Unnecessary beauty

High Bridge Trail, depot in the distance.

One blistering, humid, high 90s day in the middle of the summer, I hiked a couple of miles on the High Bridge Trail with my family. The trail is a converted railroad bed and the bridge is a very high passage trains once made over the trickle of the Appomattox River far below. Until you get out into the middle of the bridge where you can peer down and see that trickle, you walk level with treetops. At intervals across the bridge, there are train-depot-style platforms that jut out slightly from the rest of the bridge, with off-center-peaked roofs sloped over benches facing out over the drop. As we hid from the baking sun, eating our picnic lunch on one of the benches, I noticed how much detail went into making the depots.

Fed, watered, and cooled down a bit, I examined our depot from all angles. It could have easily, predictably been nothing more than a bench with an unadorned roof. But these were made of bolted metal and grooved tin roofing, with gentle arched supports underneath that lit up all the train depot recognition areas of my brain – areas I wasn’t aware of until those delightful sparks of recognition.

Gorgeous.

The depots could have been merely utilitarian and expedient, enough to provide rest and shade. Instead, someone decided to delight. Someone opted for unnecessary beauty in a place where relatively few will see it and where you have to work to get to it – a place where rest and shade are the only necessities or expectations.

When the latest bad news spreads, I hear people say, “Fight back with beauty.” I know what they mean. I appreciate the battle cry but I am weary.

I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

When my grandfather was old and blind and my grandmother was still cooking in her own kitchen, I was trying to help set the table for lunch. With my grandmother, even a simple un-cooked lunch of sandwiches involved ten full minutes of table preparation. I was trying to speed things up and wash fewer dishes later, so I grabbed the empty glass from beside my grandfather’s chair in the living room where he sat listening to the television. When she saw me putting that glass at my grandfather’s place, tears welled in my grandmother’s eyes as she replaced it. “I always give him a fresh glass with his meal.”

Maybe a clean fresh glass doesn’t normally count as beauty but it did then. It was as unnecessary as the delightful depots on the trail – his previous glass wasn’t dirty and he would never see the difference between the two glasses. But she knew – she could see – and the fresh glass was one in a long line of her simple, daily, loving acts of unnecessary beauty.

I keep saying “unnecessary.” When you swim two miles and get out of the pool growling for food, it doesn’t matter whether the table is set properly or the food is a balanced meal. You need calories, plain and simple. Calories are necessary; gourmet is not. I can think of other similar but less obvious routines in my life when I opt for the utilitarian and expedient.

But is beauty an option? Is delight really “unnecessary”?

After the presidential election last fall I re-watched the entire West Wing series. I also decided it was time to purchase my own clergy collar shirt. Beauty, fantasy. Beauty, calling.

There is so much to do and sometimes I choose the crappiest way to do it. Once, when friends asked to use our ministry’s fellowship hall for a birthday celebration, I hastily dumped a bag of ice into a cooler and threw the cooler up on a table next to the drinks. The elderly mother of the birthday guest looked at my attempt and asked if there was a nice bowl we could put the ice in instead. In the kitchen, I grumbled to a friend about how unnecessary that was and wasn’t the mother being a little too much – my friend looked at me as if I were an idiot and told me I was being an idiot. Of course the ice should go in a bowl.

Beauty is relative. It’s still beauty.

I haven’t written much since the election. I want to hide constantly. I mostly don’t.

Here’s what I know: The day we hiked High Bridge Trail was brutal, even for a Virginia summer day. The food and water would have been enough to make the hike and make it back to the car. But the delight of the depot – detailed, intentional, unnecessary beauty – is what has stuck with me. Maybe it had more to do with making it than I thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photos © Woody Sherman, used with permission.

Swimming at the JCC

As I’ve mentioned, I’m determined to keep up my physical-mental-spiritual-emotional practice of swimming my butt off this winter. As I’ve also mentioned, I’ve had to make special arrangements to swim while out of town for work, something I often do with the help of this handy guide for finding a pool wherever you might find yourself.

In both January and February I spent most of a week in Richmond, and I’ve swum at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center each time. I didn’t grow up in towns with JCCs and had never been to one before my first January swim there. I asked my friend Jake if there were any cultural things I should know about being a good guest in the space and he patiently explained it would be pretty much like using the YMCA – not everyone at a JCC is necessarily Jewish and I wouldn’t stand out immediately as the obvious Christian in the mix.

From the membership coordinator I spoke with on the phone to set up my guest pass, to the front desk guy ready with a “Good morning” and a dry wit, to the concierge-style lifeguard, this is a place that does hospitality well. And I’m not kidding about Pete the lifeguard. He greets each swimmer by name when they enter the pool deck (he knew mine by the second day and remembered me when I showed up again in February) and gets off his chair to assist swimmers adding into lanes when they are all full. Seriously, he motioned and directed me to my lane, as he walked over to the swimmer already in the lane, saying, “I’ll let him know you’re joining him,” and then he tapped the other swimmer as he approached the wall to let him know he’d have company. It was like being shown to my table at a fine restaurant. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, necessary, since swimmers mostly work these things out on their own. But it was oddly nice – especially standing there, vulnerable, in only a swimsuit and my weak-prescription goggles – to be treated like a valued member of the pool community and offered a particular place within it.

“Love your neighbor” has resonated more than any other goal or descriptor of our life and ministry at Wesley this year. Not because we are doing it well all the time, but because we don’t know a better way to respond to hate and xenophobia than with this simple, all-encompassing, daily reminder from Jesus (Matthew 22: 36-40). I’m here to tell you that being welcomed as a guest, greeted by name, and offered a place in the pool is a fantastic embodiment of loving one’s neighbor.  

In the first weeks of the New Year, before I swam at the WJCC the first time, a rash of bomb threats began at JCCs around the country. They are still happening. The first day I navigated my way to the unfamiliar pool in January, in the dark early morning on nearly empty streets, a pick up truck followed closely behind me for several blocks before I arrived. It went its own way before I got there but in this time of threat and hate, I noticed and briefly worried. By my February visit, I’d seen news reports of JCCs being evacuated during bomb threats, and I considered what to have ready in my poolside bag in case we had to evacuate in the middle of my swim. I didn’t consider not going.

This past week, the lobby was full of preparations for Purim celebrations, the Hamantaschen-laden holiday when Esther’s story is remembered and humorously re-enacted. It’s a short book and worth the read, if you don’t know it or if it’s been a while. Esther ends up in a position to make her voice heard and influence a king. She needs a little convincing that sticking her neck out is worth the risk. She’s told her silence won’t guarantee her safety and, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this?” (Esther 4: 12-14).

My neighbor-loving neighbors at the WJCC know how to stick their necks out. Given the national climate and current threats, I wouldn’t have been surprised or angry if they had closed ranks and temporarily stopped offering guest passes to unknown non-JCC members just passing through town. But they know Whose and who they are, and what they have to offer at just such a time as this.

Frankly, even if the Swimmers Guide showed me a closer pool somewhere else, I’d choose to keep going back to the WJCC when I visit Richmond for work. Not just for laps or for the kind and gracious lifeguard, but because these are my neighbors.

 

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photo credit: “Lifeguard jumping into action in Ocean City, Maryland,” © 2007 by flickr user dbking, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Swimming as resistance

Friday morning I finished the Advent devotional I started in December – and with Ash Wednesday just under 3 weeks away! In case it isn’t already clear from that statement, I’ll be more explicit: I don’t have it all together. Last week, because we had company coming, we cleaned. I am not exaggerating when I say I can’t remember the last time we did that. (But if I had to guess, I’d say it may have also been in December, right before we invited students over for a meal before exams started.)

These are statements of fact, not self-flagellation. I hope they’ll engender some trust so you’ll hear what I’m saying as one thing I’m doing that’s helping me. One thing in the midst of many many undone or poorly done things. One thing that requires planning, fortitude, discipline, and commitment – in the midst of a poorly tended house, spotty devotional life, and slapdash weekly meal planning “regimen.”

It’s important to me that you get this, that you understand I am not the kind of person who has issues of “Real Simple” magazine fanned out on my dust-free coffee table while the kitchen timer goes off on our baking dinner, just as my husband arrives home from work and I am finishing up my at-home Pilates workout. (And all the bills are paid and thank you notes written and volunteer work scheduled, with plenty of “me time” in the mix.)

Got it? Good.

Because I’ve been kicking ass at swimming. I haven’t set a formal goal for the miles I hope to cover this year, but I have been tracking my swimming and so far in 2017 I’ve swum 40.45 miles.

Screenshot of my Go the Distance progress from the US Masters Swimming fitness log.

At the end of January I had to be in another city for most of the week at a denominational gathering whose schedule ran from 8am until 10pm with no breaks or free time, and I called around in advance to find a pool I could swim in that week. It required getting up at 4:30am, to overlap with their lap swimming times and the only free-time available to me, but I did it – every day I was there. I did not get enough sleep that week and most days I only swam a mile, in order to have enough time to get dressed and eat breakfast and be back by 8am. But it was a life-saving move on my part, to get up and move before a day of prolonged sitting, to spend those first few hours alone and focused on myself before being with and focusing on other people the rest of the day.

More than I would like, these days feel rushed and anxious and overfull and underdone. Too much, too fast, and the constant, demoralizing news from Washington, D.C. The word with the most resonance in my circles is “resist.” Resist the administration’s overreach. Resist racist, xenophobic, unjust policies. Resist and refuse to believe this is normal.

Since my time at Standing Rock, I have signed petitions and called and written letters and closed bank accounts. Since the inauguration, I have signed petitions and called and written letters and preached sermons and forced myself to read more news – and to get away from news and offline. I want just about everything to change right now and it’s tempting to spend all of my time and energy in a frenzy of against-ness, an anxiety ball of activity and worry and strategic next-stepping.

This is why a crucial part of my own resistance is swimming. I am resisting the notion that it’s all up to me so I can never stop writing/calling/posting/protesting. I am resisting the notion that a well-lived life amounts to unceasing work and external and recognizable products/results. I am resisting the idea that resistance itself is one thing.

A friend posted on Facebook yesterday that he was cooking a slow-roasted tomato soup, with the comment, “Sometimes #Resistance means cooking!” Yes!

This is not a call to retreat. It’s a reminder that resistance is a long-term activity and we are in need of more sustenance than just the fast-burning fuel of outrage and anger. We need the parts of life that remind us why we bother resisting.

I need swimming. It literally makes me stronger. It literally forces me to breathe. It focuses me and quiets my mind and spirit. It makes me feel fierce. More than once, on the way home from the pool, I have thought, “Take that, Donald Trump!” And while the defiant attitude feels good, what feels even better is giving myself a healthy, anxiety-tamping way to mark my days and my progress. Some swimmers sing songs to themselves as they swim. I usually don’t, but lately there have been a few times when I’ve pictured the iconic scene from Casablanca when the French resistance drowns out the Nazis by singing “La Marseillaise” at Rick’s, “Allons! Enfants de la Patrie!” echoing in my head at the flip turn, pushing me to keep going.

The Advent devotional I finally finished includes this beautiful sentence: “A baby had been born, they were told, who would show people a way out of their small pinched lives, a way to abandon themselves to the ever-present, unstoppable current of Love that carries all things to radiant wholeness” (All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings, Gayle Boss). If resistance is only about winning on Twitter or SNL or even in the actual law, it’s possible we are still living “small pinched lives.” Cooking, listening to and making music, observing Sabbath, reading novels, watching movies, making pottery and art, running, hiking, and swimming…these are resistance, too. These are life-giving fuel for the long road ahead, and they put us in touch with that “ever-present, unstoppable current of Love.”

The bathrooms at my house need cleaning again. There is a fresh pile of crumbs around my stepson’s place at the dining room table. We are almost out of coffee. I haven’t yet read today’s Bible passage for our Bishop’s challenge. I have a sermon to work on and the day’s news to digest. Some of that will get done today.  I will definitely (defiantly and deliciously) swim.

Still no apologies

Almost five years ago I wrote, “Maybe the most revolutionary and playful thing we can do is to play unapologetically, to give ourselves permission and to stop seeking it from anyone else.   Play is revolutionary.”  I wish I could say I’ve carried through with the revolution by now, but I’m still working on it.

Thanks to Topology Magazine for re-running this early piece.  It’s a good reminder to me in what has been feeling like a very un-playful time lately.  I hope you will find in it some support, encouragement, and permission to let loose and play with your whole being this week.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

hillary_clinton_dnc_july_2016

The first time I heard of Hillary Rodham Clinton was a mention in the pages of Ms. magazine, which I got delivered to my P.O. box in a small Appalachian town with one flashing yellow traffic light. In the pre-internet days, subscribing to Ms. was one of the ways I kept up with news beyond the county where I lived. During the primaries for the presidential election of 1992 there was a two-page spread on all of the candidates, a chart listing accomplishments, offices held, positions on certain issues, and, way over in the final column of the chart, room for additional comments. In that last column on Bill Clinton’s row it said that one of the best aspects of a Clinton presidency would be his amazing wife, Hillary, and listed some of her accomplishments. I took notice and, obviously, never forgot that last nugget of info in that last column.

This summer during the Democratic National Convention, I was vacationing with my family, celebrating my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. We had an unspoken and amicable agreement not to watch the partisan news networks while we were all together, so I retreated to our bedroom early on the night of Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech so I could watch it live. She shone in her white suffragette-inspired (pant)suit and she knocked it out of the park. The next morning I got up and drove to the pool to swim laps, thinking the whole time I was swimming that it was a different world from the day before. Now, it’s real. A woman is the candidate for a major political party.

I have hated this election as much as the next person, though I don’t agree that the candidates (plural) have been the most antagonistic and mean-spirited ever. One of them has been, while the other has persevered and persisted and taken the high road and continued being one of the most qualified presidential candidates we have ever had. I know we are a deeply divided nation with old festering wounds we need to irrigate and re-dress and heal. It feels like there is a lot at stake because there is a lot at stake. Many of us are waking up to the realities we have been a part of our whole lives and reconsidering our history of racial injustice. Agencies and systems and the status quo, which we thought were fair and just, are being exposed, shown to be infected with the same disease in need of the same healing. It’s painful and confusing. The way forward will be awkward and painful, as healing is. It is hard to ask for forgiveness and to grant it.

I know everything does not change overnight when a new name is next to “President.” Ask Barack Obama. But then ask him again, because part of how we have gotten this far – into the painful and messy spot of owning up to the past and trying to build a better future together for all of us – is because of him. It’s because of what and who he represents and it’s because of how he has conducted himself in office – thoughtful, centered, undeterred, kind, generous, hopeful.

One of the things I remember my dad saying over and over to me as I was growing up was, “You can be the first female president of the United States, if you want to.” I never wanted to, but that continual, unflinching, unreserved vote of confidence from my dad was like a beautiful and important vein through my childhood (and beyond), supplying me with the encouragement I didn’t always know I needed to feel confident and grounded and safe and appreciated and valued. Seen. (Contrast this to Barbara Kingsolver’s adolescent conversations on the topic with her father.)

By the statistics and demographics, this would seem an unlikely way for me to grow up, being raised as I was in the seventies by a Southern, white father who grew up a poor farmer and was the first in his family to attend and graduate from college.

Careful how you lump folks together, especially when you think you have “them” all figured out. Not all Republicans (if there are any real ones left) and not all Trump supporters are raging misogynistic racists. This doesn’t excuse those who are, nor does it excuse their candidate, who is both. But it is to say that people are complex and beautiful – especially when you don’t understand what makes them tick. It is to say that we are a country full of neighbors and we need to act like it again, no matter how we voted. Most of us want things to get better in our country – and most of us need help seeing how, from another’s perspective, “better” might look different than we at first imagine. There will be ample time and opportunity to work on this kind of love for our neighbors in the aftermath of this election.

But today.

Today, the little girl in me who never wanted to be president but always knew she could be voted for the woman who has endured and persevered in order to serve her neighbors in our country’s highest office. Today I voted for the first female president of the United States of America, eight (and four) years after I voted for the first Black president. I did not choose “the lesser of two evils.” I chose the woman I have been following since 1992, the woman who’s been working for a better country for even longer, the United Methodist who clearly lives out her faith in her life of service. I enthusiastically, joyfully, unapologetically, historically chose Hillary Clinton, the absolute best candidate for the job. I voted and then I went to the pool to swim laps, like I do every day and not at all like any other day.

 

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Photo credit: By Ali Shaker/VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This summer I went swimming

swimming in lake george_2016

Almost anything can be a spiritual practice, if you let it. It’s about the practice – the routine and prioritization of it, the days upon weeks turning into months of it – in the presence of an open spirit, willing to learn and be led. Molded, over time. Swimming is like this for me. I’ve written before about how swimming helps keep me focused on the present moment, and how flip turns are teaching me about energy, rest, and resilience.

Well, this summer I went swimming. A lot. A very few stormy days I swam inside at the gym, but most of the time I swam outside. I was a regular in the lone roped-off lap lane at our neighborhood pool, I practiced with a group in a lake in Richmond, and I competed in my first open water swim in another lake near Charlottesville. (And came in third in my age group. And got a medal. But who’s keeping track?) When we visited family at another lake in New York, I recruited my husband to kayak alongside me as I swam so boats wouldn’t run me over. In South Carolina, I swam in the bathwater warm ocean, but the best swims were in the outdoor lap-swimming-only pool that was cooled. (Yes, they “air conditioned” the pool and it was so scrumptious I don’t really care how non-environmental that may sound.)

To throw yourself into something you love is, simply, delicious. Giving yourself over to its rhythms and routines, watching yourself with curiosity to see where the love will unfold and take you. Allowing yourself to be unreasonable and devoted, depleted and good-tired. This is what I did this summer, when there were very few rules and obligations, the expansiveness of summertime and sabbatical overlapping. I absolutely organized my days around my swims.

And it was worth it.

Part of what sustained spiritual practice teaches you is how much you need it. I am not the same swimmer I was in May. I am not entirely the same person.

pre race cgl_july 9 2016

It may surprise you, but the open water swim was not the most daunting thing I did this summer. It was the open water practice swim I joined a couple weeks before that in Richmond. I had to drive over an hour away to a place I didn’t know, to meet up with people I didn’t know, to try out swimming in a body of water I’d never seen, while wearing my bathing suit in front of complete strangers. Buttons were pushed. I almost bailed. I woke up that day feeling nervous about it, uncertain about whether I could keep up, whether I’d be able to site the buoys, how thin and athletic all the other swimmers would likely be. I wasn’t sure I’d even like open water swimming, so wasn’t this kind of a waste of time and money?

I talked myself down. I recognized all those demons and agreed they could even be right. And I agreed to go to this one practice session anyway and just see. If I hated it, fine, no obligation to continue or do other open water swims after that. But I was not going to bail based on fear, anxiety, lack of confidence, and what ifs. (During the academic year, it would have been much easier to bail. The time and money concern trolls would have had a lot more sway if that evening’s jaunt to Richmond had been sandwiched in between meetings and a buzzing phone.)

I was glad I went. Not everyone there was athletic and skinny. I was not the slowest. I loved it when we swam straight out into the middle of the lake to make a loop around an instructor standing on a paddle board. I loved it even more when the complete stranger I got paired up with said to me after one lap, “You go first and don’t worry about me. I could barely keep up with you.”

Spiritual practice involves repetition and new territory, ritual and change.

I was never particularly worried that I might have drowned, but when I heard Lucy Kaplansky’s “Swimming Song” for the first time late this summer, I recognized my own bravery and playful pride, swimming my way up and down the waters of the east coast. Kaplansky sings, “This summer I went swimming. This summer I might have drowned, but I held my breath, and I kicked my feet, and I moved my arms around.” Sounds simple and it kind of is, but simple can also be hard.

Spiritual practice takes trust and bravery, allowing yourself to be held up by something you are participating with but that’s not you. This is also one of the “tricks” to open water swimming, especially when you get scared or unnerved by the vastness and the murky depths. The key is to remember, “The water wants to hold you up.”

1-mile medal_cgl_july 9 2016

Today the cicadas are singing summer towards the door. We are experiencing an unusually temperate and humidity-free start to the week and we got to open up the windows again yesterday. It won’t last long. By Friday it will be sweltering, but that won’t last long either. Fall is on the way.

I’ll get in a few more swims in the neighborhood pool before it closes for the season. And I have designs on a quarry, where a new friend swims as late into the fall as she can. I’ve started wondering about open water swims for next year. In the meantime, after a summer of peripatetic swimming, I will log a lot of miles in the gym, same place each day, but never the same “river”—or swimmer – twice.

 

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Photo credit: Photos ©2016 by Woody Sherman. Used with permission.

Adding the flip turn

Practicing open water swimming in the lake. No flip turns required.

Practicing open water swimming in the lake. No flip turns required.

Flip turns have a mystique about them. Walk up to any pool and watch folks swimming laps. Your eyes will immediately go to the swimmers who do flip turns at the walls. It doesn’t matter if they are faster than the other swimmers, they will look fiercer because of the flip turn. Conversely, if, instead of doing flip turns, you saw Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps sticking their heads up at the walls, gulping air, turning awkwardly half out of the water, then plunging back in for the next lap, they would seem significantly less fierce.

On swim teams in junior high and high school I did a lot of flip turns. Even with the flip turns, I never looked particularly fierce but they were a regular part of my swimming. When I started swimming again a few years ago, I gave myself permission not to include flip turns. It seemed like a good deal: expend my limited energy on the strokes and the laps themselves and give myself a little extra breath and time at the walls. I made this decision intentionally and unapologetically. The goal was more swimming, not “perfect” swimming. During these past few years, I have reserved the occasional flip turn for special circumstances, like the time I felt strong and energized hitting lap number 100 and joyously flipped at the wall to celebrate it.

Lately, I’ve been adding the flip turn back into my freestyle laps. I’m not entirely sure why. I’m considering an open water swim this summer but flip turns are completely unnecessary in lakes, so that’s not it. This most excellent and inspiring ode to the flip turn encouraged me but didn’t push me over the edge. I think it’s just time. Like it was time to get back in the pool a few years ago. Back then, I gave myself permission to swim without flip turns. Now, I’ve given myself permission to flip again (and sometimes, not to flip – as with the earlier deal with myself, I’m not after perfection and I’m not requiring all or nothing).

One of the things I hope this summer’s sabbatical will show me is how to distinguish between the need for rest and the need for persistence. How do I know when I’m hitting a groove I should explore and stick with, versus knowing when to back off, versus knowing when to go harder even though I’m already losing steam? Maybe I’m seeing part of the answer in swimming.

When you hit the wall you have several choices: 1) call it a day, stop swimming, and hang on for dear life, 2) grab as much air as you can every single second your head is out of the water while you turn around inelegantly but practically, then push off and carry on as best you can, or 3) make the turn as smooth and seamless a part of your stroke as possible, flipping around and using the wall itself to propel you in the next direction. They are all valid choices. I’m thankful for my unapologetic miles logged choosing #2. And really curious to see where #3 sends me.

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Photo credit: Screen grab of video shot by P. Chambers, June 2016. Used with permission.

Women like us: I miss Oprah

Oprah_Winfrey_c2007_vargas2040_wikicommons

When I began finding errant hairs growing from my chin and neck, I plucked furiously. Then I called my mom to see what she does about this annoying cosmetic problem.

“On your neck? Huh.”

I tried her twin sister, who also had no personal experience with my problem.

I love them both, but there have been quite a few times when I’ve had to look elsewhere for womanly advice or tips. My mom is a thin, perfectly proportioned, white woman who looks younger than she is and who can walk into any dressing room and look gorgeous in whatever she tries on, which fits perfectly, of course.

I can relate to this experience in the sense that I am also a white woman.

For a long time, I turned to Oprah. Oprah’s like the big sister I never had, ten years ahead. She has an ample chest and curvy figure and dreads dressing rooms like I do. I don’t think I ever watched a show about unwanted facial hair, but there could have been one and, regardless, I’m sure she would relate. By the time her broadcast show went off the air, I was no longer watching daily, though I knew she was there if I had time and needed her. It’s not the same now. We don’t have cable and, in any case, her new shows and channel are a different enterprise, focused on spirit and big ideas – what I do all day anyway – and no help with wild sprouts of hair, so it’s been a while since I could really lean on her.

About 10 years ago, Oprah had a show on perimenopause, which is when I learned that word. Menopause is the time after all menstrual periods have stopped for at least one year. Perimenopause is the weird, sometimes decade-long time of flux between normal monthly cycles and menopause. It’s what a lot of women mean when they say “going through menopause.”

At the time that show aired, I had begun to experience regular migraines, trouble sleeping, sweeping mood swings, the intermittent grip of high anxiety, the aforementioned hair in fun new places, and some other things I can’t remember (bonus: memory is also affected by perimenopause). Before watching the Oprah episode, I had never laid them all out like that in a list because I didn’t think of them as related symptoms. They were just some of the various ways I was falling apart, health-wise.

Oprah knew there were a lot of women like me so she did a show, bestowing the word we didn’t know we needed in our vocabularies, and offering help. The doctor on the show that day commented that we often talk about estrogen levels but it’s actually the interplay between levels of various hormones that causes symptoms and problems. She had a handy PowerPoint-style presentation listing “too high” or “too low” slides with either estrogen, testosterone, or progesterone at the top, and symptoms below each one. When she got to the chart showing low progesterone, it may as well have said, “Deborah Lewis, this is your life.”

Seeing my nurse practitioner shortly afterwards, I said, “I saw an Oprah show and I think I may have low progesterone.” I recited the symptoms I’d previously thought were unrelated and she said, “I think you might be right. Let’s test it.” Then she wrote down the details of the Oprah episode so she’d be prepared when other patients inevitably came in to follow up on the show.

When I asked my mom about perimenopause and menopause, she didn’t know exactly when the change happened. It was masked by a medication she was taking and her cycles had simply stopped by the time she went off the drug. She didn’t remember any problems in the years before that. Neither did my aunt. Everything was smooth sailing in those dressing rooms.

As it becomes clear that I’m one of those women with a long perimenopause, a cornucopia of changes and fun new surprises, I’ve been missing Oprah, wishing for an old-school show on perimenopause, part two, “The Later Years.” Most of my close friends are younger than I am so I’m the perimenopause pioneer. As the eldest granddaughter on both sides of the family, whose grandmothers are dead, and whose mother and aunts cannot provide any useful information about managing this time, Oprah was the big sister I needed and still need sometimes.

Oprah’s the one who could frame expectations for what was about to happen, the one who could say with authority, “Let’s go to another store where the clothes are made for women like us.”

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photo credit: By vargas2040, Cropped by OsamaK [CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Fallow

Collegeville_literarylife

I’ve always liked the word “fallow.” I like the sound of it, the short “a” sound followed by the long “o” sound. I like that it’s almost “follow,” but not quite. Mostly, I appreciate its indication that when it looks as if nothing is happening, looks are probably deceiving. Rest is some of the deepest work to be done.

Here’s how Ken Chitwood recently described it in Sojourners (“A Crucial Ingredient in Justice Work: Rest”): “Leaving a field to lie fallow means leaving a paddock to be unseeded, uneaten, and unspoiled for a season or more. It is one of the best ways farmers can allow the land to replenish its nutrients and regain its fertility. It also helps prevent erosion — the roots of the plants left free to grow help to hold the soil in place against the ravages of wind and rain.”

To lie fallow is to engage in a season of rest. One of the things I love about liturgical life is its emphasis on seasons. We move around the cycle of a year, changing the colors of vestments and paraments, focusing on certain parts of our story and then on others. I’m tempted to say winter is my favorite season of the year because I love the cold and snow and we rarely get enough in Virginia to satisfy me, but the truth is I love every season while we are in it. I love the annual cycle and the delights that belong only to the season at hand, the inchworm-green of new spring shoots, the languorous late-light evenings of summer, the crisp bite and mature colors of fall.

Only sometimes, I have trouble being in the season at hand. I know something about the ravages of wind and rain, exposed roots. Jesus had to be hunted down while he was praying in a deserted place by himself (Mark 1: 35-36) and he regularly took time out and away. This is supposed to be a model for me, for all of us. I also know it’s easier to fill up the empty months of a sabbatical than it is to empty out one day a week for Sabbath. As Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” (The Writing Life).

I don’t want to spend my life as a fallow field. But then again, I’m not really in danger of that happening. I am in danger of trying to earn my way to the grace of rest and replenishment.

I’m on study leave this summer, three days in. When I’ve mentioned this, most people have immediately asked what I’m going to do. I suppose I could be studying something “out there,” people do this all the time, take a break from the routine to write a book on church leadership or home canning. I’m on a writing retreat with my writing group this week, but I don’t have a project in mind to complete this summer. I’m going to rest and not-do. I’m trying to “study” myself. I’m lying fallow.

My goal is to resemble a field of clumpy sod, unplanted, no harvest in sight. I hope and trust God will tend me, but I’m going hands-off, list-rogue. I’m asking to be replenished and getting out of my own way so it can happen.

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Looking up and out from worship in the St. John’s Abbey Church, Collegeville, Minnesota

Campus Ministry Stocking Stuffers

There comes a time when you need to make a list and leave it out next to a plate of cookies… Here’s one I made, with a few suggestions for campus ministers (and others) who are looking for new books, shows, and resources for enlivening faith and community. Take a look over at the National Campus Ministry Association blog…and feel free to leave your browser open where someone jolly might see it and pick up a thing or two for your stocking.

WoodySherman2014_close up Xmas tree with bow and lights

Time for a big hit

The RevGalBlogPals group sends a weekly email with encouragement, highlights from blogs around the group, and a short article and a prayer for the week at hand.  I wrote this week’s article and prayer (below) on the theme of fall break — for which I am very ready!  I hope it reminds you to enjoy a break soon.

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When my dad was growing up on a tobacco farm in Southside Virginia, the family ritual was to take a mid-morning break right there in the fields. My great-grandfather would say, “I think it’s time for a bit hit,” and that was the cue to sit down for a few minutes for a snack, which was always the same: a Pepsi and a pack of Nabs. Simple and satisfying, enough to go on until lunch.

In campus ministry, the first big hit of the year is fall break. We start fast and furious in mid-August and steamroll our way to the third week of Advent, when exams end and my congregation leaves me until the season after Epiphany. It’s startling how much can fit into the first six or so weeks before fall break – and how tired I can be so early in the year, so far from Advent 3.

I have been tempted to use the weekend without my usual preaching gig to get ahead, and then to keep at my desk Monday and Tuesday while the university is a ghost town, to get more things done. Instead, I give myself full permission to be off these precious four days when students are off. My husband and I often take a short trip and indulge in ways we usually don’t, like last year’s ridiculously long naps in a hotel right on the beach. I make no apologies.

The thing about a big hit is you know when you need one. In my ministry and my life, I’m trying to trust that and give myself what I know I need when I need it. I’m constantly surprised at how easy that sounds and how hard I find it to do. So I’m thankful that this weekend the university has called for a big hit and we are pointing the car towards the mountains, with napping, hiking, slow meals, and something bubbly to drink in our very near future. Simple and satisfying, enough to go on until Advent.

God of the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest, remind us of how we are made in your image. You are not too busy or important to rest and relax, and neither are we. Give us the rest we crave and the fearless hearts we need to accept this. Amen.

And now for something completely different

“Meet George Jetson, Jane his wife, his boy Elroy…”

It was a scattered summer and the time I had hoped to devote to pottery went to other things. My summer pottery class produced just four pots and so far I’ve only fired one. Here it is and, yes, I realize it looks like something from The Jetsons or maybe an homage to Ho Jo’s or a slightly-miscolored attempt at UVA colors. There are a lot of ways in which it isn’t really a “me” pot.

Maybe someone will see this and know just the right home for it (and if that’s you, let me know). But I’m proud of it because it represents a lot of New. I made it in the first class with a new teacher and I was attempting to make something in her style, thrown then altered by stretching and cutting the clay. I was also trying out underglazes for the first time, which are painted on (the outside of this bowl) or sprayed on (in the center), rather than dipping the pot into them, and whose colors stay true through firing. Even the colors I chose were departures from my usual earthy palette.

Before my very first pottery class four years ago, I was so hopeful I’d be “good.” I recognized my mind starting to count on that outcome and gave myself a talking to. I showed up early for the first class and said to my teacher Nan, “I hope I can do this and that I’m good. But no matter what, I want to have fun.”

Summer was full and fall is looking the same. Times like these tempt me to treat play like another job, one more area of work in which to push myself to excel/produce/accomplish/check off the list/insert-more-impressive-and-exhausting-things-here. It’s good at precisely these times to remember and reclaim that original intention, to have fun when I’m supposed to be playing, and not to turn it into more work.

So, no apologies for “only” making four pots in the last class and there will be no production schedule mandate for the fall class. And no apology for my Jetsons bowl, which isn’t me at all, but is definitely new and even a little playful.