Monday, February 15, 2010

New Turn in the Blogging Road

OK, this has really been happening for a while, and I've been meaning to make it more explicit.

After sustaining two blogs, "Trusting Delight" and "Freedom Diaries", for several months, I've decided to make life simpler and put the two into one. And since "Trusting Delight" has been the longer-running of the two, it is the one that will continue, until some good reason arises for a change.

I've surely had my ups and downs as a blogger, and recently I've noticed how easily I can become the servant of my blog, rather that being clear that the blog exists to serve me and some larger purpose that I get to determine.

I am now clear that I intend to use the blog as a place both to post current observations (like, "the early morning bird chorus is so much more vigorous these days!") or photos of artwork as well as to post pieces of the larger story of my midlife journey from Episcopal priest to free-lance human being and the unfolding adventure of being myself.

This larger story is a midlife story of self-discovery and freedom, a "coming of age at 55" story, an ecclesiastical story through 24 years of being ordained and out the other side, and a theological and spiritual story of an evolving faith apart from religious beliefs, finding myself more grateful and having more fun with the unfolding adventure of being alive and being myself.

Which means that I am not attempting to post polished pieces of the story, but to let the blog serve as my way of getting stuff written, and not keeping it hidden away in some journal. To be the vehicle for what Anne Lamott advises in Bird by Bird:

"Get it all down. Let it pour out of you onto the page. Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft."

"Then," she adds, "take out as many of the excesses as you can."

Just for the record, I'm not going to worry about those excesses for now, which would be another excuse not to write or not to share what I'm writing. Although I do aim to be careful enough to be civil and thoughtful and compassionate in a basic kind of way.

If in the process it becomes clear that I really do need a distinctly separate blog for this purpose, I'll deal with that when the time comes. (And I thank you for rolling with me yet again!)

In the meantime, I really do appreciate and am grateful for all of you who keep reading my blogs. Many of you I do not know and may never know (although I do encourage you to leave comments if you feel like it). Others are the kind of faithful friends who make life much more enjoyable!

If you are someone who has enjoyed reading "Freedom Diaries" from time to time, I do hope you will continue to follow the story on "Trusting Delight". It's all the same story!

OK. Here we go!

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Tale of Two Vision Boards

Yesterday I moved back toward painting for the first time in quite a while, since well before Christmas. I'm not sure of all the factors involved in my choosing not to paint for so long, but I know some of them.

Getting in the rut of expecting too much from myself every time I pick up a brush is a biggie. It puts way too much pressure on the process of painting and really kills it, right then and there, except for those times when I can keep going and break through to a place of simply enjoying the process. This is not a new phenomenon for me, and I am sure it will be with me off and on for a long time to come.

Still, in addition to stuff like holiday shopping, cooking, traveling, having both daughters home from high school and college and in the house, there was another interesting development that I noticed. It has to do with my other primary means of creative expression: words, writing, language.

Here's an intriguing thing (to me, anyway, maybe not to you!). I know a little about the practice of making a "vision board" as a way to see and to hold an intention of what you wish to be or do or have in your life, a way of putting dreams, hopes, and goals into visible form. Some people make them to express dreams that they already have; some make them as a way of discovering what dreams are wanting to be claimed.

In the past year and a half, I have made two vision boards, using images and words pulled from magazines and catalogs. I honestly wasn't sure if I did it "right" either time, and until recently I wasn't so sure that the process "worked" for me, whatever that might mean.

But the two vision boards are so starkly different that I couldn't help but notice. The first one was full of images--of landscapes, windows, doors. And lots and lots of images of artwork--some snippets of famous paintings, some of lesser known ones that spoke to me when I saw them. That board had very, very few words, and the most significant of them were "Making Contact", and I included them mostly because they were inextricably connected to an image of a sculpture that I wanted to include.

The most recent vision board I made is almost ALL WORDS! Other than a central spiral image of (I think) a coral-colored chameleon's tail, and a few other pics I put in both to break up the design and to add some fun, everything on the board is a word or phrase. Without giving away all my secrets, I'll give you a sampling of the kinds of words on my board: Celebrate, Art, Joy, Color, Walking, Money, Free Expression, Home, Nature, Playing, Living Large. You get the idea.

So here's what's interesting about this, and suggestive that something about the process did work for me, perhaps on a level I couldn't fully appreciate until the second board took shape. Last year, my painting was the primary vehicle that seemed to be carrying me somewhere. It fueled my passion, my curiosity, my energy, my connection to the world around me. It has not "gone away" for the moment, but it seems to have moved into a different role, one I'm still figuring out. But it makes sense that last year's vision board was all about images, and especially about painted images, brushstrokes, bold shapes, colors, and such.

There were times, many times, when some part of me (like my frightened ego?) really wanted to know precisely what role painting was going to play in my future and why it made sense for me to do it so much in the present. Was it primarily a vessel (I often thought of a boat) that was carrying me across the river or sea that I needed to cross in order to reach a new shore? Or was it the new destination itself, part of the new landscape of my future/present?

It was, and is, probably both, some of each. And here's the thing: trying to pin painting down and get at an exact description of its role or function was not helpful, no matter how understandable was my desire to do so. I was still every much in what William Bridges calls "the neutral zone" of my major life transition, and by its very nature, neutral zones are undefined times and places, where you don't get to enjoy the certainty that you crave (at least the left brain, rational, linear, keep-things-predictable-and-under-control-at-all-times part of you). You don't yet know where you're headed.

Again and again I did my best to tame (sometimes more like bludgeon, I'm afraid) my need for certainty by repeating the mantra, "All I know for now is that I have to keep painting." And lying behind that mantra I also held onto a sentence from Gregg Levoy's book Callings: "The point of passion is mainly to follow, to let yourself love what you love, to respect your hunger and obey your thirst." Though I remembered it as, "The point of a passion is to follow it, not knowing where it will lead."

Now I seem to have returned to language as my primary vehicle of creative expression. Some days, many days, in fact, I feel as if I have SO much to say that I hardly know where to start. I feel as if I have waited so long to really get to writing the story of my journey from Episcopal priest to "free-lance human being" that there's now so much wanting to pour out of me that my two hands at the keyboard can barely keep up. The old image of holding a tiny cup under a waterfall comes to mind. I can only do what I can do one chunk of time by one chunk of time, and keep on going.

And find occasions and venues to start speaking, aloud, publicly, for the first time in quite a few years. It used to be something I did on a regular basis, I remind myself from time to time. I was a "preacher" after all!

But this time I look forward to speaking without the expectations and limitations of sermons, and without the cloak and clothing of ordination. "Outside the box" and "speak" are also on my new vision board.

Stay tuned. I have a feeling this is only just the beginning.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

How to Go to Church

Bekah is in Nashville on an "Alternative Winter Break" service project with a group from George Washington University. Although the trip itself and the work to be done are neither explicitly "faith-based" nor religious in nature, the students are being housed at the Belle Meade United Methodist Church in Nashville. (Bekah tells us that Belle Meade is the part of Nashville where Al Gore lives--an affluent residential area, in other words.)

As a kind of thank you to their hosts and perhaps even as a way of enjoying the support of the Belle Meade UMC congregation, the group from GW is attending church there this morning. Bekah was relieved to know they'd be attending the "traditional service" rather than the "praise service" earlier in the day. Still, at risk of putting words in her mouth, I believe it's reasonably safe to say Bekah has at least some misgivings about attending church in the south, where even mainstream denominations like Methodists and Presbyterians are apt to have a decidedly different, often more conservative or more evangelical, flavor than what she prefers.

This morning I texted her the following suggestion: "Pretend your are a visitor from another planet, and be very very curious and very observant. Like, 'Wow, that's intriguing!' And enjoy singing."

I find that this kind of "from another planet, very very curious, semi-detached observer" stance can be very helpful when I decide to go to church. Sometimes from my observer stance I notice just how horrible a lot of the prayers and hymn texts are, even as I sing along to marvelous, beloved tunes. On All Saints' Day, for example, the hymns were so laden with images of earthly strife, struggle, pain, sadness, toil, battle, burden, and darkness associated with life here and now, while only life hereafter got joy, light, freedom, that I honestly wondered: "Who in their right mind would want to be part of THIS group?!"

As I've said in an earlier post, drawing in church, especially during the sermon, also helps. It brings out a different sort of observer in me--one that's happy to focus on some physical shapes and details in my immediate surroundings. Since drawing is an activity that often boosts my internal happiness, it puts me in a good space for enjoying what I enjoy, noticing what I don't, and letting that roll off my back as best I can.

Which relates to my best of all church-going advice to myself: to keep my expectations very very low. I feel kind of bad saying this, since I remember all too well how much I wanted to know that what I did as a priest in church, and especially what I said in my sermons, really made a significant positive difference in people's lives, and that the liturgies we offered were vehicles of grace. In addition, some of my friends are still clergy with similar hopes. But what's a blog worth if I don't tell the truth?

These days I'm happiest if I remember not to go to church needy, not to go looking for and hoping for affirmation or inspiration or inner peace or intimate community. To that end, it helps if I do my best to care for the happiness and well-being of my soul at home. And then, if I happen to glean a teeny taste of one of those aforementioned things at church (affirmation, inspiration inner peace, etc.), or even if I simply get to sing a hymn I like, or find myself amused at my inter-planetary observations, or feel a tad glad to participate in that ancient ritual of the eucharist (but really, I'd be SO much happier to eat something having more resemblance to real bread than those tasteless, wimpy, papery, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth wafers, thank you very much), and to imagine that David's glad to have my company in church for a change--any one of those circumstances might warrant being called "a good day in church"!

Friday, December 18, 2009

How Drawing Saved Me

c. Sukie Curtis, "Insomnia I" 12/14/08
Last year on the second Sunday morning in December, I was not a happy camper.

David had been away for a few days on a silent meditation retreat (meaning, seriously limited communication), and meanwhile, back at the ranch, we'd had a major ice/snow storm and were without electricity for a day, my cell phone ran out of charge (meaning, totally curtailed communication) and it didn't take long for the sporty sort of "frontier life" experiment to wear thin. Although I was quite proud of myself for thinking to keep a big pot of water warming on our wood stove, from which I could dip smaller amounts into a Revere saucepan for quicker boiling for tea.

And then there was the rabbit. Anna and I had noticed, with an unfortunately slow acceptance, that our handsome, uncomplaining white angora rabbit, Gandy, (proper name: Gandolf the White) wasn't acting like himself. He seemed rather listless and wasn't eating. Finally on Saturday evening, we had decided that he needed medical attention, which meant a trip to the emergency vet clinic (don't even ask what you pay just to carry your animal through the doors!).

You know how it is sometimes, when it's cold outside of you and inside of you at the same time? And you're pretty sure that the internal coldness is not just about ambient temperature? You shiver and tremble, at least partially (but not too clearly) aware that Fear and its minions have got a steely cold death grip on your heart?

As Anna and I drove Gandy to the emergency vet clinic, a place we had never before needed for any of our animals, I was pretty sure he was seriously ill and was probably not going to make it. Rabbits are generally healthy and not prone to illness; but respiratory infections, which manifest the symptoms we were seeing, are often fatal. I honestly didn't know if it was worth forking out the money for the vet and medication, but . . . it's your pet, it's your responsibility to care for this creature . . . what are you going to do?

On that Sunday morning a year ago today, I got up at 3:50--not my usual rising time, believe me. Not even close. I got up because I couldn't sleep. SERIOUSLY couldn't sleep. I was shivering and trembling under a heap of bed covers, and it wasn't because of having a fever and chills.

My mind had gone utterly to town, wreaking havoc like a tribe of barbarians' pillaging and burning, leaving a trail of misery and destruction. (What a powerful thing a mind is! And what a waste when its power gets employed so destructively!)

It wasn't just that I was certain that Gandy lay dead where we had put him to bed and I didn't want to go look. It's that David's silent meditation retreat had coincided with our wedding anniversary, and we hadn't really decided on any anniversary celebration before he had left. And I was finally becoming aware, now that David was out of communication, that I really didn't like how this felt. And the nasty, scheming tribe of barbarians got hold of that and ran with it for all I was worth.

I sat in our living room with one light on (too early to wake the dog--I don't even think I made tea, or did I?) and tried to pick up and piece back together the shreds of me scattered about the frozen landscape after the tribe had moved on to the next village. (I hope for your sake they never reach your village.) What finally helped me the most was drawing.

I opened my small sketchbook, took out a pen, and drew our rocking chair, using the "semi-blind" technique that I use a lot--drawing mostly by moving my pen while looking at the object I'm drawing and not much at the paper (with a few stolen glances now and then). As much as being a way of drawing, this practice helps me to be present, to focus my attention on something right in front of me rather than on what's going on inside my head.

After the first drawing, I drew another one:

c. Sukie Curtis, "Insomnia II" 12/14/08

By the time I drew a third portrait of the rocking chair, I was beginning to feel drowsy.

c. Sukie Curtis, "Getting Drowsy", 12/14/08

After one more attempt, I was clearly ready to go back to bed. So I did.

c. Sukie Curtis, "back to bed", 12/14/08

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Celebrating Another Taste of Freedom

Here's something to marvel at (at least, if you're me). I sat down to write this post, gave it the title you see above, then proceeded to write a back story to the intended post, and that back story got so big and so NOT about a taste of freedom, that I decided I had to rename it and make it another post altogether. That one is now called "How Drawing Saved Me" and hasn't been finished yet.

This one is much simpler. It's about noticing another taste of freedom. I can't decide if it's a tiny taste of freedom, or rather an immense taste of freedom that happens to be subtle enough to have almost escaped my notice. I believe it's the latter.

Pressing a little further, I'd say that the inclination to label this taste of freedom "tiny" is part of the process, usually unconscious, whereby my mind likes to minimize and even dismiss most such progress as nothing worth noting, certainly nothing worth celebrating. Following that unconscious process my mind would have done its best to keep me where I was. (I'm guessing that my mind and your mind came with similar operating systems, though I don't want to be presumptuous about that.)

AHA! This time I'm not fooled! Here's what I mean and what I'm celebrating.

David has just returned from two days away on a silent meditation retreat. This is nothing new. He has been doing this kind of thing for most of our twenty-two years of marriage (twenty-two years as of yesterday!). For a while his retreats were explicitly Christian in orientation and practice; more recently they have been predominantly Buddhist (of the Zen variety) in orientation and practice. (Over the same passage of time I have had my own version of going on retreats--but that's a bit off topic. I'll save it for another day.)

Before David left on Thursday, as we discussed the kind of schedule and routine and sleeping accommodations he could expect, I said with total honesty: "I am so glad I'm not doing that! That does not hold the slightest bit of interest for me!"

Now this sentiment is, like David's retreat practice, nothing new. But saying it aloud without any trace of guilt or shame or trace of "you're so much more spiritual than I am; I should be doing something like that" kind of thinking--now that's entirely new! And believe me, this marks a huge liberation from what might best be described as my formerly hyperactive religio-spiritual superego that has so often functioned as a meat grinder of my soul. (Am I making myself clear?)

For more years than I care to count (but if I did count, it would be something like thirty-five going on forty), ever since I took my first tentative steps in the direction of "finding religion" as a late adolescent, I have been highly susceptible to comparative religio-spirituality. Constantly comparing myself to (my perceptions of) others and their spiritual practices, and constantly coming up short.

"X is more disciplined about prayer than I am; I should be like that." "Y is more contemplative than I am; what a spiritual failure I am." "Z describes having actual, phenomenological spiritual experiences; I'll never have those, so I'm hopeless."

You get the (highly repetitive, incredibly nauseating) picture, I'm sure. This comparative religio-spirituality would get triggered by people in books as well as people in the flesh, intimate friends as well as utter strangers. Put me too close to the gravitational pull of almost any spiritual or religious book, and the meat grinder of my soul starts loosening up its gears ready to get to work. If a meat grinder could salivate, it would be doing that, too.

I finally took a step in a positive direction, albeit not entirely consciously, when I decided to stop reading so-called "spiritual books".  At first this was more like an aversion, but it became a conscious choice. This means that I've skipped over and maybe missed out on a lot of books that people around me were reading and raving about. Like The Power of Now. I even avoided Eat, Pray, Love for the longest time because the word "Pray" was in the title and a picture of prayer beads on the cover! (More on that another time.)  

Clearly, the pattern of comparing myself to others (or to at least one other) and coming up lacking is an old, old pattern, predating my interest in organized religion and my subsequent ordination. I will only say that without a doubt the whole wide realm of spirituality and religion has proven to be a more than able partner for the care and feeding of this unhealthy pattern.

I have a strong hunch that being ordained only made things worse, harder, more loaded with expectations and a sense of professional as well as personal responsibility. Which is one among the several reasons why I am happy to be ordained no more. I so much prefer living with a lighter heart--I can't tell you how much I do!

Of course sometimes I wonder if I might have been able to find a way to arrive at this place of self-acceptance and lightness of spirit had I stayed ordained, and then have been a splendidly light-hearted priest. Maybe. But I have a feeling it would have taken me twenty years instead of twenty months to reach this point. And besides, that rather avoids the more central question of whether I even wanted to remain a priest, why I chose to let that go, and whether I was ever truly "called" to be one in the first place. That, too, is a topic for another day.

Somehow I find myself thinking of some of the parables of Jesus, especially the one about the woman who has lost a small coin, lights the lamps and sweeps her house until she finds the coin. And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors in for a party, saying, "Rejoice with me! For I have found the coin that was lost!" Want to come to my party?

Now here's something else to marvel at--the way that every now and then a story from the Bible or a phrase from the Book of Common Prayer--two books that used to dominate my life that I choose not to spend much time with these days--will pop up out of nowhere and make contact. It's kind of like getting an email from an old, half-forgotten acquaintance (one you aren't sure you've even be missing), saying, "Want to be friends on Facebook?"! And you get to decide to become acquainted on new and more healthy terms. A marvel indeed.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Are You Laodicean?

I learned a new word this morning listening to Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" on NPR. It was the final word in the most recent national spelling bee, if I am remembering correctly. And while I actually am familiar with the source of this word, I never knew it was a word in its own right.

The word in question is "Laodicean". It means lukewarm or halfhearted (especially with respect to religion or politics, the on line American Heritage dictionary tells me).

I could have guessed the lukewarm meaning, drawn directly from the Book of Revelation (chapter 3, verse 16) in the section that portrays the Spirit of God addressing "the seven churches," sometimes commending but more often harshly prodding each one to overcome its particular flaws. "And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: '. . . I know your works; you are neither cold not hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.'" In the days when I was trying to memorize Bible content in seminary, I did manage to remember that the sin of the Laodiceans was lukewarmness, largely because both words begin with the letter 'L'! The spewing out of the mouth bit was kind of catchy, too.

These days as I often find myself pondering things like passion, delight, and commitment, I can appreciate the dangers and pitfalls of being lukewarm. Probably not in ways that the author of Revelation had in mind, but that's OK.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sometimes It's Like This

Well, I flunked out of church today. Maybe that's the best way to say it.

Maybe I just don't go to church often enough to do so easily and simply, without a lot of "reactivity" (an insightful word that David supplied as I tried to debrief on the way home). I wish it were simpler for me to be there--like, couldn't I just go and enjoy the parts I enjoy and let the rest roll off my back and come home reasonably content, instead of leaving in tears and either wanting to break something or to bash my own head against a wall? (Don't worry--breaking something appealed to me a whole lot more that the head against a wall thing!)

But it seems in order for going to church to be simpler, I have to REALLY WANT it to be so, and then to follow up that wanting with showing up with a bit more frequency than once every--hmmm, how long since I last went to church?

OMG, as they say, have I actually not been to church since . . . Easter? I'm really not sure. Let's see: for the record, I have been to three memorial services and an Evensong in these intervening months.
(Oh, and believe me, I can feel the total shock and horror of some of my clergy friends and former parishioners.)

Good thing I don't believe in being banished to hell for skipping church, because in terms of "the due celebration of Sundays" I am without doubt an infidel.

Perhaps I need to say a little more about my flunking out of church this morning, the tears, the complexity.

I actually thought I was doing pretty well, remembering to call myself back to a centered place when I felt a lot of rebellious stuff brewing internally. (Maybe that is part of the problem; maybe I ended up kidding myself that I was letting things go when in fact I was stuffing them in and building up a battle within.)

The internal stuff isn't all bad; at least it lets me know I'm alive. For me, with today being All Saints' Day, the internal brew was a mixture of this day when remembering people who have died is in the air. I was remembering not only my father, and David's father, and my cousin Lola, but also a bunch of others, too, including my friend Sarah's father, whose memorial service was just last week, and my friend Anne's mother, who died just before Easter. That's a lot of remembering for one small part of the morning.

And then there was the un-ordination thing, which crept up on me in an unguarded moment when I was receiving communion, and I looked at the hands of the person giving out the "bread" (if you can call those stupid, lifeless communion wafers bread), and I remembered in a flash that I used to do that, that it was part of who I was, and it is no longer something that I do.

And I actually really enjoyed that part of being a priest--not so much saying the Eucharistic prayer in which the priest invokes God's blessing on the bread and wine--but the giving out the bread part. That part is so refreshingly, thankfully tangible and concrete (all the more so when the bread that you have to put into the hands of those receiving it is actually some form of bread, with substance and nourishment, flavor, texture and scent--something you can actually sink your teeth into!).

So in a flash I remembered all of that and experienced a fleeting pang of maybe missing it, of maybe something akin to grief, and then the subsequent challenge a feeling the grief and letting the grief be grief without turning it into evidence that I made a big mistake renouncing my vows and giving up being ordained. To stay with the pang of grief, to breathe into it and ride the wave of it--that's probably all I needed to do but wasn't quite able to manage, although I did pretty well for a while.

And then, after the organ postlude, bless his tolerant heart (I mean that--he has lived with me for twenty-two years after all!), David mentioned to me that I had bad breath, and instead of riding the wave, the wave came crashing down on me. And in kinda junior high-ish fashion, I blubbed something like, "Sometimes it's hard just being here, and I guess I'd better just leave" and I fled the scene as tears brimmed again, barely speaking to the usher in the doorway on my way out, and not stopping to shake the Dean's hand, either.

So here's the thing, or a thing anyway: you know back up there a few paragraphs ago when I said, about giving out communion, that "I remembered in a flash that I used to do that, that it was part of who I was and is no longer what I do"? Here's what I noticed as I wrote that; here's a truth worth remembering for the next time this happens, since there probably will be a next time.

Yes, I used to do that handing out of communion; yes, I used to enjoy that, too. It was part of who I was, not only as a priest but also as a human being, and it is still part of who I am. It will always be a part of me.

Yes, I have taken off the shirt and collar* (and that reminds me, what do I do with the vestments?), and I have chosen living free over death in holy orders. And yet those years of being a priest, those moments of connecting with people's eyes and with their outstretched hands as I gave them bread, all of that is woven into the fabric of who I am now. I can be grateful for those years even as I know that I was often not sure I belonged in that role, even if I often wondered what it might be like to be free.

*About the shirt and collar: I've been savoring a comment that my friend Sarah shared with me not long ago. (I believe it was shortly after her father died, and she and I were talking about the fact that if I were still ordained, I could participate in her father's memorial service in "priestly" ways. I was feeling a touch of regret that I couldn't be there for her mother in that way, and Sarah's response was unequivocal: "Thank God you're not still ordained!") Sarah was for many years and is no longer a church organist. She told me that when someone says to her, "You could always brush off your organ shoes and play again," she replies: "No, you don't understand. Those shoes aren't even in my closet; they went out in the trash."

Done. Finito. Fare well.  Gone but not forgotten. Amen (which means, so be it.)