Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Offering

What I Have Learned So Far
by Mary Oliver

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world?  Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just,
the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause?  I don't think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance.  The gospel of
light is the crossroads of -- indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

Here is the promised Mary Oliver poem--hallelujah!  I came upon this at a church book sale, during a fellowship hour between services.  I drank the obligatory cup of coffee before the service, but left once it began. I am a lady who loves her church, but I have been very discriminating when it comes to worship lately.

There is one church that is always my home, however.  The thing I look forward to most about Christmas this year, is not spicy gingerbread, or sinking into conversation with my sisters-in-law, or stealing away to my mother's living room, twinkling with white lights.  These are all things that feed my soul, but what I look forward to most is the Christmas Eve service at my parents' church: the church where I was baptized as a baby, the church where I was married just this year.

This church, as much as the skin on my back or the cozy den I have found in my heart, feels like a real home to me, one of the few places where I walk in and feel completely known.  Like no words are necessary, only song. I get goose bumps when I walk in, like walking into a room I dreamed of once and never thought I would make it back to.  And on Christmas Eve, when I make it back to that place, with my brothers packed into the pew beside me, all the lights in the sanctuary turned out, the bodies in the room like shadows, faces flickering with candlelight we pass to each other, everyone singing verses of Silent Night, everyone retreating silently into the cold electric night...the experience is a purification for me--a celestial event, a rebirth.

I suppose it is natural for me to lead with the subject of church, although I had not intended to.  I meant to start in with the image in Oliver's poem of sitting on a hill watching the resplendent sun rise in its field.  But I've been hooked on Mavis Staples' music lately.  And if any of you have listened to Mavis, you know she has some things to say about Jesus, among some other incredible figures in history.  She has a new album out, produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who I am also pathologically addicted to at any time.  (Yay melancholy, yay beauty.) 

As usual, I have come late to The Staples party.  (Today I bought note cards that say, "Be not afraid of growing slowly, only of standing still" to affirm my eternally slow process.)  The good thing about good music is that it truly is timeless.  I have been blowing out the speakers on my car, on my computer, on my home stereo (am I the only one who still has one of these?) listening to Mavis, her songs, and her voice like an angel who starting smoking at eight.  I am especially obsessed with, Jesus Is On the Main Line, and Wrote a Song for Everyone.  The first is on the Ry Cooder-produced cd, We'll Never Turn Back, and the last was written by Tweedy for Mavis, and performed with Wilco (hallelujah again!) on the new album, You Are Not Alone.  It contains the lyrics: “Wrote a song for everyone/ Wrote a song for truth/ Wrote a song for everyone/ And I couldn’t leave it up to you.” 

Although I believe in art and music as much as I believe in the need for every person to draw breath, the real reason I want to talk about what I've been listening to on my metaphoric I-pod lately is because I've been getting those same home-church-entrance goose bumps from listening to Mavis sing her songs.  Her voice is a force, so full of passion, compassion, honesty, and grace.  And the heart of her songs singing about the fight for civil rights, and for freedom and justice for all people, has been shaking me to the core. 

Returning for a moment to the band, Wilco, (which I am always returning to, over and over), I used to put up with their political activism and Tweedy's involvement in different causes as a girl might put up with her beau's excitement over a new book.  A book about Grover Cleveland.  Good for you, I thought.  Glad that topic does it for you.  Now shut up and play me song (give me a kiss), etc.  Admittedly, I didn't really get it.  I knew that I didn't, and I knew that was kind of a bad thing, but I plainly couldn't relate.  I tried, sort of.  But I knew my heart wasn't in it.  (And I really hoped Tweedy didn't know.)

Sometimes I am afraid that people see the practices of yoga as navel-gazing.  And as someone who struggled through spiritual practices in her twenties, I can attest to the fact that it can be a lot of navel-gazing.  But yoga is founded on the tenet that we are All One.  It is sometimes hard to accept that the radiance you cultivate on your mat, or the forgiveness, or the discipline, is not only important to you personally, but that it literally lifts the world's vibration.  But it's true.  When you sit down on your little pillow to meditate, you are having a tangible energetic effect on the rest of the world, and certainly on those closest to you.  

It is also true that I have met some greatly self-centered people who religiously attend yoga classes.  But I have also met those same personalities in bookstores, coffee shops, and on paths in the woods, too.  Getting caught in the ego of self-study is part of the perils of a spiritual path.  Some might even say it is the path.  The challenge is to get through or around all of those tendencies, to the connect to the great heart that feeds us all.

I had the opportunity to take a class with Seane Corn recently.  Holy fire, batman!  That lady is charged.  I was surprised to say the least by the class, which was Vinyasa-based and a little rote in its postures.  But Seane weaves prayer and deep intention into her classes, and at one point she paused everyone in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and asked everyone to ask themselves what hurts their hearts more than anything else in the world.  She then offered the chance to make a dedication to ourselves, to take a step toward changing that thing within the next 40 days.  (Now that I write this, it sounds exactly like something I experienced at a Christian youth camp when I was 15.  Ha ha!)

Out of nowhere, I was overwhelmed by sadness I feel about people mistreating each other.  And I began to weep.  I wept through the next ten minutes of poses, tears dripping down my nose and onto my hands and mat, making it hard to keep from sliding.  I was thinking about a particular outreach program for people in prison - something I have been thinking about, in fact, for almost ten years.  I've never followed through on my desire to bring my passion for writing to prison programs.  It's been on to-do list after to-do list in my life, but I have rarely done more than mentally strategize about it, and shelve it again and again. As I stood on the mat with Ms. Fire asking me to ignite my compassion and to stand in its ring, the seeds of my original idea awoke in me with their need to offer light in the darkest of places, and tears just poured out with the compassion. 

I came home from the conference--where I took Seane's class--with dozens of new resources, with the buds of beautiful new friendships, and a whole mess of unknown changes that are still making themselves known in their quiet, surprising ways.  (I promise I will someday soon write about something other than this conference!  Maybe.)  I wanted to tell a friend who believes that yogis are hopelessly self-centered that every master teacher I studied with talked about bringing the lessons you learn on your yoga mat back into your community.  But I didn't.  I just  drank in the advice, the generosity, the wisdom rolling around in my memory of the weekend, and tucked the point away for further exploration.  I am much less interested in convincing my friends of anything lately, than of just getting into the things I care about, and letting others do the same for themselves.

Action--the understanding of it, the voice of it, the hands and feet of it--pops up to follow me like a dog in the morning now when I wake.  I still have moments of lethargy, and self-pity, and plenty of confusion about what steps to take to honor my heart and art, but I stand as an amazed witness that songs about civil rights have me crying on the freeway.  This is new.


On November Second, I voted at the poles for only the third time in my life.  And I wore my "I Voted" sticker like a heart on my sleeve all day.  Because that's what it was.  Someone I work with said, "Of course you voted," when he saw the sticker, as if voting was a no-brainer for me.  But it wasn't.  It was a personal victory.  That little sticker was the sign of a big shift of consciousness: a bud yawning open, hoping to see the sun rise.

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