The Better Part

I have long wrestled with the story of Mary and Martha* in the gospel of Luke. In my reading, Martha is a worker; Mary is a listener. Martha is active; Mary is contemplative. As the two sisters host Jesus in their home, Martha is busy with the tasks of running a household while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet absorbing his teaching. Martha is angry about doing all the work herself, and insists that Jesus have Mary help out with the chores.

Mary and Martha with Jesus, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin

I understand Martha. It takes work to keep a household or anything else running smoothly. Martha wants to offer the finest hospitality to this amazing teacher. Perhaps she would have liked to sit and listen, but it takes work to provide a clean bed and a good meal.

Jesus responds by speaking kindly to her, noticing that she is worried by many things, and offering a different perspective. He points out that the work she thinks is necessary is actually distracting her from what is most important. Whatever standard Martha is trying to meet, it isn’t set by Jesus. He wants her to know that she is made for more than the treadmill she has put herself on. Jesus didn’t show up just to add to her chores.

I understand Mary. She is drawn to the wisdom of this new teacher and the power of his presence. She sets aside her normal activities, recognizing that this is no ordinary guest, and gives him her full attention. Yet following her heart means not living up to others’ expectations for what she should be doing. It’s not easy to disappoint Martha, who doesn’t share Mary’s priorities, and lets Mary know that she’s not doing her part.

Mary and Martha in stained glass, St. Patrick's, Dublin

I have long wished the story would show Jesus inviting Martha to sit down and listen, then have everyone pitch in with the chores.

We all have mundane tasks to do. But it’s important to recognize what merits setting them aside. Jesus refuses to send Mary back to her usual tasks just as she is beginning to hear his life-changing teaching. Mary has chosen the better part, he tells Martha. Jesus doesn’t want us doing more chores, he wants us to be transformed.

Mary and Martha both live inside me. There’s nothing wrong with Martha wanting to get the job done. The world is in need of a great deal of work. But the world needs Martha to lend her strength and skill to the most important tasks. In a world of “shoulds,” how to discern what truly is the better part is a question always before us. We need Mary and her ability to recognize what is genuinely life-giving.

Carl Jung offers an insight regarding his patients’ growth that applies to the tension between Mary and Martha:

All the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble . . . They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This “outgrowing” proved on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the patient’s horizon, and through this broadening of his or her outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge. (as quoted by Matthew Fox in Original Blessing)

We need both Mary and Martha, not in opposition but in a complementary partnership. We need a higher level of awareness that incorporates them both. I like to think of Martha spinning a cocoon, Mary yielding to the transformation that happens within it, and through the work of the Spirit, a new creation emerging into the world.

 

*The text of the story is brief, found in Luke 10:38-42. Here it is, in its entirety:

Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

 

Compassion and Ourselves

I keep thinking about an article I read from the Atlantic recently, “Alcohol as Escape from Perfectionism” by Ann Dowsett Johnston. Its poignancy comes from Johnston’s ability to put her finger exactly on the place where the determination to live up to an impossible ideal leaves us vulnerable.  Intellectually, I know that unreasonable expectations are unhealthy, but I didn’t expect to be so deeply touched by the place in life she describes.

Third Street Stuff Wall Ishiguro  2013-11-19

My children are young adults now, and I have grown since they were children. But as if it were a coat hanging in my closet, I can still wear the sense of responsibility from those years, and I can easily wrap myself once again in a state of mind that said I was never doing enough, or doing it well enough.

I thought there was a right answer for how life should be lived, and my job was to reach that answer, claim it, and make it work. That applied to having a family, making a home, serving the community, and somehow finding my own work. There were standards for living a good life, a worthwhile life. They had to be met. I couldn’t have told you that’s what I believed, but it was the water I was swimming in. There were things I was supposed to do. Whatever it took, I had to find a way to accomplish them all. Except, of course, it wasn’t possible.

Measured by the distance from where I thought I should be, my life fell short.  I fell short. All I could see was the gap, what wasn’t done, what I hadn’t achieved, where I hadn’t reached.

Where did that come from, that certainty about what I was not? The dismissiveness about what I was? Who pointed to that place out of reach and said that was where I should be? Who insisted that nothing else mattered as much? I don’t know why I was so unkind to myself.

As a young mother, Johnston would sip wine to ease her transition from the day at work to the evening and its responsibilities at home. It was a pleasant ritual, then it became a necessary one. She wouldn’t give herself a break on what she expected of herself, but she would pour herself some wine. Genuine self-care wasn’t part of her world, but she kept wine in the fridge. Until little by little, the wine took over.

I didn’t rely on wine, but I nonetheless recognize the state of the soul that Johnston describes—the refusal of compassion for oneself. I turned my back on myself and accepted what the world said: Just get it done. All of it.

I wish I could have told my younger self that I was good enough, that my needs mattered, that kindness to myself was not the same as self-indulgence. But perhaps I can pass that message along to someone else who needs to hear it.

It doesn’t always come naturally to show ourselves the kindness we would offer to a good friend, but there are good resources that help. My thanks to Lisa Gammel Maas for pointing out the work of Kristin Neff on self-compassion.

May you be well.

* The wonderful artwork above is by the inimitable Pat Gerhard, and is found on the wall of the warm and welcoming Third Street Stuff and Cafe in Lexington.

Room for the Spirit

Last week, workmen installed a new hardwood floor at our house. Preparing for that work looked a lot like moving—books packed away into boxes and furniture carried out. When the room was empty the old carpet looked even worse; this project was long overdue.

Two and a half days of noisy work followed: an electric saw wailing on the front walk, hammers pounding the planks into place, sporadic shots of a nail gun driven by a compressor that reverberated through the entire house. But in the midst of it all was the encouraging scent of fresh lumber and the satisfaction of seeing good work in progress.

Bare Wood Floor

After the oak was stained, the guys brushed the finishing coat over the wood, working their way toward the front door. They stepped backwards onto the porch, leaned in to close the door, and wished us well.

It was quiet. And beautiful.

An empty room with a glowing oak floor has a Zen-like tranquility. Waiting for the finish to dry meant it had to remain bare, and I enjoyed seeing this kind of space in the house. Later, even as I missed the comfort of the room’s furnishings, I was reluctant to move everything back in. The openness invites a sense of expansiveness, of possibility, that I didn’t want to give up.

Not allowing everything to return means making some decisions. It means sorting through shelves and baskets deciding on what’s worth keeping. And it means not letting things pile up once that paring down is done.

But I’ve been here before. And before that. It’s a cycle that continues. But in this case the change started at the foundation, and the decision is not what to carry out but what to bring in. Maybe that will make a difference. I keep having to learn over and over again that changing your space and changing your life seem to go together.

That expanse of uncluttered space, anchored by the warmth of natural wood, made me think of meditation. Maybe it seemed a perfect room for meditation because the open space, both restful and expansive, is like the mental and spiritual uncluttering that happens through meditation and prayer.

It’s also a physical embodiment of what the Sabbath is meant to be—an opening of time for what we value most, a space that allows some perspective on what’s most important. Sacred space and sacred time seem to be two sides of the same coin, and both help make room for the Spirit.

There’s a sense of renewal in transforming this room, just as meditation and prayer renew mind and spirit, as Sabbath renews the week. Creating it gives rise to the question of what is worth allowing into our space, and offers a reminder of how much choice we have in making that decision. It’s a practice worth repeating every week, or even every day.

 

A Different Way to Fight

“Everyone talks about fighting cancer,” a dear friend in the midst of that struggle tells me. “They talk about it as a battle. The doctors say you have to fight.” But she goes on to say that “battle” isn’t the best way to describe what she has to do.

Labyrinth Covered in Leaves

 

A battle implies a clash in which the enemy can be vanquished. It suggests a singular foe. But my friend understands that her challenge is to continue living her life with the people she loves, even as she endures treatment and manages its details. The cancer she contends with is a chronic condition that will, in some way, remain present in her life. The hope is less for a victory than a truce.

For someone who does not want the disease to define her, making it the primary focus of her life would be a kind of giving in. To cultivate the discipline of mind and strength of heart to live and love, even through the ongoing demands of cancer treatment, is an entirely different mindset.

My friend is required to spend a great deal of time caught up in the medical machine that is our health care system. Even with the support of family and friends, she has a difficult task in trying to bridge the gaps between the realms of the different physicians involved in her care, and in navigating the labyrinth of the way our doctors and hospitals practice medicine. All of that is on top of the myriad details in keeping everyday life on track. It would be easy to allow those challenges to take over.

But she continues to be involved in the lives of her family and friends. She spends time with her grandchildren, works on her poetry, has coffee with her writing group. She maintains her interest in politics as well as her walks around the park, and lends a sympathetic ear to others. She remains grounded in her life even as she undertakes the requirements of her treatment.

Her battle is for her life, at least as much as it’s against cancer. She tries to avoid being consumed by the fight, so she can enjoy what is precious to her. She resists being focused only on treatment, not wanting to put off her life until later. Her fierceness is in her determination to live, even now.

She is like a birch tree, rooted in her life, bending with the force of the strong winds blowing and straightening when they subside. I respect her strength and courage, and I appreciate her wisdom. I am blessed to have her as a friend.

 

 

 

Feeding the Dark Hole

Recently I had a lesson in paying attention, something that turns up for all of us from time to time–without too much pain, if we’re lucky.

I had taken the time to fill my thermos before leaving home, planning to have an organized, have-it-all-together kind of day. Unfortunately, I didn’t take time to be sure it was sealed.

The good news was that my laptop in the same bag was unharmed, but that was because my papers soaked up the spilled coffee. Handwritten pages bled through most of the notebooks, leaving an ever more ghostly imprint on each leaf. It was a stupid mess, made by no one but me, and there was nothing to do but pull everything out and clean it up.

I wiped the cover of my computer and set out the waterlogged paper to dry. I used a paper towel to soak up the liquid remaining in the bottom, all the while appreciating the excellent design decision to make the lining black.

But as I dried the interior I felt something beneath the lining—actually several somethings crowded together under there. I checked the inside pocket and sure enough, found a hole. It was an opening in the bottom corner, hardly noticeable but plenty big enough for a pen to work through. I made the opening a little bigger until I could get my fingers around a pen that had fallen behind the lining, then another one, and another. Suddenly I knew why a whole package of my Pilot fine-point gels had disappeared.

 

 

But there was more—a bottle of lotion from the Hampton Inn, a package of Kleenex, two tubes of lip balm, and a card from Laudanum Printing that I kept as a reminder to check their Etsy site. There were several paper clips, Riccola cough drops, plus a Hall’s, a couple of Dove dark chocolates, a Luna bar, a shoe shine mitt from the Inter-Continental in Seoul, and a sealed bag of Bigelow’s English Teatime.

All these important items I had squirreled away, thinking they might be necessary, only to have them disappear into a black hole in my bag. Who knows how long I hauled this stuff around, completely inaccessible but crowding my space and weighing me down. If these things were so important, how could they disappear without my noticing?

I can’t help wondering what other long-forgotten necessities are crowding my life, or what else I’m lugging around in my metaphorical baggage. What’s really essential, right now? What would happen if I could pay attention, fix the hole, and stop feeding the bag?

Seeing the Picture

I’m remembering a dear uncle this week. Tall, gentle, and soft-spoken, his careful tamping of tobacco and patient lighting of his pipe fascinated me at family gatherings when I was a girl. Back then he was the only adult I knew who painted pictures, and I was confused when he said he didn’t think of himself as an artist.

One of his paintings was of a tree, which I remember him saying was out back of some building, in the parking lot. That was even more bewildering. How could something as special as a painting be made of something that sounded so ordinary? I would have learned an important lesson much earlier if I had been able to articulate that question, but I was a child with a thousand things I didn’t understand and no way to determine which I needed most to learn about.

Fortunately, I was able to know him long past childhood. He gave up his pipe in later years, and eventually failing eyesight took painting from him as well. But his sensibilities remained, and he appreciated the goodness of life. To talk with him was to share in a beautiful perspective on the world.

I took a break in the middle of the morning yesterday, from both the household chores I was taking care of and the writing I’ve been obsessing about for the past few days. Weary of all of it, I decided to just have a cup of coffee. Not to read or write, not to think or analyze or plan, but just to sit and look out the window and drink my coffee.

It was a beautiful day. The bright snow on the ground, the white-trimmed branches against a bright blue sky—“pretty as a picture” was the phrase that came to mind. It’s an old-fashioned idiom from a time when pictures were rare, special in a way utterly foreign to our image-flooded culture. But the phrase still evokes that sense of attention and value that comes with placing a frame around a scene. Making a picture is a way of saying this is worth noticing.

That’s what an artist can do. It’s what my uncle did when he saw something beautiful in an ordinary scene. Appreciating beauty doesn’t require a literal frame, but it helps to have some kind of reminder to pay attention. The frame could be the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. It could be a particular place to be at a regular time of day. It might take the form of a ritual, like lighting a pipe.

It might even be a conversation with someone who can help you pay attention. Talking with Uncle Guyles often helped to frame something worth noticing. I’ll miss him.

What helps you frame the things you want to notice?

When Searching Doesn’t Work: Being Prepared to Find

For the past few weeks I’ve had a single silver earring hanging from the stand on my dresser. The forlorn half of a pair, it hasn’t been worn since the day I lost its mate.

I looked everywhere I could for the missing dangle—in the weave of my sweater, the folds of my scarf, the lining of my coat; behind the seat cushion of the car, in the carpet on the floorboards, among the detritus of a day of errands; on floors and countertops and inside grocery bags. I could only conclude that it lay somewhere among the miles of parking lots and store aisles I had crossed that day.

The earrings were a pair I wore often. They were simple and well-formed, bought years ago from a local artist. Back then I stretched a bit to afford them, though given their price per wearing they were a bargain. I was sad to lose something that fit so well into my life.

Today an easing of winter’s onslaught inspired me to sweep the garage, motivated mostly by the prospect of less dead leaves, dirt, and crud to track into the house. Pushing a mound of debris in front of the broom, I noticed a glint of light. When I stopped to look, yes, there was the earring missing for these many weeks.

I had examined the garage floor in my search, and since then had crossed and re-crossed the path where that familiar silver form must have fallen. But somehow I missed it.

Not until I swept things clean, tumbling the leaves and dirt and trash together, re-ordering that small part of the world, could I find what I had searched for so diligently and nonetheless overlooked. There’s a lot to be said for a cleaning binge. In sweeping out and putting things in order, there’s no telling what you’ll find.

It pays to do the chores with eyes open, to notice what gleams among the debris. It helps to have some idea of what we’re looking for as well. Remarkable things, even the things we search for, sometimes show up in unexpected places.

What are you looking for?

Getting Past What We Think We See

I’m fascinated by this optical illusion.

I’m so sure of what I’m seeing here—a gray and white checkerboard—I can hardly believe the demonstration showing how it’s not that simple. Certainty encourages me to dismiss any new information. It limits what I am able to perceive. I can barely take in the information that challenges my understanding because I “know” what I saw. But it turns out I was wrong.

Hmmmm.

I wouldn’t want to go through life never trusting my sense of how things are. I need to rely on my perceptions to get through the day. But I also know from experience that certainty can be misplaced. Past choices that seemed perfectly clear at the time had far more room for questioning than I was able to see. I know now that I knew less than I thought I did back then, if you can follow that convoluted sentence.

But I was generally doing the best I could with what I had. Who can do more than that? It’s what we all do. But it would have been better to ask if there were more to know than what meets the eye. I might have made better decisions if I had been willing to test my assumptions.

Yet even in our lack of wisdom and experience we are given an inner sense of when things are out of balance. When our misperceptions matter, life provides indications that we need to pay closer attention. They accrue until we finally notice.

Within us is a life force, a holy spirit, urging us forward and helping us to transcend illusion. Often it speaks with a still, small voice that helps us know what we need to know, even when thoughts and perceptions are confused. Occasionally it jolts us into waking up to what is going on around us.

Could it be that this clever video is speaking to us of such things, even now?

And if you still don’t believe the squares are the same color, check out this demonstration:
The Checker-Shadow Illusion

Everyday Rituals

Lately I’ve been thinking about how a task can be transformed by a sense of ritual. Ritual lends weight to what we’re doing. To clear space in our mind and schedule for a particular task is to acknowledge its importance. It says there is nothing we should be doing instead, and no reason to hurry through this moment on the way to the next thing. That alone is a relief, and all too rare. Ritual invites us to be fully present, to set aside anything else pulling at our attention and focus on the one thing in front of us.

Cooking dinner can be that kind of experience on days when I clear the countertops, turn on “All Things Considered,” and set aside the time to chop, saute, and simmer. Other days it’s a chore I squeeze in between other things, hurrying on to the next thing I need or want to do. The difference is whether I make space around it and become present in doing it. Ritual encourages presence, attention.

I remember as a child watching my father polish his shoes. He had a box where he kept everything he needed: the round tin of dark polish, the cotton rag saturated with its orange-brown color and oily scent. He would spread a newspaper on the floor to mark his work space, then open a tin and rub the cloth over it in a circular motion. After he worked the polish into the leather he would take up the wide wooden brush with soft black bristles, placing his hand inside the shoe to hold it and brushing with long sweeping strokes until it shone. I can still hear the thump of the brush against the shoe, the whisper of bristles across its polished surface. Then he folded the newspaper and threw it away, carried the box and gleaming shoes back to where they belonged.

I remember my mother preparing to iron, sprinkling clothes with water from a Coke bottle fitted with a metal-capped cork, its rounded surface filled with holes like a salt shaker. There was the muted sparkle and splash of water inside the glass bottle and the dark spots of moisture on cotton. She rolled up the clothes for the dampness to permeate, with an extra sprinkle over the bundle for good measure. With its hiss and rising steam, the transformation of rumpled fabrics into crisp, clean, finished laundry, ironing didn’t look like a chore. It looked like an important part of the week.

As I didn’t have responsibility for doing them, those tasks never appeared to be a burden. Instead they seemed special, meriting the time set aside for them. To a child fascinated by its particular tools, the job was clearly important. It offered elements perhaps of pleasure, but at the very least of satisfaction. I liked ironing handkerchiefs and helping to brush shoes.

I don’t know if my mother and father brought the same attention to their tasks that I brought to watching them. I was free to do something else if I grew bored, while they had to see the job through. And having raised a family myself now, I’m sure they had other things on their mind. Perhaps it’s easier to be mindful about someone else’s work.

Nonetheless, I think that how they went about their work taught me something of value. Ritual creates space around something important. When we turn the pages of a magazine, a few words on a large field of white rivets our attention. In the same way, we can put focus on the most important aspects of our lives by giving them breathing room. We add meaning to our lives when we notice what they contain. We elevate our work when we set it apart through the simple rituals that center us in the moment and ground us in our lives.

What are the tasks that give you satisfaction? Are they enhanced by a ritual of some kind?

Working with Stones

I’m fascinated by the limestone fences that line the Central Kentucky landscape. Constructed without mortar by skilled builders, many of whom were itinerant Irish and Scottish masons, they can endure for centuries. The Dry Stone Masonry Conservancy teaches this almost-lost art to local masons, preserving and spreading the knowledge that allows the old rock fences to be repaired and maintained in the original way, as well as new ones built.

To study a section of stone fence is to appreciate the depth of attention brought to the work. Rough and irregular stones are layered without gaps, as if each settled naturally into its place according to its nature. Even the smallest stone is an integral part of the whole, filling a space that would otherwise weaken the structure. Made of limestone from the surrounding fields, the fences come from the land and fit easily into the landscape. They were built from the necessity of working with materials at hand. They belong.

Labor and skill are apparent in these old stone fences, but so is a sense of reverence for the world as it is. The builders worked with the nature of the stones, so that the textured unity of the fence is not imposed through conformity but coaxed from diversity. The strength and beauty of a rock wall comes from working with what is given, carefully determining the placement of each piece so that is part of a cohesive whole. Nothing is forced; every stone is different. Yet put together in the right way the stones yield a structure that is beautiful, cohesive, and strong. Each stone lends its strength to something that endures.

The building method works because the stones are different shapes. They don’t just sit side by side, they fit into each other. Scattered across the ground, the stones don’t look like building material. They’re just rocks. They suggest nothing of the potential seen by a mason. But placed by a master builder, they become part of something beautiful and enduring.

In the same way, it can be hard to see what the scattered parts of our lives add up to. Sometimes we lack the perspective on our selves, or on our communities, to see anything more than a rocky field. At those times it helps me to remember that I’m not the mason. In spite of everything I try to do and learn and accomplish and create, there is only so much improvement of myself or the world that I can bring about under my own power. But there is a master builder who has the vision to make something good of my life and its odd-shaped elements, and of this world and its rough-edged inhabitants. There is good work in progress.

What helps give you a builder’s perspective?