Imperfect Serenity

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Faith and Practicing Politics

Martin K has had a few interesting posts lately about the mixing of Quakerism and politics. The quotes from nineteenth-century Friends make for an interesting juxtaposition with twenty-first century Friends Twittering during the debates. I haven’t caught up to the Twitter phenomenon myself yet, but I know enough to suspect it’s a sign of how different our world is from that of those Friends who tried so hard to separate themselves from it. Yet, a few things haven’t changed. There is still a considerable gap between our ideals and the values of our culture. For instance, there is no one left in the race who opposes all war, and it is unlikely that the United States will elect someone who takes that position in my lifetime. There is also still a struggle to know how much of our energy to give the world’s concerns. One big difference in the times is that we can now broadcast our struggles widely and quickly, and get almost immediate comments, unlike earlier Quaker writers who published journals, rather than conversations.

I’ve gone back and forth on how much to discuss the election on this blog, partly because, like Martin, I know I have the potential to get “snarky,” and that’s not the purpose of this forum. Partly it’s because I am so ready for this election to be over so that, among other things, my email inbox will become manageable again. I know I’m not the only one. A friend recently confessed her frustration with a work colleague who hasn’t kept up with important paid work because of an election-news obsession. I think people of any century would agree that obsession is unhealthy. Friends would say it takes us away from our focus on God, which was the original idea of simplicity, after all.

With that said, I have to mention a book my husband just lent me, Religion as Poetryby Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest and prolific writer. Greeley discusses people’s differing images of God and how having a more loving, compassionate image of the Divine makes people more likely to vote Democratic, even after adjusting for other factors, like age, gender, and education level. I haven’t read too much of it yet, but the part I have confirms things I wrote in The Wisdom to Know the Difference about how our image of God affects how we see life. It’s a point also made in George Lakoff’s book on differing political ideologies, and it seems to me part of what is so difficult about discussing these issues across world views. Sometimes when I am speaking to someone who seems to view compassion as a liberal weakness, rather than a fundamental value of Christianity, I just get stuck and don’t know what to say.

We had a town hall meeting for Barack Obama in our mostly white and traditionally Catholic neighborhood last week with the hope of drawing undecided or ambivalent voters. One such older woman raised her hand and asked if it was true that Obama was “mixed up with the Muslims.” Many people rolled their eyes at the question, but the speaker said simply that, no, Obama was a Christian. As the moderator, I tried to add something about it not mattering, but I didn’t feel very articulate, and it just gave the woman the chance to say, “Some of those Muslims are not very nice people,” as if this couldn’t also be said of some Christians, Jews, or Hindus. I’ve been thinking of Colin Powell’s courageous comments on this, and the fact that for me it is also a matter of faith to respect people of other faiths, who after all, were created by the same God, whether they use a different word for God or not. Certainly some of us people of faith are not very nice, and all of us have parts of our history in direct contradiction to the principles we espouse, but I still come out on the side of God’s goodness and human goodness, as well. According to Greeley, my theology is more Catholic than Protestant (though he doesn’t include Quakers in his study) and more Democratic than Republican. I guess it goes to show that faith and politics are not so easy to disentangle, at least not for me in this election cycle.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Last week I enjoyed three days of quiet, a rare luxury for a parent. Even more unusual, I had no access to email or the Internet, so whatever David Brooks and Maureen Dowd had to say about the candidates, I missed it. I also missed the ups and downs of the stock market. I didn’t even see the last presidential debate (though I confess I turned on the radio for a few minutes). More difficult, I missed my children, both of whom had colds, which for one can sometimes turn to asthma, so my departure was laden with some guilt. But I have a great husband who believes in spiritual retreats and who had the week off between jobs, so he went away Sunday through Wednesday, when we met at Panera for lunch, switched cars, and sent me north to the guest house where he had been for my own retreat.

I spent two nights in a geodesic dome that was built by some good friends decades ago and which now serves as the guest house on their hundred acre property. The leaves were at their peak, with yellows and pinks jumping out everywhere, but it wasn’t too cold yet to walk without a winter coat and gloves. It was bow and arrow season for deer, and despite being warned, I came upon one hunter sitting in the woods. He reported that there was a bear about, which I was glad to learn after all my solitary hiking. I’ve seen coyote on this property before and didn’t feel very brave about it, but this time I only saw birds and something I couldn’t identify swimming in a pond (about the size of a beaver). More important than any particular species was the feeling of reconnecting with nature which is always good for my spirit. The beauty and quiet, not to mention sleeping in every morning, were rejuvenating.

In addition to massive journal writing (did you hear, it helps you lose weight?) I also read The Call to the Soul by Marjory Zoet Bankson on a friend’s recommendation. It’s a wonderful book about the stages of experiencing a call. Although Bankson labels the categories differently than I do, much of what she says rings true, especially the idea of going through a Risk stage when beginning to act on a call. It was good to be able to just sit down and read a spiritual book, contemplate how it applies to me, journal about it, and never once have to get up to fold the laundry or do anything for anyone else. Still, two days of retreat was really enough, and I would have come home Friday night, if I hadn’t been leading a workshop on discernment Saturday morning at a spot half way between my retreat spot and home. So I spent Friday night in Bethlehem at a beautiful Franciscan retreat center that I found on the Internet. There I saw fox and more beautiful trees and stayed in the hermitage so that I was good and ready to be with people again in time for my workshop and the school fair where I was reunited with my children, who now seem to take my being away in stride.

Both the going away and the coming back are cause for much gratitude.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Writing Diet

The other day in the library, a title caught my eye The Writing Diet by Julia Cameron. Those of you who read my pamphlet on parenting may remember that I have a conflicted relationship with Cameron’s work. I appreciated much of her bestseller The Artist's Way, but felt that her put-your-creativity-above-everything-else message did not jive well with the early stages of motherhood. Still, her idea that creativity and spirituality are linked rings true to me, so I grabbed the book and put it in our check-out pile, especially after I read the blurb that says that writing may help you lose weight.

I was instantly taken with this idea, not only because I’d like to lose the weight I’ve gained during the past three years, but because it used to be true for me that writing kept me healthy. During the years when my children were young, it was definitely true that I tended to lose weight when I had time to write and tended to gain it when I didn’t. Perhaps this was just because I drink a lot of water when I’m at my computer. Or maybe it was because I’m not easily deterred from my writing time, so it was usually something stressful that was keeping me away, and we know that stress can cause our bodies to store fat. In other words, maybe there was a correlation between writing and losing weight, but it was not causal. On the other hand, maybe Cameron is right. Maybe expressing our creativity does free us from negative emotions that we tend to suppress with potato chips and chocolate. I don’t know for sure, but I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and go back to writing “Morning Pages,” stream of consciousness journal entries first thing in the morning (or as near as a mother can manage). It’s kind of like meditating with a pen.

I continue to be interested in the connection between body and spirit. I know my own weight gain correlated with two different things: 1) I decided to try giving up my daily thyroid medicine for a homeopathic treatment (I quit that experiment after gaining 20lbs.); and 2) My mother became ill and then died, and I was her primary care giver. Oh yeah, and there is 3) the fact that I hit my mid-forties, when women often spread into the comfort of middle age. The fact that these three happened simultaneously makes it hard to define the cause, which I suspect is multi-layered anyway. Although I didn’t get enough writing time during the year my mother was sick and the months after her death when I was dealing with her estate, I made up for lost time after that. I’ve written a book, a pamphlet and a weekly blog during the past two years (and taken a daily thyroid pill), so you’d think I’d be looking pretty svelte if Cameron’s theory was all there was to it. Still, I’m realizing that I did gain another few pounds last spring, when I was teaching a course on race, something that was both stressful and which cut into my writing time. And aside from the blog, the writing work I’ve done since June hasn’t been that creative, so it is interesting that I seem to have lost a few pounds since starting the Morning Pages.

Maybe this is more than anyone wants to know about my body issues, but I find it interesting to observe the connections between my emotional state and my physical one. The idea that the body can be an instrument of discernment has been popping up a lot lately (including in Brent Bill’s Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment), which aside from health concerns, is another reason to pay attention to our bodies. Maybe my body is just confirming my sense that I need to write to stay in balance.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Fostering Gratitude

Lately I’ve been feeling annoyed with my children for not being grateful for all they have. I’m pretty sure that I can’t force them to be appreciative and that it’s not helpful to lecture them on the children I taught when I was in the Peace Corps in Africa (“They were lucky to have one pencil, let alone buy three new packs every school year!”) Still, figuring out how to respond isn’t always clear.

I suppose this is on my mind because we just spent a ridiculous amount of money going to Six Flags as an extremely belated birthday present. The child in question had originally wanted an expensive electronic devise. My husband and I agreed that we didn’t want to buy something most likely to be used for violent video games, so we came up with the idea of giving an experience rather than a thing. The experience was supposed to be at Dorney Park, which includes lots of water slides, which everyone in our family enjoys. The child in question was thrilled with this idea and agreed to wait (this was last April) until the weather was warm enough for water slides. Unfortunately a busy summer combined with other complications postponed the trip, so that when we finally got around to planning it in September, we realized that the water slides were closed for the summer. To make a long story short, we agreed to go to Six Flags, which is more expensive and includes the sort of roller-coasters that most forty-six-year-old mothers find unappetizing. After having to postpone a week due to rain, the child in question brought a friend and had a fantastic time and even convinced my husband to go on a ride that looped upside down and twisted a few times. (Dad kept his eyes closed.) Everything was so overpriced, I felt like I was walked around the park sprinkling twenty dollar bills the way a flower girl sprinkles rose petals. Still, we finally came through on the birthday present and had beautiful weather, so I was grateful.

Is it unfair of me to point out that said child never said thank you and in fact started asking for an expensive electronic devise the next day?

God must have known I needed some professional help this morning because just as I was starting this rant, my friend Tamar Chansky showed up in the coffee shop where I’m working. I’ve been meaning to blog about her new book Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking, which includes a section on fostering gratitude in your children. Tamar writes:

Be patient: Just as a sincere apology is worth more than a forced one, it is better to wait for the spontaneous words of true appreciation and concern than to have your child pull a muscle trying to manufacture them on the spot…Researchers have found, perhaps not surprisingly, that forcing gratitude does not yield positive results. Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California found that people who wrote in a gratitude journal once a week were happier than those who wrote three times a week; making it a regular practice but not a chore made the difference.

I found this last bit particularly interesting because our family shares things we are grateful for during our nightly prayer time ritual, and often the expressions do feel rote. The belated-birthday-child usually says, “The four Fs,” which refers to Friends, Family, Food, and Fun, as a matter of habit.

As in most aspects of parenting, I suppose I should focus on leading by example, being grateful myself, rather than trying to force gratitude out of my children. Maybe it would help to think of parenting as a giant roller-coaster ride, full of excitement and occasional screams. That it makes you dizzy is just part of the fun. Right?

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