Water for the Soul

Tonight there is more rain in our city and it has been beating down on the windows of the hospital where I am chaplain for the night. Families are waiting for loved ones to die. Or for emergency surgery. Or they are relieved to hear a baby will survive. While the sky weeps, these families shed tears – of grief, of worry, of joy.

In a parched land, water is longed for. Once the ground is soaked, water begins to rush across earth and stone, reshaping the landscape and making us wish it would stop. And yet, when the water recedes we are left with something new. Tears are the same – they can be necessary and unwelcome, allowing us to feel both relieved and exposed, connected and vulnerable. Like flood waters, tears can form us. They carve rivulets across our souls to remind us that love was there.

Clouds unCovered

A cloud can cover the beautiful blue, or bring much-needed rain. Is that one blocking the sun, or letting a ray through? It can be hard to tell – or maybe it all depends on what the soil of your heart needs that day. Sun or rain. Light or shade. We all need a little of both – one helps us feel the blessing of the other.

Prickly

 

There are memories that seem impossible to touch without feeling a sting.
They warn me to stand clear…but then lure me in with beauty and longing.
That which produces the sharp spines also makes a lush flower and a sweet fruit.
They spring from the same root, are nourished from the same soil.
I’d rather have them both than have neither.

Doodlebug

Doodlebugs, roly polies, pill bugs, armadillo bugs…

They have many names, but the doodlebug is known for one amazing trait: it can curl into a perfect sphere of protection when threatened. And by threatened, I mean any vibration or even the slightest touch. The doodlebugs that live in my front yard have a constant lifecycle of crawling-curling-crawling-curling as my daughter makes them houses and villages. At first, their reflex seems hypersensitive – come on! Do you have to close yourself off for every little stimulus during the day? But you know, they uncurl and crawl on within seconds. Doodlebugs protect themselves, but they never lose sight of the world outside their self-made safe place. That instinct to protect yourself and also remember the world outside yourself is a good balance. It is also a pretty good definition of hope.

Palms

I have had a couple of really interesting and divergent thoughts about palms this week. To me, they have only ever been symbolic of two things: Palm Sunday hosannas and the beach.

This morning was all about the palms of Holy Week. Our Sunday morning service started outside with (mostly) children waving palm fronds up in the air. There was the annual whispered warning from parents that palms fronds are not swords – although as the story of Holy Week unfolds we find that, indeed, they are. Palms held up in praise and welcome are soon fists in the air. While you are marching in the Palm Sunday parade, it is easy to get caught up in the celebration; but before you know it you end up at the courthouse calling for blood.

A pile of palms

And then there is this: Before Holy Week even started, I had become part of a discussion about palms in a completely different context. With a group of women – half of us Muslim, half Christian – I have been  learning about Mary/Maryam in the Quran. The mother of Jesus is highly revered in Islam and is, in fact, the only woman referred to by name in that holy book.

When she gives birth to Jesus, Maryam is under a date palm tree. It turns out that in Islam and in Arabic/desert culture, the date palm is considered a very special plant. My friends in the group explained that date palms are thought to be more like humans than any other plant. Not only are the trees differentiated as male and female, the “baby” trees are sort of born from the mother. Here is a photo of a little palm pup:

Mother and Child

Growers (and legend) say that the baby palms must stay near the mother tree for 6 to 8 years or they will die. (I looked it up online – it is true!) The fruit of the date palm contains a number of essential nutrients and is eaten to break fasting during Ramadan, and many of my study companions gave a taste of date to their newborn children even before giving them milk.

These images have been swirling in my mind as I try to reconcile them into a single metaphorical holy image. That hasn’t happened. But I know that the crowd that raised palms for Jesus came from a culture in which the palm was highly symbolic for multiple reasons – all of them in some way affirming of life, victory, peace, and hospitality. Under the shadow of this symbol a most horrific act of betrayal occurred on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Learning about Maryam and date palms gave me a little comfort for the hard week ahead. In the Quran, palms provided Mary shelter and nourishment as she gave birth alone in the desert, and I think of her keeping the treasured child close until he is old enough to be planted in his own soil. It is a very feminine metaphor for the divine. This week, I imagine God is holding Mary close as she stands at the foot of another tree watching her son suffer and die. Birth, life, death, renewal. Fruit from the same tree.

Darkness

 

There is a theme that comes up in a lot of Advent and end of year reflections: darkness. Sure enough, here in the northern hemisphere, the days are shorter and darker now. That makes darkness a great metaphor as we prepare for Christmas – Jesus as a light in the darkness, we who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.

A lot of times darkness is a metaphor for ignorance, evil, sin, or death. It is a state from which we must be saved.

But I have been thinking about darkness another way. You know who lives is darkness? Fetuses in the womb. And you know what they are doing in the darkness? Growing and preparing to enter a light-filled world. (Even after they are born their pediatricians will tell you they grow while they are sleeping!)

Light – actual and metaphorical – is good. But we all grew in darkness, it was the only way we got ready for the world of sun and incandescent and fire light we all live in. This got me wondering if seasons of metaphorical darkness might be times of growth as well. What do you think?

When metaphors are real…it is kind of weird

Have you ever lived a metaphor? Something happens to you or you do something and then, after some time passes, you look back and think, “if that happened in a book or movie I would not believe it!” A totally trippy experience.

Here is how it happened to me. When my son was 2 years old, he went to a Montessori school that asked parents to give a dozen blown eggs at Easter time. The kids made confetti eggs with them, smashed them on each others heads and had a blast. So I dutifully blew the innards out of a dozen eggs, let them dry, and took them to school. Then I thought, that was not so hard. I bet I could blow some more eggs and decorate them myself. So I did. here is how they turned out:

A little overboard, I know.

I did it again when he was three and four. And the thing is, I am crafty, but not really an artist. I don’t usually paint anything at all, much less decorative objects. But I couldn’t stop myself. Each year I added to the collection and put them all out on display for the holiday.

Y’all, who makes a Tiffany egg? A crazy woman, that’s who.

When my son was 5, I stopped. I was pregnant and he was in Kindergarten–they didn’t do the same Easter craft. I got out the eggs I had already decorated each year, but didn’t added any new ones.

And I never painted another egg again.

A couple of years later, when my son was 7ish and my daughter was a toddler my mom was visiting for Easter and asked if I was going to make any more decorated eggs. “Nah, for some reason I am just not into it any more.” And then she observed, “You stopped making them when you had the baby, maybe you were done thinking about eggs!”

Okay, this is where it gets all metaphorical and weird. The whole time I was painting those fancy eggs I was trying to get pregnant, being treated for infertility, totally focused on EGGS. All day long, all cycle long, thinking about making more and more eggs. And before Easter for three years in a row, I painted eggs with a kind of obsession.

I have no wisdom to add here. Really, I am just trying to figure out what my current habits mean.

Epiphany and the beauty of gray

The season of Epiphany is upon us, and I have already seen several essays and photos on the theme of light entering a dark world. But the need for light to break through–the astounding difference it can make in a bleak creation–doesn’t really resonate with me. The slightly darker days of a Texas winter are a relief from the brilliant sunshine we get most of the year. I am not trying to make my friends in colder climates upset. Honest! I used to live there, too, and longed for the sun to stay above the horizon more than 8 hours a day.

But now, I could use a bit more dark. In summer, the light here is so bright it is actually harder to see. It saps my energy and strains my eyes. Everything slows down to conserve energy and plants beg for water, or at least shade. During winter, when the light is not as strong and we are blessed with a few cloudy days, things look much different. Much of the wildlife around here (and my dogs!) are more lively in the cooler weather and the parched ground softens with rain. (Also, we get more visitors this time of year, but so far none have been magi.)

I suppose wherever you live, there are ways that the natural world shows us reminders of the holy. Light, dark, cold, warm, stillness, activity. Holly and cactus. The gray light of January and February reveals more to me than the blinding light of summer. It is a perfect time to celebrate the revelation of Jesus to the world.

Pregnant Pause

I know it is almost cliche to think about pregnancy as a metaphor for Advent–the waiting, the preparation for baby Jesus to come. For me, this has literally been true more than once; each of my pregnancies was in the early stages during the Advent season. Putting myself back in that frame of mind and looking forward, I certainly experienced pregnancy as I have often experienced Advent: waiting and preparation to celebrate the arrival of a longed-for child. Getting the house ready, buying clothes and bedding, even reading the special pregnancy scripture–What to Expect When You Are Expecting. LIke I said, cliche.

But looking backward, I see that period in a different light. When you are pregnant, you see that period of time as preparing for the baby. Looking back, it seems more like pregnancy is not the time during which you make room for baby, it is the time during which you prepare to change your life forever. And this happens whether you get the right kind of diapers or not. It isn’t your old life plus one; it is a whole new way of being.

I have never adopted a child, but I am willing to bet the waiting period for adoption works the same way. Once you know it is going to happen, but before your child officially joins your family, you have a waiting period. During that time, you get your house ready and acquire all the things your child will need. But more importantly, you are getting ready to be changed, to enter a whole new life.

This Advent, I am trying to keep that in mind. I’m still shopping and decorating like I did for the arrival of my own children. But I’m also trying to imagine what it means to have Advent make us ready for a whole new life that includes the incarnated God. I may not get it exactly right, which also happened when I had my children. But I’ll get the chance to take that pregnant pause again next year. Changing an inch at a time toward that whole new life.