Monday, April 25, 2011


My family visited Mount Auburn Cemetery on Easter morning during a week in which I'd spent seven days indoors caring for sick children. As we were about to end our trip and get in the car, I took this picture of my five-year-old, Kinnell, perched in a beautiful and very old tree.

That evening, I remembered an experience I had when my older son, Raimi, was just two years old and I was pregnant with Kinnell. Getting your child to sleep is a challenge for many parents, and at the time we were in the grips of a seemingly endless struggle to get him to go to sleep on his own, in his own bed, without a parent lying next to him. Exhausted and defeated and feeling like the most permissive and unhelpful parent on earth, I lay next to Raimi and prayed to a God I wasn't sure I believed in.

Dear God, I prayed, if you are there - if anyone is there who can hear this: I am so tired. I work hard all day and do my best to take care of this child every single day. I am frustrated. I feel hopeless, and I can't believe that something as ordinary as getting a child to sleep can make me feel so powerless and alone. I wonder what's the point of it all. If you are there, can you please give me some sign -- some reason for hope?

My body was relaxed but I did not fall asleep. An experience filled my senses, more than a vision -- a sense of complete awareness. I felt myself held up by the branches of an enormous tree with smooth grey bark -- the kind of tree I used to climb as a child, whose thick branches contained easy resting places and spots to hide behind green leaves. In another branch I saw Jesus. I didn't think he was God, he was just hanging out there, not making any demand or offering any particular comfort. I felt the smoothness of the bark, its strength and solidity holding me up as solidly as the ground although I knew I was in the air. I felt safe. I knew I was being held, and it would all be ok.

It turned out that both the child I was soothing to sleep and the child I was carrying each was born with a disability. My kids' lives stretch before them, yet thanks to the insights of genetic counseling and neuropsychological analysis, we have glimpses of the course their lives will take. Kinnell will face health problems. Genetically-determined patterns in Raimi's mind mean that he perceives the world differently than most people, and may struggle to understand and have his insights understood.

I wasn't thinking of my experience of God/prayer/tree when I lifted Kinnell up into the tree at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. I just saw the tree, and it seemed to reach out and ask to be climbed. It was open and solid, smooth and ancient. So I lifted Kinnell up and took a picture.

That night I wondered, was the tree that held me when I prayed to God also holding Kinnell as his spirit formed and his body took shape inside my belly? Thinking about these two experiences of trees, a phrase came to mind: I contemplate a tree. Here is the passage it is taken from, from Martin Buber's I And Though (as translated by Walter Kaufman):
I contemplate a tree.
I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.
I can feel it as a movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air--and the growing itself in its darkness.
I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.
I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law--those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.
I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.
Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.
But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an it. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.
This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.
Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the stars--all this in its eternity.
The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it -- only differently.
One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.
Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.
I first read these words when I was taking a college course in 20th Century Theology. Religious studies at the University of Iowa exposed me to the idea that religion is the place where human beings can wrestle with suffering and emerge with a sense of meaning. Not that suffering is itself meaningful, but that life has meaning even in the face of suffering. In Buber's writing, this meaning emerges when we are fully present, open, and in relationship with the world as it is and other human beings who are themselves being present and open with us.

Trees and art are part of Martin Buber's work on I-Thou relationships, but his primary concern is the human relating to another human -- the I and the Thou. Kaufman uses Thou to indicate that the you is himself or herself also an I -- it is a mutual relationship between two subjects, not a subject and an object.

Buber wrote I and Thou after a student of his committed suicide. The student had come to him before killing himself, and Buber felt he had failed to fully engage with his student and his suffering. He felt intense remorse that his student had found his suffering so unbearable as to extinguish any sense of purpose, and Buber hadn't helped.

During this time I also read Paul Tillich's The Courage to Be. Writing after an early career as a Chaplain during World War I, Tillich had witnessed and grappled with the extinction of hope; and with its resurrection. The crucifixion of Christ on the cross conveys this experience for Tillich, and as a non-Christian I was moved by the power of this understanding of the symbol of the cross. In practical terms, I realized, we live in a world that is shot through with suffering. The rational response would be nihilism, and yet we have hope. We believe it is worth it to go on living. Most of us do go on.

Studying religion at the graduate level, I hoped to find a clear sense of the way towards deeper connection, truth and meaning. I found many examples of the religious life, but I did not find my own path. The religious paths I studied had been carved out largely in solitude by Buddhist monastics, Roman Catholic mystics, social justice martyrs. I tried prayer, meditation, visited many different houses of worship, posed as a Unitarian Universalist. I lived my life relationally, not in solitude. I met my life partner and settled on working for a living. I became a parent. I felt I lost my way.

Yet, in the moments when I have felt most constrained and burdened by the work of raising a family and keeping a home, I have experienced these flashes of insight and meaning. I contemplate a tree and meaning emerges.

Above, Buber's phrase, "if will and grace are joined" seems to hold some key to understanding the process by which this meaning emerges. Through an act of will, we can choose mindfulness and seek to remain open. Through some external grace, meaning breaks through.

So perhaps the path I am walking is not as well-defined by the footsteps of those with the time to document and map their way; but it does seem to have been worn deep by the laboring of everyday families and communities seeking to live and to love. Not everyone uses their will to create openness to grace, but how is a monastic retreat chopping wood and preparing meals so different from the daily work of dishes and laundry, working and cooking dinner, caring for children? Doesn't patting a child to sleep require the same discipline as sitting zazen? Your body is tired, your mind strains against the monotony, you lose your sense of self. Isn't the work of parenting, working, loving and friendship just as abundant with richness as any work there is?

I'm not trying to be lazy or get out of doing the spiritual work so many teachers have written about. I'm seeing the path I have been given, and finding that the difference between a right path and a wrong path may be an illusion. Is the difference really the path, or the openness of the one who walks it?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

What I did over Spring vacation

I spent most of this April vacation focused on things not going right, that I could do better, that were imperfect and disappointing. In each corner of my family someone I love is suffering with injury or serious illness. It must be frustrating for them to feel broken and sick, and it is frustrating for me to realize there's nothing I can do to heal the people I love.

Uncle Jason came to visit and together we traveled to see Kevin and Jason's mom for an early Passover celebration. Iris and I took a trip to Crown Market for prepared kosher sides and stood together in line, laughing about the mad rush to prepare for the holidays, and the deals the bakery was offering before closing for the holiday. Pareve black and white cookies were 10/$10 -- who could resist? We would take them home since Iris would not eat anything with hametz during the holiday.

Iris cooked a beautiful meal and we ate with silver utensils off of good china. We recited the names of the plagues and the children wore funny masks. We talked about freedom and justice, and considered the meaning of the elements arranged on the seder plate. Something about life and sacrifice, food, family, and staying together as a community. It was a lovely holiday, clouded by the sense of all I'm not doing to raise my children with a clear sense of their religious upbringing. The kids were confused but delighted -- Raimi insisting several times that he was a FIRST BORN and had a special connection to that particular plague.

We returned to Cambridge with Uncle Jason, but Raimi came down with something like the flu -- high fever and chills, coughing, exhausted and achy for days. Jason took Kinnell out to the park and museum while I stayed home with Raimi. It was a godsend that Jason was there to get Kinnell out of the house. We were sad when Kevin had to take him to the airport on Wednesday morning.

The plan had been to travel to Canada on Wednesday but we postponed our trip when Raimi's fever climbed to 103. With Kevin at work all week, I spent 3 more days inside with the kids, making soup and jello for one, entertaining the other. Raimi watched entire seasons of Mythbusters and Kinnell drew picture after picture of his mommy smiling. We decorated construction paper flowers and bunnies. We read books inside a blanket fort in the corner of the living room. When Raimi's fever broke I began to think we might be able to get on the road by morning... until Kinnell's temperature began to rise. I let him nap inside the blanket fort while I did dishes and laundry, coaxing a still pale-looking Raimi to read a book instead of watching tv. I'm such a bad mother, I thought, to let him have so much screen time, sick or not.

When I realized it was almost Easter I became overwhelmed remembering the holidays of my childhood. Yes, my kids were sick and plans had changed, but I thought surely there is something wrong with me that we don't belong to a faith community; that the kids had no new spring clothes; that we don't have friends in the neighborhood we can just drop in on; and I don't have the perfect recipe to pull off the shelf in keeping with tradition.

In my family Easter meant time with extended family, an indoor easter egg hunt, new dresses, a full sanctuary at our UU church, and a beautiful meal cooked by my mother. I was not raised to believe in the trinity or resurrection, but the holiday offered the chance to welcome the spring and consider the role of Jesus the social justice activist -- alongside other great men and women who have fought for the rights of the poor and oppressed. I was raised to believe that Jesus was just a man, not perfect or better -- as imperfect and human as the rest of us.

Kevin & I took stock on Friday night. One kid on the mend, the other's fever reaching a peak of 103, I raced to the store for more ibuprofen and tylenol, and candy and trinkets for Easter baskets. Saturday morning I left Kinnell with Kevin while Raimi and I ran errands to pull together a very human and imperfect Easter dinner. Kevin suggested dolmades, the kids wanted corn dogs -- Raimi wanted to decorate them like bunnies. We found allergy-friendly cake mix, organic icing and natural food-coloring at Whole Foods. Raimi's vision was to bake a cake and decorate it using the candy the Easter Bunny would bring. We debated what flowers to buy for the table, settling on a mix of fiery tulips and yellow snap dragons.

Today, Easter morning, Kinnell woke up at 5 unable to swallow, feverish, thirsty and sad. We gave him some advil and I snuggled him back to sleep, and when he woke up he felt well enough to appreciate the nests of candy and eggs tucked away in nooks throughout our tiny apartment living room. We ate breakfast and snuck bites of candy. I worked on a project on my computer and kevin read a book on his Kindle while the kids played with legos.

We baked and iced the cake, discovering just how awful the organic frosting and food coloring really was. But the kids excitedly created jellybean flowers and birds' nests, then floated marshmallow peeps on a purple "pond" and brownish "grass." Kinnell unwrapped a caramel egg, declared "this is gonna be funny" and poked it into the surface of the cake.

We got dressed and went for a walk around Mt. Auburn cemetery -- enjoying the view from the top of its mountaintop tower. I realized just how sedentary I'd been all week as my tired and shaking legs carried me back down the 95 steps inside the monument. As we walked around the grounds Kevin and I noticed the many older family plots containing children. We found a tombstone sculpted like a bassinet. Another monument depicted a boy cradling a baby in his arms, with the names and dates of an 8-year-old and 15-month-old.

We are lucky, I said to Kevin.

We saw tadpoles in Willow Lake and two turtles sunning themselves on a log. Dogwoods, forsythia and magnolia were blooming and the graves of the newer section were adorned with potted tulips, hyacinth, and easter lilies. We found the grave markers for Buckminster Fuller, Amy Lowell, and B. F. Skinner. We took Kinnell's picture cradled in the thick arms of a tree that looked as old as the cemetery itself. Its insides were beginning to hollow but its branches were dotted with the bright green leaves of early spring.

We came home and began dinner. Kevin and I rolled out the grape leaves and discussed how big to make them and how tightly to roll them -- our words part of the ritual for making dolmades. How many times have my mother, sister, Kevin, father, brother-in-law talked about the arrangement of ingredients within a perfect stuffed leaf.

We made salad and chicken strips (no corn dogs at Whole Foods). Kevin opened a bottle of wine and I chopped vegetables and apples for the kids. We shared what we were thankful for and talked about whether this had been a good April vacation -- what our favorite parts had been.

It was not a perfect dinner, a perfect week, a perfect holiday. We stumbled through the ancient rituals and I felt inadequate at nearly every turn -- doing my best to soothe my children and connect with family despite all plans going wrong. Holidays bring this out in me, this fear of inadequacy, awareness of my imperfections. I despair at the blooming pile of dishes and nearly miss the blooming branches outside the window of our apartment. I feel time passing us by as I fail to find the perfect OG-certified tutor or social skills group for Raimi, or give Kinnell enough attention as his vocabulary explodes and he needs me to talk with him. Still, I do my best for my children.

Religions speak of sacred time, and it is tempting to think of sacredness as an escape from the everyday instead of finding the sacred within the mundane details of our lives: Drawing pictures for one another with Kinnell inside a blanket fort. Listening to Raimi describe why he loves the mall and delighting him with a warm pretzel. The view of Boston from a mountain in Cambridge. The pots of flowers left by mourners, the thick trunk of a wisdom-old tree. Jellybeans on cake, my husband's hand taking mine while watching Netflix, the squeals of delight as he tickles two sick kids, shouting "laughter is the best medicine!"

It's an illusion that Spring brings new life. Spring comes every year of this same old life. May I be reminded of the beauty of my life as it already was, the beauty of my life as it continues humbly on.