“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.

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The thing we rarely talk about

In which Sara explores a Dirty Little Secret, with apologies to her areligious readers.

One morning during our Coast-to-Coast walk, we found ourselves sharing breakfast at our B&B with a couple we’d seen a few times over the past few days. We had a lively breakfast conversation, early on in which the woman and I discovered that we were both priests, I in a church in Portland, Oregon, and she in a parish in North Yorkshire. We talked of many things, although I’m sorry we didn’t exchange names throughout our conversation. She and her husband were ending their walk at the next village, which was a half-way point for most walkers and an ending point for some. As we passed each other in the hall during the time between breakfast and setting off, she said: “It’s too bad we didn’t meet each other earlier; we could have been saying Morning Prayer together all this while.”

Ah, yes. Morning Prayer. The Daily Office. The Prayer of the Church. The Office to which English clergy are bound by their ordination vows, in a way that Episcopal clergy ordained in the United States are not. We are bound to pray, and I many priests I know are indeed faithful to the traditional Office, but more are not. I have always envied those from branches of our Anglican Communion who do, in fact, manage to say the Office twice a day as a matter of course. Ken Leech once wrote: “the moment the Office is a place you go, rather than something you pray, you need to reorder your priorities” (or words to that effect).

I have often described clergy prayer life as a “dirty little secret.” The secret being that most of us who are ordained, if we were to reflect with complete honesty, on our prayer life, would say we didn’t have much of one. (And I would venture to say this applies across denominational lines; I don’t think Episcopal clergy have a monopoly on spotty prayer.) As St. Paul says, we, whose work is so often to encourage others in prayer, “do not pray as we ought.” Speaking only for myself, of course.

My prayer life is almost always its most regular and fruitful while I’m on vacation. Sabbatical has proven no different, although the shape of my prayer has changed from stage to stage. For some time leading up to sabbatical and including the first few weeks, I read through the whole Office faithfully each morning using the wonderful resource of Mission St. Clare. I have especially enjoyed knowing that a growing handful of folk from St. David’s use it each day. And yet, I have missed the Prayer Book with its beribboned heft, and found myself packing it, rather than the iPad, for my trips in May to Alaska and then to Ashland.

IMG_0213The Mission St. Clare app depends on good wifi, which has often not been present over much of the past several months. In mid-June, after some rich conversations with colleagues about such matters, I began experimenting with a pared-down version of the Office which allowed me to focus more on the gospel narrative and on prayer. Then, at the last minute while packing in London for the Coast to Coast walk, I jettisoned the Prayer Book, having no room for it in my backpack. Instead, I took with me a leaflet which is always tucked into my journal, of the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families. In Edinburgh, post-Walk, I have been re-united with my Prayer Book and have the sublime luxury of staying in a community which gathers for morning and evening prayer. So for these two weeks, my prayer life runneth over. I wake up and make myself tea and pray the BCP morning office in bed around 6:30 or 7. Then at 9:15, most mornings, I gather with community members for morning prayer from Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals. At the end of the day, the community prays evening prayer from the Society of St. Francis, and at bedtime I return to my beloved Daily Devotion for the Close of Day. (“Lord, you are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name. Do not forsake us, O Lord our God” is one of my favorite scripture passages of all time. Why would anyone end the day with anything else?)

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I mention all of this because this summer I have dined at the smorgasbord of the generous variety of practices and prayer resources within our Anglican tradition. I know some who would say that the Benedictine principle of stability calls us to stick to one form of prayer whether we like it or not. However, it has been both refreshing and important to allow myself–at times of necessity–to avail myself of different practices. (Call it the Ignatian principle of God’s presence in desire, if it’s possible to so drastically mix monastics, mid-blog.)  It will be interesting to see which of these practices continue when I am home, left to my own devices, and returning to that other “office” where I go each day, and where I am relied upon by others as a Woman of Prayer.

I know that many people pray without ceasing, without aid of any written text. You may be one of those people. For me, written, structured prayer…it’s how I roll. I am both grateful for and dependent upon our rich tradition of psalms, lectionary, and prayers handed down through the ages. I appreciate the freedom to dip into it, in all of its fullness, and to acknowledge–if not always respond to–the invitation to go ever deeper.

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Disciples of the Desert Monastic Abba Agathon are said to have asked him: “Among all good works, which is the virtue that requires the greatest effort? Abba Agathon answered: “I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey. Whatever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.”

I assume, naively perhaps, that laypeople have a better time of faithful prayer because their consciousness is less cluttered with Episcopocultural “shoulds” about such things.  And yet I have no reason to think that Abba Agathon was talking only about clergy when he described the struggle of prayer. So this question is for anyone reading this post: How goes the battle for you?

Where do you get your ideas?

I’ve had an ongoing conversation with myself about “the entrepreneurial spirit.” The question that sparks the conversation is “can it be taught?” Can one impart to another a set of abstract skills that result in successfully implemented new ideas that expand or enhance the mission of an individual or organization? In lieu of actually studying the matter, I simply keep having this conversation with myself.

Most university classes in entrepreneurship are about starting or growing businesses. I’m interested in what the secret is to starting or growing….anything. Because I’ve been accused of being an entrepreneur, I dreamed up some little classes for people who are interested in building their entrepreneurial muscles. Mostly, we sit around and toss ideas back and forth like popcorn down a row of high-schoolers at a Saturday matinee.

The other day I was out for a run and the conversation popped up again: Can the entrepreneurial spirit be taught? What I realized in that conversation with myself is that what I consider entrepreneurship is really just imagination. Other people imagine characters in a novel or scenes to paint. I imagine weird ways for established institutions to do the needful. I find that I do my best imagining in the company of others, building off their ideas while they build off mine. So perhaps entrepreneurship is about having the right conversation partners.

What are your favorite flavor ideas to dream up? Who are your best conversation partners?

What’s new?

When my son was five, our family traveled around the United Kingdom for five weeks. I went on a knitting frenzy, wanting to find locally-spun yarn on each of the British Isles. I knit in the car, knit in every one of our B&Bs before breakfast and after supper, knit in pubs. Nathan desperately wanted me to teach him to knit. In a busy, crowded yarn shop in Oban, Scotland I picked up some child-sized needles and we sat down before dinner that night to have our first lesson. He sat patient and wide-eyed while I cast on enough for a little square, maybe 16 stitches. Soon he became distracted and I could tell he was fast losing interest.

“Don’t you want to learn to knit?” I asked.

“Yes. But I don’t want to make a square, Mommy. I want to make a sweater.”

Learning new things is hard. Really hard. It’s one thing to learn the correct pronunciation of someone’s name or where to find a great new restaurant or even how to use WordPress. It’s another thing to learn to make a sweater from nothing, to learn a language, to learn a whole….thing. To stick with it through thick and thin, through the rush of fantasy and the sludge of reality.

I’m trying to learn some new things. Not a new language, exactly, but kind of. And we all know that learning a language gets harder the older we get. A friend writes beautifully about the power of words, the cozy fabric we wordy types weave for ourselves and wrap around our shoulders to comfort us and warm us. The words we cook up into a hearty stew, stirring together flavors, textures, and smells mixing like so many metaphors.  Lovely, right? Now, imagine doing it in Chinese. Or Sanskrit. Or taking Intro to Anatomy at the age of 53. Or deciding to become a barista so you can make beautiful pictures in latte foam and learn that all that is actually about something entirely different: physics (that class you never took) and chemistry (that one you barely passed).

Sometimes I’m not so sure my menopausal 50-something brain can handle learning a whole lot of new things. Certainly not happily. Certainly not with the kind of comfort of dipping into a delicious new poet or a book recommended by a trusted friend. It’s a stretch, and who wants to stretch? Not I, said the Little Red Hen.

What about you? What are you learning? Where are you stretching?