Ten things I learned about Mexico City, myself, or both

1) I love this city. Before I came, I knew only what most people know about Mexico City: it’s crowded (20 million at last count), with terrible traffic and smog. What I didn’t know until I got here is that it is monumental, as in full of monuments, like Washington, DC, or Paris. It is sprawling with hundreds of distinct neighborhoods that seem to go on forever, like London. It has its own distinct food smell, like Taiwan. It’s got that particular urban intensity that one finds in, say, Times Square. And I haven’t seen a bit of smog.

2) Unlike the only other part of Mexico I’ve been to (Puerto Vallarta, which hardly counts, really), I spent most of a day wandering throughout the most touristed parts of the city and saw only a handful of people who looked like they came from the U.S.

mexicomap3) Mexico City is really far away. Take a look at a map sometime. It’s pretty far south and east of most places people I know go in Mexico. This may explain why hardly anyone seems to speak English here, even in the areas that seem to cater to out-of-towners.

4) I must learn Spanish. I’ve always insisted that it’s easy to get around in places like this because a) everyone speaks some English (but they don’t, duh) and b) I can usually pick out every second or third word in written Spanish. (Big difference from generating speech. Duh.) On my first morning in Mexico City I put together the most spoken words in Spanish than I ever have in my life: Buen dia. Por favor: habla Ingles?

IMG_29955) There’s constant noise, and it doesn’t seem to bother me. For one thing, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything by spending two or three hours knitting in my hotel room while the life of the city goes on around me, because I can hear it. Street preachers, vendors hawking tamales and tacos, police directing traffic with their whistles, groups of children squealing with delight, street performers drumming and singing…all of it is right outside my room. The sounds change only slightly as the sun goes down, leaving more and more of the Catedral out my window in shadow.

6) The guidebooks aren’t kidding when they say it gets cold after the sun goes down. This morning out my window I saw people in down jackets, hats and scarves. By the time I went out around eleven, it was warm on the sunny side of the street. By three, everyone was in t-shirts. By seven, when I ate dinner at a rooftop terrace restaurant, I wished I had a hat and gloves.

7) My French is much better than I thought. Three years of high school French forty years ago has stood me in good stead. The problem is, it comes out when I’m groping for a word in Spanish. Hardly ever helpful. I love it here, but maybe I’m overdue for a trip to Paris sometime before my memory goes. Or Italy. Seems I know how to say molto bene and it keeps coming out when I mean to say something else entirely.

8) It’s much more fun traveling in a non-English-speaking country when I’m with my husband. He knows how to say please, thank you, and beer in about fifty languages, and much more than that in Spanish, French, and German. And he’s generally into adventure and learning. I’m not.

9) When you’re me and you’re traveling alone in a country where you feel awkward and out of place because you can’t speak the language and because, unlike every Mexican woman under the age of 80 who is not a nun, you don’t dye your hair, it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate every little victory. Getting a new watch battery. Finding the best side street café. Finally getting up the nerve to order and eat a street taco (and learning the difference, once more between picante and caliente—the former refers to spiciness; the later to temperature). Like when I bought postcard stamps, making hand motions for how many I wanted and even messing up the hand motions so the clerk both started laughing. She typed numbers on a calculator, showed it to me and asked: Quatorze? Si, quatorze! Gracias.

10) When I arrived I wondered whether I’d made a mistake to plan a couple of days here alone before joining a group for an 8-day retreat in Cuernavaca. Did I really want to spend 48 hours feeling vulnerable and stressed in a this crazy-stimulating place when I’m in a wee bit of internal turmoil due to recent changes and losses in my own life? How would I do in a disorienting place when I am interiorly disoriented to begin with? Turns out it’s been the perfect place to unravel and then collect myself in the middle of this hot mess of a city and get grounded. I love this city.

Your body, my body

Over lunch the other day I occupied myself by cutting out photos of naked people.

The photos came from the last three years of ESPN’s annual “The Body” issue, in which accomplished athletes from many different sports are depicted demonstrating their art. With no clothes on. It’s an amazing photo shoot that gets more impressive each year.

It occurred to me, when I put my scissors down on top of a satisfying stack of torn-out pages, that some of my ministerial colleagues and former parishioners might be shocked. These athletes are, after all, naked. And we don’t, after all, pay much attention to our bodies in the Christian tradition, except to complain among friends or to our doctor when we’re not happy with the way something is looking or working. (I dare say this is true of most people from most expressions of western religious tradition.)

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But honestly, I was drawn to the photos because of my faith. I have enormous faith in what the human body is capable of, not just the bodies of these super-humans, but yours and mine. I used to look at photos like this and say: “I am not in the same species as that guy.” Or that gal. But I am. And so are you.

My faith tells me that God created us to move, and to push ourselves to move well and often. Never mind that some humans are born with long, thin, springy muscles and and broad shoulders while others are born with short, non-elastic muscles, narrow shoulders, and a pot-belly that just won’t quit. That’s almost beside the point. Each of us has the potential to get stronger, faster, more flexible and more agile than we are now. Everyone. Even just a little bit. And each of us has the potential for transformation in our bodies as we do in our hearts and minds. Conversion needn’t stop at the neck.

From Psalm 139:

My body was not hidden from you,
while I was being made in secret,
and woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book.

Those of you who are part of traditional churches probably just finished participating in some way in a fall stewardship process. Someone might have asked you to think prayerfully about how to spend the time, talent, and treasure you’ve been given. Did you think about your body as a treasure? As I think about my own stewardship of time, talent, and treasure, I don’t want to forget about stewardship of my body.

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

In 1971 I etched those words with a pocket knife in the green enamel of the bridge railing where the main road crossed Rondout Creek (“crick”) in Alligerville, New York. My father had a sprawling old farmhouse there, which he escaped to from the city over weekends and summers. The creek divided a gravel road lined with houses from Frank’s store. The thing to do, if you were twelve in Alligerville in the summer, was to walk across the bridge to the store. Several times a day. I’m guessing our gang of five or six bored kids accounted for at least half of Frank’s non-gas business. For days on end we subsisted on popsicles, soda, cigarettes, and jerky, bought with spare change mixed with pocket lint, pooled together with the occasional crumpled dollar bill.

Today is the first day of the rest of my life. (I guess every day is. That’s the point, right?) But today was my first day untethered from a wonderful job I held for five years. Today is the day of wondering: what am I doing? What’s next? I feel a bit like Adam and Eve thrown out of Milton’s paradise: “And the world lay all before them.”

So what’s next? Only God knows, has been my answer to this habitual question from colleagues, friends, and parishioners.

IMG_2975Yesterday I walked from my car to the cafe where I’ve had a quick latte and journal-spew every Sunday morning before church for the past few years. These shoes caught my eye. They remind me of so many things: who I longed to be back when I was twelve, summer feet toughened against the hot tar as I stood barefoot scratching words on the bridge railing. Who I tried to be for a season or two in college, metallic blue eyeshadow caked on in layers before heading out to a dive college town disco. They remind me of an imaginary younger self: flashy, nimble, and daring.

I love loving those shoes, but I don’t ever have to wear them. They’re not even my size. But on this first day of the rest of my life, everything is up for grabs.

What I’ve learned from books, lately

photo 2 (48)A few days ago over lunch a friend said: “I imagine it’s pretty hard getting ready to leave your parish. All kinds of things must be coming up for you.”

I’m moving out of my office. Slowly, surely, I’m leaving a job where I’ve been for the past five plus years, a job where I’ve worked harder and had more fun than I ever thought possible at church. It’s a hard place to leave, in spite of knowing that it’s time. Yes, many things are coming up for me. But instead of telling him about all those things, I just talked about my books.

As a woman of the cloth, I have a lot of books. Books acquired before, during, and since seminary, book-group books, gift books, someday-when-I-have-more-time books. Most people in my position go through life moving their books from one office to the next until they retire and have a huge book sale, or give the books away, or box them up for their heirs to deal with. But I’m neither going to another office nor retiring. When contemplating this move I realized I wasn’t ready to put the books in boxes or give them away, and instead hired a talented young man to build some gorgeous shelves in my study at home.

photo 1 (49)Over the past six weeks or so, since the time the shelves were completed, I’ve taken a box home from the office every few days. I’ve tried to cull through them and give some away, but that has not been easy. I’ve been able to part with maybe fifty books out of I-don’t-know-how-many hundreds. I’ve been meticulous about organizing them: scripture commentary on the shelves by the desk, theology and ethics on the shelves by the armchair. Church music and worship next to the desk, my father’s amazing photo album collection and books for daily prayers next to the armchair. Dictionaries (including Latin and Greek dictionaries which I haven’t opened for decades) are next to the desk; poetry is next to the armchair. Church history didn’t fit; it’s spread out over two shelves in the guest room. Church growth and development sprinkled across both study shelves. You get the idea.

It’s been great to take the books from office to home one box at a time, rather than dreading a big overwhelming moving day. I want my final goodbyes to be separate from packing and moving and sorting. Ditto with my first week at home without a sermon to write or parish meetings to attend.

What I’ve learned from my books is that I that I have a whole lot more commentaries on scripture than I ever knew, and that each one is a particular treasure. I’ve learned that somewhere along the way I picked up a dozen different books on Saint Paul and have yet to read them. And that in me is the intent to read them. I’ve learned that there’s a lot of great stuff out there on Christian ethics and that much of it is on my shelves. I’ve learned that I’m not done with study or preaching or diving deep into worship.

On Saturday I brought home the last box of books. Shockingly, they just fit. Because the books seem to have become a metaphor for what I’m affectionately calling My Big Transition to God Knows What, the fact that they all fit bodes well for whatever comes next. And whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I’ve got a book to go with it.

 

The Curses of Psalm 69

Psalm 69 always comes around on a Friday in the Daily Office in the Episcopal tradition. It’s fitting, if you think of every Sunday is a “little Easter” and every Friday as a “little Good Friday.” Why not include the Psalm that includes these Good Friday words?

They gave me gall to eat, *
and when I was thirsty, they gave me vinegar to drink.

Psalm-69-29-web-nltThis morning, Psalm 69 came around again and I had a vivid memory of being in the chapel of the first church I joined in Portland in a dark, rainy Friday morning in 1987. The priest, deacon, and I were about to say morning prayer. The deacon would write the psalms for each day on a clipboard he’d attached to the chapel wall. Marker held aloft, he paused and turned to the priest to ask: “Shall we leave out the curses in Psalm 69?”

Psalm 69 is one of those psalms that gives the Bible a bad name, gives God a bad name,  section is marked as optional in our collection of daily readings.

Psalm 69 is in a special category of psalm called an “imprecatory” or “cursing” psalm. It begins familiarly enough:

Save me, O God,
for the waters have risen up to my neck.

I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet.

The psalmist is surrounded by enemies, and God is his or her only hope. Familiar enough, right? The psalmist prays fro God’s unfailing help. But then, two dozen verses in, the psalm takes a twist:

 Let the table before them be a trap
and their sacred feasts a snare.

Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see,
and give them continual trembling in their loins.
Pour out your indignation upon them,
and let the fierceness of your anger overtake them.

Let them be wiped out of the book of the living
and not be written among the righteous.

Really? Of course we want to leave out the curses. Most people do. And yet. The curses remind us that the people who wrote the psalms believed in a God who could handle all of their hateful, vengeful feelings of which, I imagine, in their collective heart of hearts, they must have been just a little bit ashamed. The angry, cursing psalms are not an indictment against an angry, vindictive God, but rather a confession of an angry, vindictive people. The God whom they try to co-opt into their pain is a God who can handle the whole infinite range of human emotion–that’s the blessing of the cursing psalms.

Yes, we can leave out the curses of Psalm 69. But isn’t it good to know that we can leave them in?

It’s been a long time….

spiral clock…since I’ve blogged on this site. (I’m sure you’ve never seen that before, eh?) Which is not to say that there’s not lot going on in my little world. I’ve been busy over at Define Fitness, and continuing the journey of integrating and holding together the various pieces of life: personal training, parish-priesting, fun with other churches in my work with the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon, working on my memoir (will it ever end? doubtful), and, last but not least, hanging out with my beloved menfolk every chance I get.

PassageOfTimeSepiaI hope that the handful of you who regularly read this blog are having a similarly rich, full time, and experiencing many blessings and much peace. And stay tuned.

 

Modern art and me

Last week my family and I had dinner with the family that hosted us in East London for the summer in 2002. It was great to reconnect and we had joyful and far-reaching conversation. At one point we were talking–I’m not sure why–about art. And I was reminded yet again that there are two kinds of people in the world: people who like modern art, and people who don’t. Or at least, people who say they do, and say they don’t. (I’m guessing there are a whole lot of people like me who a) like everything and b) don’t know beans about art.)

In any case, the conversation spurred me to get past my general aversion to museums, especially popular museums in large, foreign cities, and today I made the pilgrimage with thousands and thousands of others across the Millenium Bridge to the Tate Modern. It was late in the day which did not deter the crowds one bit, but it meant that for me, I started, rather than finished, with tea. I sat in the comfortable cafe with a cuppa and a coupla scones and looked at map to plan my visit, knowing that I would poop out after an hour, tea or no tea.

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was so jazzed by the art and the space that I lasted three hours instead of one. It was truly splendid, and If you want see a whole bunch of images, here are some of the photos I took.

But I was really there for Mark Rothko. Mark and I have a special relationship. For most of my adult life, I had been vaguely familiar with his work, familiar like:  “Oh yeah, that guy who does those big huge squares.” 

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When my father died in 2005, that changed. I was in a whole new world of hurt. In the airport heading home from Philadelphia to Portland for the last time, I had a task to look forward to: I had volunteered to write with the news of my father’s death to people who were around when I was a kid, but with whom my father had lost touch over recent years. In the airport bookstore I found a box of cards by abstract expressionists. I never liked them before. I never understood non-representational painting. I wanted art to refer to something I could name, and to make the familiar more so.

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But now, in the uncharted territory of grief, where I couldn’t put words to anything, these artists were saving my life. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman. How did I ever live without them? Their illogical order of things accompanied me during that journey, and I was able to write over and over again in the airport coffee shop and then on the plane:  it has been a long time since we’ve been in touch; I am guessing you have probably heard by now but I want to be sure you know that my father died. You were such an important part of his life when I was growing up…. Through this repetition I came to understand what, in my work, I have told others over and over again: the little tasks right after a death keep us from falling apart, and keep us connected to one another, to the living. And now I could tell people about how Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock somehow–as mysterious as death, as mysterious as Eucharist–became the map with which I navigated the way back to myself without my father.

nortonSo visiting the Tate Modern was, in a way, a pilgrimage to visit my man Rothko, who has a whole room there of paintings which he himself actually gave to the Tate, and there’s a great story that goes with them. (Some of you probably already know it.) In the late 1950s, Rothko was commissioned to paint a set of murals for the fashionable Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the Seagrams Building. He found the murals were darker than his previous work: maroon, dark red, and black. He eventually realized that they were too dark and serious to be the backdrop of a restaurant, and withdrew from his commission. (And I’m guessing there’s another side to that story; you can look it up.) Instead, he gave the paintings to the Tate Gallery as an expression of his affection for England and for British artists, particularly JMW Turner. Go figure. I’ve always been a fan of Turner’s, ever since a painting of his was on the cover of my very favorite college English anthology.

But it never would have occurred to me to see any artistic affinity between the two. Yet here they are:

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The second painting represents Rothko’s “transitional work,” when he was trying to make up his mind what kind of painter he was going to be. Most people who are familiar with Rothko are familiar with the later stuff.

So now, if you’ve read this whole post, you know pretty much everything I know about art. Where do you fall on the modern-premodern continuum, if there is such a thing? Has art ever saved your life?