Tag Archive | Unitarian Universalist

Writing as Everyday Spiritual Practice

Can writing be an everyday spiritual practice? It all depends on how you approach it. Scott W. Alexander defines everyday spiritual practice as “any activity or attitude in which you can regularly and intentionally engage, and which significantly deepens the quality of your relationship with the miracle of life both within and beyond you.”

Scott’s collection of essays by Unitarian Universalist ministers and lay leaders describes a wide range of practices that qualify, from meditation through charitable giving, working with a spiritual director, even recycling, to art. What makes an everyday spiritual practice is “intentionality, regularity and depth . . . your commitment to making the activity a regular and significant part of your life.”

So writing certainly qualifies, doesn’t it? For me, it meets the above criteria, but something’s often missing. On a good day, when I’m in the zone and the words are flowing, I might tap into that sense of the “miracle of life,” but the feeling is fleeting. A common thread in the practices these authors describe is their potential to bring us into present time, to function fully in the now. Past and future fall away, and the present moment is everything. But is this even possible with writing? It’s an inherently linear, temporal medium, and every word is inextricably linked to before and after.

Part of the problem is that pesky inner critic, the one who keeps saying “Forget about it – you’ve got nothing to say, and no one will want to read it anyway.”  She tells me I’m fresh out of ideas and that my best writing days are behind me, and of course that blanket condemnation carries the strong stench of self-fulfilling prophecy. Then there’s the problem of writing with an audience in mind, which is antithetical to the idea of spiritual practice.

Sometimes switching genres helps. For me, poetry sometimes works – if I don’t get too hung up on the notion of reading my latest creation at an open mike. Haiku’s a good discipline, with its five-seven-five constraints:

            Lush green maple leaves

            Summer’s come far too early

            Lone mourning dove calls

Not great maybe (there’s that nasty critic again) but I had an Aha! moment when I got the syllables to come out right. There were images and themes I’d have liked to include – the dead tree among the maples, the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf – but those can keep for another poem.

My major everyday spiritual practice is my Nia exercise class at the Y, which I attend with near-religious regularity at least twice a week. Lost in the rhythm of the music, the jazz dance and martial arts moves, I tap into a mind-body-spirit connection that grounds me deeply in the here and now for all of a minute or two. Then I glance at myself in the mirror and the spell is broken – I start comparing my weight to my fellow dancers, critiquing my range of motion. But I take a deep breath, blow off my inner critic and return to the dance.

 Come to think of it, blogging’s a lot like Nia, and perhaps it qualifies as a genuine spiritual practice too.  I blog semi-religiously, two or three times a week. Does it deepen my relationship to the miracle of life beyond me? Certainly the notion that my words are flowing out to the universe via the World Wide Web inspires awe and wonder, as does the fact that I’m getting over 400 visits a day, though whether I’m actually connecting with that many real people remains a mystery. 

Intention to practice regularly is all-important. I recently took a week off from blogging for the first time in over a year, and the decline in my sense of wellbeing was all too apparent. So I hereby recommit to this everyday spiritual practice of sending my message out into the ether in hopes someone’s there to receive it. And even if they don’t, I’ll try to avoid getting hung up on looking into the mirror.

Do you view writing as an everyday spiritual practice? I’d love to read your comments.

In memory of my artist friend Dan Sekellick

Dan Sekellick - Oceanic at Sunset (Star Island)

Today I’m mourning the death of my friend and fellow artist Dan Sekellick. In recent months, our Unitarian Universalist congregation has lost seven older long-term members in close succession, but Dan’s death hits closest to home.

A retired architect, Dan was dodgy about his age, but he was on the far side of seventy – I know because several years ago he told me he was eligible to ski free at Gore Mountain. Skiing was one of his many passions. He loved gardening, and normally during this dreary run of rainy March days his studio would already have been full of seed flats for his summer vegetable garden. In recent years he began writing poetry to accompany his paintings. He was a volunteer extraordinaire, helping to stock streams with fish each spring and to renovate and launch the Sand Lake Arts Center. 

Even as his health was failing in recent years, Dan had an extraordinary joie de vivre. I’ll always remember the enthusiasm with which he described the latest developments in his garden in spring, the skiing pointers he gave me at Jiminy Peak, and especially the ride he gave me back from Jiminy one early spring day in his vintage Chrysler convertible – with the top down, despite my initial protests. He was right – the windshield gave plenty of protection, and the ride through the Berkshire foothills was beautiful though breezy.

Dan Sekellick - Jazz Band

Most of all, Dan loved painting. On the website Art-N-Soul, Inc., where a few of his many paintings are displayed, he had this to say about his art:

My working method is an extension of my architectural design training. It often begins with some vague ideas of what I want to happen and it’s mixed with the influences of the works of other artists that I admire, along with my own personality and life experiences. I believe that artists are essentially self-replicating creatures, whatever their art form, and I don’t believe that I’m any exception. I refine my ideas, sometimes making fresh starts in new directions or just plugging along until I get it “right”, even if it takes years, as it sometimes does . . .

Thank you for viewing my work. I think that it helps to bring closure to a process that begins as vague idea or an inspiration or some other mysterious genesis, moves along with a lot of hard work and sometimes disappointment and then, hopefully makes a meaningful connection with another person. Now that’s the real reward in all of this.

What a wonderful description of the creative process, as true for writing as it is for painting. Dan, you’ll be missed by many, but your memory and your paintings live on. Yesterday, leaving the Sunday service at which our minister announced your death, I noticed how beautiful your abstract seascape looked hanging on the wall of our sanctuary, complete with the little seagull sculpture you’d perched whimsically on top.

UU – A spiritual home for the holidays

Last Sunday, as Service Leader at my Unitarian Universalist congregation, I started the service with a mini-testimonial. I joined my first UU congregation at a particularly dark, stressful period in my life. I’d say it’s been a Godsend, but like most UU’s, I’m not comfortable using the G word. In this darkest time of the year, when holiday joy is virtually mandatory, I’m sure there are many folks struggling with feelings of loss and depression. If by any chance you haven’t found a spiritual home, perhaps this post is for you. Here’s what I said on Sunday:

 

 

 In sweet fields of autumn the gold grain is falling,

the white clouds drift lonely, the wild swan is calling.

Alas for the daisies, the tall fern and grasses,

when wind sweep and rainfall fill lowlands and passes.

That’s the first verse of the beautiful hymn “In Sweet Fields of Autumn,” and it reduced me to tears when I heard it 15 years ago on my first visit to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills. I was going through a difficult time: I was running my home care agency, ElderSource, an incredibly stressful business that demanded my attention 24/7, and my teenage daughter had just left home to explore the country on her own. I was depressed and anxious, and the congregation promised comfort and community – I think I was sobbing with relief when I heard that hymn.

I’d been without a church for over 40 years. My parents were both staunch atheists, but out of a sense of obligation, feeling I had the right to explore my own religious path, they took me to the Unitarian Sunday School in Milwaukee. But when the boy next door invited me to go with his family to the Episcopalian Church, I jumped at the chance. It didn’t take long for me to get converted. When my parents asked why I wanted to switch, I said, “At the Unitarian church, all they have is some jigsaw puzzles with the pieces missing, but at the Episcopalian church, I get to march behind the gold cross and sing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.’”

Eventually I got myself baptized and confirmed Episcopalian, but sometime in my teenage years, I came to the realization that I was not and would never be a true believer.  Except for a few weddings and funerals, that was the end of my church going for the next four decades, until the UU Congregation of the Catskills quite literally threw me a lifeline.

In 1998, I closed the agency, and my husband and I pulled up roots in New Paltz and moved to Troy, where we knew practically no one. The transition was tough, but once we found the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, the sense of being part of a welcoming community made us feel at home. I found ways of getting involved – I chaired the Adult Education Committee, and later Small Group Ministry. The prospect of publishing in Oriel [FUUSA’s annual literary magazine] inspired me to start writing poetry, and I joined the motley crew that writes and performs the annual dinner skit.

Today I’m at a good point in my life, with a lot to be grateful for, and my participation in this welcoming community is part of the reason. The depression and anxiety are long gone, and I no longer sob over the sad words in hymns, but I know that if times get tough, this congregation will be there for me.

Last week I took my granddaughters to the Congregation of the Catskills, which is just ten minutes from their new home in West Hurley. They both liked it and want to go back, and Kaya’s going to be involved in the R.E.’s Festival of Lights presentation next Sunday. I’m hoping they’ll grow up as part of the beloved community it took me 40 years to find.

I invite readers to visit the national website of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. There you’ll find a lot more information, including a directory of more than 1,000 congregations listed by geographical area. At all of them, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of beliefs, you’ll find a warm welcome.

There’s something about Unitarian Universalism that seems to attract writers – on one of the panels I moderated for the Poisoned Pen Web Con, four panelists out of five turned out to be UU’s! But whether you’re a UU or not, I welcome your comments here.