Coming soon…A Coddiwomplers’ Tale

Dear friends, we find ourselves in the midst of a most effervescent time in our journey. It is a white-knuckle, white-water experience of unstoppable force to which we can only close our eyes and hang on. And it’s wonderful. It’s a tale I’ve been longing to tell.

Just not yet.

I’ve only just recently replaced a lost computer, the one upon which I presently type. Therefore, dear reader, I pray patience as I hoist the riggings on this puppy sufficient to the task of bringing you more of…A Coddiwomplers’ Tale.

Until then, peace and laughter, dear souls!

Poulsbo-ing, part 1

Longing - John O'Donohue.jpg

What follows in this series of posts are in fact my notes from a retreat I recently co-led for a delightful bunch of kindred spirits.

I suppose I should have had a more to-the-point title. But, I would have had to produce something innocuous like “CFDM 2019 Retreat Notes.”

Mmm, sexy.

Failing that, I could have gone with my basic premise: Longing – Awakening – Union. 

Too academy.

Instead, I decided to aim at something less high school journal or quarterback mystics club. A collection of family cabins cuddling an inlet in Poulsbo, Washington was where we did our holy business together. We spent an enriching few days Poulsbo-ing, and loved it!

They are alumni of Christian Formation and Direction Ministries Northwest. A more fun and authentic bunch would be hard to find. They’re about as representative of the kaleidoscope of spiritual seekers as any group can be. All of them thirsty for waters of abundance, hungry for food both spiritual and otherwise, and ready to party.

Bible study “disciples” always take themselves far too seriously. Mystics are better at belly laughs any day. Anyhoo, here’s part one.

Introduction                                                                                                           

All of us are in the process of learning how to pursue the spiritual life; how to discover, nurture, sustain, and propagate a Christian spirituality that is life-giving for us and, hopefully, for others. We’re on the significant journey of learning about our own souls, how they relate to God and to one another, for the distinct purpose of guiding others into those same discoveries.

Of the many ways to articulate this, one might be: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” It is a high calling indeed! Let’s look a bit at this thing we call our “spirituality”.

The entire spiritual enterprise can be summed up in this way:

Longing (Desire)                 Awakening (Awareness)             Union (Formation)

Webster’s dictionary defines desire in the following way.

desire

verb

de·​sire | \ di-ˈzī(-ə)r  dē-\
desireddesiring

As a verb, it is to long or hope for something, to exhibit or feel such longing. For example, to desire an immediate answer. It conveys the potential for one to feel the loss of the same as in “she was sad that men no longer desired her.” As a noun, it reveals something longed for, hoped for; or a conscious impulse toward something that promises enjoyment or satisfaction in its attainment. Or, the opposite, ridding oneself of desire in pursuit of some other goal.

Everything we’re about in the process of personal/spiritual evolution and growth hinges on these three things. And, as followers of Father Richard Rohr, or indeed the entire Christian mystical tradition, one would see this formula at work absolutely everywhere in every corner of Christian spirituality. And, not just Christian spirituality, but in most major religions as well. Some iteration of this formula is always at work. We shall discuss this a little more in session two.

It is why mysticism, not theology, will ultimately unite us and bring healing to the world.

The theme of the retreat is formally, desire. However, as an overly melodramatic Enneagram 4, let’s go with the more evocative term, longing. 

I have numerous reasons why this is a happy venture for me to pursue. In a sense, I feel uniquely “qualified” to speak on this particular topic. Certainly not because I have any kind of book learnin’ thereto, although I’ve read dozens on the subject. More because of my particular construction as an individual.

I’m the oldest of three adopted siblings. I have known that powerful longing for one’s first and truest validation of a birth mother who gave me up. It has affected everything I am and do to this very moment. I have struggled to deal with what the psychologists call “the primal wound.” That is, in utero rejection (although she would never say this and I’m happy with how things turned out!), and the process of learning to find the embrace of one’s own mother, and “the breast” elsewhere.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m a Scots-Canadian living in the United States. As I’ve discovered over the years, my ancestors were almost entirely English and Scottish, with some deep roots in Canada as well. But, as an adopted child, I grew up never really understanding any of those profundities to which one normally ascribes a sense of belonging. The most elusive concept for me has always been that of “home.”

Trust me, I have known longing.

A thorough going pluviophile, I’ve always yearned for rain. I grew up in Calgary, where rain comes just a few times a year, usually in the form of hail. And, for thirteen years we’ve lived in semi-arrid Yakima.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I longed for the sea but grew up in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Any time we have lived close to the sea, Vancouver, B.C. or McMinnville, Oregon, we’ve been happy as clams (since we’d be closer to their experience).

Trust me, I have known longing.

I ached for all things ancient. I grew up in a very wealthy oil town in a constant state of construction to build all things new; glass and steel monstrosities in place of wood and stone, which much better house our collective memory.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m a mystic at heart in a world where such silliness is hardly tolerated. Alberta cowboy culture has precious little appreciation for anything that doesn’t git ‘r done or earn a buck, quickly. “Just get to the frickin’ point, will ya!” I got tired of hearing it when I was more interested in the way to the point more than whatever point they thought needed making.

Trust me, I have known longing.

As a progressive, it’s been a challenge trying to live my Christian story in the good, but oftentimes, stultifying waters of evangelicalism. The mechanistic framework of it didn’t lend itself well to the contemplative endeavour. Nor did it ever have enough room to ask “unacceptable” questions for “unvetted” reasons. I consider myself a moderately progressive contemplative, post-evangelical of Celtic persuasion.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m a curious, armchair intellectual who loves rigorous conversation around difficult and challenging topics. I’m an expert in no topic whatsoever. But they all fascinate me. I grew up with family, friends and associates who felt alienated by it. It made for a lonely upbringing.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m a recovering alcoholic. That’s a story in itself as you can imagine. But, if there’s one thing alcoholics know well, it’s desire. Crooked, misplaced, askew, but desire, nonetheless. We learn how to coax it, feed it, protect it, and lie about it. And, if anyone knows anything about alcoholics: we’re the best liars in the business. We experience deep longing but understand it least. Why? Because we’ve effectively hid from it rather than turning to face its immensity.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m an ENFP and an Enneagram 4. Need I say more? The world likes to say they love the untamable spirit and unquenchable fire of E4s, but when it comes down to it, they prefer to keep us at arm’s length where we can entertain, be the cool, slightly aloof, friends at parties, or make things more interesting or beautiful. But, just don’t hang around too long, or you’ll bum us all out. By default or design, an E4 is the most complicated person in any room. We have a tendency to make a cottage industry of melancholy. We love to pedal brooding and morbidity. When a person of a different number shares their pain, we inwardly think it quaint or trite by comparison. We’re generally miles ahead of them in that department. Trust me, I have known longing.

As a young boy, I was a shy, escapist lad who lived amidst vast collections of all kinds of things but, primarily, his imagination. On a few occasions, I would have these existential “moments” that would only last a short time. In them, I would get a sense that all was right and good in the world. All childhood anxiety would leave, and I’d be left with a vision or picture of the world as God sees it. I’d be mesmerized…

I share a lot of poetry and writing in these things. It helps keep my thoughts moving in a single direction. I pray you’ll forgive these indulgences. Here may be found an example of one of these contemplative moments as a young boy.

As I’ve grown older and learned of my Celtic heritage, I came to see these moments as descriptive of “thin places” along the journey. How many of you have heard that term before? The Celts believed there were places, both physical and otherwise, where the divine was especially close to us and that we could move in and out of our present realities into something indefinable, effusive. I like to picture it as someone standing behind a thin, white sheet hanging on a clothesline. God’s hand and mine are touching through the thinnest of fabric separating us.

Discussion Questions:

Can you point to a moment or moments in your own life in which you simply knew God’s proximity and presence? When God was decidedly real for you?

What comes to mind for you when we say the words, “desire,” or “longing?”

What images does it conjure?

What feelings does it evoke, either good or bad?

What are the things for which you most long? That you desire most?

 

Numbers ‘n Such

I’m fifty-six today.

On one level it matters little. I mean, with that many candles on a cake, it really puts the ‘numb’ back in numbers. On another level however, I’m glad to be officially closer to sixty now than fifty. I’m glad to be any number at all, really.

I recall turning fifty and the mind-f*** that was. It seemed to come like an unexpected twister on unsuspecting prairie. Boom! Half a century. Five decades. Just like that, using “mid-life” was no longer a usable phrase, at least with any honesty. That is unless I expect to outlive everyone else born in 1963. And, trust me, that’s not an attractive option in my case. 

I’ve called the fifties the f**k it decade. By the time one gets here, one has at least a modicum of self-respect, something resembling a “life”, a sexy partner with whom to share said life and best of all, I still have bowel control even if I don’t have the same over my mouth. Hmm, the jokes are endless…

To turn over another birthday leaf on one’s tree of life should make for a decent enough quilt. And, given the potential for disaster in anyone’s life, getting the opportunity to turn over anything at all is a bonus, I figure. With this many leaves Adam and Eve could have knit themselves forest floor leisure suits, stylin’ it up at Chez Eden.

Numbers. We make a big deal of them, don’t we? We affix expectations, mostly unspoken, to each decade. When younger, every age comes with its presets. Its presentations and problems. First successful toilet ventures (this returns in later life I’m told). First pubes. First love. First kiss. First _____ (this disappears in later life I’m told). First heart-break. First job. First child. First mortgage (not as fun as it sounds). First promotion. First AARP mail (again, not as fun as it sounds).

We squint our eyes and raise our unibrow at the forty-year-old man still living in his mother’s basement. The forty year old woman still unmarried – or worse – without children (the nerve!). The twenty-year-old still grazing among the high school sheep, basking in their glory days glow. 

We even make movies of such things. The Forty-Year-Old Virgin pokes fun at he who has yet to fun poke. Thankfully, the film had at least some range and didn’t descend into the reductio ad absurdum that a man’s worth is based on his first non-solo orgasm. (Says the the man now in his thirty-second year with the other half of the same).

North American society is no different than any other when it comes to the numbers game. Ours is just more cryptic about what we consider “normal human behaviour” at a given age. We’ve lost many tribal rites of passage like native vision quests, or African communal wedding night celebrations (thank God!). Instead of bar mitzvah, we prefer bar hopping. Instead of sweat lodges, we prefer frat houses. Instead of tribal dancing, we prefer table dancing.

But, it’s all good I suppose. The intention is there even if the best means are not. 

So, I wonder what rites of passage are left for a guy solidly in late middle age? Is it my job now to prepare those for others? If so, wouldn’t that be another rite of passage for me as for another? Because rites of passage are tribal in nature, designed to bring youth ever deeper into a protective sheath of community, how would that even work for those like me?

This much I know. I couldn’t care less about the numbers, well, unless writing about it on the worldwide web counts for as much. Nevertheless, I awoke this morning to draw breath for another day. My twenty-thousand, four hundred and fortieth as luck and providence would have it. I awake to a beautiful Welsh girl every morning, have the joy of fathering two amazing young men, a satisfying career, a home, great friends, a growing faith into which I can settle and rummage for warmth, and the standard promises of my white, male priviledge (I’m a work in progress here).

Numbers. They’re fabrications really. And yet, they’re not. They offer some sense of significance in a world bent on removing it. Fifty-six may not be a fancy-pants age like forty, or eighteen, or one hundred. It’s a little faceless on the surface. But it’s not without charm and promise.

I’ve been granted another year. One. More. Year. I’m no Mother Teresa (I don’t have the balls she did). I’m no Martin Luther King, Jr. (too pale). I’m no Vasco de Gama (I get lost on my way to the bathroom). 

I’m Robert Alan Rife. Human. Husband. Lover. Father. Friend. Disciple. Human…wait, I said that. 

Best of all, I am happy. Numbers? Bring ’em. I’m ready.

Rob-9-23-19.jpg
Taken when I wasn’t ready…by me.

 

A Picture Is Worth

Church Year.jpg

One of the things most human is our shared love of story. The swashbuckling reveries of grandiose characters in drama or comedy, romance or tragedy, that bespeak our common existence. We are, for a few moments at least, transported beyond the banalities of daily existence into another world. A world of imagination. A world where anything is possible. A world where rights are wronged, where grown men cry and grown women conquer. A world that brings hope and the promise of a new tomorrow.

Let’s admit shall we that, whether or not you are a person of faith who believes in the literal, historic events of Jesus, an ardent atheist, or even someone of different faith, one can hardly deny that his person and work make for an amazing story. Try as he might to keep things tight and under wraps, he was consistently headline worthy. Even in his day he was deeply polarizing.

He certainly said some weird stuff. In one encounter with a Syrophoenician woman he stated, rather insultingly, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Dude, really? To the casual observer, he could be whiny, “how long must I endure this faithless generation?” Like, wow. One word: take a breath (hyphens not included).

He is as enigmatic as he is tragic. Hard to pin down and easy to argue about, Jesus never submitted well to easy stereotypes or casual name-brand philosophies.  

The blessed among us grew up reading or listening to stories. Those without this experience are truly the poorer for it and to be pitied above all else. To tell a story is to welcome mystery, fantasy, possibility, into our lives. Everyone needs that. 

The Bible is literally a collection of stories, both literal and otherwise. It’s arc is that of a journey. It is one great exodus from a place of slavery, woe, and darkness into the Promised Land of freedom, joy, and light. What was seen as macro in the Old Testament through a nation – her monarchs, mayhem, and movements was pictured later in the living allegory of love itself, Jesus the Christ.

I recently came upon this remarkably inventive little meme. It is wonderfully succinct and simple. It is a one-stop shop for the incarnational story of redemption. A creative at heart, I have always marveled at the unending possibilities the sacred calendar offers for creativity. Drenched in changing colours, themselves a metaphor of deeper spiritual-theological realities to which they point, possessing interesting descriptors like “Ordinary Time” or “Epiphany.” It is a playground of possibility.

But what I love most about the church calendar is how it celebrates our common love of story in one great story, retold every year. It is the ongoing reminder that every moment of every day of our lives is something holy. We live the mundane in the well-lit streets of God’s neighbourhood. And nothing gets wasted. The times of our lives are mimicked in the smaller patterns of the Paschal Mystery, itself mirrored in the sacred calendar.

Anticipation of Advent.

Our longings are always met by God, but in unexpected ways; in little things, unseen or forgotten things; out of the way things. In pregnant teenage moms and confused dads. In the injustices of supply and demand, leading to scandalous birthing conditions.

Incarnation at Christmas.

In shivering babes without homes. A child far beyond their parents’ ability to understand or control grows to be a man of profound ability and dubious abilities. A man with an unending capability for love of the least and worst.

Revelation in Epiphany.

These longings are experienced by everyone, not just the acceptable, country-club religious. Even pagan philosophers, totally outside the proper parameters of faith and, as such, acceptability, find their way to Jesus. And they came not just out of curiosity. They came to worship. Try that one on for size, o ye doctrine police!

Repentance through Lent.

The richest things are found not in laughter and smiles but through the forgiveness of wrongdoing, the weighing of life in the balance and grace received to make up that which lacks. There is good stuff to be found in the dark soil of penitence. Here we meet God at His/Her most vulnerable. The self-giving God who pursues death that we might have life.

Resurrection at Easter.

The sacred story, although confusing, rough and often dark, is one that only gets better in the telling. Death means little to a God always busting at the seams to live. The grave was a blip on the screen to Jesus whose eternal realities were too intimidating for death. Up from the grave He arose – and we with Him.

New life at Pentecost

The Gospel was never intended as a window-dressing tale to be told to well-dressed children from gold-gilded pages. It is a story as fresh and wild and untamable as the God who is its author. That story becomes powerfully ours at Pentecost.

The rest of the story in Ordinary Time

We then must learn to inhabit these truths. Let them inhabit us. Learn them. Trust them. Doubt them. Love them. Hate them. Deny them. Reintegrate them. Love them. Let them love us, until we start all over again.

Why not learn to live in such a way that the immensity of grace finds place in us at every point of our calendar? I pray that, for you as for me, this story becomes ever more our own to cherish, to tell.

To live.

 

Soon, but not yet.

As you have seen, I am a fish on the shore right now, flipping and gasping for words to write. About anything. I’ve learned at these times to read until my eyes fall out. Others are not in this place. They’re producing page-turning material worthy of our consumption and consideration. 

One such soul is fellow blogger and faith-er, Laura Jean Truman. In a writer cop-out for which I seek neither escape nor make excuse, I share her better words here. Go, read in pride as I did, how Advent is a time uniquely prepared for both the prophet and the artist. For the artist-as-prophet.

They speak the same language. Maybe that’s why so much of the bible is poetry? Yup. I think that’s probably it.

Laura Jean, thank you. My readers will too, I believe.

On Writing a Memoir, Part III

It is an odd thing, this whole memoirishness. 

poets-pen.jpegTo read a memoir is to sit in someone’s living room drinking beer and eating Cheetos as someone outlines plans to save the world, or at least make it a little less shitty.

Except for a few cases, their stories are rarely intended for their own self-aggrandizement. Instead, they act as a window, a prism of sorts that divide up a fully lived life into its constituent parts for our amusement and awe. Once we happen upon these parts, it is for us to find ourselves within them.

Although not entirely without a modicum of gravitas, I am embarrassingly unknown. A small-town guy writing for other little guys, but with a tale to tell. What I can offer is a fireside tale told by a friend you just haven’t met yet. A regular guy with a story for other non-luminaries out there.

For my part, there’s an unquenchable thirst to read the journals of other next-door Joe’s like me. Those who put in writing what had previously been stuck in memories, photo albums, iPhones, shoe boxes, or desk drawers. Ordinary people become extraordinary through telling their story. We become greater than the sum of our parts as we are willing to share something of the remarkable, the redemptive, the road made a little straighter, the discoveries we’ve made along the way. Memoir is the result of someone’s self-discovery in writing.

I have loved such stories my whole life. Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, Deal Hudson’s An American Conversion, Augustine’s Confessions, Henri Nouwen’s The Road to Daybreak, Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, Will Ferguson’s Beyond Belfast, Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club among scads of others.

These stories invite me to ask, how am I also the statesman? The conqueror? The activist? The poet? The World War II code breaker? The rock star? Can it be that my horizons grow in reading the exploits of those great ones of whom I can only dream? Do their larger-than-life stories strike a chord, even a strident one, with folks-next-door like me? Like you? What is it about their stories that make us buy the books, makes women sigh and men jealous?

When I first dove into The Seven Storey Mountain,

Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

was surprised to discover Thomas Merton, an artsy intellectual, Trappist contemplative who, on his worst day, was hipper and smarter than I will ever be. I’ve read, jaws agape, of the jaw-dropping exploits of British navy explorer Ernest Shackleton. I soil myself at the notion of being anywhere near the same impossible scenario. I get lost in parking lots, let alone a frozen continent significantly larger than the country of my birth.

To read of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., even Steve Jobs, requires a suspension of disbelief since I’m normally polishing off a chapter in between building retaining walls, preening what’s left of my hair or pealing potatoes for dinner. But then I discovered something, or rather, someone(s).

A good memoir is one in which a writer who, although more famous and established than myself, can bring themselves closer to my ilk. They are just regular folks, or see themselves that way (even if their bestseller status denies them the qualification). They are “small,” but with big stories. Anne Lamott for example, whose disarmingly genuine and authentically humorous depictions of her coming to faith give courage to those like me who would venture to do the same.

Kathleen Norris, whose writing and teaching career places her in a broader orbit, still writes for artsy-fartsies like me; those who consider themselves “thinking contemplatives” and a little rough around the edges. Another example might be naturalist philosopher, poet-academic and farmer, Wendell Berry. Now, there’s a guy I can relate to – a farmer who writes poetry – good poetry, and novels that bespeak our common life and run-of-the-mill experiences that hold within them the hearty smell of dung in the boots and the glint of heaven.

The idea that someone with whom I might share the frozen food aisle at Safeway has written a personal retrospective, complete with spiritual ups and downs, relationships won and lost and the polished and buffed exteriors that don’t always line up with their guts, is tacitly satisfying. Taken together, these individuals have emboldened me to see my own journey, a little pedestrian and squishy by most standards, as still mineable for universal truths, frequent tears and the occasional belly laugh. They encourage me to find out who I am becoming and write in the process.

And this is the end of my beginning. I may not be famous enough to dwell among whomever is the star du jour. I may not be old enough to be particularly interesting  – unless you ask my boys for whom I am an animated skeleton with opinions. I may not be young enough to be on the cutting edge of anything. Most anything sharp about my edges has long ago been dulled to a coffee spoon. I’m smart, but not quite smart enough to produce those clever turns of phrase about the deep stuff destined for the thick books sold in packs of two, the other being a dictionary.

Courageous? Perhaps, but not quite brave or selfless enough to reach out quivering hands into a crying world like those grand souls whose hands have done so before, often at their peril. Their tales provide the templates from which I glean my own courage.

Smart and edgy like Merton? Working on it. Leader with bravery and character like Shackleton? Um, sure, let’s go with that. Articulate, and passionately dedicated like King or Ghandi? I do good, I guess.

They say the devil’s in the details (whomever they is). But, ultimately, God authors the story. I get to put together the puzzle. And who doesn’t love a good puzzle? 

On Writing a Memoir, Part II

I love to write. Whether it loves me back is not for me to decide. The jury’s still out on that one. No matter. It doesn’t change the fact that I am compelled to tell people my story. Well, bits of my story. Bits of my unfolding story.

poets-pen.jpegWhy, you may ask? Because stories unite us. Jesus loved them. He had a particular attachment to stories. Parables to be exact. Parables are simultaneously beguiling and didactic. They amuse as they teach. They are immediate in their images and settings. It’s like we get to be in on the joke. And, their disarming specificity is surprisingly universal.

Once a story is rooted in the ground, where we all walk; once there is an address, a face, names, insider talk, maybe a joke or two, it becomes magnetic. They bring us together in ways few other things can. They are the campfire songs of our childhood, the foolish dares of youth, our first kiss, or broken heart, our first-child elations, the decimation of loss. All this and more is common to us all. 

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Postcard depicting a mother and children reading stories. Smith, Jessie Willcox, 1863-1935 (artist); L. Prang & Co. (publisher); Boston Public Library, Print Department

It is for these reasons I love memoir. It’s like someone letting you rummage through their sock drawer. There’s always a gem or two to be found in the oddest places. 

And I think I’ve got one (or more) in me somewhere. It’s been floating around for years trying to find its way out. But, in order to do so with authenticity and putting my best foot forward, I need your help. 

I’m so thankful to all of you, my readers, for your ongoing support of this blog. It’s gratifying to know that my emerging soul, rife as it is with the bullet holes of life, is of enough interest to draw in an onlooker or two!

My invitation remains open. Join me in the journey toward a story on paper? Share with me your impressions. What has moved you? Delighted you? Disgusted or enraged you? Your thoughts mean everything to me. As do you.

Always in the Way, R

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Writing a Memoir, Part I

poets-pen.jpegSo, dear friends, I need your help. I’ve had a book percolating in me for some time now. But I need your help in pulling it out and getting it down. I’m inviting you, my dear readers, to help guide me on this journey.

Many of you have faithfully followed along with my often random, esoteric ramblings, with grace and dedication. I am utterly gratified to be in this with you. Truly.

Of the pieces you’ve read, what has struck you most? Deepest? What are the bits and bobs that have most touched you, made you laugh, or cry, or angry? I mean, the kinds of bits you’d read more of were they to find themselves between covers? So, this is an open invitation to you, my beloved readers, to walk with me toward some as yet undetermined goal of a memoir.

I appreciate you all so much. Your input is invaluable in the discernment process for this little project. Whaddya say? Can ya help a guy out?”