Saturday, February 23, 2013

Never Just One Thing, a Post by Nancy L. Agneberg

Recently, a friend sent me something from the ongoing archives of our friendship. The first item was a card I had sent her 10 years ago.  On the outside of the card is a picture of four older women sitting on a couch together enjoying a cup of tea. Inside it says, "We'll be friends till we're blue in the hair!" and I had added a question wondering which one of these women was my friend and which one was me. Once again I chuckled at the sweet image and sentiments and also felt intense gratitude for this particular friendship and for all the women in my life. My friend, by the way, says we are the gals in the middle! 
     My friend had also enclosed more sobering items from the friendship archives--copies of emails we exchanged the summer of 2002. That summer I was diagnosed with uterine cancer and far worse, my mother learned her colon cancer, which had been in remission for three years, had now spread. The outlook was not good. In addition, our daughter was pregnant with their first child, and our son was in the beginning days of a relationship with the woman who is now our daughter-in-law. To add to the mix I was preparing a series of lectures and discussions for a weeklong retreat several states away for a large organization of Episcopalian women; something that had been in the works for nearly a year. This is merely a brief outline of all that was going on during those summer days. 
      My emails suggest I was having a hard time dealing with the mix of situations. "One at a time, please," I shouted to the Universe. I have always been someone who moves methodically from task to task, completing one before moving to the next. I am not a good multi-tasker. One of the hardest learnings for me when I owned my own public relations firm and when I worked in the public relations department at Luther Seminary was how to stop in the middle of something, switch gears abruptly, and move directly to whatever had just come up. You would have thought that being a mother was good practice for that, but I had not come by that ability naturally and was constantly re-learning it out of necessity. 
     Obviously, in life it is never just one thing. There is always more than one thing that demands and requires our attention and energy. I was reminded yesterday of that fact when a friend told me about serious health situations she and her husband are confronting at the same time and oh, there is an aging parent in the equation, too. We don't have to look far to realize that we are all asked to respond to more than one need at a time. Having a job and being  a spouse, a parent, a daughter or son, and a friend are all ongoing challenges and gifts and can't be compartmentalized, at least not very easily. 
     Yes, there are times when the focus has to be on one aspect of your life--healing following surgery or sitting vigil with a dying parent--but most of the time we have to deal with more than one thing at a time. 
     So how do we do that?  
     We become still.
     We breathe.
     Breathing and getting still takes no special amount of time or any specific place. It requires no permission or announcement, and we don't need classes in order to learn how to do it. Nobody needs to know that we in that moment have gotten still and are breathing.  
     How do we prepare for those times in our life, those normal, everyday, this is life times? We prepare by practicing now. Right now. Breathe. Get still.
     I certainly hope I acquire these skills before I have blue hair, but at least I am practicing.  

NOTE: The card is a Donna Day/Tony Stone image from Portal Publications.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"Please Leave a Message," A Post by Nancy L. Agneberg

At a recent meeting of my women's spirituality group we were in the middle of our meditation time and our host's phone rang. We heard the invitation on her answering machine, "Please leave a message." And then silence. No messageI thought about how often I am looking for, listening for, pleading for a message, but there is only silence. Perhaps, I am not awake or aware enough to detect the message.
     Sometimes, however, a message is delivered in a bright and shiny God Moment. This past weekend we celebrated our grandson  Peter's 5th birthday (How is that possible?) at a favorite restaurant. Big sister Maren, age 10 (How is that possible?), however, was not happy about being there. The cast party for The Best Christmas Pageant Ever was held in this restaurant after the last performance right before Christmas. She loved being in that show and part of a big loving cast of terrific kids, and now here she was, reminded that it was over. She sat with her mother's arms around her, attempting to control her sobs. And then...Mom Kate spotted someone at another table whom she thought she recognized. The mother of one of the cast members. And yes, the daughter was with her. A happy reunion occurred, and Maren returned to the table content that a connection had been made. What was the message? Well, it is open to interpretation. "I am here." "All is well." In this case, it seems to me, the exact message isn't as important as the fact that a message was delivered and received with an open heart. 
     Sometimes I feel inundated with messages. The number of emails received in a day can be overwhelming. "You've got mail." Many are welcome. Some can be ignored and deleted immediately. Some just rest in my heart. Some are puzzling. Some make me laugh. Some cause me to pause and reflect. Some are avenues for greater learning and understanding. 
     Filtering and sorting and prioritizing is often necessary, but I do wonder sometimes what I have missed. What messages, what God moments, have I discounted or not noticed? 
     I count hawks when I am driving. Driving home from St Paul on Sunday I counted seven.  The hawk, which stands for "messenger" in Native American culture, has been one of my personal totems for many years, and I recall many times when a hawk has appeared when I have felt lost, unclear and uncertain, and vulnerable. A hawk appearance reminds me to be observant, to pay attention, and  to see the bigger picture and "to move through the world we inhabit with strength, certainty, and grace." (Animal-Speak, The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small by Ted Andrews). 
     I know the message I most want to hear right now. "There's an offer on your house." That has not happened. Yet. It is disconcerting to come home and find the light on the phone blinking and then to discover no message has been left. Does it mean "you must be present to win?" Yes, in a way, it does. Hawk reminds me to remember that there is always a bigger plan beyond what it is I think I most want right now.  My task is to focus on what truly needs my attention. Be observant. Stay awake and see what is not visible.  Be present. 
     I encourage my inner being to be open to the messages being sent my way every day and to respond to them with an open heart.

What messages are waiting to be received into your open heart? 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Filled with the Power of the Spirit, a Post by Nancy L. Agneberg

I confess that I do not regularly attend worship services.  No pew is recognized as the place where Nancy sits every Sunday morning. More than likely, someday I will resume weekly attendance, but for now attending church feels more like a religious exercise than spiritual practice. However, there is something about Ash Wednesday, which begins the Western Christian season of Lent, culminating gloriously on Easter Sunday that tugs at my heart. There is something about the imposition of ashes in the shape of the cross on my forehead that draws me. I need the reminder of human mortality, my mortality. I need to be drawn into a season of prayer and fasting and abstinence. I need to mourn all that has been lost and will be lost and to repent the ways I have contributed to the darkness in the world.  
     And so yesterday, Ash Wednesday, I worshipped at Holy Wisdom Monastery not far from our home. Holy Wisdom Monastery is an ecumenical monastic community in the spirit of St Benedict, and it is where I am most drawn to take off my shoes and kneel in recognition of all that is sacred. Once again I was drawn to be part of the ancient ritual, a ritual done in community, but there was an additional reason to participate in worship yesterday. The Nun on the Bus was speaking at the service.
     Sister Simone Campbell, a lawyer and executive director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby and a sister in the order, Sisters of Social Service, was all over the news during the presidential campaign. Even before Paul Ryan (R-WI) was selected as Romney's running mate, Sister Simone was protesting the injustice of the Ryan Budget. To raise public awareness, she and several other sisters boarded a bus and undertook a 9 state tour to speak out against the budget "because it harms people who are already suffering." Perhaps you recall her eloquent speech at the Democratic National Convention this past September or you may have seen her interviewed by Stephen Colbert or Bill Moyers. A national celebrity, but more than that she is someone who lives the Gospel and who is a visible reminder of Isaiah's words as found in yesterday's Gospel, Luke 4: 18-19
       The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
           because he has anointed me    
           to bring good news to the poor.
       He has sent me to proclaim release 
           to the captives
           and recovery of sight to the blind,
           to let the oppressed go free,
           to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. 
Sister Simone is someone to listen to, and I didn't want to miss the opportunity. She expressed her conviction that "something is afoot;" something that involves being drawn deeper into the mystery of the power of the Spirit. 
     I am not sure in what ways I am to be an expression of the power of the Spirit, but moving slowly forward to receive the ashes in this annual ritual, as millions of seekers have done over the centuries, I felt connected to that power and I felt Spirit alive within me. Thanks Be to God.  

Friday, February 8, 2013

Places of Calm, Part II, A Post by Nancy L. Agneberg

Instead of "lions and tigers and bears, oh my," think "herons and egrets and 'gators, oh my." Yesterday's walking meditation was on a 2 and 1/2 mile boardwalk through the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Florida. Preserved by the Audubon Society the sanctuary consists of  13,000 acres of pristine wilderness dating back 500 years and includes the largest old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America. 
     Signs requesting quiet appreciation of the flora and fauna, including no cell phone use, were posted. I suspect for many it was a natural response to lower one's voice, almost to a whisper, and to slow one's pace as if processing up a church aisle. That was not the case with everyone, however, and at first I was irritated with those who did not seem to get the message. I reminded myself, however, to refocus my awareness to what was underneath human sounds. 
     I discovered layers of sounds. People talking. People whispering in respectful tones. The sounds of cameras chiming as they were turned on and then clicking with each picture. Eventually, the nonhuman sounds became more apparent. The calls, ranging from chirps to squawks, of unknown birds who remained unknown, for I rarely spotted what I heard. A scuttling small raccoon peering out from underneath ferns, and green or brown anoles slipping along the the bark of the Bald Cypress. Dried alligator leaves sounding like paper as a soft breeze maneuvered over and through them. An occasional leaf dropping. At home I would suspect a squirrel on the move, but instead I wondered panther or alligator? 
     Later our friend asked if we heard jets as we walked. Not at all. I had dropped to a lower level of sound and consciousness.When I taught T'ai Chi, I often started the class with a walking meditation. Walking slowly in a circle, I suggested even a slower pace. How slowly can you move and still maintain balance? Heal to toe with each step. Slow the steps. Slow the breath. In and out. Relax the shoulders with arms slowly at your sides, letting them swing only as the breeze moves them. What felt different in the swamp (I can't believe I was in a swamp!) was instead of letting go of thoughts, one less thought with each step, I asked my heart to see more, hear more. Be aware. Be awake. Pay attention. 
     I noticed the lichen graffiti, red and white , on the boardwalk fence. The strangler fig wrapped around bald cypress trees, like petrified lizards and snakes entwined around trunks and branches. The occasional polka dot of non green color, a purple or yellow blossom. Bromeliads tucked in crooks of branches looking like nests for prehistoric prowlers. 
     I pushed the pause button within myself often. Be aware. Be awake. Pay attention.      
     Henry James said, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost." I tried, but I knew I was not receiving it all. Not only was I not knowledgeable enough to know what I was seeing or what it was possible to see, but I was also not fully awake and aware. Being fully awake is a lifetime practice. I was grateful for the practice time.
     How are you practicing being fully awake? What is waiting for you to notice?


Monday, February 4, 2013

Places of Calm, a Post by Nancy L. Agneberg

A recommendation: begin your next vacation by visiting a Japanese garden. The result will be almost instantaneous refreshment and restoration. 
Yesterday the friends we are visiting in Florida took us to the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delroy Beach, and  whatever stress came with us from home seemed to find immediate relief. Between the slow strolling on the paths from one carefully composed landscape of water and trees to observing a heron making his way slowly and methodically along the shore, doing his version of T'ai Chi, our breathing, our minds also slowed.

     As I observed the heron, I remembered the Great Blue who sometimes visited the pond behind our barn at our Ohio home. I couldn't see it from the house, but it would hear me when I opened the back door. When I walked to the garden or the garage, I would hear a sound not unlike the whipping of sheets drying on a country clothesline. Not an easy lift off--that big awkward body. 
     In Chinese culture, the heron stands for strength, purity, patience, and long life, and that all makes sense to me, especially as I stood on the bridge in the Japanese gardens, but my heron on the farm reminded me that my lift offs are not always graceful or easy either, but eventually I fly, I soar. 
     Walking through those lovely gardens, where everything has been designed to provide attractive views and a feeling of both timelessness and the passing of time (One of those paradoxes we are susceptible in our wisdom years!), I released sighs of compassion for a friend whose father is dying and for others in my life facing difficult steps in their lives.

     I thought how important it is to know at such times and really, all times in our lives what calms us. Are there places and landscapes that help us remember to breathe? Which spiritual practices move us into inner calm? Yoga. T'ai Chi. Centering prayer or mindful meditation. A walk in your neighborhood or nearby park. A few moments on your deck or porch. If water is important to you and you can't be near water, would looking at a picture from a time you spent on or near water help or how about closing your eyes and visualizing waves coming into shore on your favorite beach? Can a view of snow falling become a contemplative one for you?
     A Japanese garden is not always within reach, but the serenity of such a place is as close as our heart beat. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

510 Pages To Go, a Post by Nancy L. Agneberg

"Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea." Thus begins Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. When I was a junior at St Olaf College, decades ago, I took a course called "The American Novel" in which we read a book and wrote a paper about a specified book each week. This didn't pose too much of a problem for an English major until the assigned book was Portrait of a Lady. 591 pages, small print, long sentences, and even longer paragraphs.  A major book for a week, especially when homework needed to be done for my other courses, but somehow, if I recall, I did well in the class. 
     Now here we are in 2013, and I have started rereading Portrait of a Lady. No papers are required, however, for this University of Wisconsin continuing education class, Booktalks, a combination book discussion and lecture group that attracts 50 or so people each week. I have attended sessions in the past, but recently have taken a break. The line-up for the new session attracted me: Pride and Prejudice; Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James, a mystery set on Mr Darcy's estate after he and Elizabeth are married; Rabbit Run by John Updike; The Living is Easy by Dorothy West, which I have never read; and Portrait of a Lady. A line-up too good to ignore. 
I was surprised to discover that I still have my college copy of the James tome. A Modern Library College Edition priced at $1.15! I was even more surprised to open the book and see written on the inside cover "Nan Jensen." That's me--or that was me.  Jensen is my maiden name and Nan was what I was called in high school and college, but not as often after I married. Nan Agneberg blended into "nanagneberg." Nancy has worked better for this married lady. I paged through the book and judging by the underlining, I only made it through the first 300 pages or so. I have no idea what my paper topic was and if I faked it enough to get a good grade on that paper, but all of a sudden I could see myself in my dorm room reading and reading and reading. The book went everywhere with me that week, trying my best to get through it in time to write the paper and to participate in that week's class. In an instance I was transported to Rolvaag Memorial Library where most of the English classes were held, but also where I studied much of the time, buried behind a pile of books at one of the stately tables in the reference room. Yes, books, and not a laptop where I easily could have "Googled" to discover the ending and to learn key plot developments in the last 300 pages.
     In spite of the late hours to complete course work and the stress to get good grades and the feelings of not being smart enough, good enough, I loved my college years. At least I think I did. I choose to remember that I did.
     Over the years I have created my own "portrait of a lady," a portrait of myself, Nan Jensen and Nancy Agneberg. I'm not sure it is worthy of 591 pages and I am certain my own portrait is not Henry James calibre. However, now at 64, almost 65, much of the background for a portrait on the staircase has been painted. Much of who I am can be seen on my face and has been written in my heart. This is a time of re-examining the portrait I have created and to be aware of how I want the last pages to be written. 
     In the meantime I have lots left to read in Portrait of a Lady before the class meets this month. I carry the book wherever I go on the chance there will be a few moments to read. I am grateful, however, no paper is required, unless it is one for my personal portrait. 

What does your portrait look like? What needs to be finished on your portrait? Let me know.