Use Your Brain

Be transformative

As I delve into research and writing today, Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s admonition is a beautiful reminder to consider why I do this work in the first place. Am I more concerned with merely gathering facts and data for my own self-worth or promotion? Do I only wish to explore – or even do mission – just for the experience?

Ramón y Cajal has put me in check. Because while I do want to make sure I represent my arguments fairly and with accuracy, my greatest desire really is to be that conduit for the spirit of God to transform what is “known” into greater clarity of this vast Unknown – if even just a little. And to be transformed in the process. And sure, I do enjoy the experience of a new culture or relationship, more information, new data. Far better that my experience becomes, that it is new material for building up, not a tool to tear down.

How can I be transformative today? How might I be who I am, what I know, to construct, make a difference, build someone up?

We “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” 2Cor3:18

“But love builds up.” 1Cor8:1

Being Still at Camp

be still on a train

Thank you, John Smoke for teaching my son to be still—together.

This past week was summer camp for the children of Downers Grove First UMC. It is the fourth time Howie and my boys participated since Howie joined the staff. Going to camp that first time three years ago was a grace for our family as my sons, immediately welcomed, genuinely became and felt a part of the community.

On Thursday, I finally visited Wesley Woods camp for the day. It was a holy experience to witness not only the beauty of the campground nestled along the lake, but also be present to the movement of camp. You see, the camp is designed to enrich and train and build community, be a space outside of time and away from routines and worries, technology and expectations.

And everyone is involved: the young campers are placed in groups that cabin with and are led by a Counselor-In-Training (8th and 9th graders), senior high Counselor or other adult. So, when I came to visit, I first observed Howie leading a group of kids in singing songs that physically move them and songs that speak from the Bible. Next I ran into Lysander who is now a Counselor caring for the younger kids—and how beautiful to witness his compassion for these little ones, and how they love his long, unruly hair and attention on them! Next, I found Clark doing crafts, encouraged by an adult volunteer, the parent of a CIT.

And John, coordinating it all—after a storm ripped through the night before that terrified the kids and kept the counselors up until the wee hours of the night. Still, John tells me how he breaks out the Tibetan singing bowl each morning and each night to guide the whole camp community into stillness, into awareness of God’s presence, together. And I could see it in every person – the young and not-so-young – all had such joy and peace about them. How lovely to be in their presence.

I am grateful to these parents and pastors and teenagers and camp staff—all who conspire to make time and space for this holy moment this week. My family will always carry the experience of camp week, and I pray they have the privilege of taking part in that sacred moment for many years to come!

Why Wait for Peace?

for peace, forgive

Great wisdom from The Doctor: “The only way that anyone can live in peace is if they’re prepared to forgive.”

Someone needs to be first. And there are no guarantees that forgiveness will be reciprocal. But if I do not forgive, I can guarantee that I will not know peace.

So, is it worth the risk? Absolutely.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you . . . do not be afraid.” John 14:27

btw, for those of you who are DrWho fans, the quote comes from the brilliant two-part episodes 907-908.

An Authentic Life: Keep It Simple

lbs walt whitman poem short

With Parker Palmer, I don’t really like being told what to do. I am so glad, in this instance, that he overcame his issues with authority and shared these instructions from Walt Whitman on how to live an authentic life:

“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any [person] or number of [people] — go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families — re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.”

— Walt Whitman, preface to Leaves of Grass

Today, as I examine my own soul, will you do the same? And then, perhaps, might you share with me the ways in which you live out your great poetry in your world?

What’s In a Name? Part Two: Protector of Children

eirenic greer

The Latin, Diana, is of unknown origin and thought to mean “godly” or “divine.” In Roman mythology, Diana is the goddess of the hunt or wilderness and is the twin sister of Apollo. Her Greek counterpart is Artemis. She is the fierce protector of children, and as such is also associated with life-giving fertility and childbirth. While at first it may seem that such a god would be perhaps weaker than say, a god of war, it would befit the reader to consider the mother bear, or lion, or any mother whose child is vulnerable.

In the interview mentioned in my previous post, Major Mary Jennings Hegar responds to the question about whether motherhood has changed her warrior self. She says, “I think of myself as a bit of a mother bear, and if anybody poses a threat to my kids they’ll see both my mother’s heart and my warrior spirit. I think that they’re compatible.” Indeed, mid-interview, her husband brought their infant in so that Jennings Hegar could breast feed the baby. She did not miss a beat and continued sharing her systematic cogent case for including anyone who is qualified to protect peace and promote justice in the military – regardless of gender.

I continue to write about these things because individuals are still barred from occupations or living out their strengths and gifts because of societal norms that ascribe arbitrary characteristics to people based on equally indiscriminate indices. Change in perspective necessitates a paradigm shift on the scale of society. And societal shifts are not easy to accomplish. It takes individuals who able to allow a perspectival change, to actually see an issue from a different angle, and to speak from that vantage. The way in which we use language is enormously important, and this includes the jokes we tell.

The other day, our family saw the Wonder Woman movie. The hero’s given name is Diana, and the zeal that fuels her actions is worthy of that name. In the story, she is freed to entirely be herself in full strength because a man (Steve Trevor) permitted himself to shift his perspective of a woman’s role so he could see Diana as she is. He had to veer farther and farther around the facets that comprise her, but he chose to do so – and led others to do the same. They made room for her, supported her when she needed it, and accepted her as part of the team (likely understanding that it is Diana who makes the team what it is).

In the movie’s telling, Diana learned from Steve, too. Her quest is just and righteous, and she is absolutely qualified to fulfill the mission, but she did not have all of the information. And she lacked a motivation that is paramount to the protection of peace and promotion of justice in the context of a community: Love. This is the work of God: that you believe; this is the object of belief: that God so loved (Jn6:29;3:16). Steve showed Diana that in order to aim at peace, promote peace, one must first believe Love. Not a fleeting romantic love, but one of substance that is derived from commitment and sacrifice – lasting, stalwart love.

So, perhaps this is where we begin. We help to shift society’s perspective, perception, to view from a different facet and see that love is not a weakness. It is not a changeable feeling directed by an amalgamation of hormones and fantasies. Love is work. And this, the work of God. And to believe – and to love – only happens in the context of community. Will you believe with me?

What’s In a Name? Part One: Victorious People

success is another breathes easier

The name Nicole is of Greek origin and means “victorious people.” It evolved into a French feminine of the masculine, Nicolas. The surname Nicole originates in Netherlands where it was notable for its various branches, and associated status or influence. It seems it was derived from the goddess Nike who, in Greek mythology personifies victory, her Roman counterpart, Victoria. In the story of Zeus’ fight against the Titans, Nike and her sister, Bia (personification of force and raw power), were first to answer his call to assist, and Zeus’ side often sees her.

Major Mary Jennings Hegar, author of Shoot Like a Girl, in an NPR interview, talks about her book. In it, she describes how, wounded and hanging onto her helicopter, fought off Taliban to save her team and injured soldiers. She also explains her interest in supporting admission of women into combat status (they are already in this role, but had not been given credit – and attendant promotion – due to a general ban against it). Jennings Hegar clarifies, some people “assume that I have taken some kind of anti-military or anti-establishment stance, and it couldn’t be further from the truth . . . it was never about fighting the military – it was about this is the right thing to do for the military.”

The name Mary (a form of the Hebrew, Miryam) is of unknown origin and means “rebellious.” Though Jennings Hegar makes clear she is not actively working against the rule of the land, she will act to promote what is right and just, and to save lives. It seems the name Mary is, in reality, ironic. It is paradoxical since for a woman to act in an aggressive or forceful manner, she is automatically viewed as rebellious, somehow against something, even when she is fervently acting for something or someone.

Female warriors are not new, nor are they historically as infrequent as I was led to believe in my early education. Boudicca and the Spartans are examples, not to mention the rising number recognized in archeology. They did not engage in battle to make a point or promote a gender-based agenda. They engaged in battle because they were able, and were needed as much as anyone in the community. Currently, eight other nations (including Canada) welcome women to combat roles. The ban in the US was finally lifted (provisionally) in 2013, even though since the Revolutionary War women such as Molly Pitcher – who took over firing her husband’s canon after he died in the field – have actually served in such positions.

I am not a proponent of war. I hate guns and would like to see a blanket ban on personal guns (though I have no illusions this will ever happen). But I do promote freedom and maintaining peace, and as long as some are not free and others work to dismantle peace, force is sometimes necessary. But this is not really my point, either.

My parents gave me the name, Nicole, because my mother always liked the name. Giving a name is also a blessing, often prophetic. And while my mom might be exasperated by my strong will and determination, I know she also appreciates that strength. I love that though the name Nike is associated with an individual, Nicole is “victorious people,” suggesting leadership that ushers a community to that end. The community is victorious. The work of Jesus was to accomplish exactly this, and my task has always been to “work out” that salvation (Phil 2:12). It is frustrating to be misunderstood because of societal norms that ascribe arbitrary characteristics to people based on equally indiscriminate indices. But Jesus was always misunderstood, and I suspect all of us experience being misread from time to time.

So, here’s to victoriously living out the blessing of a name. And even if I have helped one life gain victory – breathe easier – because I exist, I know that I’ve succeeded.

To Remember is to Be Human

grandpaAremember

Memory is a funny thing. We remember certain details of an event over others. The memory of a thing will change over time, or at a retelling, or at hearing the perspective of another who experienced the same event. Sometimes we remember someone else’s experience as our own. Sometimes it is a choice – I rehearse an event by retelling, dwelling, journaling about it. Other times there is a trigger – a whiff of curry, a Steely Dan song, the angle of the sun’s rays on freshly mown grass just after a rain (oh yes, that house on Cornell from my childhood).

Then, there’s forgetting. I can’t remember where I set my phone. I suppress the memory of an embarrassing encounter at school. Or, perhaps some traumatic episode forced my brain to shut off an entire segment of life from memory. And likely one of our biggest fears, the threat of cognitive decline in one form or another as we age.

Today is, for U.S. citizens, a day of remembering. Instituted in 1868, Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who died while serving our country. There is record before this time of memorializing with flowers the gravesites of soldiers, but it was the civil war and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination that initiated its institution. But, as with any 1st world experience, a holiday is gladly accepted yet actually recalling that which secured freedom and relative ease is lost in barbecue and beer.

The Hebrew Bible is really a perpetual account of God’s relationship with Israel and instructions for how to remember God’s action therein. This account includes all the ways Israel forgot, and is an exquisite example of how all of humankind forget – forget the struggle, forget the rescue, the redemption, forget the reason for the struggle to begin with . . . and we forget that we’ve forgotten.

My daughter recalled today a phenomenon she has observed far too often – when a person experiences a negative interaction with one who is different, and then applies that negative appraisal onto all who share that difference. Memories that surround an especially emotional scene, in fact, include fewer details and less factual information than more benign settings. When I feel strongly about something as a result of a highly charged encounter, my memory of it cannot be trusted. This is exactly how prejudice is provoked and perpetuated.

Entire communities, nations even, will harbor the imprint of an explosive memory—usually as a result of invasion or war. And these wars continue while each “side” remembers only the offense perpetrated by the other, forgetting the atrocities executed by their own hands.

First remove the log from your own eye, then attend the speck in your neighbor’s. (Mt7:5)

My memory is imperfect. In fact, I have great difficulty remembering color. I have a very trained eye to distinguish nuance and subtle difference in the shade and hue of specific colors, but I regularly will remember something that is actually purple as green, or grey as blue. It is strange, but a good (less emotionally charged) reminder to hold my memory of an event provisionally. It also reminds me to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of color (and all that surrounds me just now) in this moment, as it is, and be thankful.

So today, I remember my grandfathers, Raymond Frederick Oliver, who served in WWI, and James David Albright, who served in WWII. I also take notice that the sky is absolutely clear (not a given in Chicagoland!) and the sun brightly shining. There is a breeze that keeps the heat at bay and my children are currently enthralled with Running Wild with Bear Grylls. This particular episode features Julia Roberts who enlisted Bear to help her bring life-saving vaccines to children in Kenya. I am grateful to live in a country that insists on freedom for everyone, and I pray that I remember rightly the cost of such liberty—and the errors our ancestors made in the process. And I hope – because hope is human, too – that as U.S. citizens we expand in capacity to hold lightly evocative encounters and treasure the gifts of what is right in front of us.

No one has

Greater love

than this:

to lay down one’s life

for one’s friends.         John 15:13

Have Courage, Wait – Day Thirty-Nine

courage and wait

The Aracuraria Chilean Pine Tree can live to 1,000 years, with its upside down paintbrush-like shape that might have prevented plant-eating dinosaurs from grazing the forest’s floor. Tasmania’s Trakine Forest is home to the 3,000-year-old Huon Pines, and rivers that nurture lobster-sized crayfish in its currents. And the Japanese Cedar, or Yakusugi, thrive and have done so for about 7,000 years. But the Inyo National Forest in California guards the estimated 4,843-year-old Bristlecone Pine, Methuselah – the oldest living tree on earth. There’s also the Norway spruce in Belarus and the Baobab in South Africa, and a few others that dot our globe, that existed before homo sapiens – and persist.

The Japanese have a beautiful tradition, the practice of Shinrin-yoku. It means, taking in the forest atmosphere, and is the therapeutic, rejuvenating process of intentionally surrounding oneself with nature. The practice encourages healing as it reduces stress just by calmly walking among the trees and foliage, absorbing the sights, smells, sounds of nature. It seems fitting that this tenacious life that emerge from the earth and securely anchor to it would be a source of healing our fragile bodies and minds, soothe our weary souls. It is a reminder to me that life persists even as the moments in my own life seem to zip by at sometimes frightening speed.

Today was the last (half) day of school for my sons, another marker passed, the next stage in view – time zips and hurtles by. But I am at a waiting stage – a marker that feels like for me a perpetual state. It’s as though everything around me moves, is in constant motion, still, I must wait. I have always come to accept the recognition that God is working whether or not I accomplish anything, but as I hang on by the tips of my fingernails to 49, it is especially uncomfortable. These nearly forty days of meditating on my fast-approaching place in 50, I don’t think I’ve come to any profound conclusions. Though, I am not sure what I expected, necessarily, to emerge from this 40-day practice, I’ve been engaging this practice in community.

The tree featured in the opening picture is Brazilian, but transplanted to the Singapore Botanic Garden. It is robust, with ancient roots, yet flourishes on another continent. It is a stunning reminder to me that though I have been moved to many places around the world and the country, my roots are ancient and robust and eternal. Everywhere I go, a forest of exotic, unique, healing foliage surrounds me – a community of souls that thrive and grow with me. So, will you wait with me today? Wait, listen, ponder, soak in the beauty around you, around me? May we be refreshed and rejuvenated today. If you have the time to find some nature, try some Shinrin-yoku, and please share your experience! If it is not possible just now, listen to the sounds in the link below and meditate on my picture here, or others you might have. Imagine. Dream. Have courage. Wait.

 

 

Walk This Way – Day Thirty-Eight

walk this way

And when you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear the word behind you saying, ‘this is the way, walk in it.’ Is30:21

Getting my bearings, a sense of direction, has never been much of a problem for me. In fact, it is often easier for dyslexic processing brains to create an imaginary map, visualize space and ones place in it. I also grew up in the Mile High City – Denver, Colorado – and the mountain range was my magnetic field, the force of orientation. In this way, when we would visit friends in Colorado Springs, we traveled to higher elevations, so it felt like going north to me. I have been all over the world and can easily map north and south in my brain, but set me in my family’s home and I am upside down; north is south, south, north.

It was the same with life direction, for me. I always had a strong sense of God’s call, a sort of positively-charged particle oriented by Lorentz-esque-force electromagnetic field of the Trinity, if you will. The direction was formidable (China), and while decisions along the way were not always easy to make, they were usually evident. Until poor health interfered, disrupting a feedback loop – or so it seemed.

But in this feedback loop scenario particles can also generate new electromagnetic fields (I’m no physics expert, but I love the analogy). And one infinitesimal particle only registers – is observed – by its effects, and that, by what is being acted upon it – the compelling force. They will know you are compelled by Christ – by your love . . . They will know you are God’s – by the fruit you bear . . . .

This formation-force-field I traverse is vast, complex, beyond comprehending. I am a nearly negligible particle within it. At the same time, my place in it is not static nor is it irrelevant. My existence has an effect, carrying its own force. And while I am still uncertain about the direction I must take into 50, I am certain about the Force that acts upon it. I am equally convinced of the bountiful elements that live and move and have their beings in my proximity.

And so I wish to move in the direction that is most life giving – for me and for those around me and in the effort (energy, force) to making things right in this world. That direction is traveled best with gratitude. And I take to heart the words of Ellen Bass:

The world has need of you . . .

But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,

the earth, ever so slightly, fell

toward the apple.

Savoring Goodness – Day Thirty-Seven

Savor God's goodness

One time when I was about four or five, it must have been Thanksgiving, I was sitting with my brother and two other children at the kids table in the back room. It was a communal meal so all the families contributed and somebody brought a dish of boiled peas and carrots. Peas were at the very top of my Can’t Stand list of foods, and I could only tolerate raw carrots, not cooked. But to refuse it would be impolite and my father insisted. Being the good little girl I was, I complied and took a bite. And promptly regurgitated the mess back onto my plate. I still can’t stand peas.

Science shows that children possess taste superpowers – their tongues are especially sensitive to bitter flavors, and react accordingly. Previously accepted data held there is a veritable map for various taste sensors (one part detects sweet, another tastes bitter, etc.). Now it is understood that they all work together to inform the brain of the flavors at work. And as we age taste buds stop regenerating making us less sensitive to nuances in the flavor. This makes it easier to stomach foods that tend to be healthier and promote longevity – and are more bitter.

At the same time, less sensitivity tempts us to ignore the potion of herbs and spices that infuse the mango that roasts with garlic on that lovely piece of salmon. Or allow the hints of mint and basal linger on the tongue before washing it down with a sip of wine. In this way it also creates the conditions for overconsumption since I can rush through the meal more quickly than my stomach can tell my brain it is full. Too I did not take the moments required to find enjoyment in the way an interesting combination of ingredients make a chicken breast taste—a practice that improves a sense of well-being and staves off a common reason for eating more than is healthy to begin with.

Along with my connective tissue disease, I am also allergic to wheat, dairy and coconut. My diet is much different from when I was a kid, and sometimes it is easiest to limit what I eat to what I know is healthy and will not trigger an asthma attack, while also providing enough calories. Sometimes I will eat something that I find no enjoyment in purely because I need to eat something substantial and do not have the energy to explore other options. But since Greer has come home we’ve had many conversations about how controlled we are by food, instead of appreciating it in healthy ways—and that it is a luxury that many in the world cannot conceive.

There is something mystical and alluring about Psalm 34:8, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” This idea that the sense of taste can bring insight—vision—to understanding the goodness of God, is evocative. The images of the banquet table and narratives around a meal and creating the best wine for the wedding party, these are scattered liberally throughout scripture. It can run both ways: when I notice and savor the goodness of God I can almost taste the nearness of God’s Spirit, ingest the aromas and flavors of heaven; and, when I allow a bite from the meal prepared by my sons – or an expert chef – to linger, notice the delicious concoction and appreciate the company around my table, heaven is at hand.

This weekend I will celebrate my birthday with my husband, and my brother and his wife around a meal and drinks. It is always a beautiful time with them to linger over skillfully prepared creations and freely chat and laugh and be. And as 50 is fast approaching I am hyper aware of the necessity for being intentional about savoring each moment. Will you practice with me today, the very spiritual mindfulness practice of relishing each food and drink consumed?

Inhale the aroma wafting up to nose.

Is it hot or cold, somewhere in between?

Do my taste buds wake up and tingle inside my mouth?

Exhale and receive the bite.

Inhale as I allow the piece to mix on the tongue, the senses register nuance.

Is the flavor strong? Can I distinguish the ingredients?

What memories do these flavors conjure for me?

Exhale and remain a few moments with those thoughts.

Be grateful for God’s goodness. See, the Lord is good.