Apparently, I need constraints …

I really liked that Advent blogging thing where I had to wrassle a text or two every day. As numerous creativity experts have noted, nothing spurs a horse to run like … spurs. Constraints. Limits. Impositions. So, I think I’ll get me some.

I have three in mind. One is to keep doing the Bible thing; it’s good for me. I’ll try to wring something out of the weekly lectionary of interest not only to my Jesus-y friends but also to my post-Christian and SBNR* buds.

* spiritual but not religious … but then you knew that.

Another is to finally dive into a book I snagged last summer, after hearing a snippet of it read in a workshop. It’s called Daily Afflictions: The Agony of Being Connected to Everything in the Universe. It’s a riff on the bazillion books of affirmations out there, that give a pithy title, a paragraph of insight, captured in an affirmation to be repeated throughout the day, as needed. A riff … from a slightly different point of view.

When I got my own copy, I played the “open the book randomly and see what universal wisdom leaps out at me” game. The book opened to a page with this on it:


We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in the light of what they suffer. — DIETRICH BONHOEFFER

As you watch TV or gaze up the corporate ladder, everyone but you seems accomplished and successful. How sweet it is, then, to realize that failure is what life is all about; failure is why you’re here. Isn’t there more nobility in your failed attempt to conquer your self, or to relieve the solitude of the one you love, or to just continue living this difficult life in the face of oncoming death than there is in the greatest success of any banker, brain surgeon, or late-night aerobics instructor? You can ultimately succeed only at unimportant things. The loftiest things in life always end in failure. So the next time you’re suffering from low self-esteem, remember this: every beautiful, rich, successful person you see on TV will, like you, fail at what matters to them most. If you seek something worthwhile, seek failure.

I fail at the most important things.

Well. I realize that doesn’t do much for those of you who are beautiful, rich and successful, but for me? Hip-deep in rewriting a book for the third time in hopes it might see the light of day in the hands of someone who wanted to learn about white people undoing racism? And otherwise fairly unwillingly unemployed? Let’s just say it struck a chord. I promptly laid the book aside, knowing there’d be a perfect time to indulge the rest of it. And in the meantime, no need to wallow … as failures go, I was/am having a pretty good life.

And now, I realize, is that perfect time. I can indulge an affliction a week for the rest of the year. And improvise. Under the constraint of the assigned affliction. I am giddy at the prospect.

So, that’s two. Something Jesus-y, and then some affliction to disturb my complacency.

For number three, well, I have developed this affection for Joanna Macy and Anita Barrow’s translations of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Last fall I acquired and enjoyed their translation of Rilke’s Book of Hours, and also stashed away a copy of their A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke, to peruse when the new year rolled around. You can see where this is going. More constraints. It’s kind of … Germanic. Something from the daily Rilkes will strike a chord, and out something will come.

And then, of course, there’s going to be the random bits that can’t help but get written when you are in love (or annoyed) with so much of what’s around you. (And yes, sometimes those two categories overlap, profoundly.)

I could be quite organized and label these things, for those of you who want to be warned off Jesus-y stuff or afflictions. Or German poets. We’ll see. On the other hand, I might be quite random.

But enough resolutions. Let’s get to it. Since there are not actually 52 afflictions (how inconvenient), I will start with the killer quotes Mr. Boyd thrusts upon us to get us in the right frame of mind.

We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. — Franz Kafka

If you are going to tell people the truth, you had better make them laugh or they will kill you. — Oscar Wilde

Nice combination. So, I’m wondering, has there been an axe for the frozen sea inside of you? Comments welcome ….

My beloved M will tell you that I do not have a favorite anything — I can’t even pick a favorite color — so I cannot and will not be reduced to one axe. But I can give you my top five or so.

Also a Mother: Work and Family as Theological Dilemma by Bonnie Miller McLemore was a book I picked up when I was in my first year of working motherhood. I saw an ad for it in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, which I was reading on a transatlantic flight, coming home from a business trip to London, which I had abandoned my 9-month-old daughter to go on, this despite the fact that she had the chicken pox.

Needless to say, I definitely had the work/family dilemma going on. The theological part … meh, I thought. Not so much. I just wanted to learn to be a working mom. (Those of you who know about the nine years of theological education that have transpired between then and now can stop snickering. It’s really not polite.)

Beware, friends. God is shameless, and will do anything to sneak in.

The next book — recommended by a friend who saw me plunging headlong toward seminary and thought he might temper my enthusiasms a bit — was Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. Great stuff on all three monotheistic religions. I’d always been a tempted-toward-Judaism kind of Southern Baptist, and the Islam stuff was fascinating. Onward.

Getting in bed with the Mennonites meant things took a slightly more serious turn: Donald Kraybill’s Upside Down Kingdom made every point that needed making, right around the turn of the century, and a lot more clearly than anything by St. John Howard Yoder.

And then, my favorite, Ada María Isasi-Díaz and her writings in Mujerista Theology on solidarity. I’ll be the rest of my life living into what I learned from her. If I get another community to work it out in.

But the axe of all time? The one all the others pointed to? Jon Sobrino’s Where is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope. If perchance you wanted a primer on being the kind of Christian Gandhi was always looking for, read page 85. It’s all you really need.

(And note, what’s on that page totally connects to the Bonhoeffer quote above. [Seriously. God is shameless in the coincidence department.])

Which leads us to laughter. (In Andrew Boyd’s terms, anyway.)

When you have had an axe laid upside your head, and you think you have learned a truth, and you need some other folks to live into it with you, laughter is essential. Which I think is part of my problem. I can’t tell you how many times a conversation gets going and then people get that look on their faces that says — in the words of my apt teenagers — “you killed it.”


I’m still breathing, so there’s hope for me. I resolved for gratitude in my last blog post. In this one, I will resolve for humor. Lord, let me laugh more often … and maybe give someone else something to smile about, too. A phrase comes to mind …

It’s only life, after all …” — Indigo Girls.

Yeah. But then there’s this: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” — Jesus.

And how does that happen? Maybe something you’ll see out of the corner of your eye will give you a clue ….

Something to do with life abundant, y'all ...

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4 Responses to Apparently, I need constraints …

  1. Richard says:

    Where’s that barn? I wanna go stand there awhile. … As for the question asked of me that won’t go away, that needles nettles me, Archie Ammons (after my year in his poetry workshop) asked, “Richard, when are you going to cut loose?” A non-theological way of asking about abundant life. Thirty-five years later, I’m only part way there.

    • tam121 says:

      Saw the barn on the road to Kerr Lake; I’ll ask M what road it was (though maybe you know …). I like the question. I have been feeling it, too. Rewind to O’Donohue’s blessing. That last paragraph says it:

      May I have the courage today
      To live the life that I would love,
      To postpone my dream no longer
      But do at last what I came here for
      And waste my heart on fear no more.

  2. Sparks says:

    I am a forunate woman. Long ago (40 years) I realized a truth in my life: the liklihood of having my dreams come true would be, in no small part, dependent on the size and nature of my dreams. So, all my life my dreams have been “right sized”, to steal a vogue business term. Want to get an advanced degree? Check, but don’t think it’s gonna be from Harvard. Want to work? Yep, since the tender age of 15. Want to succeed? Not gonna get rich in my line of work, but the bills get paid. Yep, so work really really hard and don’t give up. Still pluggin’ away. Want a job that is meaningful? Yes, got one I love, just as much today as the day I filled out that first application. Want friends? I have a few, long timers, silver on top like me, with experience wrinkles and hearts of pure gold. Want family? Nope, never did want that kid-family thing. Not one tiny Mommie gene in me. Ick! Want health? Yes, of course. Every day is a bonus for me….since 1988. Want intimate love? At long last, my streetcar finally came along. With all kinds of strings tying up the package deal. Thank you, God, for messy love.
    I don’t have big dreams. And yet I lead a life so full, so abundant, so overflowing…..I am often ashamed of the happiness I feel deep inside when those close to me hurt or lack. To live abundantly is not to live perfectly or without warts. God knows I screw up on a regular basis. But, those small dreams……the ones from long ago, and the ONE for now……have kept me out of the ditches. The ONE dream now? Time. One more sweet day. And another. I am, after all, a greedy bastard.

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