Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Storyteller

In packing last week for my Centering Prayer retreat, I elected to bring along my most comfy clothes -- jeans, turtlenecks, and favorite sweatshirts for the long hours spent in meditation.

The sweatshirt I wore the first day of the retreat is an old favorite of mine, given to me by Ian MacKenzie probably 15 years ago, back in the day when he and I served on the board of Ecunet together.

At the time I met him, the Venerable Dr. John A. (Ian) MacKenzie was serving as an archdeacon somewhere in the northernmost hinterlands of western Canada, running a native ministries program through the Vancouver School of Theology, and serving as the titular head of the Nisga'a Tribal Council, busily negotiating the first modern First Nations Treaty in British Columbia -- and that's all I can remember off the top of my head; I know there was more.

Ian was a delight, a stocky square-headed Scotsman with a magnificent mane of white hair, a rebellious spirit and a delicious sense of humor, and we got on famously for some reason -- maybe because we were both Anglicans? At any rate, Ian came to visit me and my family at our home in the suburbs of Issaquah, before I left Ecunet and my position at the Diocese of Olympia and began my island odyssey. And he brought with him this sweatshirt, as a thank-you present for me.

I loved it: it was a sort of mottled purple and blue color -- something my older daughter likes to call "blurple" -- and was covered with Canadian native designs delicately rendered in a sort of lacy black overlay. But best of all the theme of the designs was explained at the bottom, which featured the word "Storyteller," centered, also in black.

Oddly enough, I hadn't thought of myself as a storyteller before, and I remember being surprised and infinitely pleased that Ian had observed that potential in me. I was, and still am, deeply moved by the attentiveness evidenced in that simple gift. Amazing. Somebody "got" me.

These days that sweatshirt is pretty ragged. The waistband is so frayed it has come apart, and there's a good-sized hole developing on the seam on the left side. I don't wear it much any more, partly because I weigh less now than I did then so it rather hangs on me, and partly (I confess) because it doesn't quite meet the dress standards of our current island. We may dress very informally here, but we are rarely if ever shabby.

Plus this sweatshirt, with my long straight hair, would firmly relegate me to the "hippie" category. Which is not to say I don't approve of hippies, or would mind being thought to be one (though I'm not), only that I never want to fit in a box. You see, we have a saying in our family: you can't put Walkers in a box. We, all four of us, tend to resist being categorized or predictable, and we get very restless and even irritable when people make assumptions about us.

But I did take the shirt to the retreat, because no matter how shabby it is, I still love it: it's my favorite color, it has the comfort of an old teddy bear, it came from Canada (and the retreat was in Canada) and it feels like a special gift from God -- totally appropriate to the occasion. And then, as I sat in the circle on that first day, I found myself (one's mind does wander at times, sadly) looking at the shirt's ragged edges -- surely it was in worse shape than when I had worn it last? -- and wondering what conclusions this roomful of strangers would draw about me from my ragged storyteller sweatshirt -- what box they would draw around me.

And I was startled into attentiveness in the middle of those thoughts by something Cynthia said that was totally relevant to my mind's meanderings. Her observation was this: Any time we define our self by our unique characteristics, we limit ourselves to the finite world. Aha! I thought: that's why we hate being put in a box!

We humans spend so much energy trying to figure out and establish ourselves as unique individuals: I am tall, or short; blonde or brunette; fat or thin; conservative or liberal; democrat or republican; Christian or Jew... the list of ways we try to separate ourselves out from the herd goes on ad infinitum, and is, of course, an important part of the process of self-differentiation.

But at the same time, our core hunger is for CONNECTION -- both with creation and with the infinite -- and any sense of vulnerability or insecurity we have often stems from a sense that we are different: better than, less than, separate from the whole. So that egoic being, trying so hard to establish itself, protect itself, defend itself, does so at the expense of the very sense of wholeness that would alleviate our fears and concerns.

The good news -- for those of us who suspect, as Cynthia says, "that we were out of the washroom when God was handing out brains, or beauty, or whatever" -- is that our opportunity to grow into spiritual consciousness -- connectedness -- arises exactly out of that place where we feel most inadequate. Which takes me back to that Cynthia statement I quoted a couple of blogs back, which bears repeating:

"What you've been given is perfect for you to manifest the exquisite savor of divine reality that is to come forth from your being."

The very things that challenge us most are the things most likely to bring us closer to God; closer to what we are called to manifest in this life. But she didn't just say "the tough stuff you've been given"; she said "What you've been given." Which means everything we've been given -- good and bad, hard and easy, fun and painful -- EVERYTHING, even a dying cat and a now raggedy sweatshirt, can bring us closer to the clear spiritual consciousness that is our destiny.

So thanks, Ian, for identifying that part of me and handing it to me in a colorful, wearable form. As you can see, I am still a storyteller!

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