Monthly Archives: August 2015

Always learning

 

IMG_0685Mom used to say: “You learn something new every day.”

Like a mantra, I have lived those words.

My mother did not graduate from high school, although she received her GED while I was in university.  I know for certain she did that so that I would graduate with a degree, since I was wavering, and had taken a semester off during my senior year at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.  She didn’t tell me her purposes, but I knew.  When she received her certificate, I sent her a spring bouquet.

Mom quit school early to work.  She married young, also, and had a son within a year – Ronn, my brother.  Mom was bright.  Now, when Mom comes up in conversation, I tell folks that she should have been a teacher – a kindergarten or first-grade teacher.  The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who lived in flats in neighborhoods of poor folks, it was enough that she learned to read and write.  She taught her father to read English when she was a girl.  In my mind’s eye, I can see her, bright and determined, her feet wrapped around the rungs of a wooden chair in a cramped Milwaukee flat, as her father, Vlas, concentrated and paced, determined, also.  He was smart, although uneducated in his native language.  He made that long trip across the ocean, left the familiar village of his homeland so that his children could learn to read and to write.

So Mom knew the value of education, although she could not see to get a degree herself.  Life, the life of a working class woman, intervened.  She was married and divorced by the age of 22.  She worked hard at Cutler-Hammer in Milwaukee, where her employers noticed the bright, hard-working young woman.  She quit her job when she married my father.  That’s what working class women did in the 1940’s.  The truth is, she had greater earning potential than my father.  But that’s how things were done.  A woman married, a woman quit working in the outside world, a woman kept house and raised the children.

When I was girl, I walked 3 blocks to the Center Street Library – on 27th and Center – with Mom, every week.  She must have read all of the books  in the “mystery” section of that library.  It was in those days that I learned to love the smell of libraries.  In a library, it seems we can smell the riches of what is carried in the aisles.  Twice in my life I have worked in a library – in high school, and again in seminary.  For awhile as an undergraduate, I even flirted with the idea of becoming a librarian. Books would save me, many times, during my life.

When Mom and I left the Center Street Library  to walk home, we each carried two or three books to read for the week ahead.  I see now that Mom was living her mantra:  “you learn something new every day.”  She modeled that for me in concrete ways.  I was not able to see that for many years, but now, in my own learning, I understand.

Mom taught me how a woman washes clothes, too.  During the summers when I was a young girl, my babushka-d Mom would take me down three flights of stairs to the shared basement of our flat to show me how to wash clothes.  I remember the smell there, too, the damp and soapy smell of the basement, the hot, steaming water of the wringer washer.  Into the first load went whites – sheets, pillow cases, underwear.  Into the second load of the same water went towels and colored clothing.  Into the last load went Dad’s work clothes.  See, Mom?  – I have not forgotten!  I know the smell,  I can see the beautiful wooden stick Mom used to lift the clothes from the washer into the first rinse water, and then into the final rinse before the clothes were taken in the large wooden basket into the yard to dry in the humid air.  As I write, I can smell the air, too.

If I could have one item of Mom’s, it would be that wooden stick, smooth, smelling of soapy water, imprinted with Mom’s hands, her weeping and her worries.  Where did that stick go?

I see Mom’s broad, strong peasant hands, hands that in later years would be crooked with arthritis.  She was a worker, teaching a little girl whose work is ideas and books and the fabric of words.   “You learn something new every day.”  I took those words into myself, and I made them my own.

The path I have taken through life has been the path of learning, too, not always from books.  But I am keeping your mantra, Mom:  I keep it, still.

 

 

 

What Rumi knew.

 

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“Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make sense any more.” – Rumi

I’m not there with you, Rumi, but I can see that place – on the horizon, and beyond.

Some times, I have flashes of that field.  To my thinking mind, which is full of so many (unimportant) things, the field is empty.  To my thinking mind, the field is boring, and meaningless.

I know that place, that field, is there.  I can almost taste it.  My mind becomes restless with the thought; for every certain idea, another idea replaces it, in a nano-second.  My mind is restless, it is a place filled with words and opinions, and it keeps reaching for more.  Will it ever be full?  I think not.  In that place of certainty, there is right and wrong, there is good and bad, there are my values and the values of others, which may or may not agree.  What a place of judgment is the mind.  And, in a way, what a place of safety, that place of certainty.

But still – that field is there.  I know it, not with my mind, but with a deeper knowing.   It is an experience, not a thought, not a judgment, not something I know to be true, or right. Something there is, something there has been, something there will be… something…

**

The writings of Thomas Aquinas:  He was the foremost classical proponent of natural theology and the father of Thomism. His influence on Western thought is considerable, and much of modern philosophy was conceived in development or opposition of his ideas, particularly in the areas of ethics, natural law, metaphysics, and political theory.

Near the end of his life, Aquinas refused to write, after an experience of Christ.

Christ said to Thomas, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?” Thomas responded, “Nothing but you, Lord.” [49][50] After this exchange something happened, but Thomas never spoke of it or wrote it down. Because of what he saw, he abandoned his routine and refused to dictate to his socius Reginald of Piperno. When Reginald begged him to get back to work, Thomas replied: “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me”[51] (mihi videtur ut palea).  (Wikipedia).

**

This I know:  all my doing, all my best intentions, all my “right” thinking, amounts to nothing in the realm of All That Is.  I cannot achieve this.  I cannot save enough to get it.  I cannot do enough to receive it.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.  Psalm 139:6

 

 

What Work Is…

One thing I have learned on this journey of life is what work is – and what work is not.

I come from a family of hard workers. My father worked long and hard hours in the gritty, noisy, dangerous land of a steel mill. On weekends, he had a second job as the security guard in an apartment building that was home to professionals. My grandfather worked in a foundry. Uncles grew crops, picked in orchards, and raised pigs. I loved them all, as different as I am from them.

I grew up in a different time – the generation after World War II, those privileged years, and even though I come from working class, hard-working roots, my work has been of a different sort. I have been privileged enough, and smart enough, to get an education and to land a professional job right after college.  I almost did not make it through college; I dropped out in my senior year, uncertain about what I really wanted to do as I entered the adult world.  When I graduated, I carried with me a BA in English, that “jack of all trades” degree.  Still, I was the first generation in my family to go to college.  My parents helped that happen by giving me room and board – at home – while I commuted to university.

By temperament, I didn’t fit into my working class family.  From the time I was young, I was a dreamer, and I loved words.  Mom couldn’t understand why I didn’t “go outside” during the summer, why instead I spent  hours melted  into a chair, a book in my lap, my eyes in the pages, my imagination immersed in the worlds I found there.  She understood my reading, and encouraged it.  She didn’t understand my introvert’s ability to lose myself in what I read, although she was an introvert herself.  Sometimes, though, we read the same books and talked about the characters as if they were real, pointing someone out on the street, the character we knew so well!

I grew up in a different time, when the values of the 50’s, of the nuclear family and what that meant were being questioned and even discarded.  In the spring of my first year of college, universities were closed during the spring semester after demonstrations against Vietnam grew violent across the country.  I loved university much more than high school.  In a way, my life began then, when my books gave way to intellectual thinking and exploration.  I was made for that world!  I was a free-thinker, and I was also careful and uncertain about my own life, and so I did not explore much of the world outside my intellect.

My world opened up, I think, when I began to explore the inner, rich world beyond my senses.  In my 30’s, uncertain about how to really live my life, how to engage in relationships, how to be happy, I began to explore my feelings and motives.  I discovered the spiritual world, a fit for me.  I made an adventure of going to 12 step meetings, retreats, healers, and therapy.  I was motivated by my pain, which is truly the door to inner exploration.  Something about life as others live it isn’t working, and so the inner world beckons.

To me, real work is inner exploration.  I call it growth.  I have come to see that as we grow outside the bounds of all the restrictions we were taught were “reality,” and “truth,” we actually grow, we expand, not only intellectually, but emotionally, and in power.  My journey has been a deep journey of inner exploration, and I join so many other spiritual and therapeutic teachers of the world – Merton, Helen Keller, Jung – in that regard.  My journey has not been easy for me, but I am grateful.  I know what it is to be grateful even when the times of my life are tough.

My real work has led me to one place, only.  My real work has led me, simply, profoundly, and beautifully, to myself.   I am grateful that I have companions on this journey, because to have no companions at all would be lonely, so lonely.  Some of my former companions, those who I love still, have not taken the journey, and so I find my ability to be with them limited not only in time but in content.  In a way, I miss them.   I love them, still.

My real work has led me to relate my life to God, whatever God is.  I surrender the ego, when I can, and when I reach the edge – again, and again, and again… >>>>…

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For one thing I am eternally grateful.  I am grateful that I have found my call, and that although it is a lonely call in many ways, I am grateful that there is a community of fellow journeyers on my path.  Some I will never know personally, but I know they have taken the journey:  Dag Hammarskjold comes to mind; I know he is a fellow pilgrim.  And I am grateful that this journey has opened my heart to the world, to the suffering of all other human beings.  My journey has led me to understand that we are all the same, inside, and that we are perfect as we are.

You, too.