On doubt, faith, and God’s cell number

I just came across this post today, lying in my sick bed with that same fluffy cat across my lap and remembered that the house phone rang this morning and it WAS a four-digit number, but the phone I grabbed died in my hand before I could hear anything.

Tina L B Porter

We planned on sleeping in a little on Saturday.  We silly humans who make plans.  And the cats say “ha!”  My big fluffy tiger cat sat by my closed door and whined loudly for attention at the crack of 7:00 a.m.  I grabbed my pillow and then him and went downstairs to the couch to try to find a few more minutes of sleep there, with a cat purring upon me.

When I fell back to sleep, I had the weirdest dream.  I was out, at a party or something, and my cell phone rang.  I looked down to see who would be calling and all I saw was four digits … 2 7 7 9 (I think).  I answered tentatively, “hello?”

“Hi Tina, it’s dad,” came my father’s voice through my ear.  Distinctly my father’s voice. Not his timid, little-boy, end-of-life voice, as we came to call it. No…

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Nectarine Season

IMG_1878I was already dreadfully late this morning when I realized that my husband had finished off the coffee I had planned on pouring into my travel mug. I decided that people would rather see me fully caffeinated but a little later than half-caffeinated and just late, so I made another pot. As the coffee was brewing, I decided to make a sandwich because eating at my desk would make up for the being very, very late. I’m quite good at rationalizing.

I got out the turkey, and the spread and the bread and washed off a few limp pieces of iceberg lettuce. As I was making the sandwich, I was thinking how appropriate this sandwich is for this week: bland turkey on wheat-ish bread with soggy iceberg lettuce and a generous helping of Miracle Whip.  Ah, my comfort sandwich. This week of Robin Williams and Ferguson and the always present other news of people hurting each other with policy and projectiles–this week required a full-on comfort sandwich.

I don’t know that anyone would be surprised to hear that I have experienced depression in my life. I know there are people that I love dearly who would prefer that I didn’t share that statement out loud or online, but, frankly, it’s not a very well hidden secret and the tougher I think I am being in my battle with it, the less control I have over my reaction to the rest of the world. So, I’m making a declaration here that is scary in its public nature, but I hope will allow you to see that when I say I needed that sandwich, I wasn’t being just a melodramatic middle-aged white woman. I was being a melodramatic middle-aged white woman who got a severe gut-punch on Monday.

You see, I knew that Robin Williams took his own life when I heard the news that he was dead. I didn’t need anybody to tell me that and I didn’t even really want to know it. Monday night I sat quietly, trying to watch and not watch the news about it at the same time. My instincts were to protect me, because, well, lets just say I wasn’t in the best head place to begin with.

And then I spent the week watching and not watching, reading and not reading, starting to write and never really writing. People told me how I should talk about suicide and depression, and how I shouldn’t. All of it was, I’m sure, well meaning, but frankly, I just didn’t need the word police knocking on my door this week.

And then Michael Brown and Ferguson and militarized police. And that’s all I’m going to say about that right now because … I am a middle-aged white woman with an understanding of institutionalized racism and the politics of privilege and I just think so many people have addressed this so much better than I ever will and yet … yet it is important to be public about being a middle-aged white woman who is angry as hell that black men and boys continue to be killed and jailed disproportionately in this country at this time.

And so, I needed that sandwich. That bland and dough-y concoction that represents home on the day after Thanksgiving (or Thanksgiving night, after all the guests are gone and we have all tucked into the couch and turned on “Love Actually”)–that was what I needed.

I finished making the sandwich and poured my cup of coffee into my travel mug and then I looked around for something to accompany that sandwich at lunch time. And there it was: the Nectarine.

I knew as soon as I picked up that nectarine that it was perfectly ripe. You know how you know these things, you intuit it from the slight give when you pick it up and the weight of it that indicates it is full of juice and sugar and happiness. And I knew that if I packed that nectarine into something to take with me to eat with lunch that it would be bruised or the skin would tear and leak all that loveliness all over my backpack.

So I stood there, in my kitchen, with that nectarine in my hand, looking out over what promised to be a stunningly beautiful day with the sun shining on my deck and on all the lovely flowers, and I knew what had to be done.

I dug my teeth into the flesh of that perfect nectarine while holding the paper towel under my chin and as my teeth tore through the flesh, they released the juices which would have dribbled all over my chin if I hadn’t had the forethought and good teaching to just slurp those juices up while I ripped at that flesh. And the taste? Divine.

I stood in my kitchen, leaning out over the island, ripping and slurping with an abandon that was downright pornographic, but I didn’t care. The nectarine was perfect and it needed to be appreciated in its fullness. But more than that, I realized after I’d wiped my chin and washed my hands and was heading in to work with the taste still lingering at the roof of my mouth–lingering in a way that made me put off taking a drink of coffee because I just didn’t want to lose that flavor–I needed to eat it.

I needed to taste that taste that is the perfection of life–the fruit at its height of ripeness. I needed to feel that burst of flavor and color that is the exact antithesis to the eating experience I envisioned as I made that sandwich.

I needed that nectarine AND I needed that sandwich at the end of this week. I needed to be comforted and I needed to be shocked back into living in this real and complex world, this world that has rules we understand and those we don’t. This world that has spoken and unspoken codes by which we are supposed to live. One of my struggles with depression is not that I’m sad, but that I am expected to not be, because that isn’t “normal.” But really, it is normal– for me.

As I drove home, I thought about that nectarine and how I wanted to sing it’s praises for just being perfect and about how great fruit season is and all that. I thought about Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which really was the start of my spiritual journey. I had to go look up the quote I was thinking about, you probably know it, it’s the one everyone knows:

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
― Alice WalkerThe Color Purple 

And I’m glad that I didn’t piss God off today by walking past that nectarine, but I’m even more glad that the search for that quote led me to this one:

“I am an expression of the divine, just like a peach is, just like a fish is. I have a right to be this way…I can’t apologize for that, nor can I change it, nor do I want to… We will never have to be other than who we are in order to be successful…We realize that we are as ourselves unlimited and our experiences valid. It is for the rest of the world to recognize this, if they choose.”
― Alice WalkerThe Color Purple
both quotes found here: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/3300573-the-color-purple

This is my theology. This is what I (mostly) live by.

And this is my learning this week. Not that I should say this or I shouldn’t say that. Not that depression is what it is and it won’t ever not be that. But that there are ebbs and flows and that I needed to be jolted back into living, writing, and being and it took this little ball of fruit to re-anchor me.

We are all an expression of the divine. It is important to remember that of each other, but also of ourselves. It may not be enough to save ourselves from the diseases that pull at us, or from the learned behaviors that keep directing us to believe we are not a connected body. But then again, it may be enough, and for now, that’s where I’m putting my energy. Because “for now” is really all any of us has.

Grace … or something like it

My go-to music on my drive to-from work is usually Mumford & Sons–mostly because I can easily tell Siri to “play Mumford” and get at least an hours worth of soul-soothing or fast-driving tune-age. But the lyrics also require me to confront the concept of grace more often than I ever have in my life.

I’m not a theologian, nor a minister, nor a student of the Bible nor of other religious texts. More unfortunately for the context of this piece, I do not consider myself a Christian. I do, however, consider myself to be a religious person, one who can get behind the concept that a group of people can bind together to accomplish things that are good for the common purpose as well as for the individual. I also recognize that people can and have used religion to bind together to destroy great things or to do great wrongs.

Here’s my dilemma about the concept of grace (and I gratefully extend an invitation to those who wish to correct my understanding to do so): my dilemma is that if grace is the gift we did not earn and do not deserve, wouldn’t that, in essence, make us all more tender-hearted toward those in need of that unearned gift?

I have been granted grace in my life–people hold doors (metaphoric and otherwise) open for me all the time that they might not hold for others and often times I know it is not because I am particularly good or deserving, but because I am white, middle-aged and have a clean driving record. I’ve had grace extended to me not only in the mercurial, day-to-day understanding of second chances, but also in the large spectrum of understanding that I truly have not earned the grace of living in a country that is not currently and consistently under siege. And then there’s the grace of being loved, wholly and fully, despite my flaws.

What I don’t understand and would like someone to explain to me is: can you be a Christian and opt out of the concept of grace?

You praise God and say, “there but for the grace of God go I,” but then you close borders and opportunities and second chances for others. Is it possible, then, to be Christian? I’ll ask in another way: is it possible to follow Jesus, claim him as your Savior, and then be hard-hearted to those who not only don’t have bootstraps but wouldn’t know how to wear a boot if it was handed to them?

I know I’m mixing policy with doctrine, but since that is the norm now, I would like to know how a religious group that says they follow the teaching of Jesus can just say “no” and “no” and “no” again when everything I know of his teachings was to say “yes” to those most in need.

When I say I consider myself religious but not Christian, I am not rejecting the teachings of Jesus, nor of the power of believing in his teachings. What I object to is the doctrine of Church leaders who bend the legend in order to meet their small needs. It is so frightfully difficult to care for the needs and rights of others–of other people whose lives will not impact ours, directly–but as I understand it, that was what Jesus called on others to do. We do it with love in our hearts and anger in our soul so that the Kingdom of God can be realized here on earth. We do it for high, exalted reasons as well as for the low and selfish reasons, but we extend grace because some day we will need it to be extended to us, to our children, to the children of our friends.

So, I ask the question again: can you be a Christian and opt out of the concept of grace?

Because I know it is possible to opt out of Christianity and still believe in grace by other names. You can believe in second chances, and the hope that, given opportunity and access to it, great things are possible. Great changes in individuals and in communities. I know it is possible, but there has to be the ability to imagine it to be so.

I believe in the power of grace and in the power of love, but I also believe that these, alone, will not transform a world so greatly in need of a moral imagination that binds people together willingly and with purpose: to nourish, to clothe, to shelter. It takes hard work and a willingness to be wrong and be corrected by someone who understands the concept of grace, someone who not “but for” but because of the grace of God, can help lead us all on, toward the Kingdom in which we already live.

Worry not

IMG_1536Worry not
My identity has been found

lurking in another purse
being held in place
by a clamp and a key

Worry not
now that it is found
and sitting in the light glowing
on my desk
we know other lost things

will appear

pride, hope, purpose, art

They all must be there, too
in the recesses of some other
long-forgotten purse

And all I  need to do is
dust off the fine mist
of candy coatings
and tissue lint

And all the other smudgings
of the life
I have had

Or maybe that is my
art, my life, my pride

My identity …

That which is left alone
and coats itself

with candy dust and tissue lint
to hide the glimmer
and shine

Worry not

We are found
though we believe
we were okay

Being lost
and dusty

too.

Unravelling

I was so relieved when I finished knitting a project the other night.  Finally!100+ yards of linen/cotton yarn coaxed into a garment, of sorts.  Yay!

And then I tried it on. And, well, lets just say not-so-yay. 

It had been the work of more than a few hours and while I consulted patterns (as I usually do) and it was a fairly simple garment (as I usually make), it just didn’t turn out right.  And you know what?  I kind of expected that.  Somewhere just past the 1/3 mark, I started to have grave doubts.  About 2/3 of the way in, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like it, but I felt married to finishing it and seeing if my doubts would go unrealized.

And you know what? I was right to have doubts. The end result wasn’t hideous, it was just wrong.

And you know what? I had no problem whatsoever unravelling the whole finished project this morning as part of my migraine-relief therapy.

Okay, it wasn’t intended as therapy, but unravelling that project did provide relief. It’s the kind of relief you feel when you acknowledge that the work you are doing is not good, not fitting and not … the end of the world. I realized as I sat there with a freshly wound ball of yarn that I would rather have that ball of potential than a shawl that neither suited my tastes, my ideals of my own capabilities, nor, dare I say it, even my frame.

So here I am, perusing more patterns to bring to life a new project with the same materials and a heady resolve to bring beauty to function–and a promise to myself that if I fail to do so again, I will do the same again, and again, and again.

Each project holds a learning and this one gave me many.

I sometimes find I learn more when things unravel than I do when they knit themselves into a bit of loveliness. I learn about the process, about my abilities, about myself.

Which is not to say I wouldn’t mind a bit of loveliness draped about my shoulders just about now.  Maybe in another couple hundred yards …

Cover Letter

Ask me what I learned
and I will tell you that you
don’t ask a poet to write policy

You ask a poet to put shape
to wordy things
to intangibles and lovelies
to pain–the reasons for the policies

I learned a lot of donts
of broken things
that try so hard to be what they once were
but really should be free

to become all the pieces
instead of the whole

I learned that sometimes
pride doesn’t come after …
sometimes pride

is the fall.

I learned that had
all the king’s men simply
saw the pieces
and let them be pieces

they might have had better luck.

Who knows?

This is what I learned. In two words.

Who knows?

I don’t, but I can make
informed attempts to get us there

But, you have to tell me where
there
is

I learned that I can
no longer take these nubby, ragged
pieces of a life I don’t own
and push them into a cityscape

when what they want to be
is the rainbow

Legacy

ImageMy middle daughter and I spent Thursday visiting the works of Marc Chagall, Georges Seurat, El Greco, Georgia O’Keefe and a bunch of other artists. I’m not schooled in art enough to speak eloquently of the works we saw, but I will tell you that when we entered the rooms that housed van Gogh and Monet at The Art Institute of Chicago, my eyes became wet. “What is this liquid eking from my eyes?” I asked my daughter, who smiled at me and patted my arm.

I am a crier. It’s what I do. When we watch a movie together, my family tends to look for the tell-tale shaking of my foot that indicates I’m trying with desperation to not sob uncontrollably.

It’s what I do. Emotion comes out of my eyes as often as it does my mouth–wordless emotion that begs no explanation, just an opportunity to express itself. But when it ekes out that way, visibly, it sometimes requires others to be soothed in its aftermath.  I’m okay, I tell them, I’m quite alright.

So when I stood looking closely at the works made by these men–stood with my nose measurably close–and peered at gouged and dotted paint and then stood back and looked at what those gouges and dots made and the tears leaked out my wordless cry, I was grateful it was just that daughter and me and no words were required.

But, as I stood in that room, and as I wandered throughout centuries of art made by human hands, the greatness of Maya Angelou, who died only the day before, was tangible in my heart. And the word that came to me, the word that buoyed me, was the word “legacy.”

I’m not going to quote Dr. Angelou to you because you can look her up and buy her books and listen to her voice on tape. But I want you to know what she made me know. Not her words. Not her world view. Not her ability to succinctly and poetically say the thing.

What she made me know is that every bit of it matters. Every bit of your life story, every bit of your understanding, every bit of your being … matters.  She was an interpreter of god, God and godliness. She was in touch with what matters and she not only shared that gift, she inspired me to do the same.

What matters, matters.

There is silliness, sin and shame in the world. Enough to be shared equally and in measure. But what do you do with it. How do you use it, how do you overcome it, and how do you express its commonality and its beauty.

Yes, that’s a yellow bed in a blue room hanging on the wall in one of the premier art institutes in the world. And it is phenomenal.

What is expressed in that bed is what is expressed in the quilt made by maternal forebears that is currently on my bed, with a yellow cat curled up on it. It is the legacy of paying attention to the small as well as the great. Just as the glass eyes mastered by Egyptians centuries ago were made in honor of the dead, endure to tell a slice of the story, that quilt will live on to tell a slice of my story.

We are all story tellers here. We are all able to share the small and the significant and to marvel in it all.

This is the legacy of great art. It reminds us to be human, to be kind, to be awed. It is why the poets voice cries out–look! See! Share!

How great are we to have lived in these times, to have seen what we have seen and to have shared what we have shared. Be grateful for the teachers around you and honor their living, tears eking from your heart, to honor their willingness to share their slice of the great story of humanity.

It matters.  And so do you.

#yesallwomen

As usual, I’m late to the #YesAllWomen party (?). Or am I. I was thinking about it as I cleaned house yesterday, thought about all that I told my daughters as they left for college: “don’t accept open drinks from anyone,” “don’t leave any friends behind,” “don’t leave your drink behind,” and especially, “don’t ever think that it is your fault.”

What “don’ts” are the mothers of boys telling their children as they send them off to college or out into the world? I know it is not all men; I know it from experience, but I do know that every single woman I know has been harassed at some point in her life.

I thought about the old lie that women will sometimes report a rape when they wake up the next day with remorse. I know no such women. I do, on the other hand, know many women who contemplated going to the police to try to get help with unwanted attention from someone they had said “yes” to but no longer wanted in their life.  And I say “contemplated” because I know many fewer who actually did, because they weren’t sure if seeking help would be more traumatic than putting up with the harassment.

And there it is. What is more trouble? What is more dangerous? Is it worth it?  These are the questions on the lips of most women I know who spend any amount of time out in the world. 

We don’t call it “bullying” when it is men’s attention on women. But it is the constant undercurrent of our days. Whether we say it out loud or not; whether we know it “out loud” or not. 

I remember when my daughters were too little to know about such things–or so I thought–and I taught them to scream “No” as loud as they could as I pushed them on the swings in our backyard. Was I indoctrinating them too early?  I don’t know. But I was teaching them to use their voices because I knew not “if” but “when” they needed it, they needed it to be a part of their DNA. It needed to be an instinctive reaction.

I want something different for my daughters who hear the street shit every day. I want #YesAllWomen to mean something entirely different. I want my daughters to see a shift and I applaud the young and old women who are shining light–big, strong light–on the depth of this and how your right to say what you want where ever you want limits our own brilliance. We share these stories not so you will feel sorry or shame, but that you will stop and see us not as body parts but as whole human beings with a right to walk public streets and ride public transportation and sit in private space without you seeing our inattention to you as a personal affront that threatens our safety.

#YesAllWomen.

For the Graduates

Full speed ahead, you go
Eyes wide, heart open,
Mouth shut.
Until, of course, it needs to open
and out comes a song
you never meant to sing.

Notes you never knew you knew.

Full speed ahead, you go
Until it is time to rest.
Remember your weariness is not
weakness, even though their spelling
is so similar.

Full speed ahead, you go
quietly, deeply, intentionally
So much so, that sometimes
full speed looks like
Full stop.

Full speed ahead, you go
pulling us with you,
walking, rolling, scooting or sitting our way
toward the beauty that is justice, kindness,
and broken wholeness.

Full speed ahead, then
But know that we for whom you front,
have got your back.

Seeing the Trees

It is wet and chilly outside and what I really want to do is pop in either a Harry Potter movie or all of the Jane Austen movies and finish knitting the spring scarf I started as we drove to Bloomington on Friday. Instead, there are things that need to be done today–some of which require what has finally  been provided: silence and time.

I have found myself more often than not turning the sounds off in the car as I make the commute to or from the city each day. It helps, but it also isn’t fully helpful. I get frustrated because the thoughts flow, but I don’t have the time or method of making sense of those thoughts. And then I get behind some driver who decides that the left lane is the social media lane and drifts between 55 and 85 while frustrating those of us who just want to push 73 on the cruise control and get there in a steady, meaningful manner. And when I get frustrated with such drivers, the quiet in the car becomes punctuated with language I must have learned from HBO. Yeah, that’s it.

This morning looms large for me; I hear the birds chirping as they cling to branches the wind is whipping about and, sitting still in my chair with a heating pad on an aching shoulder, I realize that that is who I have been for some time now–a chirping bird clinging to a moving branch.

And it took the quiet and the cat curled up at my feet for me to find this metaphor to help me move into what’s next. Do I inch my way closer to the trunk of the tree, where the branch moves not at all? Do I move with purpose toward the end of the branch, claws clenching even tighter with my beak to the wind? Or do I let go and take off, letting the wind lift me, but with the real possibility that the hard wind will batter me in to free fall or the current take me somewhere completely foreign–and thrilling. And scary?

This is an oblique post. I am at a crossroads–or, more likely as it is here in Valparaiso–a roundabout. I need to figure out if I keep going in the same circle, take the same exit, or see where the next one takes me.

It is scary here, in this branch, on this road. But I have seen where I have been–and most of it is good and, better yet, it has brought me here, where I am now. And here’s what else I just realized as I took a big drink of coffee and of thought: I’m not the only bird on this limb. I call it the “can’t see the trees for the forest” syndrome. Sometimes you really need to step out of the crowd to see how alone you are not. I need, sometimes, to step away from people in order to see the crowds that have brought me to this moment, to this time, to this good life full of richness of experience and love.

So many rich metaphors that say nothing at all, yeah?  Well, that’s how it has to be for the moment, as I continue to cling to this branch. But if you are reading this, let me say thank you, because you have brought me here, too.