Posts Tagged ‘Guest Blogger’

Are snowflakes really Christian?

December 4th, 2009    -    4 Comments

Today’s guest blogger Joanna Brooks grew up in a conservative Mormon household in the orange groves of Cold War southern California. Now, she’s an award winning writer and religion scholar working on Mormon Girl: An Unorthodox Memoir of Belief and Belonging. Find her at

The Starbucks cups have changed from green and white to red. Here in San Diego, that’s how we know the season has descended, lumbering down from the sky in a haze of petroleum fumes like a jumbo jet full of trouble.

My husband, David, is a Buddhist Jew. I’m a Mormon feminist. Which means, of course, we do it all—Hannukah, Christmas, walking meditation—and we pretty much do it all wrong.

Like the year I rushed to Target on Hannukah Eve to seize the last roll of always-always-understocked blue wrapping paper (anti-Semites! retail outrage!) only to discover upon arriving home that I had failed because there were white snowflakes embossed on the gift tags and according to David snowflakes are in fact Christian.

Or the year David made our first Christmas Eve dinner in our very own house—as a sign of his devotion, the most gourmet and goyische feast one could imagine, starring a roast pork loin stuffed with gourmet cubed bacon—only to end up spending the earliest hours of his Christmas morning hunched over a toilet hurling up bacon-stuffed-pork.

Ahead of us stands a full month of obligatory giftings, truckloads of sugar, frypans of spent oil, grocery sacks of potato peelings, barrels of crumpled gift wrap, kennel stays, viruses in waves, drought, bleating plastic toys assembled by the tiny fingers of Chinese children, long freeway commutes, pottytraining, baby Jesi (that would be plural for Jesus) stolen from manger scenes and nursed at the breast by young daughters, stacks of final examinations, computer crashes, missed deadlines, burnt tempers, hair and dust congealing on the floors, and two wars we never voted for grinding along in the background.

And somewhere in this mess, allegedly, is God.

What we do not have is a Christmas tree. Like many Jews, my husband is allergic to Christmas trees. It’s a social allergy with deep historical roots. What is the Christmas tree but the mermaid on the prow of the ship of Germanic cultural conquest, the USS Anschluss?

What we do have is our annual opportunity to redevelop our sense of humor. Riddles. Miracles. Tales of improbability and overcoming. For example, how does a virgin give birth? Or, how does one day’s supply of oil last for eight? Or, what happens to Jewish husbands who eat bacon-stuffed-pork on Christmas Eve? And, our personal household favorite, are snowflakes really Christian?

All around us the people of San Diego sense the earth turning away from the sun. They retrieve great rolls of dingy white batting from the rafters of their garages and anchor them to their thirsty lawns. They unstring great yardages of small plastic lights and plug into high voltage power grids. Like locusts, they begin to consume whatever sweet, shiny, noisy things appear.

David and I draw a bright circle around January 1. We break the emergency glass and don the magic goggles that will help us distinguish compulsion from custom from spiritual nourishment. We take one last breath of air untainted by sugar and plastic and gasoline fumes and clasp hands as the holiday season rolls in.

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Getting in over my head

December 3rd, 2009    -    9 Comments

Marianne Elliott is a writer, yoga teacher, former UN peacekeeper and recovering human rights lawyer. After a decade spent rushing about trying to make things better in the world’s most infamous hot spots (think Afghanistan and the Gaza Strip) she is finally learning to sit still. She offers today’s guest blog.

I’m writing a memoir about my life and work as a human rights officer in Afghanistan. Recently I’ve been sharing draft chapters of the book with selected readers to get feedback before I start submitting them to publishers.

It is a story about me getting in over my head. After interviewing the mothers of children killed in tribal fighting that my office had tried, and failed, to prevent, I began to have trouble sleeping. I was tormented by the idea that I had also failed these women. Slowly but surely my world fell apart. The story goes on from there, and eventually I learn the peace of not trying to do anything except be exactly where I am, but for now I am getting feedback on just those first three chapters.

Last night I heard from the last of my readers. She gave me lots of really useful, detailed feedback on the draft, but at one point she said something that made me recoil.

“I think it would be good,” she said, “if you explained more of the drama and urgency of the situation. Then I would understand why you are so upset.”

That is what she actually said. But what I heard, and what made me cringe, was “What is your problem? Why are you making such a big deal out of this?”

She had put her finger on my deepest fear about this book. I’m afraid that people will read it and ask, “What is her problem?” I’m afraid that my colleagues, the resilient heroes of the humanitarian world, will read it and wonder “Why doesn’t she just pull herself together like the rest of us?” I’m afraid that, as my sister did throughout my childhood, people will accuse me of being a drama queen.

The point of my book, if there is one, is that it is possible to do the work of being fully present in the company of terrible suffering. It is a story about how one sensitive and empathetic soul learned to live and work in a war-zone and it is a story about how all of us can learn to practice peace in the midst of war.

The way I reacted to those women’s stories was the seed that grew into my meditation practice, my unique way of working in Afghanistan and my own story. I wouldn’t change it for anything. Now, though, it’s time to accept that there will be readers who won’t see what I saw and who will wonder just what my problem really was. Now it is time to get back on my cushion, to make peace with myself – drama and all – and start from there.

Come join me at my blog, Zen & The Art of Peacekeeping, or follow me on Twitter where we can drink tea together and chat.

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Catching steam from a kettle

December 2nd, 2009    -    8 Comments

Today’s guest blogger is Jen Lee, a writer and performer in New York City’s storytelling scene. She is the author of Fortunes and Take Me with You: A Journal for the Journey. You can find more of her work and information about her upcoming workshops and retreats at

I walked with my girls to the park after school, thinking it would pass the time on a day my husband would not be there to relieve me in the evening hours. When we got there, I couldn’t believe I didn’t bring my camera.

These things make me ache: beautiful, camera-less moments.

Our destination was the Long Meadow in the gloaming, and the trees across from us were a blend of bare branches, flame-colored leaves and evergreen boughs. It looked like a painting: a painting we stepped into. I sat on a bench with my tea in hand and I watched two little spirits forget their mirroring forms and spin under a pale sky. Residents of an assisted living center joined us for their daily constitution, speaking in Russian as they passed by on the path again and again or sat near me on the benches.

The leaves were falling as I watched, surfing on the breeze. The color was dropping to the earth as the sun was saying its good night. My daughters’ youth making its own journey across a finite sky.

And no camera. Just the ache of the beauty, the heartbreak of its passing nature, making me look and listen and see with careful attention.

Five old women walked the path shoulder to shoulder, and I thought how happy I would be if I could be with my friends in the gloaming years. How I hoped to be good at being an old lady. To walk shoulder to shoulder, daily up and down the same path, to see one’s scenery with newborn eyes again and again as it ticks and tocks. Sunrise, sunset. Bud, flower, fade. A white blanket tuck-in and a bright green morning.

I knew then – memory is no possessor. Whether we try to capture moments with a camera or with our minds, we might as well be trying to catch the steam from the kettle in our bare hand and hold it. All we can do is this: walk through this present moment shoulder to shoulder, seeing all that unfolds around us and within us with newborn eyes as this moment delivers us to the next one, tiny and new.

Photo of Jen Lee by Susannah Conway

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Busting out of the perfect pantry

December 1st, 2009    -    16 Comments

Jena Strong is a writer, life coach, wife and mama living in Burlington, Vermont, who blogs at Bullseye, Baby! She works with clients to find their own answers around questions of faith, family, and vocation. She is a guest blogger here today.

In the summer of 1997, I was living back at home, working at Starbucks, and trying to figure out my life. I was also taking private boxing lessons with a trainer named Djata Bumpus. Djata came to the house once a week. I learned to wrap my hands and protect my face, to keep my feet moving, to tuck my chin, to drop my smile, to focus my attention.

I loved the simplicity of our sessions. There was little gear, and wrapping my hands and dancing small circles around Djata constituted the only real rituals. Despite my petite stature – 5’0” and maybe 100 pounds at the time – he perceived my fierceness and encouraged me to throw real punches, which I did. He also expected me to take up room – but not with my intellect, not with my smarts, not with my words. No, Djata understood that to really take up room, I had to use my whole body, something I had spent a decade decidedly not doing.

Our lessons lasted only a couple of months; at the end of that summer, I moved to Somerville and started grad school. I scoped out a boxing gym a few blocks from my apartment, but it felt foreign to me and I just couldn’t bring myself to walk through the door. Or maybe I did once, inquiring politely about lessons and classes. Regardless, it wasn’t me and Djata Bumpus in my parents’ old barn, with an arrangement so informal it would’ve been simply a friendship had I not been paying him to teach me how to box.

Since 1997, I’ve been busy doing what it sometimes seems everyone has been busy doing: Making a Life in a Place. I’ve poured myself into marriage, motherhood, livelihood, and community. Movies like When We Were Kings and Million Dollar Baby have nudged that fighter in me awake, but it has been a dozen years since I wrapped my hands or punched a heavy bag.

And herein lies the real left hook, the straight right, the one-two punch: Somewhere along the way, I started cultivating awareness, or mindfulness, or whatever you choose to call it, instead of cultivating my focused gaze, my fierce presence, my anger, my power, my voice, my ability to experience and express these things with other people. Somewhere along the way, I began telling myself – and believing – that rage doesn’t go with gratitude. Despite my best intentions and moments of profound evidence to the contrary, I’ve perpetuated a myth that the body and the mind are somehow separate.

A recent session with an intuitive massage therapist helped me open the locked doors at my throat that keep the fire inside of my body from roaring out. At one point, as I lay there on her table crying and making noises I haven’t made since I was in active labor, she said to me: “It’s like you live in a castle but you’ve confined yourself to the pantry, and you spend all of your time trying to get the pantry perfect.”

How right she was. I’ve locked myself in the pantry in so many ways: by apologizing for nothing; by being a good student trolling for approval; by being afraid of offending someone or not being thoughtful, considerate, or nice enough; by living in fear of anger – his or mine or yours; by anticipating and preparing; by complaining, controlling, and comparing; by blaming; by avoiding; by thinking. Sorry to mix metaphors, but it’s like death by a thousand cuts.

The week of the massage, my horoscope from the brilliant Rob Brezsny quoted Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run with the Wolves: “There is a saying that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. The teacher comes when the soul, not the ego, is ready. The teacher comes when the soul calls, and thank goodness – for the ego is never fully ready.” Djata showed up right on time, and so did that massage therapist.

As my Grammy always said, “Everything unfolds in time.” You cannot force the process. When you’re ready, the teacher appears. And if that teacher is really there to serve, you’ll reach within yourself and remember what it feels like to be you, to be alive, to be fierce in exactly what you know to be true, even if you’ve spent a lifetime convincing yourself that you’re stuck or lost or small or scared or confused.

I am ready to wrap my hands again, ready to inhabit more of my rooms, to take responsibility for my life, for what’s not working – and for what is. I’m ready to step into the fire and not away from it. And you? You know exactly what you’re ready for. This broken world needs us to put on our gloves and bust our way out of our perfect pantries.

If not now, when?

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Pain, pain go away

November 30th, 2009    -    10 Comments

Elissa Elliott is an (imperfect) mother, (recovered) former high school teacher, and (happy) author of Eve: A Novel of the First Woman. She blogs (almost) every day at Living the Questions, and she’s the first of my daily guest bloggers this week.

Pain is a funny thing. We’ll do anything to make it disappear. Wouldn’t our lives be exceedingly better if we didn’t ache, pine, and grieve? Wouldn’t we be happier, for crying out loud?

Yet if you’re a reader (or a writer, for that matter), you’ll know that conflict in a story is the name of the game. Without it, the story limps along, boring and aimless.

Still, if we were to make a film of our lives, we’d edit out all the bad parts, the difficult parts, so our luckless viewers can have one continuous, happy viewing.


No story is good without conflict or tragedy. You need the lows to appreciate the highs. You need the winter doldrums to understand the summery successes.

Thus, today, I have a question for you and for me. Why do we wish a vital part of our life away? Why do we treat something as good or bad, simply because we can’t comprehend it . . . and don’t want to?

Here’s an idea taken from a book I’m reading called Living Zen, Loving God by Ruben L. F. Habito. Habito is a practicing Catholic and former Jesuit priest. He’s also a Zen teacher and a professor in the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. Whatever your spiritual practice, you will find that he gives thoughtful and intelligent reflections on practicing Zen—to gain a more joyful and compassionate life. For him, the practice brings him closer to God.

Habito once joined a vipassana meditation session led by a Theravadan Buddhist monk at an international religious conference. The meditation theme was generating kindness toward others. Here is the experience in Habito’s words:

Our director-monk suggested we concentrate on some pain we may have, say a pain in the leg or in the back: just to be aware of that pain, without attaching any value judgments or desires such as “I want that pain to disappear.” After a while we will be able to accept the pain as simply pain, and be able to live with it and no longer consider it suffering, he explained. In other words, if one does not associate such ideas as “pain is undesirable” or “I want relief,” judgments already based on ego attachment, with the bare and neutral fact of the pain itself, then pain ceases to be suffering, and is revealed as mere experience.

“Mere experience.” Wow. Is it possible we could value every little adventure of our lives, without labeling it good or bad?

I think so.

Today, I offer you a small gift—a poem by one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver. She illuminates this topic so much better than I in her gorgeous “Summer Morning”:


I implore you,

it’s time to come back

from the dark,

it’s morning,

the hills are pink

and the roses

whatever they felt

in the valley of night

are opening now

their soft dresses,

their leaves

are shining.

Why are you laggard?
Sure you have seen this

a thousand times,

which isn’t half enough.

Let the world

have its way with you,

luminous as it is

with mystery

and pain—

graced as it is

with the ordinary.

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