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Feeling the Love on the First Fortnight Away

Monday, May 30th, 2016

In the two weeks since I left the US, I’ve experienced the best the world can offer — new friends, beautiful architecture, wonderful history, music, food — in a word, magic. The first week was all about London, where I stayed with Patrick Norohna, a retired-lawyer-turned-professional-conductor, who lives just a block from Westminster Abbey. In the many trips around town, I was escorted by my new friend Maurizio, a researcher, archivist, and professional tour guide. We managed to see most of the important sites as I was regaled by stories of London’s greats. Then I returned to Patrick’s flat where a large gathering of musicians from around the world were rehearsing or planning musical venues. Methinks I died and went to heaven!

A week ago yesterday, Maurizio and I took a quick trip to Sardinia where I stayed with his parents and saw Santa Barbara Church and “Villa Wright,” the home of my grandparents for almost a decade. This is where my grandfather initiated key safety improvements in the local mines and where my grandmother (a devout Episcopalian) helped persuade the Vatican to build and staff a Roman Catholic church for the villagers who lived more than five miles from the nearest parish.

After an airplane flight from Sardinia and an overnight bus trip, I arrived in northeast England on Wednesday. Northumbria is reminiscent of the Finger Lakes, with rolling hills, green fields, and rural peacefulness. The only sounds are the singing of the birds, bleating of the sheep, and gentle patter of a soft rain. I’ll stay here at the manse for two weeks, preaching occasionally and helping with any pastoral emergencies while my host, Rev. Dave Herbert, is on vacation in Europe. Then I head to Iona, the sacred isle of Scotland, before returning here to Northumbria.

And all the while, I’m thinking, “How could this have happened? What did I do to deserve such good fortune? Once strangers, Maurizio, Patrick, and Dave have all opened their hearts and homes to this unimportant visitor from the US. What did I do to deserve this?”

But as I asked that, I knew the answer. I did nothing. The blessings showered on me are the fruits of other people’s labors. Maurizio was researching the history of mining in Sardinia when he discovered stories of my grandparents who lived in the small town of Ingurtosa, just a few miles from where Maurizio lived before moving to London. He contacted my brother and another cousin about seven years ago, and since then we have shared our stories and relished the documents he has uncovered. When I approached him to get together for coffee or lunch while I was in London, Maurizio responded that he would look for inexpensive accommodation as well. He then approached his friend Patrick who was willing to let me stay for a week. And Dave was not a friend, nor a friend-of-a-friend, but a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, who responded when I was asking around for inexpensive places to stay in exchange for helping with pastoral duties.

In considering this immense good fortune, there are three important lessons that I want to share:

  1. Good deeds — even those done 100 years ago by others — have a way of coming back again and again to bring new connections and delights. We just need open minds and grateful hearts.
  2. It’s important to write and share our stories. It was my grandfather’s memoir Tales to My Grandchildren that I shared with Maurizio for his research six years ago that brought us together. And now I claim the Pigas as my “Sardinian family.”
  3. Sometimes not getting what we want is the best thing that can happen. As disappointed as I was in not receiving the Lilly Foundation’s grant (especially because it would have been helpful for the church and my children), it forced me to push the boundaries and reach for new ways of financing the sabbatical. Had I received the grant, I would be taking trains and using rental cars rather than buses. I would be staying in hotels rather than spare bedrooms. And I would not be experiencing the enchantment that I am now enjoying.

Truly God is like a big beautiful spider that is constantly sending out filaments of grace, most of which never land. So God reels them back in and flings them out again until one tender thread lands, then another, and another. Suddenly a web is formed and we experience God’s connective grace in wondrous new ways.  We find connection between past and present, now and then, here and there, one with another.

We give thanks!

PS — For those who want to follow my travels more frequently and with photos, please ‘like” me on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/revfelicity

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Noah Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and Their Message for Spirituality and Religion

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Garrison Keillor, in today’s Writer’s Almanac, reminds us that it was on April 14, 1828 that Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language was published. We at The Park Church celebrate Webster for his literary and genetic gifts: we love (or should love) his dictionary, and we love (or should love) his granddaughter, the magnificent Julia Jones Beecher, celebrated wife of Thomas K. Beecher, dear friend of Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”) and treasure of Elmira. (You can do a Google search or just wait for me to get around to writing about this extraordinary gift to the human condition.)

Keillor’s reflection reminded me of the connection between religion, spirituality, and the history of dictionaries. We yearn for a belief system or set of life principles that will guarantee either eternal salvation or earthly glory or both. We disagree, however, on how to read the road map or which of several different roads to take. Some of us prefer the fast route; others want the scenic one. Some of us prefer well-worn boulevards; others want to forge new walkways.

The various religions only add to our confusion. They all promise that if we follow their tenets, then we are likely to live with joy and die in peace. Some suggest it will happen in the here-and-now; others promise rewards in the afterlife. Some have rigorous life-style specifications, including what we can eat (and when), whom we can marry, how we must worship. Others emphasize self-control, charity and justice in more general terms. What are we supposed to do? What decisions must we make, what religious path should we follow, in order to live with joy and die in peace?

I believe that divining a personal theology is like creating a dictionary. Seventy-three years before Webster and a century before Oxford University began work on its great dictionary, Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language was the most successful attempt to codify the English language. The six-year effort by the second most-quoted author after William Shakespeare is impressive not only for its breadth (43,500 words defined using 118,000 illustrative quotes) but also for its underlying philosophy. Unlike the “Forty Immortals” that have met since 1635 to create and maintain a national standard for French language and usage, Johnson believed that language, if it were to be an effective way of communicating, could be no more fixed than the changes of the season. Ideas change, needs change, knowledge changes – and so must language.

Arguing for an immutable dictionary akin to the Forty Immortals was Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who wanted to define correct pronunciations, correct spellings, correct usage, and decide which words were or were not proper. Swift wanted a yardstick against which to codify correctness; Johnson wanted a process by which to measure common usage.

Is it not that different from comparing the Ten Commandments (that spell out the do’s and don’ts of acceptable living) with Jesus’ broader commandments to “love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.”
Detailed rules or general guidelines: why is it that some people need well-defined creeds to codify their philosophy, while others are comfortable with more general belief statements? Is there value in creating two theological lexicons – one for the Johnsons and Websters and another for the Forty Immortals and the Swifts?

— Or can we just focus on the basics (love, peace, and justice) and ignore the details and the judgment?

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Circling Excerpt 2: Part I (Soaring) — Chapter 1: Geography (First Section)

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

This is the first third of Chapter 1.  It goes downhill from here.  And up, and around.  And around.  I invite you to subscribe so that you will receive all the postings.  And I genuinely welcome your comments.

Thanks so much!

Circling_cover

1.     Geography

 

“There is an eternal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.”

— Josephine Hart

 

Retracing the circular journey, it seems that whatever success I have had in life began with the need for a precautionary pee in Germany, the benefits of a dirty mind in Vermont, and the challenges of teaching Eskimos in Alaska.

 

Most of my childhood memories were agreeable but atypical. In high school in Washington, D.C., I was part of a pseudo-intellectual set. My friends and I took hikes along Rock Creek, held pretentious “philosophy parties” with jug wine on the weekend, enjoyed sunrise breakfasts to watch the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin, and conducted poetry readings at twilight on canoes going down the river. I still blush to remember the time I was asked to bring poetry by Keats. Unable to find any of his works in my parents’ bookshelves, I brought a volume of Yeats instead. (I figured that Yeats was a lot like Keats, just a different first letter…)

Teenagers in what was becoming the most important city of the world enjoyed a heady combination of Southern ingenuousness and Northern sophistication. The city was indubitably gracious: children gave up their seats to adults on the bus, men opened doors for women, and salespeople were always friendly. In 1960, Kennedy and his Camelot cabinet had just come to town, with brilliant minds and enough openhearted largesse to save the city, the country, and the world. Civil rights and urban renewal became the watchwords of the day, and my parents were prominent activists in both areas. It was an enchanting town for insiders.

With encouragement from my mother, a precinct captain for the Democrats and active in numerous social and political causes, ten of my friends organized a publicity campaign to improve the deplorable physical conditions of the D.C. public schools. Four others joined me in tutoring junior high school and elementary school students in a less affluent part of town. And when my best friend Mabrie and I got television and newspaper coverage following our refusal to pay the “discriminatory and illegal” class dues imposed by the school principal, we gained special prestige among the “teenage intelligentsia” that we all thought ourselves to be. Like the city itself, we were full of ourselves; in a word, insufferable.

Looking back, I warrant that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. For better and worse, my parents both grew up with a sense of invulnerability and self-importance, and my subconscious goal was to match their outrageous teenage stories with one or more of my own.

 

My father’s classic story, paraded for special occasions, new suitors, and interested grandchildren, involved a real-life duel. Yes, the kind with swords, against a nobleman, at dawn, over a woman – the full nine yards. He had an elaborate narrative about visiting his parents in northern Italy where his father was managing several mines for an English company. It was the summer of 1939 and Dad had just finished his freshman year at college. Entering the local bar, he met a nobleman, the fiancé of an attractive woman who sometimes played tennis with Dad. When the duke loudly insulted America for its stance on fascism, Dad responded by criticizing Hitler and Mussolini.

The enraged duke slapped Dad backhanded on the cheek, a challenge to combat. Perhaps he assumed that Dad would back down or lack the skill to engage in a duel, which had been outlawed in Italy for nearly fifty years. But Dad, who was on the fencing team at college, gleefully chose swords as the weapon of choice before returning home to spend a sleepless night and await the dawn.

The fight, which was held at daybreak in a gentle grove overlooking a river, included an attending doctor and two seconds. The duke came dressed in black velvet pantaloons, a white silk shirt, and elegant leather boots, while Dad showed up bare-chested, in tennis shorts and golf shoes (for extra traction). It was reportedly an arduous encounter because the two were evenly matched in strength and skill.

Dad’s fighting skills tended toward the defensive, and he saw that the duke often left his right flank exposed just after thrusting forward. So, awaiting a good opportunity, Dad set up an attack in such a way that when the duke lunged forward, Dad parried to the right, pulling his opponent with him. When the duke brought his sword back to the left to strike again, Dad snapped his to his right, such that his opponent impaled his forearm on the tip of Dad’s blade. Dad gleefully explained that he gently passed off the sword – with the duke’s arm still attached – to the surgeon before walking off to shower and play tennis with the duke’s now ex-girlfriend.

How much of it happened as Dad described? Though I’m quite sure that my ever-gracious father added plenty of dramatic license, one had only to meet him to know that the substance of the story was true. His persona was marked by an ingenuous and enchanting self-assurance that fans of David Niven can recognize. I consider it a key to his character because on that day he understood that he was both charmed and charming.

 

My mother’s epic story happened in 1935, when the Gestapo stopped the train on which she was traveling from Göttingen to Paris while they grilled her on the whereabouts of the thousand dollars that she had had when she arrived in Germany to visit her governess’ family only three weeks earlier. Mom was an unwitting smuggler for peace activists in the United States who were helping to finance the exportation of German Jews after Hitler’s ascension to power. Unaware of how rapidly Hitler had corrupted German society, her father, a minister and antiwar activist, had given her money to take to his Lutheran counterpart in Germany.

In the dozen or so times that Mom recounted the story, she still hyperventilated as she relived the innocent-looking shrugs and bald lies employed to hide the truth and protect her German friends. “Well, we went out to the opera several times, and I bought a whole bunch of clothes, and, oh yes, I had to buy presents for all of my brothers and sisters and family and friends back home…” she said, looking bug-eyed, curling her mouth down, and shrugging her shoulders in a most perplexed manner. Exasperated after questioning this fourteen-year-old ingénue for two hours, the Gestapo finally let the train proceed. And thus her teenage conquest of the Gestapo affirmed in her a steely courage and shrewd resourcefulness that was both a blessing and a curse.

 

With an inheritance of $1,000 from a great aunt, I traveled for a year between high school and college, taking classes and working for six months as an au pair in Germany and then meandering through Spain, Italy, and Greece, doing such odd jobs as washing dishes and working on a road gang. Since my parents grew up shuttling between Europe and the States (although usually accompanied by governesses or older siblings), they were relatively sanguine about my going off alone.

Or maybe this is the blessing – and the curse – of privilege, for while my family was never affluent, I grew up with an assurance that “the world was my oyster.”  It was assumed that I would make a positive difference in the world and that my life would be relatively painless. But would the advantages of prestige and education offset assumptions of invincibility and the familial burdens of high expectation? — Only time would tell.

In the beginning, it seemed either that God was protecting me or that my innocence served more a talisman against evil spirits than an invitation to mischief. Few could believe that I was barely seventeen. That plus the fact that I lacked the experience to recognize a come-on meant that most people treated me as a mascot whom they needed to protect rather than a love object. (Or I had learned my mother’s easy graciousness without her sexuality, and somehow managed to translate that into a friendly, but hands-off, approachability.)

Europe was an extraordinary gift, for I discovered that simplicity is a virtue and that status and sophistication are not all they are cracked up to be. A basic vocabulary of phrases in Spanish, Italian, and Greek sufficed for a month or more in each country, and I commend them to all young ladies traveling alone. They are: “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” “Good evening,” “please,” “thank you,” “I love you,” and “Don’t bother me.” (“I love you” is especially helpful for pre-adolescents and grandparents who will then take you under their wing, while “Don’t bother me” is important for all others.) These phrases, a ready smile, and body gestures kept me hale, hearty, and happy for almost a year.

Greece was a special haven. Everything sparkles in the brilliant Mediterranean sun – the crystal Aegean Sea, the white sandy beaches, the spotless whitewashed buildings, the hearts of the villagers and simple peasants. Running out of money about a week after arriving, I found a succession of jobs helping sell crafts to tourists, washing dishes in a nightclub, and clearing rocks on a road gang. The foreman could have been an understudy to Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek with his flashy smile and zest for life.

 

But then comes undeniable proof that my life is firmly in the grip of the bizarre. Because my first SAT scores were not as high as I want, I opt to take them a second time, which means hopping a train to Frankfurt to the U.S. Army enclave known as “Little America.”

Arriving at the American high school twenty-five minutes before the test is scheduled to begin, I find only two adult proctors setting up. Being well versed in the value of a precautionary pee, I ask for the nearest toilet and learn that the girls’ bathroom is nearly a quarter mile down labyrinthine hallways at the other end of the building.

After closing the stall door, I discover the latch is broken. I am trapped in a cell that is two feet wide, five feet deep, eight feet high, and just shy of a quarter mile from the nearest human being. I spend five minutes in grueling attempts to shimmy up the slippery sides of the stall and lunge from the toilet seat to the top, hyperventilating all the while. (“Damn me – if I were as agile as my sister Allegra I could just shimmy up the walls. If I were as strong as my brother Peter I could muscle my way over. But I’m useless and helpless. Damn me!”)

I consider screaming but that is pointless. The proctors are far away, and there are apparently no other students with college aspirations. I decide on one last attempt before breaking down in tears and writing off the possibility of college later this year. Removing my shoes and socks to get better traction with bare feet, I breathe deeply, conjure up positive affirmations, place both feet on top of the toilet seat, and lunge for the top of the stall. This time I am able to get one toe over the top and then bully my ankle to the other side. I reach up, get an arm hold, and then carefully slide my body up and forward.

At which time the unbelievable happens. I am literally eight feet in the air with bare legs straddling both sides of the toilet stall, congratulating myself on my physical prowess and simultaneously trying to catch my breath, when the door opens and a young woman walks in. I say a sheepish “hello” and am about to explain why I am perched bare-footed atop this strange aerie. She looks up, spies me hovering like a raptor overhead, and bolts out. Sliding down and washing my hands in warm water to calm down, I chuckle at her terror. There seems something oddly familiar about her, but I can’t place it.

A minute or two later, she walks back in – more calmly this time – and looks skeptically at me, asking, “Felicity???” I instantly recognize Alice Kraft, a good friend from elementary and junior high school whom I haven’t seen in four years. I also know this is the most memorable story of bumping into old friends in strange places imaginable.

In that instance, I discover that terror is temporary and happiness can be found in adventurous abandon. I will go crazy places, encounter bizarre situations and, catlike, end up on top with eight more lives and a good story to boot.

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Circling Excerpt 1: The Introduction

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

With encouragement from friends and fellow writers, I am revising the book that was previously titled In God We Tryst: A Pilgrimage.  It will now be called Circling.  I’m not sure whether or not to add a subtitle, A Spiritual Odyssey.  (I welcome your thoughts.)  Also, I will be posting parts of it on this blog and hope that I’ll get lots of suggestions from you, my dear readers.

So here is the Introduction.  Enjoy — and respond with what works and doesn’t work for you.  Thanks so much!

 

Goober

Introduction

 

I live my life in ever-widening circles

That stretch out over the things of the world.

I may never reach the outermost orbit,

But that is what I strive for.

 

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,

And I’ve been circling for a thousand years

But I do not know yet: if I am a falcon,

A storm . . . or a great song.

 

Rainer Maria Rilke, A Book for the Hours of Prayer

 

To this day, I live all three: the falcon, the storm, and the song. There have been times when the storm raged so harshly that the falcon cowered and the song was stilled, but these, albeit violent, were infrequent. Mostly, the falcon flies high and the song is a love song.

But it’s hard work: circling God is not easy. There is no assurance that “things will be all right in the end,” either in this life or the next. Living a God-centered life is counter-cultural, and it becomes harder as the children grow and our bodies deteriorate. Often our hearts want to say “Yes” to God, while our heads protest “No way!” Many people question the legitimacy of God, craving certainty when none is possible. Others profess intimacy with the inner workings of the divine mind, alienating those with a humbler faith.

As a teenager, I careened between self-righteous certitude and hardened skepticism until an unlikely Trinity of cheap wine, dirty feet, and a fire-breathing Baptist preacher set me on a spiritual odyssey to find a loving God. Ashamed by a circuitous odyssey with too few signposts, I despaired of going public with the love story that supposedly happens when one finds God.

Earlier drafts were titled Searching for God: An Idiopathic Odyssey because I began it after the death of my infant daughter Caitlin, thirty-five years ago. One thing after another went wrong in her three-month lifetime and it was as perplexing to the doctors as it was to us. When the chief cardiovascular surgeon came to tell us of another bizarre twist in Caitlin’s medical plight, I probed to understand its cause. He shrugged his shoulders, raised his eyebrows, curled his lip, and said it was idiopathic.

When I asked what “idiopathic” meant, he sheepishly explained that it meant there was no clear medical cause. I laughed outright, “Oh, ‘idiopathic’ is the same as ‘I haven’t a clue!’”

When he acknowledged the truth of my equation,  the word evolved into a description of my spiritual journey quite as much as it did Caitlin’s medical trials. It’s an elegant term that experts – doctors, lawyers, or even theologians – can use when bereft of better explanations for why things happen the way they do. There is a respectful holiness about idiopathic confusion.

In time, I recognized that my yearning to understand God’s truth in the face of innocent suffering might some day result in a book. But being an optimist by nature, I thought the book could not be completed until there was a happy ending. There has to be a purpose in life, I thought, just as there has to be goodness in God – or why else are we born and why do we persist in believing in a loving deity?

So I waited for the happy ending. And waited. And waited. Some delightful blessings came my way, including a pair of magnificent children, delightful friends, and satisfying professional work…but the fairy-tale ending remained elusive. Every time I thought life was leveling out to a gentle and comfortable playing field, another gut-wrenching loss would find its way to my soul.

The clarity of my youth became the curse of my adulthood. Raised on the importance of rational thinking and hard work, I managed the first half of my life with a healthy combination of messiness and good fortune, emerging at thirty with a fine husband, excellent job, and upbeat attitude. Then things soured: our first child died at three hours, and Caitlin at three months. Of the two living children, one was born without an ear and another with a neurological birth injury. Twelve years later, the marriage was over and my foray into new life as an ordained minister boomeranged, hitting me broadside and leaving brutal scars.

Finally – finally! – I wised up. I heard God clearly for the first time, and what I heard made me realize that I’d been going about things all wrong. I had wanted my head to justify the yearnings of my heart. Sure, I was on the right path and walking in the right direction, but it was as though I had been walking backwards all the way.

When I turned myself around so that I was walking head- (or was it heart-?) first, I still tripped over the rocks and slipped in the mud, but discovered newfound pleasures in the trek. I realized that I had been looking for the wrong type of happy ending. I needed to focus on the journey not the destination – to enjoy the walk with all the pathos and bathos, the sublime and the ridiculous, that comes our way. I learned that there are times when we need to scout aggressively for blessings as a way of tempering the trials. Prayer and gratitude help in making the valleys less deep than they might be otherwise.

My quest took me from the East to the West and back to the East coast, from motherhood to ministry, and from skepticism to faith. After years of spiraling through a spiritual wilderness where the only choice was to dismiss or disdain God, I emerged shaken but open to new possibilities. The children are well, my health is good, my attitude is positive, and my awareness of the blessings of life is enhanced by the challenges of getting to this point.

But while I preach and believe the good news as written in the Bible, I am nonetheless beleaguered with questions; it is heady work to explain the value of being faithful without also being certain. And so I write this book for those of us who are “seekers”: those of us who want to believe in God but find it tough going. We can’t understand why religious faith comes more readily to other people: have they had an easier life, or are they smarter than we are, or are they dumber than we are? Somehow, our weary minds can’t quite muster the necessary energy to take the exhilarating bounce of faith that graces other lives. Instead, we torment ourselves with the big “why” questions that differentiate us from other species – the “why this?” and “why not that?” and – worst of all – the “why me?” questions that suggest we may be created in the image of God but are a long way from home.

I trust that readers will enjoy the roller-coaster stories of my adventure while also exploring the workings of God in their lives. I hope that these nourishing, if perhaps bittersweet, appetizers might open readers to a divine banquet where, I believe, all are welcome.

We each experience the divine in personalized ways based on our culture and upbringing. In this light, some readers may object that my occasional use of colorful language is sacrilegious, or that it trivializes what is a genuinely profound and perplexing struggle to explain Holy Mystery. To such complaints, I have two responses.

First, as Popeye would say, “I yam what I yam,” and perhaps class just ain’t my strong suit. I sometimes use graphic language, and so the book just wrote itself that way. Second, I believe that God yearns to connect with all of us – old and young, male and female, black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor – and will happily use any and all methods of discourse to open our ears, our hearts, and our minds. In my case, it sometimes takes gutter speak to get through the earwax.

Finally, I end this introduction by explaining that the God I now love has different faces and voices and appears through a robust tapestry of images, terms, and languages. God is beyond being male, female, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and everything else we can imagine. I believe that, just as God created so many varieties of flowers to bring beauty into our lives and just as there are varieties of birds to give us music, so also are there many different religions so that all people can find a way to Her. Too often we argue over the pros and cons of the different lamps, forgetting to honor the universal light that is God.

Because of my cultural and personal heritage, God speaks to me through the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, but I hope that non-Christians will be able to relate to the substance of this faith journey, if not the specific images and terms. Most importantly, I hope this “travelogue” will encourage readers to honor their own search for God. It may be that the roller-coaster of disordered chaos is actually a God-centered Ferris wheel: we still go up, down, and around, and some of us may get horribly nauseous.

But the view at the top is celestial.

 

If only for a second. Then the circle begins anew: our lives are an interwoven trinity of falcon, storm, and song swirling up, down, and around that ancient tower that we call God.

 

 

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Gratitude

Friday, April 5th, 2013

I’ve been asked to write about gratitude, but I’m not feeling mellow or happy or grateful. And it is because I CANNOT ABIDE TIME-WARNER CABLE. I just got home and went to turn on the BBC and PBS News Hour, but my TV is responding with a screen telling me that my cable box is not authorized (a new message that doesn’t make sense since it was working yesterday) Sadly, Times-Warner has the monopoly here for TV/Internet access, so I’m helpless.

I call the number on the screen and get a message said that the wait for customer support will be “slightly more than 10 minutes.”

I can manage that, I think, putting the phone on speaker. Feeding the new puppy and making dinner for myself, I listen to ads promoting various Time-Warner services punctuated with the constant (if insincere) refrain: “Thank you for your patience: an operator will be with you shortly.”

But now it’s been 47 minutes and 17 seconds and still no operator. And I’m supposed to be thinking about gratitude? The fact is that I’m thoroughly p*ssed! I’d hang up except then I would have to wait even longer.

In my frustration and impatience, I remember to breathe deeply and consider: what am I grateful for? I realize that my anger is heightened because of my sense of entitlement. Assumptions of instant TV, a free press, and local and international news come with privilege. For me, they come with a free (and good) public education, from being born into a white, middle/upper-class family, and from living in the greatest democracy in the history of the world.

Reflecting on my nephew who had served in Afghanistan (and the Afghan people that we are trying to help), I am reminded of the poverty and injustice common to the American natives in Utah and Alaska with whom I had worked many years ago. I am reminded of friends and colleagues living in squalid townships in South Africa and barrios in Mexico. I am reminded of friends living in the hollers of Kentucky. I am reminded of friends and family struggling with life-threatening diseases.

Gabriel, my now-well-fed puppy, charges around the house. Celebrating life and freedom with wild abandon, he interrupts my self-indulgent reflections, calling me back to thoughts of life and joy and connection.

In the process, he puts my life in perspective and I realize that I am grateful that:

  • I have a telephone to call (and wait) from.
  • I live in a country that honors a free press; I can get PBS, BBC, local news, and numerous other TV stations most of the time.
  • I have friends and family who are working to make this a better world and trying to improve the lot of those who have less.
  • My puppy reminds me that life is joy.
  • My friend thinks well enough of me to ask me to write about gratitude.

Hallelujah.

 

IMG_1252

 

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Considering Grace

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

After the final no there comes a yes

And on that yes the future world depends.

No was the night. Yes is this present sun.

Wallace Stevens, “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard”

I just returned from New York City, where I spent a delightful – and challenging – day with my dear friends and literary agents Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada. Ours is a special relationship where we can be direct and loving, knowing that honest criticism comes only with respect. (I hope that you have people like Michael and Elizabeth in your life, for they are a gift.)

In my case, they are enthusiastic about my writing and supportive of my book In God We Tryst. But Michael (author of How to Write a Book Proposal, now in its third edition and the award-winning blog http://sfwriters.info/blog) emphasizes that publishing is about writing and promotion.  And so, he encouraged me to become more proactive about public relations, specifically developing and offering workshops, writing blogs more frequently, and encouraging people to sign up and comment on them.  (Please do so, if you haven’t already; publishers need proof of a ready “audience” of interested people who will purchase what they print.)

Then, upon reading my latest proposal, he resonated with the notion of “being an agent of grace,” one of the themes of my book.  Thinking this is a message the world needs, he encouraged me to be more explicit in explaining how we recognize grace and what we need to become agents of grace.

And so now the challenge is on:

  • How do you define “grace”?
  • How do you recognize grace – either God’s grace or another’s?
  • Looking at Wallace Stevens poem, what is the “yes” upon which the future world depends? – Is it “grace” or something else?  Does it come from God or another source?

Hopefully this blog can become a discussion of grace – how we define and recognize it as well as how we become agents of grace. I welcome your thoughts.

 

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Spirit Strikes Again

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and we celebrate the reality of love – or, better, of joys of connection.  Most of us yearn not just for love – which is rare and fairly private – but equally for connection. We need to know that we are living lives of synchronicity and right relationship with the world. We want to connect – to live in harmony – with both spirit and substance.

Surely it is suggestive that we share the same air – the same molecules of nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen that swirl through time and history from the earliest life forms through the great people of history to those we love and us.  It is the same air that connects us with the people of Asia and Africa, with saints and sinners, with apes and zebras.  We are all unified and blessed by the gift of air.

It is no wonder, then, that God breathed over the cosmos on the first day of creation and brought it to life.  It is no wonder that breath/air/wind is the same in Hebrew (ruach), Greek (pneuma), and Latin (spiritus).  It is no wonder that when we breathe this air, we are inspired.  All life and all creation begins with breath.

…including grand dreams and silly songs.

Yesterday, I was privileged to give the invocation of the San Francisco Writers’ Conference. Until last year, it was The Very Reverend Alan Jones, the retired dean of Grace Cathedral, who had the honor.  But, beginning last year, he was traveling or otherwise unavailable. So Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada, organizers of the conference, asked me. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I “discovered” a long-lost version of Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer composed especially for writers.  (See http://felicitywright.com/blog/2009/02/16/a-prayer-for-writers-the-invocation-at-the-sf-writers-conference.) It was well received – which only added to the pressure when I was expected to ferret out another long-lost gem.

But, with prayer and supplication, Spirit came once again to my aid. So here is the invocation, for your amusement:

Good afternoon. We have come together in this, the seventh convening of the San Francisco Writers’ Conference, to learn, create, and connect.  And whatever our religious beliefs, we are woven together in a sacred web of art and creativity as we pray for “Spirit,” holy or otherwise.  So let’s pause and breathe deeply of the same air that inspired writers from Aeschylus to Zola. As we exhale, we share Spirit’s blessings with one another.

And then we sing:

O beautiful for spacious sighs

That soar o’er the mundane,

For purple patches’ majesties

Above the phrases plain.

O poetry and prose sublime! Muse shed her charms on thee

And crown our arts with happy hearts

From A through M to Z.

O beautiful for writers’ dreams

That see beyond the shame

Of impoverished oblivion

To works of great acclaim

O poetry and prose sublime! God shed His charms on thee

And crown Thy good with authorhood

From A through You to Z.

As we give thanks for the sun, rain, and earth that grew this food, the hands that planted and prepared this feast, and the friends who brought us together, we also honor the Holy Inspiration that lies at the core of the cosmos.  And we say:

I pledge allegiance to the Word

Of the creative force of the cosmos

And to the connection for which we strive

One yearning with the Spirit

Indivisible,

With inspiration and success for all.

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On Being “Aunt Happy”

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

Justinian the Great, emperor of Byzantium in the sixth century, reportedly identified himself as “Emperor Caesar Flavius, Justinianus, Alamanicus, Francicus, Germanicus, Anticus, Vandalicus, Africanus, Pious, Happy, Renowned, Conqueror and Triumpher, ever Augustus.”

Whew – now there’s a mouthful! Clearly he did not suffer from a negative self-image!

But I wonder: were his titles an indication of arrogance and hunger for power? Or did they instead remind him of his purpose in life as ruler (and thus caretaker) of the French, Germans, Africans, and others – as well as to be pious, happy, renowned?

Certainly Justinian took his role (if not also his names) seriously, for it was he who brought peace to most of the Mediterranean region and created the code that became the foundation of Roman law. So perhaps his names were not merely egregious and egotistical claims of hoped-for importance but rather statements of commitment to act as leader of all the nations and an awareness of the different personality characteristics required to do so.

Who knows? What’s in a name?

A lot! If you live in the wrong part of the world, you may be killed simply by virtue of having the wrong name. Consider Romeo and Juliet, the Hatfields and McCoys, and tribal conflicts throughout the world. Names are identities, far more powerful than mere words.

I am one of the privileged ones who entered this world with many advantages, of which the first and best is my name. Many people have horrific names that stick with them like a curse; but mine is a talisman, a peace offering, a blessing, both within me and to those around me. I can take no credit for it except to try to live up to the challenge it offers. But it is hard to be churlish when one has a name like Felicity. And so I’ve always been curious about how we choose names and whether the name creates the identity, or vice versa.

Names play an important part in the Bible, and people change names when they change identities. Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah; Jacob becomes Israel; Simon becomes Peter; Saul becomes Paul. Whenever someone has a radical transformation in identity or mission, he or she has a name change. Biblical name changes indicate a new covenant between that individual and God. Something fundamental is altered in the promise between God and that man or woman (as in the three Hebrew Bible characters), or the promise between him and Jesus (as in the case of Peter and Paul). The new name symbolizes commitment. Baptism, as the first sacrament in the life of a Christian, is in fact a naming ceremony.

In Nepal last month, I was intrigued that one of the children changed his name from “Vishnu” to “Nick” shortly after coming to live at New Life Children’s Home. Was it because being “Vishnu” (the “all-pervasive” Hindu god who is expected to recognize and counteract evil influences in all its guises) was too burdensome? Or did he change his name along with his cultural identity when he acknowledged his new American father? Was “Nick” just cute (I affectionately called him “slick Nick” because of his theatrical flair) or was it connected with St. Nicholas?

I never asked his reasons for changing his name. (It seemed too personal.) But as I heard the story of his life before and after coming to New Life, it was clear that there were two children: Vishnu (who could remember nothing of his early childhood other than filth, stench, hunger, and homelessness) and Nick (who was happy, sensitive, playful, enthusiastic, and tender.)

And he isn’t the only one with a name change. Within an hour of coming to New Life, the children had given me a new name. Like the others, I would be called “Auntie” or “Uncle,” for this is the Nepali way for showing respect for elders while also acknowledging us as close enough to be extended family. In our case, there was “Auntie Carla,” “Auntie Kymri,” “Auntie Kalar,” and “Uncle Brett.”  But “Felicity” had too many syllables and was too unfamiliar. So, without thinking, I simply explained that “felicity” means “happiness.”

Aarghhh. Without a pause, I was named “Auntie Happy.” Then, concerned that “Auntie” would be misunderstood as “anti,” it was modified to “Aunt Happy.” Vishnu became Nick; Felicity became Aunt Happy.

Honored, I did my best to life up to my name.

But it was a challenge.

What would Justinian say? What would Jesus say?

Is being “Aunt Happy” within my power? Or is it a gift from God?

In Nepal, there were occasions when I was happy as well as times when I was an agent of grace. But my happiness was a gift from others – it was their happiness that enveloped me rather than the result of anything I had done. Further, it was clear that my ability to be an accidental agent of grace was a gift from God – and the children also.


It was they who believed in me. And, as a result, I was changed, transformed. Though inadequate, I was baptized by their love.

I am humbled. I am happy.

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A Prayer for Writers (based on process theology)

Monday, February 16th, 2009

When they asked, I was both thrilled and cowed. Dean Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral had always given the invocation in the past – but he would be sailing the South Seas on Friday, February 13, 2009.  And so Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen (the organizers of the San Francisco Writers’ Conference) asked another minister-cum-writer to deliver the opening invocation … and that was … me.

Following the Very Reverend Alan Jones would be a challenge for anyone, for he epitomizes wisdom, courage, and grace in his every written and spoken word. But Elizabeth is my literary agent and Michael is my friend, and I am forever indebted to them. After honoring me with the request, they told me to focus on the needs of writers, be inspirational but not religious, and keep it under five minutes.

So with the blessing of Rev. Jones, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the Bible as my guide, I was thrilled to give the following invocation:

Good afternoon. We have come together in this, the sixth convening of the San Francisco Writers’ Conference, to make new friends, explore new possibilities, and encourage each other.  As such, we are “making community” – and surely that is the work of God, or Spirit, or Muse, or Desperation, or whatever we call that force that pushes us to keep writing.  For we know that the challenges are real – in fact, I wonder if sometimes our prayers sound like this:

The Muse is my shepherd,
I shall not want for words.
She makes me lie down with greenbacks that flow from big contracts;
She restores my self-esteem.
She leads me in paths of rhyme and right phrasing
For her arts’ sake.

Yea, even though I stumble over stones of shame and self-contempt,
I fear no writers’ blocks.
For Thou are with me;
Thy words and phrases, they comfort me.

Surely verbs and verses shall follow me all the days of my life
And my books will be bestsellers forever.

In all seriousness, I suggest that, whatever your religious beliefs, you might resonate with “process theology,” in which God is the creative process – more like electricity or magnetism than a person or entity. As you read the Bible or other sacred texts, replace “God” with “Creativity” – I think you will like the results.  And remember what St. John wrote:  “In the beginning was the Word” – the seed planted in us so that we could be co-creators with God.

And so, as we give thanks for the sun, rain, and earth that grew this food, the hands who planted and prepared this feast, and the friends who brought us together, we also honor the Great Creativity that lies at the core of our cosmos and at the center of our yearnings. And thus we pray:

Our Creator, who art in the Eternal Imagination,
Hallowed be Thy powers.
Thy arts be honored, Thy works be written
In the mundane
and eternal realms.
Give us this day our daily Word,
And forgive us our mixed metaphors, split infinitives, and the overuse of adjectives.
Lead us not into feelings of inadequacy, but deliver us from the travails of unresponsive agents and unappreciative publishers.
For thine is the glory, the possibility, and the connection with the Eternal Word.
For ever and ever.  Amen.

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