A mystic in trouble

Why do I even do this? I ask myself several times a day when I am tending Congo matters. How did I get myself into this difficult situation, who am I to be doing this? But the question is always rhetorical, not because I know the answer to it but because I know I will keep doing whatever it is I am doing, even though it is difficult. The situation I’ve gotten myself into is exactly where I want/need to be, even though it isn’t always pleasant.

But I try to address the question head-on every now and then because motives and reasons can sneak around and bite you in the back if you don’t keep an eye on them. They do keep changing, even if your actions remain outwardly the same. If you aren’t aware of the changes you can start lying to yourself, unwittingly, and that is never good. The better side of this is that as time goes on motives may become clearer, and it is always rewarding, always a good thing, to understand yourself better, to understand what is happening to you that causes you to behave in the way you do.

The situation I am referring to is that I continue to take a very active interest in a particular Christian community in perhaps the poorest country in the world, a country ridden by impossible conflicts, though those conflicts are largely outside the territory of this community. So, it’s not because I think I can do anything about the chaos and suffering in eastern Congo. It’s not, in fact, because I think I can do anything about any kind of suffering in Congo, including the suffering of poverty. Relieving suffering is not my motivating force, not what calls me, although it may be a blessed side effect of some things I do.

I do hope not to create more suffering for others though that, too, can be a side effect. So maybe I will create suffering, unpleasant as that may be for me to witness, because suffering is necessary for growth. I’m finding this in my own case and who am I to say growth should be easy for other people? I am suffering a little right now, asking myself, why do I even do this? Because it isn’t easy; it is, in fact, sometimes agonizing.

Early on what got me into the Congo thing, which has intensified over the last year and a half, was a combination of nostalgia (for a previous experience in the distant past), love of beauty (Congo Cloth), and serendipity: the unfolding of a series of circumstances that came together in quick succession, making certain actions and developments seem right.

Then, quickly, it came to be about relationships. When you start relating to a new group of friends, become involved in a new network, certain things become possible and certain things are asked of you and you respond. Relationships require communication and lead, inevitably, to responsibility but they are also sustaining. So I can say that I need this new group of friends; that they are becoming like another very extended family for me, creating warmth and home and familiarity in ways I could not have imagined two years ago.

But none of this gets at the big, mysterious Why. Why Congo, why me, why now?

I could put it down to feeling called. It is that for sure, but the answer does not satisfy me so why should it satisfy you? I have done a lot in my life without the (maybe sometimes dangerous) certainty that goes with feeling called, and so I don’t think a sense of call is necessary to compel me to do odd things like work for nuclear disarmament or wrack my brains over environmental policy. But I have done these things out of a similar combination of circumstance, attraction, relationship, responsibility, and mystery. And with the similar frustrations and agony that come with doing anything difficult (even apparently impossible).

The common thread here seems to be, “difficult things.” Why do I repeatedly go for the difficult, the impossible? It seems to be in my DNA, but it is also a result of how I live, that is, by such airy methods as prayer and paying attention to dreams, and in an everlasting quest for wisdom (knowing I will never have enough of it to make sense of myself, let alone the world). These difficult situations are the practical results, for me, of living as a mystic.

Living as a mystic gets me into difficulties. I get focused on something and can’t turn away. Prayer and dreams trick me into taking bold steps that make no logical sense. But living as a mystic also gets me through difficulties. It does not, believe me, keep me from making mistakes. The mistakes, however, usually get transformed into wisdom and learning, and correcting them requires more bold moves in a good direction. Away from fear, toward love. That movement, propelled by spiritual power, is what it is all about.

Mystics, unite! The world needs us, getting down and dirty, getting into trouble.

Life is like spilled beads

beadsI dream of sorting tiny beads. It’s not just me. I have kids “helping.” Of course every time the beads come into some sort of pattern they get messed up. And then we start over.

I don’t know what this is about except life. Cooking, cleaning, writing, losing weight, working on myself. Nothing is ever accomplished, done, satisfactory. Expecting it to be so is futile, given the material and who’s working with it. I’m not God the master artist. I’m just a bunch of easily distracted kids and this is really, really demanding work, making sense of life, making progress in life.

I dream this after starting Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, a novel about the lives of Ursula, who, every time she dies (the first time right after birth), goes back and relives the same life up to the point of that death, which she or circumstances now prevent, until the next death happens–maybe only months or hours later this time. For example, it takes her three or four tries to survive the great influenza epidemic of 1918. After infancy she has vague but urgent premonitions before the last thing that killed her happens and she takes a small evasive action. When I left off last night she was 7 and was beginning to experience déjà vu in other things as well.

This is an intriguing premise for a novel but mind-boggling to think about. (I recommend anything Kate Atkinson has written.) Another mind-boggler I’ve read recently is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. That one plays with time and the idea of parallel universes, parallel lives, subtly, not in a sci-fi way.

The thing I live for is to see patterns and connections. Thus the beads in my dream. Now I see them, now I don’t, and there is very little to hold them in place once I do see them.

Take weight loss, for example. I was following a formula that was working. The last few weeks I’ve been following it strictly and it hasn’t worked. The scales register a gain. If it is the scales, why does it act up in that particular way? If it is my body, same question.

And on a larger issue, every time I think I am in general becoming more disciplined and purposeful, I have a day like yesterday when I watch hours and hours of TV and read novels and get no exercise and exceed my food points.

I guess that is no great mystery. I was a tiny bit discouraged by the weight gain. What the heck nothing works anyhow I may as well be a lazy slob.

But church was good yesterday and the dream class I’m leading there went really well again. At first the dreams are like spilled beads and then we begin to see the patterns.

Today I’m ready to get back to the bead sorting. Having fun doing it.bead girl



Intensive living

I have a habit of posting really trivial stuff just as horrible news is breaking. Last Monday I wrote about what makes people “like” something I’ve written and then I saw the news about the Boston Marathon bombings. So there it was, the trivia of my daily preoccupations set against something really important.

This morning I was thinking of writing something but first I caught up on the news. Boston is shut down as one of the alleged killers is being pursued. A Texas fertilizer plant turns into an even bigger killer. Chicago is flooded. The Senate chickens out on gun control.

I decided to postpone writing about the Zen of sewing. Maybe later, when the news has calmed down (when will that ever happen).

When I was traveling in Congo last year I would use occasional Internet access to catch up on Facebook and other news and I would think how trivial everything happening in the USA seemed—even disasters—in the context of the struggle for survival that engaged every Congolese I knew.

It’s not that they were leading tragic lives, but they were living more intensely. Everything about life in Congo seemed more intense: pain, struggle, joy, gratitude, love, conflict, beauty, ugliness. Being in the presence of this intensity was both exhausting and exhilarating. I miss it a little now. Perhaps my hesitance to write about my life in the face of Really Big News is really a regret at the loss of intensity.

We feel empathy with those in the news, those who are really suffering. But there is something artificial about the way our national attention swings from one city to another, one distant or not-so-distant tragedy to another, our empathy drawn out over degrees of separation that only emphasize our individual powerlessness to console, heal, prevent, protect.

Living intensely is the opposite of living at the remove of distance, the remove of the news. You can only live your own life intensely, not other people’s lives.

I think of this in relation to Newtown. We have been moved by that tragedy but not enough to enact decent gun laws because too many powerful interests, deep national divisions stand in the way. Too many degrees of separation between our empathy and real change. The “timing” isn’t right; the politicians can’t manage both immigration reform and gun control in the same session.

I’m not saying we are entirely powerless. We can throw the bastards out. But that takes time, organization, determination, working together. It takes intensity, which means bringing it into the days of your own life. Like maybe working in a political campaign.

Meanwhile, I’m practicing intensive living. Some days that just means doing a sewing project and learning something from it. Maybe I’ll write about it, maybe I won’t.