Archive for December, 2010

somewhere between Carmel and Big Sur

The other day my husband and I went to Monterey Bay for the day.  Day trips are what Californians do.  If someone had been people-watching me they would have thought I’d never been to California in my life by the way I was taking pictures:  Ooh – scrub oak!  Ooh – farmland!  Ooh – Pacific Ocean!  At one point I just held my camera up and out the window as we drove along Highway 1.  After all, I could just delete all the images that didn’t turn out.

I used to be quite the shutterbug back in the day when we had things like film in our cameras.  I took my camera on every trip and took pains to capture the essence of those trips, sights, and moods on film.  I took pictures of things that caught my attention.  One of my most favorite photographs ever was taken in Yosemite – of a manhole cover.

When I used film, I didn’t just snap willy-nilly.  That could be costly.  I didn’t snap unless I was convinced of the strong likelihood that the photograph would turn out well.  I spent time really looking through the lens at my subject, not holding the camera at arm’s length and looking at a screen.

At some point it began to feel like I was spending entire holidays and vacations looking through a lens rather than being truly present and enjoying the experience.  So I put the camera down.  Some time later, after I’d practiced the art of being present for a while, I thought I might get a digital camera.  I liked the idea of having something tiny to put in my purse to capture those images from everyday life that I found so poignant.  My SLR was a beast to carry around.

I haven’t quite reverted to my old shutterbug tendencies, but the other day on the coast made me pause a bit.  There were moments of near feverish snapping, trying to get a good pic.  Nothing like the perfect photograph I used to labor over, really taking time to see my subject, understand and appreciate it.

There were moments the other day that I missed.  Missed, because as we drove by I was more preoccupied with holding my camera out the window, looking at the LED screen, rather than looking out the window myself.  And in those instances I didn’t see anything.


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House of Strays


It’s been a year since I’ve been home to California, and in that time there have been a few changes.  Last year Rosie and Maggie, our family dogs, both died.  In January my parents got two new dogs, “new” being a relative term.  Petunia and Honey are pound dogs.


Petunia, a Bassett, was a breeding dog who was turned in when she got too old to breed.  She moves and sounds like a sea lion.  Honey is a true mutt – short, with German Shepherd markings, and a wide bear-like face.  Honey had at least three other homes because she has an esophagus problem.  My parents literally have to spoon-feed her or she can’t keep her food down.


Then there’s Annie, Orphan Annie as my mom calls her.  She’s a gray cat that sleeps in a basket outside the front door.  The neighbors across the street moved away and left her behind.  I just spent a few minutes lying outside in the sun on the sidewalk petting her.


I thought it was going to be strange coming home to my parents’ house, full of new animals and the old ones gone.  But coming home to a house of strays feels just right.

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The truth is, I’m a bit disappointed.  Things haven’t gone exactly as I’d hoped.  For years now, I’ve been doing a mostly Buy Nothing Christmas, buying only the minimum amount of things I need in order to make all my Christmas presents.  I love spending time crafting gifts for my loved ones – whether a pair of knitted socks for my husband, or a pair of earrings for my mom.  I love all the moodling time spent thinking about these gifts – which yarn, which bead – would best fit the intended recipient.

But I’m feeling especially guilty because yesterday my December article for PeaceSigns came out.  In that article, I write about gifts and how we hope that they will bring us love and fulfillment – not in receiving a gift from someone else – but in giving a gift, we hope that we will get love in return.

As you must know with articles like that, it was written before Advent even started.  I relied on past memories of making gifts and projected hopes for this current season of gift-making.  Maybe there was no “out of control buying and spending” for me this year, but there was certainly more than enough “running in circles”.  It makes me cringe just to read those words of mine.

A surprising dimension of my gift-making this year is how inadequate I felt making them.  In previous years, it was a choice to not spend money.  And it felt good to detach myself from the world of retail consumerism.  I felt like I was taking a stand and doing something noble.

But this year, there was no choice.  I made gifts with what I had, was forced abort some ideas because it would mean buying extra supplies, and agonized over every single thing I made.  “Buying nothing” out of necessity made me feel like nothing I made was good enough.  All my high-minded ideas were turned on their heads and had their feet put to the fire as the war against consumerism raged within me.

In the end, just because I didn’t spend a lot of money doesn’t mean that I succeeded in having a better attitude about Christmas and gifts than someone who spent thousands of dollars at the mall.  That’s humbling.  One might hope I would learn some valuable lesson here.  But let’s not trust too much in my ability to be consistent.

Remind me sometime to tell you the truth about Thanksgiving after writing my November article for PeaceSigns.  Ugh.

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Last week I dog-sat for a few days.  Lucy is amazing – she’s accustomed to having her paws and her — uh, other parts — wiped when she comes in from a walk and waits patiently during this routine.


My husband and I are dog people.  I like cats, too, but my husband and my gato are not on speaking terms.  We look forward to getting a dog one day, but there’s a major prerequisite to that addition to our family: a house.  Lots of people who live in apartments as we do manage to have a dog and find ways for it to work within their lifestyle.  But we’re not there yet.


I’ve often wondered if having a dog in an apartment might not bring a helpful discipline to my daily living.  When I’m home alone all day, it could be nice to have a reason – one of necessity – to get me out of the apartment a few times a day.  (Certainly I could just get up and go for a walk, but that’s not currently part of my modus operandi.)  I enjoy a good deal of alone time, but too much can take me from constructive, productive reflection, to turning against myself and becoming destructive.  Getting outside almost always provides immediate relief.


On my walks with Lucy, I thought a fair bit about the Benedictines and the beautiful rhythm of life through which they move.  I’ve often thought I would have made a good Benedictine.  If I wasn’t Mennonite, that is.  Maybe it’s because my dad used to tell my sisters and I that he was going to send us to live in a nunnery in Siberia until we were 35, and that we couldn’t date until we were married.  Okay, that’s probably not the reason.  I’m not very good at maintaining a disciplined and ordered lifestyle by relying on my own inner wherewithal or wherever-that-whatever comes from.  But I do tend to respond positively to rhythms around me.  The ones that are not forced upon me, but are just there, like open invitations.


At times I’ve tried to adopt various practices and disciplines in order to bring both rhythm and balance into my life.  It usually goes like this: discover really cool practice; get really excited; think about how it might actually work out in my life; decide in what way it could be squeezed in; ignore how unrealistic this is; zealously begin practice; maintain practice rigidly for a few weeks until failing to do it one day, at which point I will feel like a miserable failure and berate myself for the next several weeks when I should have just picked up again the next day without all the self-destruction.  Or else, never start in the first place when it is apparent how unrealistic it is.


But I’m very good about discipline when it comes to other living beings.  When another creature’s wellbeing is on the line, I step up and get over my I-don’t-want-to-you-can’t-make-me attitude.  So getting a dog would be different, right?  I might be moping around the apartment, but when the poocher needs to go out, I would most certainly rise to the occasion, especially when the alternative is a mess to clean up.


One morning, after we’d been out in the below-freezing cold for 45 minutes, Lucy still hadn’t done her business. And I realized that while it was easy to take care of her for a few days, this wasn’t something I was ready for.  Babysitting is way different than parenthood.


These things, as so many things in life, really can’t be forced, or rushed, or timed, or scheduled.  The life we think we should have, or person we think we should be, takes time.  Even in the spiritual life, things must run their course.  I do my part, and God does God’s part – and oh! how adventian it all is – all this waiting and hoping and expecting.  Yet, my friend Jim reminds me that pining away for an “alternative plan” can be impious.  And I think he’s right.  There’s waiting and hoping while trusting in what is present, and there’s pining away for something else because of distrust in what is.  The one is faith-full, the other faith-less.


There’s no recipe for an instant, ready-made saint, and I can’t push a button to save the world.  Sometimes dogs won’t poop, but I can and should, enjoy the walk anyway.

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Continue to Complete



It’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it?  Or maybe that’s just Paul.  Whatever you call it, the phrase “continue to complete” is what struck me on the first reading of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 1.4-6, 8-11.


My first thought was that on the spiritual journey, we’re always striving for completion – not so much in the sense of being “finished” or “done”, but “fulfilled” and “made whole”.  That can seem a little depressing, to always be working at something that is never finished.  There’s such wonderful satisfaction in finishing a long worked-on project.


Ah, but I am not the doer of the action.  It is not for me to do the completing.  “The One who began a good work in you will continue to complete it”.  Well, that’s a bit of a relief.  At least I’m off the hook for getting it all finished before “the day of Christ Jesus.”  Sort of.


Then Paul gets to the actual substance of his prayer: “that your love may increase ever more and more”.  Most of us are keenly aware of the power of love, and the power of love to hurt.  Having your heart broken can understandably make you reluctant to open your heart up to love and trust again.  From this perspective, Paul’s prayer sounds more like a threat.  The more you love, the more you can get hurt.


Maybe.  But as the capacity for love grows within us, it not only enlarges our hearts, but it transforms them.  And many of the things that used to cause us pain, no longer affect us in the same way.  We are no longer so easily offended as our compassion for others becomes our primary concern, rather than the maintenance of our egos.  As we continue in this way, we are less susceptible to being tossed around by circumstances, and increasingly at peace during even the most troubling times.


As I began the prayer portion of Lectio, I first was thankful that I didn’t have to do all the work myself.  With not a few over-achiever tendencies, I can fall easily into the me-do-it-myself rut.  My next thought, after being thankful that I don’t have to do it myself, was something to the effect of “because I’m worthless on my own”.  And right then I stopped myself.  That’s nonsense.  Because I am, because I am a creature of God, I am not worthless.  Honestly, that’s hard to admit.  I believe things I do are worthwhile and valuable, but as a person I struggle with my sense of self-worth.  It’s one of my greatest doubts.


What does it mean to be “complete” then?  I think it means to have the very heart of God, and if God is literally full of love and compassion, God must also then be completely devoid of ego.  No wonder God is so good at forgiveness.


And that’s when a small miracle of transformation took place, right inside of my own heart.  Like the Grinch who stole Christmas, my heart grew a few sizes when it increased in capacity to love myself.  When it seems that so much hatred and fear is derived from the brokenness within ourselves, learning to love and forgive ourselves can go a long way to learning to have compassion and love for others.

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Dark Night

One of the things about a leafless tree that is so striking to me is how much sunlight makes it through to places that likely haven’t seen the sun, or at least not much of it, for months.

A while back I wrote about leaves gathering energy from the sun, which at the time had turned my thoughts toward being still in the presence of God.  The felt presence of God feels so good.  It’s life-giving and affirming.  It encourages us when we’ve lost heart.  It eases our troubled minds.

But what about when we can’t feel the presence of God?  We may have become accustomed to knowing God in a particular way – and then suddenly, it doesn’t work anymore.  What does this mean?  Have we made God angry?  Does God not care about us anymore?  Have we been forgotten or abandoned?

Contemplatives like St. John of the Cross have written about these experiences, calling them the Dark Night of Sense, which Thomas Keating defines as a “period of spiritual dryness and purification of one’s motivation initiated by the Holy Spirit, hence also called passive purification.” (Intimacy with God, 191).  In other words, our motivation toward spiritual exercises or experiences can often be clouded or mixed.  Sometimes we may desire “a touch” from God, not out of a desire for a deeper connection or relationship, but simply to feel better.  The same need to feel good might just as well be met by a compliment from someone or a by bowl of ice cream.

But what do we do if our go-to praise song or prayer routine doesn’t work?  What if it doesn’t make us feel good?  Will we keep on singing?  Will we keep on praying?  The decision to keep going even without the reward of feeling good is part of the process of purification.

In the spiritual life, as in the created and natural world, there are seasons.  And what is good and fitting in one season, might not always carry over into the next season.  Perhaps the next time we find ourselves in a period of dryness and darkness, we might consider what we’re being invited to shed, to prune, and to leave behind.  The irony is that in these times that seem so dark, the most light is able to shine through.

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Seasoned with Peace

Part 1, WINTER


And now, for a commercial…


Seasoned with Peace WINTER is here!  It is the first of four seasonal books with “Practical help for becoming a biblical, prayerful, playful peacemaker”, compiled by Susan Mark Landis, Lisa J. Amstutz, and Cindy Snider.


It is a daily devotional that begins January 1, which includes reflections, prayers, recipes, crafts, projects, information, poetry, and action steps.   And the best part is, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.


This book makes a lovely Christmas gift — consider even getting a “subscription” for someone by ordering SPRING, SUMMER, and FALL as they come out.


The cost is $15.95 with approximately $9 going to peace and justice work!  An individual order of 5 books or more can be discounted at $12 each, but that just means less goes to peace and justice work.  All the work for it has been volunteer, with proceeds going to support Mennonite Church USA Peace and Justice Support Network.


They are available at: http://seasonedwithpeace.blogspot.com/ There are also sample entries on the website, a little sneak peak, if you will.


P.S.  Several of my entries, including craft projects, recipes and reflections will be in the SPRING edition:)

P.P.S.  If you have a reflection, recipe, poem, prayer, or craft project you’d like to contribute, email Susan at peaceforallseasons@gmail.com

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