I recently blogged about having moved into a community in Milwaukee, describing the community I’m living in. This is a big life change for me, so it’s prompting reflection and necessitating adjustment. I wanted to describe a bit more what my reflections have been.
About a month after moving in, I started getting busier with various activities, but they didn’t seem to cohere around a center. For about fifteen years, from the time my sons left home to when I retired from my full-time job, my center was work. I then moved to my home town, where my center was helping my parents. In both cases, I did plenty of other things, but the other things had to fit around the center. What is the center now? I’m active in the household where I live, with my sons and grandchildren, with working part-time, and with attending church and a men’s group. Is one of those the center? If so, which one?
Those questions were in the back of my mind when I went to the gym one Saturday to exercise. As is often the case, I listened to a podcast while working out. This time, it was episode 225 of “The Antioch Podcast” (at https://antiochpodcast.org/podcast/), an interview with Mark Charles, a Native American writer and activist. He lived most of his life away from his Navajo nation, but in middle adulthood moved back to the Navajo reservation near Gallup, NM for several years as a way of more deeply connecting with his tradition. He has since moved to Washington, D.C., a better base from which to speak and advocate regarding indigenous issues.
It occurs to me that my journey has inadvertently paralleled his. I moved away from Grand Rapids, where I had grown up, to attend graduate school and ended up living most of my adult life elsewhere. I returned home, so to speak, in 2012, when I moved in with my parents to help them with their health problems. Whereas Charles had intentionally returned to his roots, I had done so inadvertently, in response to my parent’s urgent need. In both cases, though, there was a returning to the center, or at least a center.
What was that center like for me? For 40 years, I had visited my family just at Christmas and during my summer vacation. My parents and sister had always been very welcoming, but I was a guest. That meant parties, time spent around the swimming pool, and trips to their cottage. For the 10 years after I moved back, I was no longer a guest. It was much more evident how much my parents had sacrificed to provide the hospitality they had offered me and others. For example, when dad was in his mid-eighties, it was quite difficult to keep a swimming pool cleaned and ready for guests, but he did it. He didn’t call attention to his hard work; he was just glad that countless friends and family could come swimming. Scores of friends and family members have memories of good times spent at that pool.
When I returned, the pool had been covered for good and dad was suffering from severe mental decline. My mom gave herself fully to dad’s care. She gave her all, and after he died wished she had been able to give more. She was homebound, no longer able to drive after a stroke took half her vision. Yet she continued with her life, which consisted mostly of reading, talking with visitors or on the phone, praying for those undergoing hardship, listening to music, and watching the service at her church on DVD or livestream. She eventually lost her ability to swallow even liquids and had tube feeding. She called the Isosource she poured into the tube her ‘manna’ after the food given the Israelites in the wilderness, which I took to mean that it sustained life but was otherwise unsatisfying. Yet she was grateful. She offered words of encouragement to others and never, except during the last few months of life, complained.
So the center I returned to was a place where abundance was shared with others, those in need were helped, minds were fed more richly than bodies, gratitude was unending, and faith was deep. The center was less what I did for them than it was what I had received. Perhaps I should not be looking for a new center so much as remembering the center from which I came—and remembering as well to take that center with me.
While living on the reservation, Mark Charles began the spiritual practice of watching the sun rise every day. In D.C., he goes every day to a spot on the Potomac where he can watch the day begin and give thanks to his creator. The center that he found was not in Gallup or in Washington, just as my truest center isn’t in either Grand Rapids or Milwaukee. It was in contemplating his creator.
The day after I listened to the podcast, I visited Brew City Church in downtown Milwaukee. The worship leader read something that reminded me of this deeper, truer center. It was from Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder. Back home, I looked up the passage:
“In worship God gathers his people to himself as center: ‘The Lord reigns’ (Ps. 93:1). Worship is a meeting at the center so that our lives are centered in God and not lived eccentrically. We worship so that we live in response to and from this center, the living God. Failure to worship consigns us to a life of spasms and jerks, at the mercy of every advertisement, every seduction, every siren. Without worship we live manipulated and manipulating lives. We move in either frightened panic or deluded lethargy as we are, in turn, alarmed by spectres and soothed by placebos. If there is no center, there is no cirumference. People who do not worship are swept into a vast restlessness, epidemic in the world, with no steady direction and no sustaining purpose.”
My parents had worship at the center of their lives, and, in taking what I absorbed from them to this new place, worship has to be my center as well. Worship and other spiritual practices aren’t meant to be the whole of life, but are what holds us fast, like a stake driven in the ground to which we are chained so that we can’t wander very far away. The question, then, becomes, what are the practices that will keep this center where it belongs? For Mark Charles, the key practice was watching the sunrise. For me, the weekly practice of writing a poem was an anchoring practice during my time in Michigan, and I’m continuing that here. I have entered into another anchoring practice since moving to Barnabas House: praying the Divine Office morning and evening. I’ll write about that in a subsequent post.