Fine knacks for ladies

One thing about loving the medieval period is that you get period appropriate music stick in your head. A favorite madrigal of mine is “Fine knacks for ladies” which is basically about a pedlar admitting he sells junk. “Though all my wares be trash, the heart is true.” I think if I’d been in the City of Carcassonne six hundred years ago, it would be just as crowded and commercial. (And much smellier!)

I suppose a big difference is that not a single store there was selling relics! No finger bones of saints to be found anywhere!!

I admire of the French that this great medieval fortress, dating back to the Roman era, is still lived in. There are houses there, and homes. It’s a part of the city, not apart from the city. I don’t think we Americans would do that, perhaps because our history is more rare. I think it’s a good way of preserving it though. People tend to take care of where they live.

Mindfulness and the modern mom

Last September, I took a two and a half day course in mindfulness (an updated version of this one). It was my first real exposure to mindfulness. We spent two days talking theory, technique and doing limited practice. Then the half day was spent in near complete silence, meditating.

As with most multi-day training seminars, I took a couple key ideas out of the seminar, vowed to practice and become proficient… and had completely fallen off the meditation wagon about six weeks afterwards.

Then a colleague gave me a copy of “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story” I like to think this was because she had an extra copy, and not a statement of my usual zen perceptions at work but… probably a little of column A and a little of column B. I worked my way through it this week.

The sarcastic “there are studies that back this up” version of mindfulness is, I think, a needed and necessary intermediary technique. As Dan Harris so eloquently lays out, lots of the talk of meditation is wreathed in a religious Buddhist understanding – or perhaps more accurately in the a western idealized & exoticised understanding of Buddhism. Meditation is a work that bespeaks hippies, patchouli and the prefix “transcendental”. (Or at least it was – it is being resurrected by books and courses like I’ve encountered.) I’m a scientifically-minded Christian (not an oxymoron), and deeply skeptical of patchouli. Still, the studies on mindfulness are compelling. And just as I see no conflict between God’s creation & scientific method, I don’t think that the Christianity that exploded across continents from the more rigid roots of Judaism would throw away a useful spiritual technique just because it wasn’t invented in Israel.

For those unfamiliar with the basics of mindfulness, the concept is to stop and pay attention to your own thoughts. This is done with meditation. In it’s simplest form, meditation is the practice of trying to create space between you and your thoughts. Usually you do this by focusing on your breathing, and every time your mind wanders (near constantly) you notice that it has wandered and focus on your breathing again. I’m told that over time, with practice, you eventually are able to respond to your thoughts with intention, instead of a near autonomic reaction. There’s all sorts of benefits ascribed to this sort of mindfulness, from blood pressure to managing temper to happiness.

I’ve thought quite a bit about how the stopping and listening is missing from my spiritual life. I’ve come to realize that what I loved about our Good Friday was just this. It was so long, so dark and so quiet. We had to do the hard work of sitting, quietly, by ourselves, and praying. In fact, apparently I was the only one who loved it, so we’ve switched to a less rigorous service that didn’t require sitting and praying for 60 minutes. But what is prayer but this kind of listening? Does God really need us to tell him what it is that’s on our mind? (Pro tip: God knows. Jesus said so. (Matthew 6:7&8 “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”)

So if Jesus spent an entire night in the garden of Gethsemane praying, and he wasn’t rehearsing his finest arguments to God about why this whole “dying on a cross thing” was a terrible idea… what was he doing? What did that prayer look like? I suspect that there are few options other than perhaps this quiet listening and self reflection. If we still that inner voice, what is it we might indeed be able to hear? Perhaps the still soft voice of the Holy Spirit?

I think it is not impossible.

In meditation practice, it’s very clear that what you’re supposed to be doing is not thinking. It’s also clear that it’s nearly impossible to stop thinking. So the meditator is encouraged to forgive yourself and just start over and try again. While that advice is intended for within the meditation, perhaps it counts for the act of meditating, too. I’ve been distracted away from meditation. Instead of recriminations, perhaps I should just forgive myself and start over again, from the start. And see what might appear in whatever space it is I can create in my mind.

————————–

What about you? Have you ever tried meditation? Have you managed to keep it up? Does your spiritual practice contain something that isn’t meditation, but looks shockingly similar to it?

Church Camp – a love letter

My first church camp was Camp Ghormley*, up on White Pass in Washington State. I went in maybe 1986 with my church youth group. I was young – Thane’s age perhaps. I remember loving the songs around the campfire, the way the bark on the pine trees fit like a puzzle, the deliciousness of a 5c green apple Jolly Rancher, and that our youth director (in one week) fell off the zip line and hit his head (blood everywhere) and slid down the railing of a cabin in tight shorts (extensive and embarrassing splinter removal). His name was Clayton, he had a Texan accent and a funny tick of jerking his head to his shoulder. We tried really hard to keep him out of trouble, but it took more than the combined powers of our Church youth group to work miracles like that.

There are no photos of me at Ghormley. Cameras were expensive. I certainly wouldn’t have given one to a kid to take to camp. So all I have are vague memories and well-memorized camp songs.

In fourth grade, we moved from the town with the big Presbyterian Church (it was PCUSA at the time) and to a town where on some Sundays the folks on the “Great War” honor roll were more plentiful than the folks worshiping in the pews. There wasn’t a youth group (there were four of us though!) but there was still Presbytery church camp. After a break of a year or two, I went to Buck Creek (now defunct, I’m afraid) where I went backpacking for the first time in my life. Even though we got rained out and were poorly kitted, I was totally and completely hooked on backpacking. We slept under the stars, back at the field at Buck Creek, and the Perseids were in full blossom across the sky and I could not shut my eyes. From then on, I took every possible opportunity to do backpacking camp. I loved the backpacking. I loved nature. I loved the songs, and the sense of worship. It’s still one of the most holy things for me.

So when Grey was like in 1st grade I started looking up the Presbyterian Camps in the area. Our church had a relationship with Camp Wilmot, so it was a short search. The very first summer he was old enough, he was signed up. But as I followed circuitous GPS directions into the “parking lot” (eg field area) I was struck by serious doubts. He was so little. He was so clearly uncertain, and nervous. And so was I, I realized. I knew *no one* at this camp. No kids. No grownups. Nothing. I was going to leave my beloved first-born child in the wilderness in the hands of strangers.

First year dropoff

I drove away anyway.

Around Thursday I got a letter. It was short – two sentences. They were both dedicated to how amazing Anthony’s BBQ chicken was.

When I picked him up he was tired, happy to see me, and ready to come back again the next year.

He wore that shirt all week – it was in every picture

The next year, he talked no fewer than four of his friends into coming to camp with him. (I think he’ll do very well in sales, if he chooses, as a career.) Where he’d been alone and afraid the first year, he was in excellent company and confident the second. And he remembered his favorite “camp shirt” as well.

The “latrines” photo has become a favorite of the parents. We threaten to hold their candy money hostage if they don’t cooperate.

Last year he was ready to do both sessions. He’d originally claimed that he didn’t need to be picked up, but called on Thursday asking for a day at home. They don’t go to bed until like 10 pm there and they’re up at 7, which is a short sleep ration for a kid his age. Also, I think he missed the cats.

I’m not sure where Matthew is in this one

This year is going to be the epicalest yet. Today I drove a packed car up to New Hampshire with a wild game of poker in the backseat (Grey: “I packed poker chips!”) and a friend in the front seat. This year he’s going to do a full two weeks. On the second week, his brother will head to camp for HIS first ever sleepaway camp (and Adam and I will be childless! Craziness!) And he and his Camp Wilmot compatriots have been talking about the awesomeness of the camp all year. This year, a total of ELEVEN kids from our town will make the trek up to White’s Pond to experience Anthony’s BBQ chicken.

There are so many incredible and wonderful things summer camp does. It gives us all practice in living without each other. The role of a parent is to raise a child who doesn’t need us. Camp is an excellent experiment in structured self-reliance. No one made Grey change his shirt, but he came home happy and healthy. He packs his own bag. He knows things that we do not know. I think it’s a grievous thing to send a person to independence for the very first time when they are an adult, and there is no safety net. Summer camp is how you practice for college. It’s also a place for children to have deep meaningful thoughts, and begin to stretch the muscles of what *they* believe and what *they* think and what’s important to *them*. Some of my greatest moments of faith happened at summer camp. I can only pray that my sons find the experience meaningful and moving too.

It also plays an important role for we parents. I am more than halfway through the raising of Grey. Thane is only a few years behind him. Who are Adam and I, when we are not coparents? What interests do we share? What bonds have we strengthened? In the week our children are learning to kayak and kyrie, we can also remember the love we have for each other.

It’s hard to walk away from your kid, like I did that first year. It’s hard when your kid walks away from you and doesn’t look back. But it’s good and right that they practice doing just that.

Week 1 latrine photo
We decided to take our OWN latrine photo
Goodbye, boys. God bless.

If you’d like to follow along with all the info we get on camp, you can follow “Camp Wilmot’s Facebook page. If you’re suddenly dying to send your kid, you can still register for week 2. And if you happen to have a truck that will pass registration and which you don’t want anymore, that’s a tough capital purchase for a scrappy summer camp. They’d be incredibly grateful for the donation!

* If I’d known about this at the time, my campfire ghost stories would’ve been epic! “But upon his sudden death in 1948 (he was stricken fatally ill at the camp as he was preparing to begin a week of camp for children) members of the church moved to have the camp named after him.”