Monday, March 15, 2010

"You've got to make time ... "

I don't know about you, but I've wasted my share of time.

I've lost time. I've donated time. I've lost track of time, given a minute of my time, and even, despite embracing non-violence, killed time.

For the life of me, I have yet to figure out the alchemical formula for manufacturing it.

I say this as someone who would gladly have spent cash money on 25-hour days, were they an option. We are a culture of too much to do and too little time with which to do it. We seem to be hurtling toward middle age and beyond, trying to fill our days in order to fill our inner void. To build an unassailable sense of self that provides a yardstick with which to trim the world to manageable dimensions. We are terrified of not making good use of time, making of time a commodity in a way that suites our overriding sense of ourselves as producers and consumers.

None of this is news. We know we are hamsters on the vast wheel that is our restless society. Some of us have found creative ways to "opt out," to slow down, to move at a more truly human pace. But for those of us who find ourselves in the middle of the American economic doughnut, it can feel increasingly like we're falling through the hole.

Recently, I read that something like 50% of US households with incomes of $100,000 are living paycheck to paycheck. In my house, figuring out how to make due with low six figures would be a nice problem to have. But I understand why folks are struggling. Around here, we both have to work because one salary simply would not pay our bills. We have a very modest home, are paying to lease one car, have lawn care donated by my mother, don't take expensive vacations, don't own a flatscreen TV, and barely squeak by. Daycare expenses for Maddie have a lot to do with it, but if one of us stayed home with her, the other's income would not suffice.

But this post isn't about money, it's a about time. With both of us until recently working full time, plus an hour commute each way for me, maintaining the house took up much of weekends. As I've posted previously, I was getting up at 4:30 in order to do centering prayer and practice my bass before 6:00 in order to be ready for work, take Maddie to daycare, commute 40-plus miles, work for eight hours (often more), drive home, cook dinner, and put Maddie to bed on alternative nights. That left less than an hour, usually, before I had to be in bed myself.

Sound familiar?

We are constantly bombarded with messages about what we should be doing with our time. We need to make time to sit down to dinner together. We need to shop for and consume healthier foods. We need to make time for exercise. We need to "make time for ourselves." We need to "make time for our spouses." We need to spend more time with our kids. We need to find a worthy cause for which to volunteer. We need to make new friendships, get to know our neighbors, find a rewarding hobby. We feel guilty if we aren't doing these things.

Am I the only one who thinks there just isn't enough time? At least for many of us?

Don't get me wrong. I realize that "making time" really means prioritizing. I have known for some time that centering prayer has to be a top priority. It's as vital to me as eating, sleeping and breathing. My wife easily distinguishes meditating me from - well, the other me. I just had to decide to sacrifice time in the evening to make sure I honored that commitment. I knew how important music has been in my life, so I had to sacrifice still more post-Maddie-bedtime relaxation to fit that in as well. I knew I needed to exercise, for reasons of both physical and mental health. Couldn't figure out how to accomplish that one. Without all of the elements in some kind of balance, I knew the path I was on wasn't sustainable, which is why I quit my job.

Fingers crossed I can find a new one, or some other solution economically. The alternatives, though, were a heart attack, or a failed marriage, or a poor parent-child relationship. Maybe all three. The alternatives were unacceptable. So from a reasonably calm place, thanks to sticking to my prayer practice, I took a leap of faith.

I really don't know what to say to other folks who feel the way I was feeling. Who feel trapped in a way that appears to offer no palatable options. I don't know how a single parent "makes time" for centering prayer. I don't know how a working couple with kids achieves a balance that makes contemplative life feasible. I don't know how to be counter-cultural and survive, without taking a leap of faith.

I also know that, thankfully, not everyone is as out-of-kilter as I was. We each have to find our own balance, and there are many, many paths. When I've looked back previously at similar forks in the road, I was always tempted to discern a pattern, God's guiding hand. Then one day it occurred to me that which fork I took really didn't matter - God was there regardless. The pattern was simply my own human need to extract meaning from life's events.

So I'm just going to keep praying and see what happens next.

- monk about town

Friday, March 12, 2010

Zen and the Art of Mozzarella Maintenance

There are of course many ways to pray.

In contemplative life, at least as its practice has been handed down by saints and citizens alike, there is ultimately no distinction between times of prayer and times of activity. Both are works of God accomplished as a result of our consent to God's presence and action in and through us. In St. Augustine's famous formulation: "Love God, and do what you will."

Some activities, of course, seem more apt to stop mindfulness in its tracks than to cultivate it. I am convinced that this is why God created commuting by car. For one person, skiing may be a prayerful expression of God's presence in nature and their own wondrously made body, while for another it may be a mere exercise in conquering fear.

For me, that place of pure awareness is pizza.

Or to be more specific, making pizza. A couple of years ago, I announced that I was taking on the bulk of the cooking responsibilities in our house in order to ratchet up my contribution to the domestic economy. My ulterior motive at the time was the ability to justify the purchase of one of the cool, artisanal Japanese cooking knives I had been surreptitiously eying online. (I am painfully aware that my motives are an admixture of the proverbial weeds and wheat.) That knife is still sitting in its box, but the more mundane version purchased at the same time is now the nexus of a host of kitchen stories and handmade meals.

At first, cooking from scratch added to the stresses of the day. This was true despite our collection of cookbooks promising great food in a matter of minutes (I quickly developed a formula for deciphering how long that recipe would actually take me to execute). After a long drive home, the last thing I was ready to face was a large onion asking to be chopped.

The something interesting happened. Cooking, unaccustomed as I was to its rhythms and requisite skills, allowed me to take my mind off of the day's events, the work I hadn't gotten done, the state of the world. It demanded complete concentration. Anything else resulted in scars and burn marks. Cooking a meal gave me a tremendous sense of accomplishment and also a feeling of completion. At the office the pile on my desk simply grew taller each day. I would finish a meal with a certain well-earned tiredness that stopped well short of mental and emotional exhaustion.

Then something truly remarkable happened. I found "the zone."

As my skills improved and I was able to grasp the culinary rudiments, the cooking-related anxiety itself evaporated like the white wine alcohol in Giada's recipe for "spaghetti with clams." The mental effort required was just enough to keep me out of my head and away from mulling the problems of the day. But not enough to get the analytical gears grinding too hard. I could manage two dishes simultaneously, at least most of the time. I could chop like a slower-motion replay of the folks on the food network; focused yet calm. I knew how the samurai must have felt while training.

Well, not quite. I have some grasp of how to invite mindfulness in the kitchen, but no culinary greatness, or even genuine average-ness.

Except when it comes to pizza. At some point in our marriage, an electric counter-top pizza maker came to live with us. Once a week or so, I take a hiatus from slavishly following recipes to concoct something we call "easy pizza." It really did start out that way: easy. Pre-shredded cheese from the dairy aisle, those little pouches of pepperoni. Then my college-level training as a jazz improviser kicked in.

At first, it was a little saute'd something just to distill the flavor before it went on the top. Then it was trying Vodka sauce in place of the usual kind. Next thing you know, I was crumbling potato chips up in plastic bags, or sliding a raw egg onto the top of the pizza to cook there. I had become that social type described by the sociologist Claude Levi-Strauss: the bricoleur, surveying the fridge for comestible flotsam and jetsam with which to risk my one culinary accomplishment: the coveted "thumbs-up" from my daughter.

So far, my bricolage has not, for the most part, taken me out of "the zone." Pizza-making has retained it's place as a time of mindfulness and the gratefulness, in Brother David Steindl-Rast's spiritual equation, that flows from it. Sometimes, Maddie joins me and pizza-making takes on a communal dimension. She spoons on sauce or slices cheese with her own blunt knife. Mostly, she's there to poach her favorite ingredients.

I don't cook every day, but enough to do my share and generate leftovers. Of course, I try to be mindful in everything I do, but the fact is that my mind still tends to wander when I vacuum or collect the garbage. Discovering cooking as a contemplative space is a real gift. As are the comments I get from my wife and the thumbs-up I get from Maddie when I hit on something particularly tasty.

Hey, the proof is in the pie.

- monk about town

Contemplative dad tip for the day: A couple of years ago, in place of the usual bedtime songs, I started singing Maddie songs that have been important to me, mostly standards like those from Gershwin, Kern, and the Beatles. It didn't take that long before, somewhat to my surprise, I discovered she could sing them back, even if the lyrics in some cases remained a bit beyond her grasp. I hope these songs will continue to be special to her and that she'll sing them to her own kids some day. You never know when a wonderful tradition will germinate unbidden.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"For wherever your treasure is ...

... there will your heart be too." (Matthew 6:21, New Jerusalem Bible)

I once saw Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, interviewed on television. Maybe by Bill Moyers. She was asked at one point why she had chosen to remain a Roman Catholic, especially given her views on the role of women in the church.

No, Sister Joan is not the sweet lady on that network you surf past sometimes where you can almost smell the incense. She is instead a Benedictine nun who has been a tireless voice for justice and an important spiritual leader:

Sister Joan's answer to that interviewer was one of the best answers to a question I've ever heard (the best answer is the one I use most often: "that depends.") Sister Joan said, without, as I recall, skipping a beat, "Because the Roman Catholic Church is a treasure house of the Christian tradition."

One of the coins in that treasure house was removed from its coffer over 30 years ago, polished until it shone, and sent into circulation, where it continues to collect interest (OK, took that metaphor as far as it'll stretch). The contemplative prayer tradition, always at the edges of Christian theology and spiritual practice, emerged into the thriving spiritual market of the 1970's as "centering prayer," outlined in the work of Trappist monks Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, and William Meninger.

The work of Fr. Keating is perhaps best distilled in his contemporary spiritual masterpiece Open Mind, Open Heart ( It has also given rise to Contemplative Outreach, a ministry designed to make contemplative life and prayer a vivid and viable choice for both Catholics and non-Catholics:

This is where I enter the story. In 1994, as I was wrestling with my vocational future (as I am currently - note to potential employers) my mystical mom suggested a centering prayer retreat at a place called Chrysalis House in upstate New York. As an analytical type with a very restless mind (and distinctly more OCD than OSB) I suspected I was more of an Ignatian Spiritual Exercises type. You know, a spend-20-minutes-in-prayer-and-solve-three-major-longstanding-theological-conundrums-before-breakfast kind of guy.

Besides, Chrysalis House was apparently vegetarian and, worse, potentially involved still more dubious practices such as chanting and smiling for no reason. And me, raised a hamburger-loving, dour, non-chanting Presbyterian (please note: this is not meant as a characterization of Presbyterians generally, some of whom are no doubt chanting as they read this).

But I signed up anyway. And it became apparent pretty quickly that Chrysalis House was a very special place (it has since closed). Centering prayer, not to go into too much detail, involves making oneself present to God, and God's interior healing activity, and gently renewing that presence by returning to a sacred word (individual to each person) when distracted. Beyond the river of thought and the sacred word is interior silence and pure attentiveness. I can recall going into my room at Chrysalis House at one point and realizing that my rhythms had slowed and my mind calmed to the point that I could just sit wide awake without the need to do anything except be.

There's more to it, obviously. Also obvious are the parallels with other meditative practices and contemplative traditions, with Zen Buddhism being perhaps the most evident analog. My own practice of centering prayer has led me to a personal dialog with Eastern Orthodox hesychasm, Zen, Hindu Sannyasa, the spirituality of the indigenous peoples of North America, and Sufism. It has also led me into the monestary, and back into the world.

I have not uniformly maintained my centering prayer practice. Maybe I'm not the only contemplative dad forced to make this confession. When I am loyal to my prayer practice and give God the space, I often refind that place of equanimity I first discovered at Chrysalis House 15 years or so ago. The practice of letting go carries into my day, and I am present to people and situations in ways uncharacteristic of "ego me." And then it's all too easy to succumb to the temptation to use prayer not as a means of spending time with God, but a coping mechanism I can bend to my own stressed-out purposes.

Nevertheless, this blog has "Contemplative Dad" right there in the title, so I figured maybe I owed a few words about what that precisely means. Centering prayer has been somewhat controversial, no surprise given its relationship to other mystical and meditative traditions. Besides, if you ask me, you're asking for trouble as a Roman Catholic if you put "Open Mind" right there in the title of your book. Yet the simple truth is that centering prayer leads not to freedom from the material world, with its immense brokenness, but into it's very heart. The detachment it cultivates is not freedom from engagement but freedom for it.

In other words, the road still leads, inevitably, to the cross.

- monk about town

Friday, March 5, 2010

Lights, Camera, Contemplation

Last post, I wrote about Maddie's fascination with Disney's The Lion King, which concerns me on several levels.

That's because movies have real power, some of the greatest power our culture wields. They can provide us (and so often do) with inherently evil targets for our latent inner violence, allowing us to enjoy without guilt the suffering and death visited on "deserving" irredeemable villains (this is where film's ability to conjure aliens comes in handy). But they can also help to break us open, at least at our crusty surface (sorry, just watched 2012). And on the spiritual journey, we must of course be broken open -- despite the ego's best efforts to combat the process -- again and again.

So I was interested to find a story online yesterday courtesy of "Arts & Faith" listing the "Arts & Faith Top 100 Films:" I was further interested to note that I have only seen five of them: Andrei Rublev, A Man for All Seasons, The Apostle, It's a Wonderful Life, and Chariots of Fire. It's possible I've seen one or two others, but if I have I don't remember, which tells you a great deal right there.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed all five, including the Christmas fruitcake that is the ever-circulating It's a Wonderful Life, I don't recall any of them really bowling me over. Perhaps that's because I simply wasn't in the right place in my life to be bowled. Perhaps it's also because Andrei Rublev moves at the pace of a lazy glacier, and Thomas More comes off rather better in A Man for All Seasons than under a less hazy, historical lens.

So having pondered the "Arts & Faith 100," I've decided to list a few films that didn't make the "100" that made an impact on me when I first saw them. This doesn't mean they were great films, but that I was in the right place to get something from them. This is, after all, the way movies tend to move us, regardless of whether or not we can also appreciate them as worthy and enduring works. I am therefore providing the list with full awareness that your list is probably different, as may be your personal take on the movies I have chosen to mention. But I found the effort to consider and create it an interesting undertaking, and maybe you'll be inclined to do the same.

In no particular order:

St. Francis is without compromise, willing to descend to the very cellar of society in order to grow closer to - and into - God. If you've ever been at a place in your life where you've wrestled with the thought that maybe you should simply walk out the door with only the clothes on your back to follow Jesus then you know where I was when I watched this film. Utter renunciation always has immense power. It's always out there as the ultimate option, the path that goes through the eye of the needle without so much as brushing the edges. But it can also lead to mental illness if you're uninvited and unprepared (as I was), and God won't try to stop you. Utter renunciation will have to happen sooner or later anyway, so why be precipitous. Still think about it sometimes, though ... thanks, Francesco.

The Mission
The power in the film for me was partly visual, partly the way in which historical situations force existential choices. One of those choices has to do with with non-violence as a personal spiritual path. But mostly I dug the visuals.

Black Robe
I actually liked this movie better than The Mission (where would the intellectual religious film world be if not for the Jesuits?) It is flawed in its portrayal of indigenous peoples, but I wasn't equipped to recognize it at the time. But the clash of cultures in the film at least inspired me to try to equip myself. Culture clash is often a good place to start in examining one's own perspective.

The Fisher King
Another film whose power for me derives from the way in which the main character comes to see the world, and himself, from the bottom up. At the time, it also provided a haunting image of a whole alternative society that exists unseen, or at least ignored, across America - rural, urban, and in-between. I think marginalized people exert a certain fascination for some non-marginalized folks - a parallel universe of meaning and activity in which they're unprepared to function. I think that was part of the movie's pull for me. Having spent time acquainting myself with the margins, I'm no longer fascinated, but I'm a lot more educated. And my own middle-classness, whiteness, and maleness have been silhouetted in the process.

Dead Man Walking
Another uncompromising view, with the force that only an uncompromising view can generate. Either every human life has inherent value, and killing is wrong. Or not. And there's no attempt at making the question palatable.

C.S. Lewis gave me permission to re-explore my jettisoned Christian upbringing by showing me that it is possible to be both a thinking, appropriately skeptical person and a person of faith.

Oscar Romero didn't need to go looking for trouble -- it found him in his historical moment. (See, this is why you don't necessarily need to walk out the door with only the close on your back to follow Jesus.) His response brings to mind Hemingway's famous phrase "grace under pressure," right up to his martyrdom. The countless people who only respect and recognize cruder forms of power will always underestimate someone with Romero's quiet courage and latent self-confidence.

Natural Born Killers
Rightly or wrongly, I felt the violence of this movie was trying to make a point. It did make me physically ill at the same time. But if the violence of this film is "excessive," then what's the appropriate amount? How much violence should we be able to sit calmly through while munching our popcorn? How much - and what type - of violence qualifies as "entertaining?" At least I was prompted to ask those questions, if no one else was. And when Woody Harrelson's character says that "only love can kill the demon," I thought that was as succinct an expression of the gospel as I've come across. How ironic that it came from the "evil" character. Of course, that line can also be dismissed as unrealistic, simplistic, naive nonsense. The gospel usually is.

While writing about Black Robe I thought about Disney's Pocohantas. They're not remotely similar films in any discernible way, except that they're both about, or have as subject matter, the indigenous peoples of North America. Both get some things right, but other things wrong. Both tell the story from one perspective while omitting others. Both are intended to push emotional buttons in the interest of entertainment.

But you can't easily eliminate Disney from the equation either (fought that battle: lost). So when possible, I've been discussing the movies Maddie watches while watching them with her. Not all the time, but hopefully enough for her not to grow up a passive, accepting consumer of every sugary treat the media, and indeed the wider culture, concocts. I realized just how important this is when Maddie asked me if someone we'd recently encountered was a "bad man" because he wasn't smiling and that's how the bad people look on TV. Like it or not, that's the power movies can have.

- monk about town

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Of mice and girls (and birds and squirrels)

I am convinced that one of the reasons I am a 5 on the Enneagram is that I grew up on a hill. Yes, there's probably a 5 gene lurking somewhere in my DNA. But I can recall countless hours spent in our yard with its vistas giving way both south and north. Some of that time was of course spent intentionally in play. But much of it was spent simply exploring, watching clouds morph overhead, and gazing into the distance with a vague sense of impending adventure. At night, I would peel the curtains back to look out at the lights huddled about the galaxy that was our small local city.

No wonder I wound up the detached observer.

I would climb one or another of our many tall trees and spend hours at heights that now make me shudder as a parent. On the first really nice spring day, I would take a pair of binoculars and observe and record airplane flights as our local airport, in full view to the north, would come alive like a hive beaten with a stick. On other nice days I would set up as a painter at the back of the yard and produce landscapes of startling mediocrity. In fact, if not for our yard, I would probably have spent all of my time living in books and had much less to connect them with; no outer match to my inner muse.

Subsequently, I spent much of my time in cities as culturally rich as my hometown was excitement challenged. When I started on the contemplative path, my mystical mom told me that I would begin to see the natural world differently. I was convinced I would be an urban contemplative, destined to behold the green lining of life's sidewalks.

As usual, mom was right.

Well, mostly right. I spent a month at a hermitage in Nova Scotia, and five months as a postulant in Big Sur, taking increasing notice of the God bursting at the world's every seam. I was edified by Annie Dillard, Rick Bass, Wendell Berry. I learned to sit crouched in the woods behind our place in the Poconos for 45 minutes at a time without so much as a muscle twitch, watching the woods crawl like a log that only that degree of stillness could overturn. But eventually, I found myself in that place where once-green dreams of creative attainment go to die when they wither unplucked: suburbia.

Which brings me to my yard, still mostly snow-crusted as I sit here and type on a late winter's afternoon. When we made the decision to buy a house eight years ago, I was determined that it have a good, kid-friendly yard. No pool (much to my step-daughter's chagrin), just enough space and enough flora and fauna to experience God's restless need to stay materially on the move. You might say I was shopping for a nice yard that happened to come with a house.

And eventually we found it, in a modest but mature neighborhood where the colors detonate for a couple of weeks or more each April, and again in the fall. We have an appropriately stately silver maple in the back, and a multi-personalitied Japanese maple in the front. We have a family room with two skylights that frame the moon, and French doors that make the squirrels constantly playing on our deck seem like part of the family. We've had a pair of ducks and a pair of hawks as regular visitors (not at the same time). And we've been given the greatest suburban gift of all: free lawn care courtesy of my mom.

But I enjoy our yard the most when I enjoy it with Maddie. It's just the right size with just the right amount of plant life to sustain a good game of hide and seek. It's home to a soccer field, baseball diamond, and football field, depending on current requirements and requisite imagination. It's a place to explore and to discover otherness, likeness, and a diverse array of forms - wriggling, fluttering, scampering, and still. Of the atom-smashing, tirelessly mutating creativity of God it is both sign and microcosm. Just like Maddie herself.

And she even prefers it to "The Lion King."


- monk about town

(Contemplative dad tip for the day: With a little menu planning, the ingredients for meals early in the week can make good pizza toppings later in the week.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Ignored by the lucratuve self-help industry ...

It's not there in the Rule of St. Benedict: What to say to your 5-year-old as you hold her hair back while she throws up every 20 minutes all night long. (Sorry about the throw-up reference in the first sentence, but hey, we're all dads here, right?)

I know it's not in there in the RB because I just fished my copy out of the attic and flipped through it. It's helpfully - even copiously - annotated. But there's not one word about being contemplative and a dad. Or being contemplative and a husband. Or contemplative and a homeowner (with a neighbor who just watched you stagger under the weight of two feet of fresh driveway snow without offering to lend you his Nascar-rated snow blower ... still trying to let go of that one).

So to some extent, we're writing our own Rule here, us contemplative dads. In my house, that means setting the alarm for 4:30 to get to the coffee pot (more staggering) before 20 or 30 precious minutes of centering prayer. It means trying to carry that barely-glowing ember of interior peace with me through the mundane welter of tasks just waiting to throw a bucket of cold water on it (envision a tribal shaman holding the basket of coals representing life vs. death over his head while crossing an icy river.)

Through getting the kiddo dressed and off to daycare ("How on earth did you get toothpaste there?")

Through an-hour commute each way to and from a high-stress job ("No, I'm not letting you into this lane, you should have moved over a quarter of a mile ago when this lane slowed down!")

Through arriving home not to my beckoning leather armchair but to a recipe for spaghetti pie (yum!).

Through putting the kid to bed every other night ("Dad, can we please read two chapters of Jack and Annie?")

All to finally reach (insert your best impression of a drum roll here): a half-hour of time before bed to spend with my wife to try to sustain our relationship.

And I'm sure plenty dads out there have it even worse (two-week retreat, anyone?)

There are days when that ember astonishingly, miraculously, grows, and I can relate to everyone and everything from that inner collected calm. Then there are days when I find myself snapping at the kid while trying to locate scallions in the back of the fridge ("OK, who moved my freaking scallions!"), and I realize that ember was a cold lump of charred nothing by lunchtime. And also days when I spend those 20 precious minutes already assaulted mercilessly by the dozen little demons who remind me of how far behind I am at work or the shrimp I have to pick up on the way home.

So it's pretty much that one-day-at-a-time thing espoused by the Desert Fathers, Zen masters, the folks who invented AA, and a few of the less annoying Hallmark products. Am I headed toward transforming union or bitter old age? God only knows. All I can do is keep offering God that tiny early-morning space to work with.

I do know that watching Maddie bravely endure an entire night's throwing up without shedding a single tear gives me at least a glimpse of what God can accomplish when it comes to empowering us to cope with the stomach virus or the two feet of snow life inevitably includes. The closest I can recall to Maddie complaining was her saying, "Dad, I need the bowl." Sometimes, it's good to have a bowl nearby. I'm putting that in the Rule.

- monk about town

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