year-old, clearly annoyed. His question shook me out of my self-pity.

“Because there are people with worse problems than the one we’re having now,” I answered. That was brought home to me a short while later when I held a six-week-old baby so her dad could eat dinner in peace while her mom was upstairs. After dinner, I overheard the baby’s mother telling the father that she was concerned about so many people holding the baby. (Another volunteer had taken a turn after me.) It was cold season, she said, and in the course of a week, they saw thirty people, all of whom wanted to hold the baby. How, she wondered, could they make sure they kept their child healthy when so many people were handling her?

Her concern reminded me of my first moments home as a mother. A friend was bringing us dinner the night we were released from the hospital, and her twenty-something daughter showed up to help. The daughter, glowing with excitement, asked if she could hold Megan, event though she had a cold. I was immediately put up against an ongoing dilemma of motherhood: how much of my energy needs to go into protecting my own children, and how much needs to be concerned about the needs of others?

Overhearing the homeless mother’s dilemma gave me a deeper sense of how hard it must be to nurture children without the basic protection of a home. I felt very humbled and full of compassion as I approached the woman and tried to affirm her concern and suggest ways it could be communicated to the volunteers. (She was very kind and worried about offending people, which I would have thought would be the least of her worries.) The incident also made me think of the nativity story in a different way. When we imagine the shepherds showing up at the manger, followed by the magi and their camels, we don’t usually think of it from the viewpoint of a homeless new mother. That Mary put up with a lot.

If I have a new year’s resolution (other than eating less sugar) it’s to live with more compassion and its correlate, gratitude. So often I focus on my own inconveniences, like the difficult to find door, and forget how blessed we are to have food to share.

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