As I write, my 17-year-old German shepherd mix lies in a shady patch of weeds next to the patio, near my feet. The sun is out, at long last — summer having arrived frustratingly late in the Pacific Northwest this year — but it’s still quite cool. My children — ages 5, 5, and 8 — are inside watching SpongeBob SquarePants (I can hear SpongeBob’s shrill, silly laugh through the screen window), and even though it’s a gorgeous day, I’m letting them. After pre-Penguin and Otter swimming lessons, a trip to the community center, a fast food lunch, and a morning of refereeing far too much bickering, I don’t have the energy to do anything but look the other way.
Tired as I am, it’s a relief to be outdoors: to escape the confines of our chaotic, messy rental house — half of a duplex, actually, that’s packed with overflowing, half-opened brown cartons and piles of “stuff” waiting to be sorted. Since early March our family has been living in limbo, waiting for our remodeling project first to begin, then to take place, and — soon, we hope — finally to be completed. Until then, we’re living out of boxes, feeling generally unsettled, and waiting for the day when we can go home. The day when we can finally enjoy the benefits of all this hard, messy work; all the inconvenient uprooting of our lives; all the waiting, waiting, waiting.
I stretch out my toes toward the sun and think about what to write. I’ve been writing this column about motherhood and spirituality for two years, but I’ve never before struggled the way I have with this one, final column. After it’s published, I plan to write another column: this time, about motherhood and politics, a subject that similarly occupies a great deal of mental and emotional space in my life. But, as I work toward that transition, I’m not sure how to bring closure — especially since my spiritual journey is more free-flowing, less closed, than it’s ever been before.
I’m not surprised that I’m stuck; I seem always to be more certain about what I don’t believe than about what I do. When I began this column, I was in a place of deconstruction in my life: leaving behind old models of spirituality, giving myself space to heal and breathe, tinkering with new practices. Two years later — despite a good deal of exploration and movement – I’m, more or less, in a very similar place.
“Spirit [with a capital “S”] has turned down the volume on spirit in your life and has turned up the volume on soul,” a friend who is an intuitive (some would say “psychic”) told me several years ago, “to show you thatyou know that you know that you know.” For most of my life, I’d let pastors, boyfriends, parents, teachers, youth leaders, even friends, tell me what I should believe; it was time to listen within to what I knew, instinctively and organically, about God/the Sacred, about morality, about the universe, about living a life of meaning, about personal growth and responsibility, about love.
“This year you’re going to be moving deeper into spirituality,” another friend (an astrologer) told me just a few months ago. “Even though you’re still not going to have things figured out. Not this year.”
Hopefully, I think, not for a while. I’ve come to love the uncertainty, the sense of possibility, that gives shape to this phase of my life. The more aware I am of what I don’t know, the more open I find myself to what could be. My guides and teachers on the journey include the Jesus I knew growing up, as well as the aforementioned intuitive and astrologer; also three Quaker pastors, one Sufi life coach, a Zen priest, an evangelical psychotherapist, countless mother-writers and mother-activists, a handful of wise babysitters, three doctors of feminist theology, and the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz and Mary Oliver, to name a few. These are the same people who have guided me in my mothering journey — and who have helped me to know myself better, and to find my own voice. Their words and influence filled up the empty places that formed when I threw out all the teachings and beliefs that I’d carried around for so many years, though I’d suspected for a very long time that they didn’t belong.
Two things that I’ve learned as a spiritual being, and as a mother, are that I don’t know everything (and I don’t trust people who say that they do), and that I don’t have to know everything — in fact, I’m better off in countless ways not to. It is the unknowingthat spurs me to think and wrestle and explore and listen and grow.
“Love your neighbor,” the Jesus of my childhood taught, and “Take care of the widow and the orphan.” These are the basic tenets, the backbone, of my spirituality these days. I obsess less (okay, never at all) about things like “sin” and “judgment” anymore, primarily because I never saw much good come out of the lives of those who do.
“You can’t pick and choose which Bible verses to believe [or emphasize],” countless pastors taught me when I was young – but of course, picking and choosing, in every area of life, (sacred and otherwise) is what we do every day. I choose whether to read a book or to push my son on a swing at the playground (or whether to spend a little bit of time doing each); I weigh whether to let the kids watch SpongeBob. I decide whether to be hard on myself, or compassionate, when I make a mistake. I pick what kind of Sacred Being I’m going to believe in. Of course, what I believe doesn’t affect the mystery of what is, but that belief does shape the kind of person I will be.
All this reminds me of our family’s move from our old, under-reconstruction house to our rental — and our imminent move back again. We got rid of what we could before the move, but the pitching and sorting is an ongoing process. We’re still carrying around some heavy boxes that ultimately must go. My husband, my children, and I are all knee-deep in the process of choosing those things that are indispensable, that are unequivocally “us,” that must stay with us wherever we go. Everything else is extraneous – or at least, negotiable.
I suppose that’s the way it goes. Sometimes we stay in one place for a while, sometimes we remodel, and sometimes we relocate — backward, or maybe forward, perhaps a parallel move. Along the way, we look at what we’ve got. We sort and we reassess. We unpack. We decide what to keep and what to let go; some things get thrown out or left behind. At times we enjoy the elbow room; other times, we fill up the empty spaces — in our cupboards and our lives, with new bath towels or new ideas. And with whatever is left and with whatever we add, we go about the hard, gritty, sacred work of growing and loving. And living a life we can believe in.