Knitting. Fractals. Twitter. If you haven’t listened to this interview with Rosanne Cash, you should. She’s absolutely delightful. You’ll learn something.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
La Vida es Esperar, or Life Is Waiting
by Meagan Howell, guest contributor
"Waiting for a Train" in Régua, Portugal (photo: Rosino/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
I nearly stood up my very first client on the first day of my first job in social work. Graduate school had not prepared me for the intricacies of the scheduling system at the community health center where I was working. By the time I figured things out, I was nearly half an hour late for the appointment.
Mortified, I found my client, a sixty-year-old woman recently arrived from Puerto Rico, sitting placidly in a folding chair. She didn’t say a word when I greeted her; she just followed me back to my office. She sat down opposite me with her coat on, holding her purse firmly in her lap. When I apologized for the wait, she looked at me steadily and said: “La vida es esperar.” Don’t worry about it. Life is waiting.
Then she told me about all the waiting she’d already done that day: waiting for the bus, waiting for the connecting bus, waiting at the social services office, waiting for a dental appointment, now waiting for me. After this she’d go wait for the bus some more. The upshot was: Did I really think I was so important? I was just another stop in between waits.
Oh, her manner was grim. She had steeled herself to endure the kind of waiting that comes with poverty and it had made her fierce and passive at the same time, if that’s possible. She was pissed, she was resigned. I have never forgotten her, because she was right about la vida. But there are other ways to wait.
These days I spend less time social working and more time taking care of my kids, who are five and two years old. Waiting for small children can be maddening. And interminable. I wait for my daughter to tie her shoes with great effort and focus, for my son to walk ever so slowly up the stairs at the store, for the nap to end (or begin!). But the greatest moments of intimacy and love with my kids find me when I can accept the waiting and become present within it. There is no such thing as killing time for little kids, and when I am able to enter into that kind of time with them, I open up to all the possibilities of right now. Waiting with intention helps me to feel the present moment, and all the unexpected gifts it brings.
Advent waiting is like that. It is the opposite of the sort of dehumanizing waiting that my first client described. It is active waiting, a waiting I choose with my whole heart, which makes the world around me new and strange. Intentional anticipation clears a space for the present moment. There is nothing burdensome about it, though it is hard to do.
During Advent, we are waiting for God. But when you start to pay attention, you realize, When aren’t we waiting for God? The paradox is that within that yearning, that focused waiting that catapaults you across the open expanse of not yet, you feel God to be always already here. How beautiful. How impossible! I am waiting for God, and while I do, God is waiting with me.
I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist-Jewish family. We observed a whole lot of things, but Advent wasn’t one of them. As an adult, I became an Episcopalian. My husband was raised Catholic. We were both religion majors in college. In short: we have a lot of material to work with. Yet when it came to Advent, we weren’t sure what our new family traditions would be. I know from experience that waiting for Christmas can feel like the worst kind of torture to a child. I wanted to find ways to wait together as a family that would help us to clear that space, to open ourselves up, and not be afraid of what we are yearning for.
We began with an Advent calendar. After Thanksgiving last year, the four of us made one from squares of felt that we decorated using all the crafting materials I could find in the house. We painted, glued, stickered, and markered the 24 squares, which are covered in lentils, sequins, ribbons, and googly eyes. Once they were decorated, I affixed them to a large rectangle of white felt and set about embroidering a number beneath each square.
I had very little experience with embroidery. I didn’t realize how ambitious the project was when I began it; last year I only made it to 7. After Thanksgiving this year, I unrolled the calendar. I sat down in my mother’s living room, listening to the sounds of my kids playing and my husband unloading the dishwasher. In that rare quiet stretch, I made it up to 12. That might be it for this year, but I hope not. In letting go of my urgency to get the thing done, I was able to experience the painstakingly slow work of embroidery as a fruitful Advent practice. Each stitch matters.
Plus, you know, waiting for God isn’t easy. It’s nice to have something for my hands to do. Our developing Advent rituals slow me down and make me a little more peaceful.
It is a gentle time, after all. I feel a new openness as we move into winter, like the birds’ nests that are newly exposed now that the leaves have all fallen. There is a stillness in the season, a hush in the air that whispers: don’t be scared. Don’t be discouraged. Just wait.
Meagan Howell is a freelance writer with a background in social work and public radio. She blogs about family life at Home Made Time.
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A World through the Hands
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"Our destiny is written in the hand."
—Renate Hiller, co-director of the Fiber Craft Studio at the Threefold Educational Center in Chestnut Ridge, New York
Practicing mindfulness. Paying attention. Listening generously.
For Renate Hiller, the fiber artist whom you see in the film above, these majestic phrases apply in all their richness. Her German lilt of the tongue reaffirms this exquisite eloquence as she connects the importance of using our hands with the way in which we understand and find value in ourselves and in others. There’s something so honest and pure about her thought — that we gain a deeper, more meaningful relationship with our own humanity and our greater world by using our hands.
Using our hands grounds us — in work and in relationship. As we create something, hopefully beautiful, with our hands, we are transforming our moral and social senses. We evolve; we change. We notice things that we passed over the day before: the curve in a sidewalk to make way for a tree in the boulevard, the purl of a scarf, the transition of a capital that greets the ceiling. We observe the mundane and see it anew. The process of creating through the hands becomes a spiritual practice.
Ms. Heller strings together so many “threads” that help me think about raising children; about living a fuller, more physically experiential work life (yes, even about writing marginalia in a script rather than using the track changes option in Word); about hearing differently the many stories from folks who write in to the program, especially the passionate accounts of people and their gardens.
She also reminds me of something Joanna Macy told Krista in a recent interview (show to be released on September 16th):
"I’m looking at my hand right now as we talk. It’s got a lot of wrinkles ‘cause I’m 81 years old. But it’s linked to hands like this back through the ages. This hand was shaped by when it was a fin in the mother seas, where life was born. This hand is directly linked to hands that learned to reach and grasp and climb and push up on dry land and weave reeds into baskets. It has a fantastic history. Every particle and every atom in this hand goes back to the first — what Thomas Berry calls ‘the primal flaring forth,’ the beginning of space-time. We’re part of that story."
And, for those who are unable to watch the video, here’s a transcript:
I’m spinning wool with a stone spindle. This tool has been used probably for more than 30,000 years. And when we twist fibers into yarn we are actually creating a spiral. And the spiral is a cosmic gesture of creation.
When we look at our galaxy from outer space it is a spiral. And we find spirals in many, many places — in the plant world — on the back of our head we have a spiral. So, this is an activity that brings us closer to the cosmos, you could say. But at the same time we create something that is useful and beautiful because with the yarn that we have spun we can create sweaters, hats and mittens and scarves and so on.
To have the skill of knitting, to have the skill of crocheting, of felting, makes it possible for us not only to make something but it makes us skilled in general. The use of the hands is vital for the human being, for having flexibility, dexterity. In a way the entire human being is in the in the hands. Our destiny is written in the hand. And what do we do in our modern world with our hands? You know we move the mouse, we drive and so on. We feel plastic most of the time. The hands are relegated to very little that’s actually bringing dexterity to our times. So we have come ever more estranged from nature and from also what other human beings are doing. The whole social element comes into play as well because if I make something then I think ‘Hmmm, how was that yarn made?’
In the past there were all the professions of the shoemaker and the tailor and so on, and that’s also being lost. If you do practical work somewhere on the school grounds, there is practical work going on. The children will all go to that. They’re really drawn to that. They want to experience it and however the reality is that there’s less and less of that. In the home, you know you can use already bought vegetables, all chopped up and ready to eat. There is very little activity like kneading the bread, and you know children grasp first an item and then they grasp with their mind. So if they have very little to grasp other than plastic readymade toys then what their mind grasps is very little. The toy automatically moves and you know children can only be kind of astonished by that.
So though there is this loss of understanding the value of things, of the meaning of things, and in handwork, in transforming nature we also make something truly unique that we have made with our hands, stitch by stitch, that maybe we have chosen the yarn, we have even spun the yarn — even better, and that we have designed. And when I do that, I feel whole. I feel I am experiencing my inner core because it’s a meditative process. You have to find your way; you have to listen with your whole being. And that is the schooling that we all need today. Because we’re so egocentric and this makes us think of what is needed by something else. So we are in a way practicing empathy — empathy with the material, empathy with the design. I think this practicing of empathy that we do in the fiber crafts is paramount for being healing to our world. And it’s a service for the divine that we are surrounded by.
(A special thanks to Dorit of the Gerðandisgleðir blog for making connections.)