Remembering how to pray

Listen to me read the post:

I wake up among the treetops. I peek out the window near my head and I see the shadowy lake below, surrounded by the shadowy trees. Across the lake, I hear the train that was probably the reason for my waking. I close my eyes and a smile creeps across my face. I love the melancholy sound of a train passing through wild spaces. I don’t care for it much in the city, but out here, away from civilization, the clicking and clacking and screeching of metal on metal, especially in the middle of the night, sounds to me like kindness and sadness all mixed together.

I have to pee, of course, as a fifty-seven-year-old body does in the middle of the night, but I close my eyes and pretend otherwise, willing my body to hold off until morning. It would be too much work to grope around in the dark for my headlamp, climb down the ladder from my perch in the loft of this tiny off-grid cabin, and make my way up the dark path, made more treacherous by the exposed roots half-buried by Fall leaves, to the compost toilet in the dark little outhouse. Too much work and too much awakening. Luckily, my body cooperates and I fall back to sleep.

In the morning, I climb down the ladder, pull on a sweater, and make my way to the toilet. After grabbing breakfast from the cooler that feels less-than-cool and should probably be reloaded with ice from the freezer at the far end of the property, I wander down to the lake. I curl up in an Adirondack chair on the dock and watch the ripples on the lake. It’s mesmerizing to watch them, the way they shatter the reflection of the trees into thin strips of perpetual motion.

I wonder, on this windless morning, what is causing the ripples. There are no boats out on this small lake, and nobody else in the handful of cottages is stirring. There are no fish jumping or birds landing, so why the steady ripples?

I stare at them, deep in thought, and something else pops into my mind. “I wish I remembered how to pray.” It’s a thought that I’ve had only occasionally in the years since I stopped going to church and since my faith became so deconstructed I wasn’t sure it existed anymore. Not feeling very certain there’s a god to pray to anymore, I mostly gave up on any attempt at prayer, but sometimes I miss it. Sometimes I miss trusting that there is a higher power with whom I can entrust my worries.

I still think of myself as spiritual, still believe I have spiritual experiences in which I witness the presence of a force greater than me, but prayer feels much more elusive when “god/goddess/mystery” is a more nebulous thing than my former Christian beliefs held to be true. Without the belief that god is the benevolent, omnipotent father-figure I can bring my requests to, I don’t know where to direct my prayers.

This morning, though, I’m missing the simplicity and trust of the prayers of my earlier life. There are worries in my life that I want to entrust to a higher power. There are things going on in my daughters’ lives that I wish I could offer up to a god who might solve their problems for them (since I can’t solve them myself). “Find this daughter a job, give this daughter some friends so she doesn’t feel as lonely.” It’s a “god as vending machine” belief that I’m probably longing for most… drop a few prayers in the slot and out pops the solution, easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

Unfortunately, even in my most fervently religious days, god never showed up as a vending machine, no matter how many prayers I dropped into the slot. At some point, I just couldn’t reconcile the randomness of it all, or the way that god became, for so many, a weapon for manipulation, power, abuse, and shame. That’s when prayer stopped making sense.

Still staring at the lake, I realize that the ripples have disappeared and the water is nearly flat. I’m puzzled for a moment, and then I realize that it was ME who created the ripples – not a boat, bird, or fish. When I stepped onto the dock, the ripples started, and they only stopped once I was still enough that the dock no longer moved.

Suddenly it occurs to me that this may be prayer – bringing my worries to the lake and then sitting so still that the lake responds to my stillness. Sitting so still that even the ripples in my mind are settling. Maybe this is the point – not to send my wishes to a benevolent being I hope will reshape the world in my favour, but to be in acceptance of the world as it is – in tune with the lake, in stillness, and in deep presence.

I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem…


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Much later, after sitting by the fire for hours and reading by the light of my headlamp, I turn off my light to walk to the outhouse. The full moon offers enough light that I can safely navigate the path despite the roots. It helps that I am becoming familiar with this path, on my second day here, getting to know these woods around my tiny cabin. I look up to the moon, and for a moment, I stand in reverence of her beautiful glow. Perhaps this, too, is prayer.

The woman with the basket of sorrows – my journey and a story of Gather the Women

It seems appropriate and metaphorical that my journey to the Gather the Women event I was co-hosting was a long and arduous journey, and yet filled with moments of beauty and grace. The thirty-five hours I’d planned to spend on a train turned into forty-five and a half. I’d looked forward to the many hours of reading, writing, contemplation, and staring out the window (especially after the hard week before), but there’s only so much of that a person can take before the body begins to complain.

The moments, though, when I watched a moose run across a pond, or a great blue heron flap its mighty wings as it lifted itself out of the water, or a perfect circle of sunlight streaming out of a dark cloud, made the difficult journey bearable.

When I finally arrived in Peterborough, along with the other three members of the planning committee, I was weary but excited for what the next four days would bring. Forty-five women were gathering from across North America to sit in circle, share stories, and honour their feminine wisdom. I felt incredibly humbled to have the opportunity to host such a gathering. (Side note: I just realized that there was one woman for every hour I spent on the train! That thought makes me smile.)

The night before the gathering was to begin, I got bad news that almost convinced me to return home. The results of my Mom’s CT scan had come back. It was confirmed that the cancer she’d been treated for over the past year was still growing in her abdomen. Grief swept in and encompassed me. I didn’t know how I would make it through the rest of the week and do the job I needed to do.

I shared the news with the planning committee, and they surrounded me with love and community. “Go home if you need to,” they said. “We’ve got your back.”

The next morning, I decided I’d stay. Something told me that being part of this circle of women would help me have the courage to return home to what I needed to face.

It wasn’t easy. The details of gathering – putting together registration packets and gift bags, writing flip charts, and cutting string for my creative workshop – felt so trivial in light of what I was dealing with. At the same time, though, creating a space of comfort and inspiration for the women who were traveling many miles (literally and metaphorically) to be there was not trivial at all.

Before the opening circle began, I stepped into the room where creative women were preparing to sell their art in a small marketplace. Near the entrance was the beautiful art of Maia Heissler. She was in the midst of hanging her beautiful Forest Friends on a small hand-made tree when I stopped to chat with her.

“I’ve created these specially for the gathering,” she said. “They tell the stories of women gathering. This one is of a woman celebrating, surrounded by the women who love her. This one is of a woman who’s been dealt a basket of sorrows. Her community of women are helping her bear the burden.”

“That one,” I said. “I think I need to go home with that one. I AM that woman with the basket of sorrows.” I didn’t tell her what was in my basket, but I asked her to hold the piece until I’d decided whether I could afford to buy it.

On Thursday evening, there was levity and celebration in the opening celebration. I could hardly bear to be in the room. I spent most of the evening lying on my bed, alone in my room. I emerged only periodically to hear some of the stories that were being shared. Another woman shared how she, too, had taken the train and been subjected to lengthy delays.

Friday morning’s opening circle was beautiful and powerful. One by one we shared stories of how we’d come to be in this circle. Each of us placed a meaningful object in the centre of the circle and then added water we’d brought from our various homes into a collective bowl. When it came my turn to share, I added water that I’d brought from the graveyard where my son Matthew is buried and said that it felt like I was carrying a vial of tears with me. I said nothing about my mom. Something told me to hold that story close for the time being.

In the afternoon, I lead a workshop on storytelling, courage, and community. The women were invited to break into small circles of three to share stories of times in their lives when they’d had courage and times in their future when courage would be required of them. Out of those stories, they chose words and phrases to put onto prayer flags to take home and remind themselves of how the community supports their courage.

I didn’t participate in the story-sharing. Instead, I walked around with my camera, taking pictures of the beautiful faces as they softened and grew more vulnerable within the safe circles of trust.

Before the weekend ended, I bought the art piece of the woman with the basket of sorrows. Though it felt like more money than I could justify spending on myself, I knew I needed to take it home with me.

As the weekend progressed, I found my spirits lightening despite the heaviness in my chest. I was able to celebrate and dance and sing around the campfire. On Saturday afternoon, together with my delightful and spontaneous friend and mentor Diane, I went swimming in my clothes in the river that runs through the centre of Trent University. We convinced our new young friend Lindsay to join us. It was a lovely moment of lightness and joy.

As we drew nearer to the closing circle on Sunday morning, I contemplated whether or not to share the story of my Mom with the circle. I was a little conflicted. As one of the hosts of the gathering, I was somewhat reluctant to draw too much attention to myself, and yet as a member of the circle, it didn’t feel right to leave the circle without entrusting them with my pain. The beauty of the circle is that we all hold equal positions and one’s pain or joy is as important as another’s.

Just before the closing circle, one of the women with whom I hadn’t spoken much approached me. “You are a gifted woman, and you give so much to the group,” she said. “And yet there’s a sadness in your eyes. I want to honour whatever it is that gives you sadness.” At that moment, I knew I needed to share.

It took quite awhile for the talking piece to make its way to me. As it traveled, I listened deeply to the stories that were shared. So many women were going home with renewed courage and hope and strength after being part of the circle. It was a beautiful thing to behold.

When it came my turn, I began by saying that I felt like I’d just been held in the arms of the Great Mother. “I am conflicted,” I said. “It is always so exciting for me to come to an event like this, because I know that this is my calling – to be in places like this, and to teach more people about storytelling, circles, courage, and community. I want to go home and do big things – teach, write and speak. And yet I have received a new calling this weekend – one that I am much more reluctant to follow.”

And then I shared the news I’d gotten – that my own mother might not be with me much longer. “My calling now,” I said, “is not to do big things, but to do small things – to sit in circle with my mother and be with her as she journeys toward the end of her life here with us.”

I held my water vial up and said “before we meet again, there will be many more tears in this vial.” I looked around the room and saw that nearly every woman in the circle had tears in her eyes. My pain had become their pain.

What an incredibly moving thing it is to know that you don’t cry alone! I am surrounded, in that circle and in the circles I returned to when I came back home, with so much love and community.

Yes, I am a woman who has been dealt a basket of sorrows (as is my mom, my sister, my mom’s sister, my sisters-in-law, and the other women who surround my mom – and of course there are many men in that circle too), but I know that I don’t have to carry it alone, and for that I am immensely grateful.

On Monday, the day after Gather the Women ended, my sister and I went to see the oncologist with my Mom and her husband. There we were told that Mom may be with us for six months or more, but probably less than a year. She has the option of taking more chemo treatments, but that will merely prolong her life somewhat and not stop the growth of the cancer. In the coming months, we need to prepare for her journey into the next life.

I didn’t take the train home on the return trip, and yet I know that there is a long and arduous journey ahead of me in the coming months. I also know that that journey will have intermittent moments of peace, beauty, and grace, just like my train ride did.

This I know – we are surrounded by love and we are held in the arms of the Great Mother/Father. May I continue to trust in that.

Mom and I

Mom and me

When you’ve forgotten how to pray

Sometimes, I forget how to pray. No… scratch that – not just SOMETIMES, but OFTEN. Almost every single day.

I have a lousy memory. I forget what it takes to tap into God’s power. I forget that there is something bigger than me at work in the world. I forget that I don’t have to do all of this work alone. I forget that often the most valuable use of my time is to just SHUT UP and LISTEN.

As my last post suggests, I have too often fallen victim to the cult of productivity. We value “busy” in our culture. We don’t value sitting quietly and listening to the wisdom of the God of our understanding. Even in our prayers we think we have to be DOING something all the time. Like maybe we have to fill our prayer time with a whole lot of talking, reeling off a long list of things we think God should be doing in our lives and the lives of the people around us.

It’s not that God doesn’t want to hear from us, but often I think what God wants is just for us to sit quietly, submit our will and our thoughts, and just listen.

The book I’m writing is causing me to think a lot about the day to day presence of God. I have never had such a strong sense of the presence of God in my life as I did during those three weeks in the hospital waiting for my son to arrive. Yesterday I caught myself thinking “I wonder what I could do to go back to that place – to once again sense God’s presence in that way.”

God has a sneaky way of responding when we ask questions like that. Yesterday I read two books that, ostensibly, have nothing to do with prayer, and yet the topic of prayer showed up in both of them. First I was reading Lit, a memoir by Mary Karr that tells the story of her journey from alcoholic agnostic to sober Catholic. When she joins her first twelve step program, she has great difficulty submitting to a Higher Power. It just doesn’t make sense to her. Gradually, she learns to get down on her knees and submit. Gradually, she is transformed and she no longer has to fight the battle of addiction alone.

After finishing Lit, I picked up A World Waiting to Be Born by one of my favourite writers, M. Scott Peck. It’s a book about civility, but lo and behold, there’s a whole chapter on prayer. Peck says that when people ask him how he manages to be so productive in his life, his answer is “I spend 2 hours every day doing nothing.” Three times a day, for 40 minutes, he sets aside all other distractions and spends dedicated time in prayer/meditation. He credits his success as a psychologist and author to the fact that he submits to his Higher Power for direction and wisdom.

Two books in one evening telling me I needed to pray more. I got the message.

This morning, after the house was empty, I climbed into the bathtub and decided that would be my prayer time. Lying there, taking deep breaths, I said “God, I open my mind to your presence.” And then I lay there, open and waiting. Well, these things don’t come naturally, and just like my running practice, I know that I have to put in the day to day effort before something becomes natural.

Here’s a little how my thought process went. “God, I open my mind to your presence. Hmmm… perhaps if I picture setting a lovely table, complete with flowers and pretty dishes, and invite God to sit with me…. oooh… I  like that… wouldn’t that make a lovely blog idea? I could prepare a guided meditation for people about how to invite God’s presence…. oops… I’m slipping into meta-praying – thinking about praying instead of doing it… Okay, let’s try this again… God, I open my mind to your presence. Come sit at my table and dine with me…. Hmmm… I better make this quick. I’ve got lots of work to do. I have to prep my teaching notes and mark all those papers and…”

Yeah, you know how these things go.

But at least I’m trying. And maybe tomorrow I’ll get a few extra seconds in before my mind wanders again.

An artful journey – using art & collage as a spiritual practice

Monday was not a good day. I’d slept about 3 hours the night before, I was grumpy and frustrated about the bad news my daughter had received, and nothing had gone my way all day. I survived the day at work, but was not in the right frame of mind to go to my drawing class in the evening. Almost every cell of my body was screaming “just go home to bed – no need to go to EVERY class.” And yet I knew I would regret missing it and something told me it was just the right thing to do when I was feeling the way I was.

So I dragged myself to class. The first half hour was really bad. We had a visiting instructor, and she just wasn’t teaching the way we were used to being taught. For one thing, she wasn’t willing to give demonstrations, and said “no, I want to see what comes out of you without trying to imitate me.” That pissed me off and I almost got up and walked out.

I was trying to get the shading right on a nose, and it just wasn’t working. At all. I fought  tears. What’s the point? I can’t draw. I’m wasting my time.

I gave up on the first drawing and started another. And then another. And then slowly, in my third attempt, something shifted. My breath slowed and I felt the frustration slowly seep from my body.  Like osmosis. Gradually I entered that special meditative space where nothing else mattered but the paper, the charcoal in my hand, and my presence at the page.

Have you felt it? I’m sure you have. Call it zen, call it flow, call it prayer, call it meditation – call it whatever you like, but when you feel it you KNOW. It’s a mystical, spiritual thing that changes you, that heals you, and that shifts the icky stuff that’s stuck in you.

This past year it’s become more and more clear to me that this is the role art plays for me. I don’t ever intend to be a “serious” artist, but art has become a special touchstone for me, a spiritual practice. It’s how I meditate and pray, and more often than not, I walk away from the page with some deeper understanding of something I didn’t even know I needed an answer for.

For an upcoming retreat, I’ve been asked to put together a special station where people can spend time in quiet reflection and prayer while doing art & collage. It’s not a workshop, so there will be no instruction, but I’m putting together a page of instructions to leave at the table for those who want to engage. Here’s what I’ve prepared so far. Feel free to play along in your own home.

1. Before you begin, spend a few moments in stillness. Take deep breaths and try to free your mind of whatever baggage you brought to the table. Invite the Spirit to sit with you and to create with you. Inhale. Exhale. Open yourself to whatever  wisdom or blessings you may receive (even if that blessing is simply a chance to be still and quiet for awhile in your busy life.)

2. Do not approach this as “a work of art that needs to be mastered”. This is meant for your eyes only and does not need to be shared. Think of it as your personal prayer or meditation, between you and God. Set aside your perfectionism or ideas about “what art should look like”.

3. Begin with a clean sheet of paper or art journal. It’s up to you how you fill that page. You can doodle randomly, splash bold colours on it, or cover it with images from a magazine – anything that feels right for you.

4. If you choose to collage, flip through a few magazines. Don’t look for specific images or words. Instead, pick whatever moves you at that particular moment. It might be photos, random words, or a combination. Either tear or cut them out and collect them without giving too much deliberate thought to what they mean or how they connect with each other.

5. Play with the images for awhile, arranging and rearranging them on the page, folding them, tearing edges off, whatever you like.

6. Once you’re ready, begin gluing them on the page in an arrangement that feels right for you, using mod podge and foam brushes. You may also want to brush mod podge over the top of the images.

7. Add paint,  marker, glitter, or anything you like to the page. Sometimes the best way to connect with what’s on your page is to finger paint on it, meandering to different parts of the page with your finger, and feeling the various textures as you do so. Paint over some images if you like, or just paint between them.

8. Your mind will wander to many places while you do this, and that’s okay, let it wander. This is not about trying to corral your mind, but rather allowing it to freely connect with the images and with the Spirit that is with you in this space.

9. When you are done, sit back and reflect on what is on the page. Some of the images may surprise you. There may be themes you didn’t expect would emerge. There may be combinations of photos that communicate something to you. Be open to whatever you receive.

10. However, don’t put any pressure on yourself to see or interpret something on the page. Sometimes the value is just in the stillness and the meditative act, not in the final result. On the other hand, sometimes you’ll only notice something a few hours or even a few days later, once you come back to the page.

11. You may wish to whisper a silent prayer, but it’s really not important that any words be spoken. Remember that God is quite capable of hearing your thoughts even before they’re put into words, and quite capable of communicating to you in a deeper way than you could express in words.

Ride on

It has been SO good to be back on my bike this week. As I rode beside the river on my way to work this morning, I reflected on how spiritual it feels for me to be on a bike. I’ve always felt that biking is a prayerful time for me, but this morning it occurred to me that my bike rides are not so much WHEN I pray as much as they ARE prayer, in and of themselves.

It’s not that I start my rides with “Dear God” or make my way through a list of prayer requests. It’s more like I feel connected to the spirit while I ride. The pedaling, the sunshine, the crunch of the tires, the sweat on my brow, the exertion of my muscles, the feel of the handlebars in my grip, the taste of the cool water when I’m thirsty – it all feels meditative and prayerful to me.

Often, my most inspired thoughts visit me while I ride. The spirit breath whispers in my ear and awakens my creativity.

I’ve missed that, in those long cold months of winter.

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