Reflections of a Seeker

I am reading “Eat, Pray, Love” (no, I haven’t seen the movie) and here are my thoughts about it so far…

I love it.  Despite the thrashings of critics, despite the fact that the writing is at times self-indulgent and maybe a bit too smug, I love it.  Why?  Because it speaks to a deep universal truth that lives within the heart of every human being — we are all seekers.  At 43 years old, I am a writer still seeking to define her voice.  Not an easy thing to do because my ideas of what and how I want to write keep changing.  I’m a mom seeking to understand the irrational and unpredictable moods of teenagers.  Also not an easy task.  In living with three teenagers, I’ve discovered that even the most innocent of comments has the potential to ignite an emotional outburst.  I’ve also discovered that sometime around my son’s 13th birthday, I unknowingly transformed from “cool Mom” to “OMG, Mom — please don’t talk to me or even look at me while my friends are around!”  I’m still adjusting to that one. 

I’m a pilgrim reaching out to the Universe and praying for faith and understanding of my own spirituality.  “Eat, Pray, Love” reminds me of my own stumbling journey toward greater communion with God and my purpose in life.  I’ve even been inspired me to think about starting yoga and learning how to meditate so that I can achieve greater balance in my life.  Of course, with my schedule, I might have to wake up at 5am to meditate.  I’m still not sure about that one.  And even though Elizabeth Gilbert’s descriptions of culinary ecstasy in Italy made me just the teeniest bit jealous, I am inspired by the idea that such possibilities could exist in my own life.  For me, it is another affirmation that life does give second chances…and sometimes, if you sit quietly and listen with your whole being open to the Universe, you will hear the sound of your prayers being answered.  Unfortunately, just about the time I’m sitting quietly, with my whole being open to the Universe, the only sound I hear is my 7-year old’s voice from the bathroom, shouting “MOM!  Can you come here?”

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The War Against Fear

Beyond my office window, the hands of a church steeple folded in prayer seem to hold an intricately scrolled metal cross forever lifted in faith and love.  On the days when the bitter, animal voice of ego fills my head with self-doubt and uncertainty, the sight of that cross, suspended between heaven and earth, is a gentle reminder that I am more than flesh, blood, and imperfections.  I am a spiritual creature, born of a divine love and faith that are the life force of my being.  In the moments when the sunlight glints across the steeple and outlines each perfect line of detail, my soul seems to shimmer with a resounding “YES,” and I begin to understand that faith is the source of all healing, all love, and all that is good and right in the world.  The vast web of positive energy that connects all living things is not owned by one branch of religious faith; nor is it deaf to any voice lifted in prayer.  Faith is not about the specific doctrines of individual religions; it is a celebration of love, and an acceptance of the divine light that is the birthright of all human beings. 

Lately, though, it seems as though the spiritual journey is too often lost in the mechanics of individual religions; forgotten amidst the competitive scramble to be “the one true path.”  Rather than promoting faith and tolerance, which lead to love and understanding, human beings focus on the differences that separate religious doctrines; allowing these differences to sow fear and distrust where there should be faith and love.  Terry Jones’ planned Quran burning is a sad example of the evil that blooms when fear is allowed to dictate our reactions.  Evil is not a demon with forked tongue surrounded by flames; it is the proliferation of fear and hate in the human heart. 

Love is not a limited commodity, nor is divine understanding a natural resource accessible to only a chosen few.  As I look out my window at the folded hands of the church steeple reaching toward the light, I am reminded that the only war we need fight is against our own ignorance and fear.  In faith there is love and understanding.  In love there is acceptance and peace.

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The Nation of Humanity

Last week I started volunteering at a local soup kitchen.  It seemed a simple thing, really – handing out food to hungry people.  But as I walked across the gravel lot and met the bored glances of two middle-aged men sitting in the shade outside the soup kitchen, I realized I was walking out of my comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory.  Opening the heavy door that separated the street from the outreach center, I felt the labels by which I defined myself lose their substance fall to the ground, meaningless. 

A volunteer greeting people at the door takes my name and tells me to “stay here” while she goes in search of Kathy, the volunteer coordinator.  Around me, there is a sense of community between the volunteers and the people eating lunch – a language I’ve never had to learn.  The minutes drag by and I wait, alone with my uncertainty.  The woman returns.  Kathy is busy; she hands me a pair of rubber gloves and motions to the tables. “You can wipe those down when people finish eating.”  Four women in burgundy t-shirts, members of the church, smile and serve lunch to the people who follow me from the street.

For the next hour, I embrace my discomfort, my lack of knowing.  I wipe off the cheerful red and yellow vinyl tablecloths, serve iced tea, and hand people plastic utensils wrapped in paper napkins.  When my lunch hour is over and it’s time for me to return to the reality of my work day, I say goodbye to the pastor and slip unnoticed back into the street.  It is a very small thing I’ve done, but something inside me remains unsettled.  I can’t wait to leave my comfort zone again.

Day 2 — The same gravel lot, same heavy door.  An old man with a thick Jamaican accent and a red bicycle sits outside the entrance to the soup kitchen.  We recognize each other and smile.  Inside, new volunteers stand at the food table, serving baked chicken, casserole and vegetables to a woman with dark, braided hair.  Two girls, both with serious eyes and braided hair, follow the woman to an empty table.  Most of the other tables are crowded with people eating lunch – construction workers on lunch break, two old men deep in conversation, a man with long, dark blonde hair and a short beard.  We see each other, and the familiarity of recognition allows us to wave and call out hellos.

My comfort zone has been stretched, and as I pour iced tea and lemonade, as I ask the people at the tables if they need anything, I feel the beginnings of community.  The man with the long hair and beard is sitting alone, and I ask him if he’d like more iced tea.  A conversation blooms between us.  He talks about his son, who plays guitar, his daughter, who is in high school and an artist.  Suddenly, we are simply two human beings, communicating with one another, and sharing understanding.

The hour speeds by.  I serve lemonade, clear tables, and stack chairs as the tables begin to clear and people make their way back into the harsh sunlight.  The man with the long hair is now John.  Before he leaves, he tells me I am a really nice lady.  I’ve brightened his day in a small way, and it feels like the most productive thing I’ve done all day.  I tell him to have a good afternoon, and that I will see him next week.  The clock says it is time for me to return to work, but I linger through my goodbyes.  

In the gravel lot, the Jamaican man with the bicycle rides by.  “Too much heat, too much heat,” he says, and I agree.  Driving back to work, I think about the soup kitchen, about the value of lemonade on a hot day, about the right all human beings should have to a full stomach. I think about John, the music teacher, his son and daughter.  

And I think… this is what is meaningful in life.  Beneath the superficial skin of our differences, we have the same needs.  A good meal, happiness for our children, to be treated with dignity and respect.  To be heard and understood.

Reaching out to another human being is a small thing… but it is everything.

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Living with Purpose

Next week I will turn 43.  Not really a milestone birthday, but there have been many upheavals in my life this year, and so it seems fitting to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned and the accomplishments I’ve achieved.  My most valuable and life-changing lesson this year has been my acceptance of God and the opening of my spirit to faith.  The love that my new husband, Michael, and I share has brought me home to God, has given me the courage to love fully with my whole heart.  As a person who has always been hesitant to trust and fearful of “losing control,” finding faith has created a beautiful transformation in the way I approach life.  There is freedom in opening one’s soul to the divine; there is peace in recognizing the sacred in ourselves and others.

I’ve always had a yearning for purpose and meaning in my life, but I defined purpose as a goal, a pursuit I would hopefully “someday” achieve.  Looking back, I understand that I was so busy pursuing a goal that seemed forever on the distant horizon that I didn’t recognize the many daily opportunities to live with purpose.  Now, as I learn about God and meaning, as I contemplate my life and its flow, I’ve come to the realization that purpose is not a destination to be arrived at or a goal to be achieved.  It is the way we live each day of our lives.  Purpose is the commitment to kindness, compassion, and love.  It is the perspective with which we view the world and the individual actions we take as we move through each day.  We create by doing, and thus are defined by our actions.  Each time we reach out to fellow living beings (two-legged and otherwise) with kindness and compassion, we are living with purpose.  And in the daily act of living with purpose, we experience God. 

Next week I will turn 43.  Last year on my birthday, Michael proposed to me.  When I accepted, I took the first step on a journey that has helped me overcome a lifetime of doubt, fear, and insecurity.  Faith and purpose are gifts to be celebrated; gifts to be shared through love, kindness, and compassion.  Although my birthday is still one week away, I have already received the most blessed of gifts.

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Finding Faith

After 20 years and several false starts, I’m finally on track to finish my B.A. in Creative Writing in May 2011.  I’m currently enrolled in a class called “Quest for Meaning,” and the timing couldn’t be more perfect.  For the past several years, I’ve been on a spiritual quest to understand my role in life and my place in this vast universe.  I believe in divine purpose, and I believe that human existence carries with it a larger responsibility than following a narrow individual path.  But like many people, I’ve drifted through life with an overdeveloped sense of self-sufficiency.  Why rely on faith when you can take control of your own destiny?  And yet, despite my confidence in my own ability to create the life I wanted, for years I seemed to be fighting a losing battle.  I felt like a sailboat lost in a hurricane; out of control and without a compass to find my way home. 

I guess God finally lost patience waiting for me to stop drifting and chart a purposeful course because it seems to me now that he recently took matters into his own hands.  My oldest son came to me last week and asked me to watch a movie with him.  “Facing the Giants” – a football movie and one of his favorites.  I agreed, not knowing that my life was about to be changed.  The movie is about a high school football coach who has lost faith and whose life seems to be falling apart.  His team has not had a winning season in six years.  By changing his…and the team’s philosophy… to that of serving God instead of serving themselves, the coach rediscovers his faith and learns that with God, all things are possible. And oh yeah, the team not only has a winning season, they conquer the previously undefeated state champions…the Giants.

For my son, the football player, the movie was a powerful example of faith in action.  For me, it was a long-needed wake-up call.  I tried to remember all of my reasons for not having faith in God; all of my excuses for not opening my life to serving him.  Fear…pride…meaningless emotions that only serve to hold one back from finding purpose and meaning in life.  That night, for the first time in years, I prayed.  I prayed for faith, for forgiveness of my stubborn ways, and for guidance. 

I used to be one of those individuals who scoff at faith and believe they alone are in charge of their lives.  Of course it is possible to live without God; to shoulder the responsibility of human existence without the blessing of divine guidance.  Yet how much better it is to walk through life knowing that your life honors God; that you have accepted his purpose with grace and an open heart.  Finding faith didn’t give me all the answers, and it didn’t make my problems disappear.  Finding my faith gave me hope — in myself, in the future, and in the possibility that each of us can have a positive impact on the world.

In one of my Quest for Meaning textbooks, a particular quote grabbed my attention…”Change happens abruptly.”  Yes, it does.  Every day, a miracle is waiting to happen.

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Creating Inspiration

When I was 12, I read Little Women for the first time.  Like most pre-teen girls with a passion for writing and a spirit of rebellion, I identified with Jo March.  Inspired by Jo’s writing garret, I begged my mother to allow me to turn our hot, unfinished attic into a writing studio.  Being both sensible and loving, she refused – pointing out the attic’s lack of air conditioning and stable flooring.  Down, but not out, I improvised by creating a writing nook in one corner of the bedroom I shared with my sister.  External influences provided the initial creative push I needed to think of myself as a writer, and over the years, my writing has been inspired by the people, events and places that have shaped my life. 

But there comes a time in every writer’s career when the mind goes blank; when the river of creativity dries up and finding inspiration feels like panning for gold.  There are three things in this world that I fear… defective rollercoasters, being buried alive, and the blank page.  Sometimes, the responsibility of pruning that expanse of white; the burden of filling the emptiness with meaning is a crushing weight on my soul.  I remember my high school English teacher’s prophecy, “You are going to become a great writer,” and wonder if it’s too late to become a veterinarian or an artist. 

Exercise to Inspire

For years I was a slave to inspiration, waiting with poised pen for divine creativity to bless my words with its touch.  And then I grew up.  Kids, writing is like exercise.  Most of us can think of a million excuses NOT to exercise, but once we actually begin working our muscles, our bodies often surprise us with their enthusiasm and  ability.  And that’s the approach to take with writing.  Now, when I’m staring at the blank screen of my monitor and my wellspring of creativity is drier than the desert sand on a mid-August afternoon, I start writing.  Sometimes I’ll find my inspirational gold after five minutes of writing, and sometimes I discover only fools’ gold.  Either way, I’m exercising my creativity.

Talk it out

A friend of mine wrote the first draft of a novel last November, for NaNoWriMo.  Once she’d put the frenzied 30 days of writing behind her, she wrote pages of notes and outlines about her characters and plot lines.  I’d like to boast that kind of organization, but I’d be lying.  When I started writing my novel, I completed two chapters before I ran into creative roadblock.  With five children at home and a full-time job, I was hard pressed to find time to write notes about my characters and plot development.  Instead, I used my morning commute as an opportunity to talk through my novel.  With classical music playing in the background, I talked myself through an entire outline and some pretty good character development.  I’ve learned what I’m sure Jo March knew from the beginning – the key to inspiration isn’t a writing garret or a high-speed connection to divine creativity.  It’s an open mind and a willingness to exercise.

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How a Non-Athlete Became a Soccer Coach

Change is simpler than the self-help industry would have us believe.  Complete life transformation can easily be accomplished by uttering the following phrase, “I volunteer.”  Trust me – it works.  Just a few weeks ago, I evolved in one typed sentence from a novice soccer mom to novice soccer coach, responsible for the athletic development and personal growth of 10 first and second-graders. 

Fortunately, in-depth knowledge of soccer wasn’t a perquisite.  I’ve attended enough of my sons’ soccer games to understand the rules and logistics of the game.  But I’ve never used the word “athlete” to define myself, and my familiarity with organized sports is limited to a general knowledge of when and when not to cheer.  Sometimes, though, life gives you opportunities just to see if you’ll take the bait.  When the regional commissioner sent out an email saying my son’s team needed a coach, my inner voice immediately raised its hand and yelled “Me, me! Pick me!”  I thought about it for a full five minutes before dashing off an email reply.  Within 10 minutes, the regional commissioner had accepted me as the new U-8 coach, and my days of being a soccer spectator were over. 

My son was ecstatic at the prospect of mom being his coach.  My 13-year old son only smirked a little, and then asked to be my assistant coach.  On the day of our first game, I was nervous, but ready to motivate the team to glory.  As the ball was kicked down the field, the kids followed it like a swarm of honeybees…even as I shouted, “Spread out!”  When the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of the first quarter, 10 first and second-graders descended on me, all yelling, “Can I stay in?  Can I play goal?  Can I be a runner?”  I struggled to remember names, assign positions and ensure that only six players were on the field as the swarm’s noise level drowned out the sounds of the soccer games on the adjacent fields.  It was the fastest hour of my life.

By the end of our first game, the other team had scored five goals and we had scored one.  I gathered my team into the huddle and we stacked our hands one on top of the other.  I told them I was proud of them.  “But we lost!”  they responded.  That was true, but they learned a little more about playing soccer that day, and I learned a little more about coaching soccer.  The following week, I brought a game roster, suggestions for improvement, and plenty of encouragement.  We lost 2-1, but when we left the huddle at the end of the game, it was with cheers and smiles.  I no longer felt like a novice soccer mom pretending to be a coach.  My life had been changed.

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