Hunger For Beauty

 

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How do we balance extravagance with stewardship in life?

 

Jaqui Eicher March 2016

The question really is: what is it worth to you? Anytime you give of your time, energy or money. Is the cost worth it to you in some way that makes the balance tip toward the extravagance, the expense?

Not long before Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary stood at Jesus’ feet and wept, her tears washing his feet. She wiped them with her own hair and then poured a most expensive, red colored perfume on them. Judas and Lazarus were also present at this event. Lazarus had recently been raised from the dead by Jesus. Judas loudly complained about Mary’s waste. “Wouldn’t it be better to sell the fragrant oil and give the money to the poor?” But Jesus told Judas to leave Mary alone; that she did a good thing. In my mind, this story points out the difference between the “proper thing to do” and the “necessary for the heart” thing to do (the unexpected, beautiful thing to do).

During my past years as a human I have collected a few stories that help me as I struggle with balancing extravagance with stewardship in my daily life. Every one of these stories is kept safely in my “pocket of important life lessons” and has helped shape me into a stronger person today than I was twenty years ago.

I’ll begin with the oldest of the stories, though it’s still as ponderous today as it was in 1993. While attending Western Oregon University as a junior in college, I sat in a class with my most admired professor in the front leading a student discussion about this very question, though it was framed very specifically: why do people in poverty, sometimes without a home and panhandling, smoke? The habit is expensive and if people can’t afford basic human needs, what right do they have to panhandle for cigarettes? There wasn’t even a question in my mind about this. My professor, however, had a different view and he shared it. If one small comfort could be afforded someone with little else to look forward to in life, it is the person mentioned above. What harm is it doing? This view baffled my naive outlook, but it shook my understanding of the world enough to leave a lasting impression on me. I think of a person with very little beauty around them finding the beauty in a single cigarette, warmly comforting them in body and mind for a short time.

Next, a story from last week. A man who goes in and out of housing security boards his pet at the veterinary hospital where I work. He gets a fair discount. He can’t afford his own housing and yet he comes to visit his pet and brings her canned food while he visits. He lives for the beauty of his animal companion and dreams of having a place to live that allows her to come home to him as his dear companion. Is it financially wise for him to willingly ask for another mouth to feed? Is it beautiful to have an unconditionally loving companion to share your days with?

One year ago I lived in a wonderful and small apartment and had the very BEST landlords in the entire world! Also, the rent was the best anyone could hope for, and was financially in my best interest. But I had lived there for about a year and was beginning to feel the walls closing in around me. In a tour of other places my landlords had for rent, I opened my heart and said that I worried what others might think of me: out of stable work, but seeking a larger apartment which would cost more money. Wouldn’t they think I was being greedy and unwise? My very wise landlord said calmly, “I’ve heard voices like this in my life and I tend not to listen to them.” The idea that I could choose to listen or not listen to voices around me was a new one and it struck me as some of the sagest advice I had ever received up to that point in my life. In this moment, I knew what I needed in order to survive and it was an extravagance of more space. And this choice to move to a larger apartment has ended up being worth it so far. It has afforded me a comfort and ease that the other place could not.

During the past two years I have slowly been changing careers and entire lives, it seems. I am in unfamiliar territory without a map or compass, which leaves me feeling lost on most days. I’m beginning to feel more comfortable with this feeling, but some days it still feels mighty scary. At the age of 46 I am beginning again in every way, but the most profound of ways is in wage. Now I feel lucky to have a minimum wage job because it’s full time, with benefits. There were months when I didn’t think I had enough to pay the rent (another benefit of having an caring landlord). Another sage piece of advice I received during this time came from a friend. I had been talking with him about how worried I felt about this new territory. His response was, “Enjoy this. Freedom and security never come at the same time.” Because of his advice, I roused myself to invest my free time into developing my love of art. It is thanks to this friend’s advice that I am now a better artist than I was two years ago. I hungered for beauty in the dark time of my life. When it was hard for me to get out of bed in the morning, I gave myself jobs to do that brought me joy—painting. The past two years has been my most prolific period for art and I have enjoyed it.

Thinking of Mary at Jesus’ feet, pouring fragrant oil as if it had no cost makes me think that maybe she hungered for beauty too. Here was a man who had given her so much. To show him how priceless he was to her family, she felt free to lavish him with her heart just like the man who lavishes his cat with food he can’t even afford for himself, and like me who lavishly lives in an apartment with extra space.

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Looking Out

“Let go of all that seems to suggest getting somewhere, being someone, having a name and a voice, following a policy and directing people in ‘my’ ways. What matters is to love.”

Thomas Merton, A Book of Hours, page 171.

For the good share of my former life (the past 10 years) I had been looking too much our: toward the things that I thought would bring me happiness, like the accumulation of goods, a house, security in general. Looking back now, I can see I was building a safety net that I thought could protect me. I felt safe. . . but I wasn’t. It turns out I was only buying insulation to protect myself from a reality that I didn’t have the heart to face–I was a partner in a marriage that was failing miserably and I was unhappy, though I tried every day to convince myself otherwise.

So after finally facing these two very powerful realities of my life, I shed (or lost) nearly everything: house, job, partner. . . anything that had brought me a feeling of security. Since then, for more than two years, I’ve been looking more inward than outward; developing a confidence in who I am or who I want to become more of; struggling to survive without all the “things” I thought I needed. I think I’m beginning to feel successful in this area. My life now has given me a kind balance between working a job I honestly love part time and developing my interest and skills in the areas of visual art and writing in my expansive free time. This has helped me find a confidence that had slowly been whittled away. I’ve initiated the practice of seeking what I need inside myself and finding security in who I am.

And since I’ve experienced reaching the end of who I am and what I can sustain, I’ve learned to seek out the help of One Who Is More Than Me for help beyond myself. I’ve learned that this is the only security I can ever truly hope for.

Now I’m looking forward to sharing some gifts with the world–looking out more often while still developing the who that I am. It turns out, I like me and I just never really knew that at the level that I needed to. I never had to trust myself like I have needed to during the last two years of my life. I am happy to have found this reliable friend in myself.

Story

Story Water
A story is like water
That you heat for your bath.
It takes messages between the fire and your skin. It lets them meet,
and it cleans you!

Very few can sit down
in the middle of the fire itself,
like a salamander, or Abraham.
We need intermediaries.

A feeling of fullness comes,
but usually it takes some bread
to bring it.

Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.

The body itself is a screen
to shield and partially reveal
the light that’s blazing
inside your presence.

Water, stories, the body,
all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what’s hidden.

Study them,
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know,
and then not.

– by Jelaluddin Rumi, taken from The Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks

When I left my 17 year-long teaching experience of the public schools, I realized a part of my problem was that I had experienced a closing off of who I am: someone who believes in God. Some at my school were vocal about those who believed in God, or who went to church, or who talked about Christ. . . they had derogatory names for us. Some even put down anyone who had ever attended a Christian school. So I grew accustomed to closing the door to that part of my life while I was at work.

Then I began teaching at my current school: a small private school to prepare adult students for the American University experience. My first class included five students–one from Samoa, two from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one from Ethiopia and one from Brazil. In a discussion about persuasive essays and how to approach them, I mentioned hearing the Socratic Debate at Oregon State University. The topic was, “Is there a God and does it matter?” After talking for awhile amongst themselves, one student asked me, “Teacher, do you believe there is a god?”

I looked tentatively at them and said, “Hmmm, I’m not sure I can tell you.” When they asked me why not, I explained that in a public school setting it’s not a topic we can talk about because we want everyone to feel included. They all agreed they thought I was able to at this school. A wonderful moment of freedom and relief followed after I said, “Yes I do.” The students nodded and we moved on. A cloud lifted, a weight that I had been carrying for a very long time was suddenly not there. These students accepted me as a believer in god, religion had nothing to do with it. Two of these students follow Islam’s teaching, two are Mormon and one an Orthodox Christian. I felt welcomed by them in a way I hadn’t ever before.

After this experience, our class discussed many different topics and views, including their wonderful question: why are there so many different Christian churches teacher?” This question prompted a lot of interior dialogue for me. I answered their question at the time by saying just a few sentences about his each denomination holds slightly different views on certain ideas but that they are united by Christ.

Then I wondered if the different Christian groups are just reflections of preferences in worship practices which then led me to wonder: just what is the unifying message? For a long time before this, I thought I knew the answer but to be honest, recent politics in the larger church has me currently wondering whether we are united by a whole Christ, or just see different parts of him. Right now my faith in many things is shattered, including God, in a way it never has been before. My belief in a higher power remains strong, but what I thought I understood about God is constantly shifting.

The TED Talk entitled, “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shows how one individual’s world can be shaped (or misshapen) by a narrow view of the world or any one particular idea. Chimamanda’s own view of the world was broadened by hearing and knowing different views, especially in literature. I feel as if by teaching English to my incredible students my view of God has been strengthened and broadened. My students have given me multiple stories about God instead of my single story.