Simple Gifts

Getting my home in order has been my priority for the last couple months.

Step One, initially, was to finish unpacking. That became Step Three when I decided (a) to set up an office after moving boxes out of the dining area in my apartment, and then (b) to rearrange so what was to have been my guestroom became my bedroom.

I currently sit at what was my niece’s dining room table in a previous incarnation (and has become a generous desk for me, complete with office organizers and blotter). From that, it can be deduced my office has become functional. My bedroom walls are lined with paintings, a bookshelf is nestled in a corner filled with books and memoriabilia, and I’ve been using my prayer desk regularly, which indicates work on my bedroom is also finished.

Why, then, have I made so little progress on my unpacking? The blithe answer would be: working at a convenience store, standing on my feet for nine hours a day, exhausts me. When I have time off, I don’t feel like unpacking.

A more honest answer would be subtler, and has its roots in a book I read nearly 30 years ago: THE ZEN ENVIRONMENT: THE IMPACT OF ZEN MEDITATION by Marian Mountain. At the time, I had given up on Christianity.

My ex had come home drunk one night, angry because I wouldn’t leave sleeping preschoolers home alone to join him at the bar, and grabbed me around the throat. He slammed me up against the wall and … well, I survived, but I had bruises from the encounter. The next day I went to my pastor to talk about what had happened, and he told me my husband wouldn’t abuse me if I submitted myself to him.

By the time our conversation had ended, I decided that Christianity and I were parting ways. I would not believe in a God who would put children at risk to keep a self-centered drunk happy. Period. Non-negotiable. But, I was — as I am now — spiritual by nature, so I began to search for another belief system I could embrace.

Zen became my practice for a while, primarily because of  THE ZEN ENVIRONMENT. The worldview reflected by the author was one which offered a way to live which appealed to me by being wholistic.

In an early chapter, she wrote: “The work of taking care of our environment also means taking care of ourself…. When you take good care of yourself, you will take good care of your environment; and when you take good care of your environment, you will also take good care of yourself.”

In the following chapter, she elaborated further: “Taking care of our environmment means getting rid of the old self, the false self, to make room for the present reality. Suzuki Roshi [a great Zen master and teacher] once gave a talk in my old hometown in which he said, ‘When you study Buddhism, you should have a general house cleaning of your mind. You must take everything out of your room and clean it thoroughly. If it is necessary, you may bring everything back in again. You may want many things, so one by one you can bring them back. But if they are not necessary, there is no need to keep them.'”

Mountain writes about accomplishing the “housecleaning of the mind” by actually cleaning one’s house — ridding oneself of what is unnecessary. My problem is that I’m not quite sure what is unnecessary at this point.

I have donated to the library dozens of books and DVDs, and  have sold others. One of my brothers — sooner or later — will be picking up the doll furniture which my dad made for my fourth Christmas and which I have carried with me from home to home, even after my children had outgrown dolls. Another brother, I think, is coming to get my parents’ dishes since they need to be used if they are to have meaning for next generation, and I’m not likely to be hosting any kind of family event.

My quandary results from my inability to recognize my true self at this juncture in my life. This is not a new experience for me. I’m a multi-faceted person with the ability to do just about anything I decide to tackle — whether I’m especially interested in the task or not.

(A guy I dated for a couple months once dismantled his bike in my living room because he believed he should be able to do maintenance on it himself. I ended up putting the bike back together for him just so I could have my living room back.)

After a search for self which occupied the better part of a decade after high school, I found myself when I became a mom. Later, that identity was enlarged when I felt called to be an artist. For the last 10 or 15 years, though, I’ve been like  a tumbleweed, blown on the winds of circumstance. I worked as a journalist, became more involved in the life of the church, became a compulsive scrapper (one who makes scrapbooks), and moved four times.

These days I’m intensely grateful God worked through all of this to draw me into a more intimate relationship with himself, but I’m struggling, too — struggling to discern what he would have me DO. I’m a task-oriented person.

He created me. He should know this, and — as far as I’m concerned — should show me.  Certainly, he could get a message to me if he wanted. Angels seem to be quite effective, at least according to Biblical accounts.

But, I have to concede, maybe I’m afraid of the message. Tonight, when I picked up my devotional, I found a meditation by Pope Benedict XVI. He wrote: “I would like to consider briefly one of these channels that can lead us to God and also be helpful in our encounter with him: It is the way of artistic expression, part of that via pulchritudinis — “way of beauty….”

How many time have I said that for me painting is an act of prayer? How many times have I talked about the union I feel with God, the Creator, when I create? Have I not — every time I talked about the 7-day silent retreat I gave myself as a 50th birthday present — extolled the wisdom of my spiritual director in encouraging me to spend time each day working on a pastel painting as part of the retreat experience?

At the end of the meditation, Pope Benedict wrote, “Dear friends, I invite you to rediscover the importance of this way for prayer, for our living relationship with God…”

Could it be that simple? Several weeks ago, I grabbed my backpack and headed out to the park where I did a pastel drawing. I was filled with joy. And, lately, I’ve been thinking of my aborted art career more often than usual. Could God be trying to tell me something?

Hope wars with the fear of disappointment within me, and that’s why — I strongly suspect — I’m dragging my feet when it comes to unpacking. I need to decide whether to unpack my art supplies — though I did give my easel away when I moved since I hadn’t painted in years — or I need to get rid of them.

What if it’s simply hubris to imagine God is calling me back to something that was once so central to my identity? But what if I’m turning my back on a blessing he longs to pour into my life?

Sooner or later, I will have to find out, won’t I?




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