Monday, December 26, 2011

If could run/walk 5000 miles: A Top Twelve for 2012

Photo from
"May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in."
~ Mother Theresa

There is so much need. I was once told by a pastor that if I saw the need, then it was my 'call' to  be part of the fix. Crazy. My whole vision is covered with quilt moth eaten with the holes created by need. Even if I were a good seamstress, I couldn't repair this one. I'd want to scrap it and start from scratch. I cannot fix it all. I cannot fix even my own Top Ten (or twelve, hint hint).

That's right, if I had to sum it up to the Ten Most Important, even then, I cannot pare it down.

Ridiculous Confession Moment
At the end of the year, my husband and I get sucked into Top Ten, Top Five, Ten 100 lists. We start debating what our topic and themes will be. Books? Music? Movies? Memories?  This year, my top ten looks ahead, at non-profits that I want to support, and using my body toward a more selfless purpose. On Nativity Eve, out running alone, I cooked up this list. Posting it has been a struggle. Frankly, I'm afraid of failure. Once I commit to this, so many 'what-ifs' come to mind, so this 'fix' is a fright for me. As I post, I tremble. What if I don't run it all? What if I lose my job and have to commute, losing the time and freedom to run as much? What if I get hurt? What if the technology to hold me accountable breaks and I swear at it, causing me greater sin? Pray for me this year. And consider the following:

I will try to raise $1 dollar a mile for every mile I run or walk this year, if you will support me and/or encourage others to support me.  I was adding it up on my Nativity Eve run: 13 miles. At mile 10, I started thinking to myself, in January I was averaging 60-70 miles a week. Now I'm averaging 80-100, if I combine my miles on the treadmill and the pavement. I could do about 5000, if my trend holds. That's the scary part of this prediction, if my trend holds.

So here are the Top Twelve Organizations I will support, and how. All I ask of you? Read on...

1. January OCMC Missionary Christina Semon $350
Christina left the safe community of All Saints in Olyphant PA while we were up near here, doing seminary. She started as a missionary with a one-year commitment in Romania. She keeps going back. She has a gentle spirit and loved all the kids. I have a special place in my heart for her ministry. I've said I'd donate for a while, but so many other needs took over.
2. February Hogar Rafael Ayau and Friends of the Hogar $350
 We took a mission trip there last year and, if God wills, we hope  to return this year, maybe with our children. I've experienced such wonder and joy in the middle of Zona 1 of Guatemala City, and witnessed how the nuns are raising a lot of children in a place of safety. They are also growing the Church in Central America through their monastery and ministry.

3.March St. John's Camp Programs $400.
 I've been a counselor in summer and winter programs and it's life-changing for these kids. They've covered my room and board on a number of occasions, so I can be there to counsel. It's time to give back.
4. April Achaius Ranch  $400
I'm on the board of this new ministry outside of Crawfordsville IN. Board members are committed to time and money to support the ministry. This is just a start in very LOCAL ministry. The McCulloh's are called. This I believe. I recall when Elisha finished her social work degree, a working mom and became a licensed clinical therapist. She worked within our programs in Montgomery County with families and children. She knows the brokenness and holes. Her daughter, who uses an amazing training program with horses, will be bringing needful youth to needful horses in a way that God intended for His Creation.

5. May Hagia Sofia Classical Academy $400
My son and husband are there daily. The former as a student, the latter as teacher. Amazing. An Orthodox Christian Classical Academy whose staff and students sacrifice to come together for learning. Click for student body singing in Latin "Pater Nostre".

6. June  FOCUS North America, Indianapolis Chapter $400
This hub for ministries for the hungry, homeless and in poverty is just beginning in Indy. Though I usurped its place in the calendar year, in spite of supporting the local chapter, I believe it needs more support. I was amazed at the All-American Council, to learn how few people know about this nationwide ministry with localized programs.

7. July  Project Mexico/ St. Innocent Orphanage $400
 Layla and I built a house with Project Mexico last year. Volunteers are dropping off in this difficult time in the country's history, but need is greater. Furthermore, the orphanage provides a safe place for school boys who have been abandoned. Jenny Zimmerman is heading up volunteers this year and inspired me to go. Now I can't let go of supporting it.
8. August Ancient Faith Radio $400
You've heard the NPR and PRI pleas for support if you listen. Well, this internet based station posts talks, music and the daily readings to keep me going. I must listen to hours of its programming monthly. Fr. Andrew's Orthodoxy and Heterdoxy, Under the Grapevine. specials, readings. Hope you check it out for yourself.
9. September Friends of Indonesia $400 
Fr. Daniel Byantoro speaks in Crawfordsville annually and has been to St. Tikhon's talking about missionizing in Muslim Indonesia, about praying and evangelizing in your hometown, and about what true mission work looks like.
10. October Orthodox Peace Fellowship $400
Jim Forrest and his wife, as well as so many others, have sustained us with their writings about waging peace. Jim has a history of peacivism going back to the Civil Rights movement of the 60's. He and his wife have indirectly trained me on hospitality, and love, in Christian eyes.
11.November OCMC Missionary Kurt Bringerud $400
Kurt leaves for Mongolia soon. He nearly taught for Hagia Sofia Academy, but God had other plans. He is from St. John the Forerunner in Indianapolis and I've worked at St. John's Camp with him for a number of years. I am so excited about helping him reach the church so far away.
12. IOCC Missions North American Missions $400-500 in December
Fr. Joel and I didn't build houses with IOCC's Habitat for Humanity New Orleans partnership this year. Life in the parish is hard to schedule, but IOCC is building disaster relief teams for flooding, tornadoes, fires, hurricanes and more in the USA. I hope to continue building with Habitat and supporting Orthodox outreach around the country.

What am I asking of you?
Sponsor miles at $1 per mile. Sponsor whole or half weeks of the year (pick your favorite from the organizations at $35-4 per half week and $80-100 for a whole week. Make a statement and support a week of the year when I'm running for one of the charities that you select. Make your commitment in email (request through this blog), private message or post here in comments.

100% of all profits will go to the charities. I'm paying for shoes. I will find a back up for my GPS apps. I will ask for, vet and, hopefully get a volunteer, treasurer to verify funds and help with tax receipts.  

I will post pictures of my mileage, updates and email a newsletter if this gets enough traction. I'm going to run whether I raise the money or not, but I could make a difference with your help.

Will you help me with my top twelve list?

Dear Emily, Dear Dory, "Called Back" Love, Presvytera

I know that Virginia Wolff prized a perfect first line. I know that I rush to judge texts upon them, but I haven't got one for this post. How do I tell you that I intend to tell you about the two sprites that sit on either of my shoulders whispering to my about who I am. One sprite is Dorie, from "Finding Nemo." The other is ED, Emily Dickenson.

This is not a timely topic.** Forgive me. My narrative  begins only because I had the money to pick up Scott Cairn's The End of Suffering: Finding the Purpose in Pain. One of the Theotokos Ladies, who helped to start the Threads by saying I needed to bring 'me' to the women of the parish told me to read it.

She wanted me to read Simone Weil, Bring Forth the Best Robes by Logospilgrim and this Scott Cairns book. In it, Cairns is writing about our response to tragedy, specifically 9-11. Cairns, if you don't know is a poet and essayist, a visiting professor at St. Katherine's College in Berkeley and teaches at the University of Missouri. I'm glad I've started with this selection, of the three, because it is short, and because he weaves in Weil, about whom I know little, and poetry, which is on my mind a lot as I prepare for my spring Creative Writing course. In chapter two, he covers an Emily Dickinson piece, apropos because she was one well-acquainted with suffering.

I should tell you that ED became an imaginary best friend of mine, when I cracked her syntactic and psychological code. If I ever hosted one of those dinners with amazing anyone's-you-can-invite-dead-or-alive, I'd bribe her to leave her abode to join me. -- As an aside, I'm currently 'bro-mancing' Precious Ramotswe from McCall-Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. She'd be there too. I think she would pacify a nervous Emily.--

Cairn's picked a poem from Emily that I made my own years ago: 
After great pain a formal feeling comes--
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.
This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.
But he interpreted all wrong, I told my husband, who was sick and had to get up early for Nativity Liturgy. Technically, Cairns wasn't wrong at all, it's just that his interpretation doesn't jive with mine. As ED is a queen of psychic suffering and existence, it's fair to claim my interpretation has validity too. He focuses on the end phrase, "letting go." Of what, he says is the ultimate question, since the body and soul are surviving. For him it is a severing of something we cling to. While I don't disagree, I've always interpreted that metaphor as one playing out the little deaths that come with every great pain, every suffering event. 

You see, after a great pain, I've felt that parts of me died. I perceive in my mind and soul, closeted and roped areas no longer safe for my own visitation. Doctors say that loss of blood flow kills muscle cells. Some of those regenerate, but science is out on the hope of new life for nerve cells.

Which is why I know that the depression of my adolescence, which left me writing poetry about being flat-faced in the mud. Those poems were ones of dirt and suffocation about the murderous nightmares that accompanied two years of cutting and planned suicides. There was the realization that I was not made to give my heart away more than once, when I broke off a four-year relationship with the only other boyfriend I had besides my husband. There were the years curled in the porcelain tub or on the floor of the half-bath crying in fear. He'd exploited most inadequacies I'd ever felt, and attacked every strength I thought I had during in a parent teacher conference in my first year of teaching. I've never shaken the demonic whisperings he left me. In the following years, there were the fears about failing SPED students, and twelve hour workdays with the haunting that I'd lose my job. During those years, when I medicated with food, I heard the pounds talking about heart failure, diabetes, cancer. I tried to stop eating for a while. In four years of supporting a family at seminary, taking my laptop to the dinner table, instant messaging teachers while running on-line classes and answering parent phone calls simultaneously--Oh, and so many more fears and realities to juggle that I cannot number them-- I hyperventalated. It was on the dark windowed porch, on an exercise machine, talking about finances and spiritual politics of church leadership. I was heaving with sobs. I was unable to breathe and my chest was crushing in.I didn't know for two years that it was called 'panic attack.' Trying to recall moments is impossible.Tentacles of my memory reach towards those times, trying to understand what broke. The arms of my mind retract without reaching the memory, as if only a void, or severe anguish resides in that part of me. Death. Whole parts of me died. I cannot recover any of them. But I did not die. 

One friend I met at St. Tikhon's was widowed when her son was just born. Her husband, a flight instructor, was flown into the ground in Scranton when his student switched to an empty fuel tank. I recall thinking, if she can live, so can I. I still have my helpmeet.

Those great pains have been replaced with a formal feeling. I have imagined velvet ropes and curtains. I had to find a way though, and that's when the other sprite, the other personality who spoke to me was discovered. If others found Nemo, I found Dory. 

"Just keep swimming, swimming, swimmingswimmingswimming," was a mantra and the quotes and lives of saints showed me what that looked like.

Last night I told my husband, Cairns interpretation of the freezing person's letting go was a farce. He says suffering begats opportunity to relinquish a 'habitual illusion' or some other crutch. I was being jaded when I said I didn't like Cairn's take on that metaphor. 

"Wow. I'm bitter. I feel like all of my writing, my blogs, my entire viewpoint on life comes from a negative viewpoint." It's like that line in "Say Anything" when Lloyd Dobbler hits bottom and says of "his friend that she may have the right perspective on existence: "If you start out depressed, everything's kind of a pleasant surprise." 

I told my husband that it seems my essays and poems are dominated by this negativity. I've lost my love of laughter, my child-likeness, my joy. I know that I have because my kids hunker down when I come into a room. They expect me to assign duties, before greeting and joking around with them. And they nail it about 80% of the time. 

My husband was the usual balm after that self-accusation. "I don't think your blog is depressing. People read it because it gives hope. You end with a way out."

"Just keep swimming.," I joked. No really. Dory is my other sprite. Something in her brain broke too, so now she's a handicapped person. I feel like that. Diminished physically but not spiritually, she suffers a loss that helps her through. She is child-like in the middle of jellyfish stings. She is persists even after separated from Nemo's dad. I may be more like Nemo's cranky dad, but I learn more about how to live from Dory. 

If we have good angels and bad angels on our shoulder, ED is on one. She whispers to all my narcissistic abnegation. Dory is on the other, reminding me to keep going in the wake of loss and death and suffering and handicap.

Betchoo never thought there were so few degrees of separation between Emily Dickinson and Finding Nemo, did you?


Then my fellow clergy wife sent me this for Christmas, so I guess if I'd kept up on my emails, it would have been timely. Thank you, Dear Kristin!

Hey Maria,
Thinking of you this Chirstmas. Thought you'd enjoy the one below as much as I do. Love you. Kristin
"Noble Aim"

Chances are we are the same;
Against the odds, against the grain
We lean, like gardens toward light,
But we wait, like evening for night,
Don't we?

Chances are we are alike;
Against what better judgement writes
We ache like children for love,
For a purpose worthy of
Such a noble aim,
Such a noble aim,
Such a noble aim as love.

Chances are we bruise the same;
A family tree desperate for rain.
A thirst only deserts know best.
A hurt so at home in our chests.
Call it stubbornness or bravery,
To let our branches continue to reach,
With such a noble aim,
With such a noble aim,
With such a noble aim as love.

Every broken branch and loosened leaf
That we've grown to ignore,
Is now a part of something greater than before.
Every nest that rests upon our limbs,
Seeking shelter from the storms,
Is a purpose worth being broken for.

Chances are we are the same;
Against the odds, against the grain
We lean, like gardens toward light.
We reach with all of our might
For such a noble aim as love.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Yup. I'm Religious.

I remember the first time the word 'piety' was poo-poo-ed. Mom was reading Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress aloud to us. -- In college,  I learned this book was one of two on every Christian family's shelf, a best seller, next to the Bible, for a century plus in both Europe and America. In it was a spiritual life that is nearly foreign to today's Christianity. Aside from words like piety, who has used 'vainglory' or despond or diffidence in spiritual terms recently.

I don't mean to disabuse my mother's good intentions when she was trying to critique hypocrisy, not piety. I did the same for years. In my years at a Christian college, I rejected the word 'religious' for the term 'spiritual.'  I was all about non-traditional worship, the house church and a kind of pluralism in faith. The reasons for my sudden pluralism are complex and cultural, but suffice to say, I wanted to prove wrong those who me, as a 'religious' person, of participating in the oppressions and violences of the history of mankind. Pluralism seemed to solve the problem, it said, "I'm peaceful and get along with everyone, since we all just want love anyway." A few years of study later and I realized that I was committing treason against all faiths. Chi, Karma, Allah, Jehovah, and the Trinity are not the same, and saying all beliefs systems are about love is to misunderstand those systems on their own terms, for the most part.

So I re-embraced my religion.

This week, when "All-American Muslim" is getting the heat, I remember what makes me happier with this state of mind. When I first drafted this, I said I chuckled at the heat evangelicals were throwing about this show. Not true. I just don't get upset by depictions of other people, living out their faith in the same zip code, continent or planet as me. As a true believer, I know I am as mutually exclusive as believer, and in this there are commonalities. 

I've been teaching teens for ten years and it's weird how I build the close rapport with the religious students- the Fundamentalist Evangelical, the devoted Quaker, the Muslim, the Mormon. These kids are devotees to their faith. Some of them know what fasting is like. Some of them pray as many or more times a day than me. Some are as passionate about their scriptures or living out the justice of their faith. Some of them have saints, or 'get' my cyclical calendar of faith-based life, the feast and fasts. For most, they aren't nudged to re-invent the holy. This fidelity to one's faith, the refusal to re-invent Eid Al Fitr, or new-historize Joseph Smith, is their kind of piety. Don't get me wrong, we have to maintain mutual agreement that I won't be proselytized, not that some don't try- they give me cards with tracks for LDS or the Watchtower Society. Most don't. They politely correct my "Eid Saeed" with the correct greeting and apply admirable peer pressure on the more militant, or more lax classmates of the same religion. I have to confess, that being as pluralistic as I must be in the public education sector feel awkward.

It isn't easier within the company of fellow Christians. Some have implied that I am an idol worshipper. This is born of my devotion to the Saints and prayers before their icons- the windows they provide to Heaven. Others doubt my fidelity because I've never zipped up nicely into one political or cultural system. I've had the 'wrong' views on sexuality, violence, justice, hermeneutics, and science one too many times. I have had students who've turned away from God tell me that my 'openness' empowered them. I've experienced this with friends and colleagues as well.

I worry that saying this will create a little joy, but I take those comments to Confession trembling. It doesn't settle with my spirit that others tell me their crisis of faith was permissable because I would talk straight about doubt or evolution, or complicated sexuality. I may not subscribe to blind faith, but I do embrace mystery. Much of what I believe may never proven empirically, nor appear consistent and reasonable to a logical mind. I live by the Creed. To quote Rich Mullins, "I did not make it, no it is making me." I believe in miracles and warfare on spiritual plains.  In other words, I embrace the life-long process, that struggle, of working out two tenants that appear to exclude one another.

It's true that I cannot worship with someone who believes Christ is a mere prophet and not a person of the Trinity, but I can be friends with  and talk about spiritual discipline with that same person. It's not my only realm of struggle. I'm still working out what it means to be a woman in a Church where men are charged to be primary icons of Christ, serving at the Altar every Sunday. It's the interstice of devoted faith and self-less struggle to love others.

I have to live this out in my profession as a high school teacher. Kids come with a lot of questions; teens always ask what I believe about a topic. I wear a lot of hats in school system- educator, mentor, believer, democratic American. I won't spoon feed them the answers. I won't slough off my faith. I won't exclude or refuse any student. I try to keep my passions in house, but I give in at times. They trick the answers out of me, and since I've got to serve them all, I end up loving and defending them all. I've earned a reputation as an activist and for being a bit outspoken.

I'll go along with that label for a distance.For instance, I ripped a social justice ad from my Sojourners magazine, while getting a wee thrill about what controversy I would stir, when it was found posted on my corkboard in my bathroom. Things hidden in the loo don't get a lot of action. Not even my kids and husband were baited to respond. I fumed a little that the only props I got came from someone who doesn't do church any more. I don't know where she stands on faith, but she credited me recently for being one of the reasons she left the church. (Lord, have mercy.) It reminded me of a story of a gal who works for a social justice organization who believes her days at work are church enough, so she no longer attends to pray and worship on her weekends. Folks like this are embracing the social activism as a faith itself. This is not the objective of our Faith. Christians, for instance, don't just believe in the idea of love, they are devoted to the Person and God-head of love, Christ Jesus, with his Father and the Holy Spirit, one in essence. Christian piety is devotion to that faith, lived out. It is lived out in vocation and in worship. It asks our whole lives of us, as one monk told me it would. So the evangelicals mad about Muslims in Dearborn living out their faith in the midst of American culture, are living the same way, presumably. We're all trying to be devoted.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Year-Old Regret

One year ago, I made the mistake of not nominating one of the members of the Theotokos Threads Society for a service recognition in our little town. The local paper was running a feature allowing community members to nominate a noteworthy citizen. She should have won, and probably didn't because I wasn't obedient to a voice within me that prompted me to put her name forward.

I've regretted that daily in the past 360 and five. I won't say who she is, and it may be hard to guess because the Threads Ladies are some of the most amazing handmaidens of the Lord that I know. I will only paint her picture in words.

She sends me short emails. "Call me now" in the subject lines or links, and she is one of the ladies who've rescued me in sickness.

Last night my sinuses, swollen and dry, were punctured by the snarled roots of cracked wisdom teeth. She offered to help me fix them. In fact, this is third lady in the society who has paid for, or offered to pay for. health-related emergencies that I cannot afford myself. I would be much sicker without their help. I feel sheepish around them though. I am somewhere between humbled utterly, spiritually and physically destituted yet grateful, and a bit ashamed that I cannot provide adequate payback for such generosity.

She brings her threads to society meetings and she's always making something for someone else. They all are, these Threads' gals. She dragged us to the parish hall last year, for wine, chocolate, scissors, patterns and ultimately, she stitched together dresses for Haitian girls. She sent them with a local doctor who goes there every year with Doctors Without Borders.  She's knitted mittens for my kids, her kids, the neighbor kids, the girls at the Women's Resource Center. She's made blankets and dresses and quilts.  She and, at least two different ladies with the Society, are often busy with baby blankets in vibrant colors. Some hers go off to foreign lands for the orphans she couldn't rescue when she rescued her adopted son.

She drives. She drove to Chicago for one of two mother-daughter double dates we did. The other date we rode the bus to, - NYC, and walked for 12 miles plus. Still, she had to come all the way to Pennsylvania to do this, and considering how homesick I was for my St. Stephen's Parish family, I was thrilled at her arrival.  I've collected a few such experiences since then. I could tell you of another Thread member whose now driven my son to Indianapolis for classes so my husband and I could go the All-American Church Council, and who drove us to the airport and picked us up at all hours for missions trip flights. These women all fall into a type, do you see? They are such servants.

This particular one- whose story I started to tell, and from which I waiver as I realize how amazing they all are- she drives for the VA every week, taking broken old men in wheel chairs and struggling young mothers fresh from Iraq and Afghanistan to doctors' appointments.

Did I mention the other Threads mother who drives her two-year old to therapy every weekday and sits in a library and a coffee shop, so her son can learn to speak as he did last night. Her labor bore fruit last night at Vespers, when her autistic boy kept saying, "Glory Forever!" over and over after the priests said it. What silly grins she and I exchanged.

But back to my original story: Did I tell you how my Threads friend snaps up milk and bread on clearance and hauls it to the Hub on Saturday mornings so that families can have some bread and milk that week? Or that she brought me cases of tomatoes the first summer we moved back and that is how my poor budget and body existed for a few weeks? I suppose I should have put them up, but they got eaten my favorite way, with balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.

Did I tell you how she shows up every where? She was the Spelling Bee master this year. For three or more years, she supported her eldest son's WWE-style wrestling hobby. She fed burgers and hot dogs to his buddies while they set up a ring in the backyard, dressed in flashy nylon outfits and staged out elaborate fight plots. She goes to her middle son's football and soccer games. She takes dance lessons on Saturdays with her teenage daughter and performs in the spring. She's studying stats right now, I think, to test out of math and return to classes for nursing school. Did I mention she has a master's already? She used to teach special needs children.

She has an uncanny way of noticing lonely people and starting conversations with them. You can see how the aspect in their spirits sparks up when she engages them. She doesn't let mothers take their kid to the hospital, or the big, scary doctor's appointment alone.

She makes the women at the local women's resource center pray the Trisagion on her day to lead prayers before counseling sessions.

Oh, my, these women. I could mix them up in my heads and they all deserve those own stories. There are some who worked as court-appointed advocates. Some who raised six beautiful adults who are faithful servants of God. Some with golden crowns of hair who teach other people's difficult learners as they taught their own children. Some who pray and suffer faithfully for their children. Some who protected abused neighborhood children. Some who feed hungry kids from next door or down the street or around the block. They take furniture and coats from their own homes to clothe and house others who had a house fire. They'll cook any day of the week for someone who is just home from hospital. They stockpile magazines and candy for the troops. They've taken Bibles to China and grandkids to Greece and Russia. They have wept with children over the sickness of their kittens and rescued cats from disease. They make lovely jewelry and give it away. They appear at appointed times and feasts to festoon our halls and press our altar clothes and arrange the flowers grown of their own hands. They ensure there is always enough food at coffee hour.

They have crowns of white hair, and salt and pepper hair. They are all sizes, ages, shaped, eye-colors, and interests. They make me want to weep. They remind me of Langston Hughes' line,

"Beautiful too are the faces of my people."

But this one, she represents something about who I want to be. The tropar to today's saint, St. Nicholas, says he lived the Gospel. So does she, zealously. A year ago, I missed the chance to recognize her and the type of woman the Threads represents. She is someone to raise up before others. Every woman in the Society is worthy of recognition, but some of them would respond very differently if their name made the paper as a servant in the community. This one, I think, would wear it in a way that makes us all see the best in ourselves, regardless of our gifts.

(This is not to exclude a single noteworthy one. That would pain me.)
I just am so very grateful. Did I mention, it was her inspiration that produced the name, Theotokos Threads Society? She just kept emailing links to icon pictures online that showed the Theotokos knitting the red curtain that is purported to have been torn asunder when her own Son died on the Cross.

Glory to God for all things!