When my daughter was an infant, she slept hard. Literally. I would go to pick her up out of her crib (I know, crazy … what mother wakes a sleeping child? There’s coffee to drink, papers to read …) and she would feel literally stiff, and heavy, like lumber. As I cradled her up into my arms, she would stretch, and soften, like dough sliding out of the bowl after rising. A sleepy cry, and then she would snuggle into me, holding tight to whatever came to hand. Usually my neck. Some hair, maybe. My glasses, sometimes.
I am reminded of this hard sleeping and its hold on my daughter because I am thinking about my students; here at Advent’s beginning, it is also the end of a semester. I am frankly glad. It has been a hard slog of a semester: teaching a somewhat unfamiliar topic, through months of gluten-induced brain fog, and then the last couple of months of slower-than-I-thought-it-would-be recovery. But the hardest thing has been my failure to feel that I am connecting with my students. Some of my students, I should say. If I ever needed a clear example of epistemological privilege, it’s sitting right in front of me.
The students who are African American, Latina, or queer need so little explained; all they need is language and thinking tools and they are off and running to ethical reflection and imagining ethical praxis. The white students … oh, Lord, they are so soundly asleep, and some of them are so determined to stay that way. For some of these young women, it’s like daddy is sitting right there, hovering over her shoulder, humming a really loud lullaby.
But when I get frustrated, then I think, “Well, what am I not doing? What am I not saying? And why am I not?” There are some answers. I didn’t feel free to set up this class the way I would have liked, and then I didn’t have the energy – or the nerve in this new institution – to change everything midstream. My brain isn’t working right. My motivation levels seem to have taken a severe hit. I am tired. It’s like there’s a deep valley where my get up and go got up and left.
Maybe that’s why this verse from Luke has been in the back of my mind all day … or maybe it’s just an Advent-y kind of text resurrecting itself into my mind from Decembers past. I do love me some John the Baptist: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth …” (Luke 3:5). And every sleeping person awakened?
In years past, I have thought of the valleys as the lack that an unjust society creates in historically marginalized communities: lack of employment, housing, education, health care. I have thought of the mountains and hills as the privileges and power accrued by groups that consciously and unconsciously maintain the status quo that protects societal power: white skin privilege, gender privilege, heterosexual privilege, class privilege. I have thought of the crooked and rough ways as those long, winding, twisting paths that must be fought through when you are not born into power by way of ethnicity, gender, orientation, class, citizenship.
Of course, crooked and rough are not all bad; crooked can make us creative, and rough can make us strong.
I am aware, though, that this year it seems my aperture has shrunk. I’m hoping this is temporary. But right now I’m most aware that I can’t fill the valley that has opened up in my life between what I want to be doing and what I feel capable of doing. At best, I can keep walking through, reminding myself to open my hands and receive the gifts this valley has to offer.
Mindfulness. This is what we awaken to, when we are lifted out of our sleepiness. Mindfulness applies to all aspects of our lives, not just eating, but mindfulness about food is what’s on my mind right now, even as it triggers mindfulness in other areas of my life.
Frankly, I liked mindful eating better back when it was a choice that had to do with stopping to think about real hunger levels, eating more slowly, and noticing satiety.
Gluten intolerance takes mindful eating to a whole other level, which had better kick in before you feel hungry or you may impulsively eat the wrong thing. Mindfulness now is coming to mean checking every ingredient (and the ingredients of ingredients), restocking the pantry and fridge, second-guessing spur-of-the-moment dining out, and questioning waiters who then question cooks. It has also come to mean a full stop before the first bite, to think back over what I’ve prepared or ordered, and make sure I didn’t mindlessly follow an old habit.
But mindfulness also is the gratitude I feel for what I can eat. Guacamole! In fact, pretty much the entirety of Central and South American foods, sans flour tortillas (and those I do not miss). And chocolate, and eggs, and beans, and rice, and all the vegetables, and meats, and nuts and red wine and olives … and and and …. It’s a very long list. Now, whenever the question of what I can eat comes to mind, I’m thankful for this abundance, and thankful, too, that the question is what I can eat, not whether I can eat. Intentional fasting is the closest I have come to true hunger. Millions of people are ignoring hunger to try to sleep tonight, and will rise tomorrow to try to work through weariness and pain, still hungry.
Compassion. Feeling less than capable, less than able, and struggling to keep thinking and working and doing compels me to think of how many people feel worse than I do and have to work harder and longer. My compassion grows, as does my hope for more rapid and comprehensive changes to our health care systems, to make care more effective and more justly available to more people.
I think, too, of my mother, who is struggling with health issues in body and mind; sometimes her behavior to me and to others is hurtful, and our history is not all happy. But when I am scared because my mind and my will are not what I remember them being, and I can’t make them better right now, then I have more compassion for the fear she must feel, and what it must drive her to.
And when I feel compassion for others, sometimes, eventually, I get around to feeling some compassion for myself, without which my compassion for others is sympathy at best and pity at worst, and neither of these builds the bridges that connecting through compassion does. “I’m not good at this,” I say, when I don’t feel well. But my inability to accept myself and be kind to myself means that I don’t really accept others in their imperfections, and that my kindness to them lies on the surface instead of connecting in a deeply embodied or ensouled way.
Negation. The preacher in me really wanted a third gift to describe, and I sat for a while waiting to see what surfaced. I thought about simplicity; and there has been a simplifying going on, a pruning to what’s really important to do, to think, to eat, because I don’t have the energy or ability for everything (not that I ever did; but now it’s a need to simplify, not a want to). But simplicity doesn’t really get at the core of the third gift.
This gift is negation, in a way that is itself a spiritual and physical discipline: a discipline of accepting “no” as the answer I may not have prayed for but that I nonetheless have been given.
I remember a story Parker Palmer tells, about asking a Quaker friend what her experience has been of asking God that a way would open. Her reply was something like, “Well, God answered my prayers a lot more often by closing the way I was not to go.”
Which reminds me of the old saying about “When a door closes in front of you, look around for an open window.” I.e., what is the unsought alternative that is a better option? In this case, the received wisdom feels more like “When a door closes in front of you, and the windows are closed too, find a chair. Sit.”
This is a time to fully embrace listening for, waiting on and trusting in God, my old stand-by disciplines that I too often forget. (Even though my friend Brenda painted the words for me, and framed them!) God is the one, after all, who knows the way through every valley, who has something to teach me now in this time of resting and healing, and who will awaken me when it is time to move once more.
In the meantime – or, perhaps I should say, in this kind time, this time of learning a deeper kindness to others and to self – I will listen, and wait, and trust.