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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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.

Taking Up Space

Dancing at Village Harmony Camp in Vermont, 2014

Dancing at Village Harmony Camp in Vermont, 2014

Today has been one big reflection on the past year. For me, this brings nostalgia and some regrets too. It started with me looking through my photo files on my computer, which I was only doing because I found a was running out of space on my phone, due to the 400 photos I was storing on it! When I finally have time to myself, one thing always leads to another and before I knew it, I was feeling tearful about all that has occurred in my life during the past, oh. . . say. . . 35 years!

In August of 2014 I was in Quebec, Canada with someone I hardly knew, meeting new French-speaking friends at a week-long singing class (in French! I don’t speak French). We continued on to Vermont, to meet up with friends I had made earlier that summer at a singing camp in Oregon. Singing is what we had in common and it was this that brought us all freedom. In Quebec, our small class took instruction from Frank Kane, vocal teacher extraordinaire.

During the week in Quebec, I learned a surprising amount, despite my lack of French and probably because I am surprisingly good at reading body language. I found that by watching, I could pick up the main idea of what was going on. All of us sang in the Georgian language, which was unfamiliar to us all, and which is easy to pronounce because it is phonetic. Frank Kane worked with all of us as individuals and as small groups. He gently encouraged us to participate in the various activities–some of which required quite a bit of bravery for this introvert! We sang with heads next to others’ heads to feel vibrations, to sing with one leg in the air behind us and one arm stretched out in front to create asymmetry.

At one point, late in the week, I sang with a group of two others: the three of us creating close harmony and feeling the sound waves vibrating between us as we stood in the center of the circle. Frank’s comment to me was this: “Jaqui, your voice is lovely. People would come to hear it–they might pay to hear it even. But I’m wondering when we might hear the other 85% of your energy come through.” I remember this striking an immediate cord with me because it is exactly how I had come to view the way of living I’d been participating in for the past 15 years.

Before taking this class with Frank Kane, I’d decided I was only taking up a very small corner of the dance floor of my life; I was determined to change that. And this is what took me to Quebec with someone I hardly knew, in order to take a class in a language I didn’t know before traveling on to Vermont to reunite with new friends. Frank’s observation seemed like an further epiphany to me and an apt metaphor for how I wanted to spend the rest of my life: using up all 100% of my energy to express what I think and feel to those around me.

What I’m learning is that when one expresses oneself in this way (100%), one is going to have to learn to deal with conflict, which is not something this introvert, Mennonite-raised girl knows much about because I’ve become good at skirting around conflict for most of my life. So regrets? Yes, quite a few. Nostalgia? Yes for those times when I felt free and welcome even to be myself. I’m not sure I’m taking up any more space on the dance floor, but I think so. How’s that for starters?