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Souls Don’t Wrinkle

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Upbeat Spirituality for Women of a “Certain Age”

 

Dorothy L. Sayers, mystery writer of the Peter Wimsey series, once commented that “Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.”

I am not “there” yet—I’m still tamable, persuadable, not yet an unleashed, unstoppable bolt out of the blue hurtling toward a cherished target. Not quite.

But as I advance in years I’m beginning to understand the strength of shedding excess baggage: pride of looks, saving “face,” the avoidance of looking “foolish.” I’m convinced that changing our sights can make way for other, more important purposes and graces for us women in our later years.

What has surprised me most is how this modulation in values is supported by my Christian tradition.

We have, as an example in the Old Testament, Sarah the wife of Abraham, who in her old age made her husband a “father of many nations” through late (impossible?) childbirth. Though first she laughed at the suggestion.

And then in the New Testament we find Elizabeth (Luke 1), another wife too old for childbearing who nonetheless carries to term John the Baptist—he who becomes the forerunner of Christ.

Older women definitely matter. We sometimes forget how much.

But in my research on this subject, I have found the most applicable commentary within the Wisdom tradition—principles about the values that persist in old age. For instance, in Psalm 92: “The righteous flourish like the palm tree. … In old age they still produce fruit.”

And in the intertestamental book of Sirach: “Watch for the opportune time, and beware of evil, and do not be ashamed to be yourself.” Even if it includes encroaching gray hair, a slower gait, and definite laugh lines? “For there is a shame that leads to sin, and there is a shame that is glory and favor” (4:20-21). Admitting we’re at a disadvantage—being older in a world that overvalues surface appearances—is simply facing reality.

Remember, Sarah laughed.

Obviously it WOULD be a shame for us women of a certain age to waste our expertise, to hide the hard-won scars of battles survived, and to forfeit the right to speak out and help others avoid pitfalls—if we have the means to do so.

Some may picture Lady Wisdom—Sophia—as a stunning goddess with a scepter that merely touches to make one wise. But after my recent study I’m more inclined to see her with a few well-earned wrinkles, wearing nondescript clothes and clutching a large overstuffed handbag full of homespun remedies.

In short, to me she’s a sort of Mother Teresa/Miss Marple combo with one foot each in the best of two worlds.

Despite outward impressions, what these wonderful older women have taught us is simple: souls don’t wrinkle.

When I was researching my book Miss Marple: Christian Sleuth, I couldn’t help seeing this elderly heroine’s similarity to other save-the-day figures. With a twist.

What is it about the “old lady with a sweet, placid, spinsterish face” that strikes such a chord of recognition in us? Perhaps it is simply the realization that the least likely person in the room holds the key to the most entangled mystery—the one that others have failed to solve.

And woe to those who try to tame or stop her. Similar to C. S. Lewis’ character of Aslan in his Narnia series, who, it is pointed out, is not a “tame” lion—Miss Marple herself might be genteel, soft-spoken, self-contained, and a proper English gentlewoman. But as Agatha Christie’s stories about her so cunningly reveal, she is far from “safe.”

As Miss Marple’s housekeeper Cherry comments in the novel Nemesis: “Anyone would think you were gentle as a lamb. But there’s times I could say you’d behave like a lion … ” if the circumstances called for it.

Do I look forward to letting loose and personally zinging like an arrow toward the bull’s eye of my late-life destiny?

I think I’ll take it a day at a time.

But it could be worse. Though these are huge steps to follow in, reading about my untamable women mentors is both meaningful and enjoyable (read or reread Christie’s twelve Marple novels and twenty short stories and you’ll see).

Souls don’t wrinkle—and our laugh lines tell the world we’ve already been having plenty of fun.

 

Isabel Anders is the author of Miss Marple: Christian Sleuth and Spinning Straw, Weaving Gold, as well as other inspirational titles.

Z Is for Zing

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Zing [I like this definition best] refers to: “an enjoyably exciting or stimulating quality.”

With the final letter Z, I’ve come to the end of my blog Alphabetarium—which I began less than a year ago with A Is for Attitude http://www.blogher.com/attitude

What, really, IS Zing? A subjective, personal, intriguing promise inherent in a simple four-letter word. BUT Zing is one of those qualities about which we can say: You’ll know it when you encounter it (or embody it)!

Late last March, when I was blogging on BlogHer.com, I considered what it would mean to have a “frame” or pre-set form that would allow me to fill it in with words. A blogging template, so to speak. A plan to prod me to just DO IT! To write pieces regularly and in some sort of order …

That’s when I decided to try this scheme of a series of blogs based on consecutive letters of the alphabet. I really had to stretch when it came to finding a word that began with X … ! https://isabelanders.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/x-is-for-xenial/

I hope that my word studies, short personal essays suggested by these various words—into which I gathered quotes and related thoughts—have had a bit of Zing for some of my readers.

The writing exercise itself often required a surge of Zest from me. And I can say that my genuine love of words and their meanings carried me through—along with a desire to complete the A-Z experiment.

French novelist Gustave Flaubert said about the excruciating limits of words: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while longing to make music that will melt the stars.”

So if even a few bears somewhere in cyberspace are dancing in response, I’ll rejoice in feeling that unmistakable Zing of a task completed.

Y Is for Yin-Yang

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Can it really be true—that these two “Y” words drawn from traditional Chinese philosophy are actually intended to be joined at the hip by a hyphen?

Apparently Yin and Yang—the two conjoined principles whose interaction influences the destinies of creatures and things—are really one. Each side contains specific observable properties or qualities not found in the other.

In fact, each defines the other by being all that the other is not: light and shadow, hot and cold, top and bottom, masculine and feminine. One completes the other. In fact, in Yin-Yang one cannot truly be without the other. Like true lovers.

Visually, the Ying-Yang is a circular symbol split in half so that each half looks like a sideways teardrop. The two sides are labeled Ying and Yang.

Ying is white with a circle of black in the bulb of its tear. Yang is black with a circle of white in the bulb of its tear.

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There are many applications to this visual wisdom. In traditional Chinese Medicine human life is seen as an active physiological process. When the body is well and healthy, Yin and Yang are in balance.

It’s a great symbol of wholeness, and brings to my mind—especially today—the symbol for Heart, which also implies a centering and a balance (unless it’s broken or has an arrow through it!).

In fact, Sufi teacher Kabir Helminski in Living Presence: A Sufi Guide to Mindfulness and the Essential Self, makes this comparison of mind and heart:

“We have subtle subconscious faculties we are not using. In addition to the limited analytic intellect is a vast realm of mind that includes … intuition; wisdom; a sense of unity … creative capabilities; and image-forming and symbolic capacities. Though these faculties are many, we give them a single name with some justification because they are operating best when they are in concert. They comprise a mind, moreover, in spontaneous connection to the cosmic mind. This total mind we call ‘heart.’”

If our Yin-Yang is balanced and ouris whole and true, a great deal is possible in the world.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, wrote: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

May our Yin-Yang steer us in ways that empower our hearts—as Rumi advises: “Only from the heart can you touch the sky.”

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

Dust and Spirit

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Kurt Vonnegut once described human beings as “sitting up mud.” “The word humility comes from hummus, which means earth or mud. To be ‘humble’ is to feel ourselves as part of the earth—made from dust, returning from dust. The Hebrew creation story says God created humans by mixing dust and spirit.”

Today on Ash Wednesday, at the very beginning of the Lenten season, we affirm this humbling paradox.

Does the human spirit even MIX with dust, with dirt, with ashes? We are challenged to find out ways both to humble ourselves AND to take action in the world.

The original period of Lent was 40 hours, to be spent in fasting to identify with the suffering of Christ. Then it became 30 days, then 36, and finally, in the reign of Charlemagne, about A. D. 800, it grew to 40 days, not including Sundays.

The 40 days that we commemorate in the Lenten season are to correspond to Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness. They typically involve giving up something we care about, or taking on a special spiritual discipline.

How can we even compare our temporarily inconveniencing ourselves—to Jesus’ total trust in life and death?

But it is good that we do have a pattern and a plan laid out for Lent each year—one that we follow faithfully, or maybe not so carefully—but that we intend to make our own.

 

A story is told of how once upon a time in ancient China, the people at a village received orders from the regional governor to build a shrine for the emperor. If they could meet the deadline, the governor would reward them handsomely.

The chosen location for the shrine had a well, so they needed to fill it up before construction could take place. They brought in a donkey to transport piles of sand and mud for that purpose.

But—an accident occurred. The donkey got too close to the exposed well, lost his footing, and fell into it. The villagers tried to lift him out but could not. After many failed attempts, they realized it would take too long to rescue him.

Keeping the deadline in mind, the villagers decided to sacrifice the donkey. They proceeded to shovel sand and mud into the well, thinking they had no choice but to bury him alive.

When the donkey realized what they were doing, he began to wail pitifully. The villagers heard him but ignored him. The value of one donkey wasn’t much compared to the rewards they expected to get, so they continued to shovel.

After a while, the wailing in the well stopped. The villagers wondered about this. Was the donkey dead already? Or had he just given up? What was going on?

Curious, they bent over and looked into the well. A surprising sight greeted them. The donkey was alive and well. When the mud and sand rained down on him, he had shrugged it off, and then stamped around until the dirt was tightly packed below him. This formed solid ground that lifted him a bit higher each time.

Eventually, the donkey got high enough inside the well. With one powerful leap, he jumped out of it. Amazed, the villagers watched as he trotted off with his head held high.

Even dust and mud can become building blocks of life.

And so even in this holy season, let’s not take ourselves too seriously.

Teresa of Avila wrote: “We should not attach much value to what we have given God, since we shall receive for the little we have bestowed on Him much more in this life and in the next.”

Lent gives us an opportunity to think about what we are (and aren’t) as humans. At the very least we can move intentionally toward seeking God in our choices and actions. 

And so, in this season that begins with ashes and ends with alleluias, let us—above all—choose to be awake to these possibilities.

 

Isabel Anders is the editor for 40-Day Journey with Madeleine L’Engle, which is often used for Lenten study.

X Is for Xenial

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Xenial: Hospitable, especially to visiting strangers or foreigners; Of the relation between a host and guest; friendly.

Unless you are completing an Alphabetarium blog and have come to this difficult-letter-that-hardly-ever-begins-a-word (or if you’re playing Scrabble)—why use a word like Xenial at all and not just say “hospitable” or “friendly”?

Well, I’m at X in my alphabetical blogging, and staring down but two more letters to complete this feat … so let’s just take it from here:

Being hospitable to strangers was an important theme in classical literature. Hospitality was an indispensible quality especially in Homer’s Odyssey, and in that context I have just encountered the related Greek word for guest-friendship: xenia. This referred to a relationship between people from different regions who formed an agreement that they could visit each other’s territory and be assured of safety, a place to stay, and food to eat.

Because many people had to travel long distances on foot, such hospitality could mean the difference between life and death on the way to one’s destination. Travelers could not count on a local Holiday Inn or even a friendly mom and pop restaurant turning up along the way in their journeys. And so they had to rely on extended hospitality for shelter and sustenance—which surely has led to many a fascinating tale. “… now that you have taken refuge here, you shall not lack for clothing or any other comfort due to a poor man in distress” (The Odyssey, Book VI, 205). See also the example in the Bible of Abraham’s visitors in Genesis 18.

The nearest thing I have experienced to Xenial behavior from a stranger occurred on dangerous snow-covered Illinois streets: I once slid off into a ditch during a storm, and a friendly pickup truck driver (surely an earth-angel) stopped to help me. He put gravel under my wheels, hooked my car to the back of his truck, and pulled me out. Plus, in true Xeniality (if that’s a word)—he would accept no payment. After unhooking my car he drove on and I never got his name.

In fact, it always seemed that severe weather brought out the best in neighborliness: people shoveling other people’s walks; bringing a pot of soup to the door of someone who couldn’t get to the store; picking other people’s kids up for them when school let out early …

If we became a more Xenial society—with less fear about being ripped off, and more concern for our neighbors’ welfare, I could predict that the hope-meter for the planet would shoot upwards pronto.

This story from Martin Buber in Tales of the Hasidim says it all:

An old rabbi once asked his pupils how he could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. “Could it be,” asked one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?”

“No,” answered the rabbi.

Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”

“No,” answered the rabbi.

“Then when is it?” the pupils demanded.

“It is when you can look on the face of any woman or man and

see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.” 

W Is for Whimsy

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Whimsy. Noun.

1. Playfully quaint or fanciful behavior or humor. 2. A whim [a sudden desire or change of mind, especially one that is unusual or unexplained.]

As a “serious” writer, I naturally take great interest and delight in the turn of phrase that, for a moment, turns logic and rational progression of thought on its pompous ear in favor of a good, literary smile.

Phrases brimming with Whimsy can be eminently Tweetable—which gives them their moment in the ether—and offers the sweet satisfaction that some unknown “other” across many miles might also be smiling along with us.

As David Bohm has said: “Perhaps there is more sense in our nonsense and more nonsense in our ‘sense’ than we would care to believe.” That makes it worth turning our focus on Whimsy once and awhile in our somber search for Truth.

Proverbs, as a literary form, are often a source of Whimsy—in their melding of concrete details with wisdom for living. “Like snow in the summer and like rain at harvest, so is honor unbefitting for a fool” (Proverbs 26:1).

James A. Fischer, C. M., writes in A Lighthearted View of Wisdom in the Bible (N. Y.: Paulist Press, 2002): “The shrewdness of proverbs often takes the form of wit. Wit is the art of gracious speech. Quintillian, the rhetorician of Latin literature, insisted that ‘wit is a form of repartee which exhibits mental agility and linguistic grace.’ Hazlitt, the English literary critic, said wit is the product of art and fantasy and that the incongruous ‘is the essence of comedy.’ Kierkegaard, the philosopher, wrote, ‘ … wherever there is contradiction, the comical is present’” (p. 28).

There is Whimsy in Charles Williams’ line from his novel War in Heaven: “The universe seemed sometimes to relax a little, to permit a little grace to be wrung from it.”

And might even God be subject to Whimsy? As Elie Wiesel dares to assert: “God created man because he loved stories.” 

But—paradoxical Whimsy needn’t always be so metaphysical.

I love this quip by Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of the inimitable and dapper sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey: “Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.” In her later years, I’m sure she embodied this wisdom. Her works of wit and force speak for themselves.

Oh, to be both witty and wise. To artfully blend Whimsy with more straightforward serious talk that actually helps people.

When we encounter that in our favorite writers, or manage to strike close to it ourselves, that surely is grace.

V Is for Verve

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Verve. Def.: Spirit and enthusiasm in the expression of ideas, especially in artistic performance or composition. Energy. Vitality.

Constantin Stanislavski, Russian Empire actor and theater director (1863–1938), believed that “Every person who is really an artist desires to create inside of himself another, deeper, more interesting life than the one that actually surrounds him.”

When I recently told a colleague that his writing had Verve, I was thinking of a mix of these qualities, mostly undefinable, that make one want to live in that world. The artist, writer, or performer who succeeds in attracting others to his or her creations has usually done so by evidencing that he has had residency—or at least fleeting experience—within that desirable Country.

As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote: “The sole substitute for an experience which we have not ourselves lived through is art and literature.” No wonder we are attracted to these opportunities to spread our wings through tracing others’ artistic byways.

Peter Kingsley astutely points out: “For us a song and a road are very different things. But in the language of ancient Greek epic poetry the word for ‘road’ and the word for ‘song’ … are almost identical. Originally the poet’s song was quite simply a journey into another world: a world where the past and future are as accessible and real as the present. And his journey was his song.”

How can we lead others “there”—or follow those who have lived to tell their tale? MY question has been instead, how can I possibly ignore these opportunities to expand my limited experience through art? No wonder there was no choice for me but to become a lifelong literature major and a writer.

But the other dimension here is that to me the journey is also a holy one. “You must build your life as if it were a work of art.” 
—Abraham Joshua Heschel.

As Daniel C. Matt said in The Essential Kabbala: “The fierce power of imagination is a gift from God. Joined with the grandeur of the mind, the potency of inference, ethical depth, and the natural sense of the divine, imagination becomes an instrument for the holy spirit.”

Thus the artist maintains a sort of equilibrium between “owning” her works, standing behind them, even with their flaws—and giving credit beyond herself for any sparks of true Verve they may contain.

It is a sort of dance in itself, for the spirit, like the wind, “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). Such is the life of Verve or creation within the Spirit.

Here’s to artistic creation on all levels. May your gifts to the world have Verve!