Friday, December 30, 2011

Skip resolutions. Go for 'goals' instead.

What new routines have you vowed to start and keep this year? A healthy eating plan? Exercise regimen? House re-organization effort? The new year offers the promise of a clean slate, a chance to begin again or try for the first time something that will improve our health, our home, our world.

I tend not to make typical resolutions, but I know plenty of people do. Every year, when the first week of January hits, our YMCA becomes a bit of a zoo. You can’t find a free treadmill or weight machine no matter what odd hour of the day you show up. I asked a trainer once, “How long will this go on?” He said, “Hang in there until the end of February and they’ll all be gone.”

We spend a lifetime – or at least a lot of years – acquiring the bad habits or out-of-shape bodies or lukewarm prayer lives that compel us to make resolutions, and yet we expect dramatic results in two months or less. We forget that undoing our habits is a one-day-at-time effort. One day at a time, one year at a time, one decade at a time.

Unfortunately, our society has brainwashed us into thinking we can find a quick-fix for everything. Pop a pill, drink a potion, buy a gadget, and you, too, will look like the plastic perfection staring out from a magazine cover. Of course, body and beauty resolutions are an easy target. They bear the brunt of the new year promises (both fulfilled and broken) because physical appearance is so important in our culture, but I know from experience that spiritual exercise routines and daily doses of prayer are no easier to stick to than that weekly abs class or low-fat diet. Spiritual renewal requires hard work.

At the start of each year, I tend to make a mental list of things I’d like to accomplish by the next year. Not anything like “lose five pounds” because that seems to be a perpetual resolution in my middle-aged life, but things that are broader, more about changing my overall perspective or approach to life than fine-tuning one small aspect.

When I looked back at last year’s list, I was happy to realize I’d accomplished most of what I set out to do without even realizing it. Go on silent retreat. Check. Get a spiritual director. Check. Learn more about Centering Prayer. Check. The one piece that still needs some work is my plan to declutter my office space, although even that isn’t a total washout. So I’m starting this new year with that one thing on my list of goals again plus a few new things: develop my own yoga practice for when I’m home and unable to get to a Y class; look into yoga teacher training programs; attempt regular or semi-regular silent meditation; smile more and stress less; spend more individual time with each of my children; and go on regular dates with my husband. No set time periods, amounts, limits or expectations. Just general hopes for this or some other year down the road.

I like the annual goals approach because it removes the one thing that tends to derail typical resolutions: the notion that if we screw up within a day or a week or a month we might as well give up completely. When we have an annual goal, we can continue to get back up every time we slip and know that there’s still time to make things right. And, if we don’t get to everything on our list by the end of the year, well, there’s always next year. But, it’s not likely that even our annual goals will prove successful if we approach them at breakneck speed, spinning in a hundred directions at once.

In one of my favorite books, A Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote: “With our pitchers, we attempt sometimes to water a field, not a garden. We throw ourselves indiscriminately into committees and causes. Not knowing how to feed the spirit, we try to muffle its demands in distractions. Instead of stilling the center, the axis of the wheel…”

What are the distractions that muffle your spirit? What can you do to still your center in order to achieve your resolutions and goals, whatever they may be?

Even just five minutes of silent stillness every day can begin to reshape our thinking and our lives, and give us strength to follow through on our plans. Five minutes. Can we do that? No formal resolutions, just an unspoken agreement that we will give ourselves five minutes every day to sit and wait for God. Not five minutes while we check email or five minutes while we stir soup or five minutes during TV commercial breaks. Five solid minutes of distraction-free silence away from everything and everyone else.
One small, shared goal to ring in the new year.

Foodie Friday: holiday edition

We've been bouncing around from state to state this Christmas holiday, so there hasn't been a ton of cooking going on here, but I thought I'd at least share this lovely photo of an appetizer I made on Christmas Eve. Truth be told, the photo is better than the actual food result, but I think with some tweaking it could be totally awesome.

Take a small wheel of brie or triple creme cheese and grill it lightly or put it in a panini press until it's warm and has light grill marks. (I opted for the panini press method since it was a little chilly for grilling at night.)
Meanwhile heat about 1/4 cup of honey over low heat with a few sprigs of fresh thyme. Turn it off when it gets near a boil and let it sit and steep a bit.
Slice up a few fresh figs (five or six)

Put the warm cheese on a platter, top with figs, drizzle with honey.

So I think our version could have benefited from better brie (I couldn't get true French brie. Well, I could -- and originally did -- but it's a long story.) I needed fresher thyme and more of it to infuse the honey. And it was my first time buying/serving figs, so I'm still not sure if I picked them at the right ripeness or if I should have done this when it was fig season. Anyway, I'll try it again at a later date. If you give it a shot, let us know what happens.

This recipe, by the way, originally came from the website Not Without Salt. Check it out.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The world in silent wonder waits...

It's Christmas Eve. The waiting is almost over, but not quite yet. Although the busyness of the holiday will probably push you from every direction today, try to find some time to sit in silent wonder of the One who was...and is...and is to come.

May your night and your Christmas be holy and happy and grace-filled. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The dark side of the moon

A perfect crescent moon was visible in the early morning sky today, ringing in the Winter Solstice with quiet but awesome fanfare. This was taken at about 6:30 a.m. from the end of our driveway, in between passing clouds that occasionally blocked the moon from view. What you can't see in this photo is the clearly visible dark side of the moon, my favorite part of a crescent.

We tend to think of this day as the shortest on light, but I think I'll focus instead on the longest night. Just think, more night than you know what to do with. Enjoy it. Put on some music you like. Sip a cup of cocoa while you stare at the night sky. Wrap presents by candlelight. Howl.

Picking up scattered fragments of peace

When I returned from my wonderful weekend retreat almost three weeks ago, the sense of peace surrounding my heart and penetrating my soul was almost palpable...


Kids did dopey things. I didn't yell. Work deadlines went from bad to worse. I didn't melt. The car bumper was bashed in by a hit-and-run meanie. I didn't explode.

It was clear evidence, at least in my mind, of the power of deep and intense prayer practiced over days, rather than short bursts of desperate cries shouted heavenward while sitting at stoplights or wiping the counter.

In the initial days after my retreat, I kept up some semblance of deep prayer and deep peace. I cleared the decks and sat down in silent meditation in my sacred space. I did yoga followed by more prayer. I got up early and prayed the Liturgy of the Hours in the twinkling glow of the Christmas tree set against a backdrop of winter darkness. I was on a holy roll.

But then bit by bit, day by day, the peace started to fragment...

I could almost see it happening.

Sharp shards of silence breaking off and flying away from me in every direction.

I knew enough to realize it was an unhappy development but felt powerless to stop it. The tension of the season, coupled with the crush of work, compounded by the frenzy of family life made me -- as it often does -- feel as if I should just wave my spiritual white flag and give up my quest for inner peace. Add my voice to the din.

Then I remembered something our teacher said on retreat, something that really jumped out at me as I sat cross-legged on the floor of the yoga studio at Kripalu. So often, when we think of Jesus in prayer, we think of him in the desert, in the garden, in silent solitude. But the truth is, Father Tom reminded us, that Jesus was more often than not surrounded by chaos -- people clamoring to get near him, touch his robe, lower a friend through a roof, climb a tree.

Follow, follow, follow. Ask, ask, ask.

And yet we see the way his peace and prayerfulness emerge amid the chaos. The quiet compassion given to the woman caught in adultery, the feeding of the 5,000, the healing of a soldier's servant, the forgiveness of a thief from the cross. Jesus did not become unloving, harsh and impatient because the conditions around him went from good to bad to abominable. He stayed true to his center, his Truth, bringing his peace into the noise and glare of an often unkind world.

Rather than letting it happen the other way around...

So as we wait just two more days to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, as I look at the absolute insanity that is sure to ensue in the coming hours, I'm picking up the scattered fragments of peace and fashioning them into something usable, something new. I imagine my peace looks a bit like a kaleidoscope now.

Pieces of peace...artfully arranged into something that will cast a brilliant and warm light on everything its shooting and darting rays touch as I turn it gently in my hands.

Chaos into calm. Panic into peace. Fragments into fullness.

All through him, who was...and is...and is to come.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A new perspective on Christmas 'obligations'

As we started to map out the Christmas season, one thing became clear: There would be nothing remotely relaxing about this holy holiday. I'm not just talking about the shopping and wrapping and cooking. I'm talking about the driving from town to town and state to state, the weather worries, the hotel stay, the kids asking, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"

For many of us, the holidays mean zigzagging the state or region or even the country in an effort to visit family members. I've done each of those variations at one time or another, and I can tell you first hand that it can take a little of the merriment out of Merry Christmas.

Earlier this week, after Dennis and I had declared that this would surely be a "lousy" Christmas because of all the driving and time spent in a frantic race from one place to the next rather than in front of our own tree with a glass of nog, I stopped and asked if maybe we should just bag the plans and stay put. If we are preemptively declaring our favorite holiday "lousy," maybe we need to rethink the plans.

So this is how I decided to evaluate the situation: If I knew this was going to be my last Christmas, how would I spend it? And I realized that if I had only this Christmas left, I wouldn't want to spend it in isolation up north but with family. Yes, I'd want to get in the car and drive to see my dad and step-mom, my grandmother and aunts, my cousins and in-laws. Because what fun is Christmas if it isn't shared? Do I wish my family lived closer so we could be together during the day and still return to our own beds at night? Absolutely. But that's not an option for those of us who no longer live in our hometowns or whose parents and siblings have moved on.

Although I'm still kind of dreading the time spent in the car tossing juice boxes and snack bags to the back rows as the kids stare zombie-like at the various screens playing different age-appropriate movies, I have to admit that contemplating Christmas from a somewhat dark place has actually made me more merry.

How are you spending your Christmas? Is it the way you would spend it if it were your last?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Manic Monday: Closing in on Christmas

We're in the homestretch. My kids, especially my tween, are practically hyperventilating with excitement. Okay, not the teen. He's keeping the excitement close to the vest. I've been too busy with work to even realize Christmas is so close, which could be bad news for those expecting presents.

That's our Christmas tree, over there on the left. Fred the Cat is standing guard. I tried to remove him from the picture, but he jumped back in every time I got set up. So, clearly, he was meant to be in the shot. Oh, and that's one of my Nativity sets -- my main Nativity set -- in the header at the top of the blog. I collect them. Nativity set, not blogs.

So, here's our Manic Monday rundown for the week...

Bookshelf: I'm reading too many books to list here, most of them as research for the book I'm writing. What I'm reading for fun, inspiration, enjoyment when I have time is a magazine I discovered on the shelf at Sam's Club: The Soul Body Connection, a special annual publication of the monthly Spirituality & Health. If you are into meditation, centering prayer, mindful eating, breathing exercises, prayer in general, check it out. It's wall-to-wall articles, and what I really love is the fact that this Eastern-leaning publication includes lots of Christian information, including a Q&A with Trappist Father Thomas Keating, a leader of the centering prayer/contemplative living movement.

Soundtrack: Christmas music, of course. Here's one of my favorites, a rocking version of Angels We Have Heard on High by Relient K, a very cool band.

Viewfinder: While other people were out shopping this weekend, or baking Christmas cookies, I was with the nine girls in our Daisy troop, along with four other moms, for an OUTDOOR winter discovery day. Who thought that was a good idea in upstate New York in mid-December? Actually, it was a really fun day. And a warm-up for our January winter camping trip.

Here's Chiara working on an animal track rubbing:

The whole gang:

Olivia decided she really wanted pomegranate seeds for lunch. So there I was, working the seeds out of the pomegranate below at 7 a.m. Whatever happened to PB&J?

Since I had about three million seeds after I finished, I decided to throw a few on top of my usual bowl of oatmeal (below). Added a nice crunch. Doesn't it look lovely? Yes, that's a candle beside my oatmeal. Truth be told, the absolute best prayer time I have every day is when I sit down to my silent, mindful breakfast and pray before I dig in. It's become an almost-daily prayer practice for me, one I really miss when I can't find the time, or the silence. Which is often in this house.

So, onward, as we celebrate the fourth week of Advent and pray the O Antiphons each evening as we light the candles on our wreath. Enjoy these last days before the feast. Shop, bake, party, but remember to breathe deep and find a few minutes each day to sit in silence and contemplate the reason for this season.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Testifying to the Light: Merton, Gaudete and More

It's always right around this time each Advent season that I move into high holiday spirit. I take that pink candle very seriously. Gaudete! Rejoice! And with that I break out Christmas boxes and begin to decorate the house. My kids, having been not-so-patiently waiting for a couple of weeks by now, finally get to light the lights and string the ornaments and push the buttons that play Christmas carols on endless loops.

I like the waiting time of Advent. I'm not a patient person, but in this season I tend to find my stride, enjoying the slowness of preparing for the feast, stepping out of character and trying not to rush things, knowing it will all be here and gone soon enough. But it won't be gone, will it? Only the external trappings will be gone. If this season does what this season is meant to do, we will be left with the internal light that shines long after the ornaments and singing Santas are put away for another year.

This weekend at Mass, one line from the Gospel kept ringing in my ears:

"He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but he came to testify to the light."

That role isn't reserved for John the Baptist. We are all called to testify to the light so that others might believe. But how do we do that? It's not always easy in this frantic world, where people steal our parking spots at the mall and smash into our cars without leaving a note (both of which happened to me this week).

I recently had an experience of light that jumped out and grabbed me. I was at Kripalu yoga center, attending a workshop called "Pray All Ways" by Paulist Father Thomas Ryan (which I posted about briefly last week). At the end of the weekend, Father Tom asked us to do a lectio divina exercise, using the weekend itself as the point of reflection. We were to find the thing that stood out to us, pray on it and share with the group. Although there were many, many gifts received that weekend, one thing kept coming to the front of my mind, from the very first session of our workshop. Here's what I shared with my group (more or less):

As I sat in this circle, sharing faith stories and prayer with a group of strangers, my mind kept returning to the famous Thomas Merton story, where he's standing on a street corner in Kentucky and looks around at the people surrounding him and feels complete love for and unity with them. I never really "got" that story because most of the time I'm standing on the street corner feeling frustration and wondering when all those people are just going to cross the street, for goodness sake. But here, at Kripalu, from almost the first instant, I knew exactly what Merton meant. I looked around and felt complete love for complete strangers, people from all different walks of life who are searching for the same thing -- a deeper connection to God. Being in this place gives me hope. And Merton's words keep echoing in my heart: There's no way to tell people they are walking around shining like the sun.

When I returned to "real" life later that same day, I tried to bring that light back home with me. The truth is, I often withdraw to my sacred space to pray or do yoga or both and then emerge only to jump right back into the chaos without letting my prayer reverberate in my words and actions. But the point of the weekend workshop and the focus of my prayer life these days is to take what happens in that sacred space and let it influence everything else, because my children and husband and friends will never understand the power of God's love in my life if I don't let that love come out through me, if I don't walk around shining like the sun, or Son.

It's hard to keep that light shining through all the difficulties and frustrations and annoyances of life. It's much easier to slip back into dissatisfaction, to take up my poor-pitiful-me position and wonder why everyone can't make it easier for me to be prayerful. Sigh. It's not supposed to be easy. What merit is there in being prayerful if it only sticks when times are good?

And then I went to Mass on Saturday evening, and my pastor hit the nail on the head with a homily focused on that same theme. He reminded us that to rejoice isn't to be "up" all the time, outwardly bouncing around happily from one thing to the next. To truly rejoice is to remain inwardly joyful even when times are hard because our joy isn't in things of this world; our joy is in God and what God has done for us. Amen.

When I was at Kripalu, Father Tom led us in many Taize chants at the start of each session. One of my favorites was this one:

"Our darkness is never darkness
in your sight.
The deepest night is clear
as the daylight."

The play of light against darkness is so apparent during this season when the ever-increasing glow of the Advent wreath stands in stark contrast to the darkness outside. I am often all too aware of the darkness, sometimes even seeking it out when there's light all around me. But once we realize there is no darkness with God, everything becomes clear, and we shine like the sun, even at midnight.

So rejoice! Testify to the Light that can never be extinguished.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Celebrating old St. Nick. For real.

My post from OSV Daily Take today:

Happy Feast of St. Nicholas! This day has become a favorite at our house, ever since I began the tradition years ago of leaving little gifts in the kids' shoes the night before. This morning when they came downstairs, they didn't even remember it was St. Nicholas Day until they saw the chocolates and little items lined up in shoes by the front door. I loved seeing the smiles on their faces as they came down for school one by one. And, let me tell you, getting a smile out of the almost-15-year-old is not an easy feat.

It's not too late to celebrate this feast day, which has come to mark a deepening of the Advent season for me. I'm not one of those early shoppers or early decorators. I like to wait -- longer than my family likes to wait. But I have to admit that this feast usually puts me in the mood to start making the physical preparations for Christmas.

If you want to know more about St. Nicholas or would like some activities to share with children of all ages, check out the St. Nicholas Center, an awesome website chock full of resources, stories, coloring pages, games, history, and more. The image above is from the site.

And if you didn't get to put a little something in the kids' shoes this morning, leave a little chocolate, an orange or some small gift item for them to find when they come home this afternoon. If your house is anything like my house, there's no shortage of shoes lying around just waiting to be filled.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Mellow Monday: Reverberations from my weekend yoga prayer retreat

Technically it's Manic Monday in these parts, but after a weekend yoga-prayer retreat at the Kripalu Center in Lenox, Mass., I'm really quite mellow. Certainly not manic, despite the truly frightening number of deadlines mounting on the dry erase board in my office.

As was the case with my silent retreat in September, I'm not really ready to wax poetic about what happened at Kripalu so soon after. Too much to absorb, so many gifts, so much to process before I can put it in writing in this space. But I wanted to share some little snippets of my wonderful weekend, which centered on a workshop called "Pray All Ways," offered by Paulist Father Tom Ryan, who is also a certified yoga instructor and whose sense of peace and prayerfulness is so palpable he practically glows or floats. You cannot help but sit in his presence and think, "I want that." In the best Christian, yogic, loving, non-jealous way, of course.

The photo above is a view of Kripalu from the road below. The former Jesuit seminary sits on land that is just beautiful, even during this in-between time when trees are bare but the ground is not yet blanketed in white. Still breathtaking.

When I first arrived on Friday afternoon, I was in my more manic mode. I rushed inside, worried that my car might not be parked in the right place, nervous about how the weekend would unfold, sure that something would go wrong. (Glass half-empty person, remember.) So I got inside and was asked to fill out of a form with my license plate number, which is new and not committed to memory. Immediately I felt frustration -- at not having thought of this need, at not knowing my number by heart, at needing the number at all. So back out to the parking lot I trudged with pen and paper.

And as I stepped outside, another retreatant was standing there staring, and she pointed me to the top of a tree. There, in what was a rather small tree comparatively, was an enormous hawk. I mean enormous. I'm including his photo below even though it's a little blurry (I didn't have my good camera with me) because I just needed to give you a glimpse. He sat there for the longest time, unfazed by the people coming and going with their roller-suitcases and cars and chatter. Here he is:

You'll notice that branch is bending under his weight. He was just majestic. At another point during the weekend, the same hawk was flying overhead, his wingspan inspiring others to stare up at the sky in awe. I never would have known about this resident hawk (the greeter, as he was referred to by the smiling people at the front desk) if I hadn't forgotten my license plate number. So there you go. I was rushed headlong into the fact that this weekend would be about awareness, about gratitude, about slowing down, about the practice of the presence of God.

The hawk wasn't the only over-sized animal to cross my path. This giant rabbit, like something out of Alice in Wonderland, let me get within two feet of him to take a picture. On top of that he was surrounded by people enjoying the late autumn sunshine at picnic tables all around him. Even the animals are mellow here.

After a solid day of praying and sitting and absorbing so much wonderful food for thought (and wonderful food in general), my retreat partner, Michelle, and I decided to skip Yoga Dance, which was a little much even for this adventurous soul, and go for a little hike to the lake. So worth it.

First we stopped at the small labyrinth. The entrance is in the photo below. I will admit that perhaps this wasn't the best labyrinth, as I got "lost," which I didn't think was supposed to be possible in this walking meditation. I'm guessing it's much more effective when all the plants are high and in bloom and provide a clear marker of the path. It was still fun.

Here's a photo of the lake and one of me with Michelle:

And finally, here's the statue at the front entrance. Lots of Hindu and Buddhist statues here and there, as you would expect at a yoga center, but our weekend was so focused on Christian prayer and Jesus Christ that it was easy to forget at times that this is no longer a Catholic facility. As we prayed lectio divina, did the Examen, spent long periods on intercessory prayer, and even had Mass while sitting on the floor of the yoga studio Saturday night, I felt so grateful for the experience and so alive with prayerful possibility.

I will be back later this week with some further reflections. Till then, I'll just share one pearl of wisdom that Father Tom shared with us: Contemplation isn't always about retreating from the world in silence and solitude; it's about "taking a long, loving look at the real."

Look around you today. Right now. Look deeply into the eyes of the next person you meet. Listen attentively to the person on the phone or at the door or in the next office. Drink in the wonder of creation as you drive or walk or run to your next appointment. You just might be amazed to find God right under your nose. Namaste.