Who to Trust: God vs. Google

I follow the big G implicitly and without question—the big G being Google of course. I drove up to the Bay Area last weekend. I didn’t know how to get to my specific destination, but after plugging the address into Google maps, away I went, never giving it a second thought.

On the way home, the GPS took me on a rather circuitous route. I was vaguely aware that there was another, shorter route, but I didn’t pull off to see what it was or how to catch it. I just assumed the traffic on that freeway was horrible, Google was safely routing me around it, and my current route was the fastest available. Now that’s faith.

When things don’t go according to my plan in other areas of life, I don’t think, there must have been some traffic—or heartache or suffering—on that route I wanted to take; thanks, God, for safely routing me around it. Oh no.

My reaction usually begins with resistance, an attempt to immediately pull over to the side of the road and check the cosmic road map of life to see how I can get back on my chosen track. (My ability to see the cosmic road map of life has, thus far, proven annoyingly non-existent, but clearly if I just keep looking, the divine instruction booklet in which it is printed will reveal itself.) When this fails, I progress to wailing and gnashing of teeth until finally arriving at acceptance, at which point I often realize my surroundings are rather pretty.

I’m not suggesting that all of life’s detours are pleasant, but how might my way of existing be different if I placed at least as much faith in the creator of the universe as I do in a search engine? Here’s a poem from Hafiz that suggests an answer:

I Vote for You for God
by Hafiz

When your eyes have found the strength
To constantly speak to the world
All that is most dear
To your own
Life,

When your hands, feet, and tongue
Can perform in that rare unison
That comforts this longing earth
With the knowledge

Your soul,
Your soul has been groomed
In His city of love;

And when you can make others laugh
With jokes
That belittle no one
And your words always unite,

Hafiz
Does vote for you.

Hafiz will vote for you to be
The minister of every country in
This universe.

Hafiz does vote for you my dear.
I vote for you
To be
God.

From The Gift by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Celebrating Libraries

Today I found out that nestled inside National Poetry Month is National Library Week, which begins April 12. This is like having a truffle inside a truffle—both chocolate-chocolate truffles, of course, none of this white chocolate stuff or lemon filling. (Hazelnut cream is acceptable, in case you were wondering.)

Libraries are some of the most magical places on earth. To honor them, here are just a few of my favorite things about libraries:

  1. You can learn anything at all for free—you don’t even have to pay for an Internet connection.
  2. You can hang out as long as you want without buying a cup of coffee.
  3. Sitting in the stacks feels like curling up in a hobbit hole. There is nothing cozier than taking a book off the shelf, pulling up the little stool that’s there to help you reach the top, and getting lost in a story surrounded by all those other stories resting inside the quiet bindings.
  4. My sister works in one.
  5. They create community, whether it’s through traditional programs like kids’ story time or more recent inventions like Science Café, libraries offer a space for people to gather, get to know each other, learn, and create.
  6. They give kids free food and other prizes for reading.
  7. Their aura of mystery and possibility, as described in this poem by Charles Simic.

In the Library
By Charles Simic

for Octavio

There’s a book called
“A Dictionary of Angels.”
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.


You can read more about Charles Simic on the Academy of American Poets’ website.

Poems, Poems, Poems!

As some of you may already know, it’s National Poetry Month, which on this blog means that I’ll be posting some accessible and wonderful poems—along with an occasional less accessible but still wonderful poem—in hopes of convincing you of poetry’s awesomeness. It is also, as anyone who’s been in a grocery store recently knows, almost Easter. In this season when we are called to be a sacrament of love, or perhaps more accurately to live the sacrament of love that we already are, here is a poem of welcome from Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Invitation to Love

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

Come when the nights are bright with stars
Or come when the moon is mellow;
Come when the sun his golden bars
Drops on the hay-field yellow.
Come in the twilight soft and gray,
Come in the night or come in the day,
Come, O love, whene’er you may,
And you are welcome, welcome.

You are sweet, O Love, dear Love,
You are soft as the nesting dove.
Come to my heart and bring it to rest
As the bird flies home to its welcome nest.

Come when my heart is full of grief
Or when my heart is merry;
Come with the falling of the leaf
Or with the redd’ning cherry.
Come when the year’s first blossom blows,
Come when the summer gleams and glows,
Come with the winter’s drifting snows,
And you are welcome, welcome.

If you’d like more poetry, you can download the Poetry Foundation’s poetry app, which is how I found this one. If you scroll to the bottom of that Web page, you will also find multiple ways to sign up for a poem of the day. One of my favorite ways to get daily poems is on The Writer’s Almanac.

Dwelling in Discomfort

I am generally not a big fan of mental/emotional/spiritual discomfort, to the extent that I usually do something to avoid it—make plans, eat chocolate, beat up on myself and promise to do better next time—before I even realize my motivation. But this week, I had a few moments of recognizing, oh, I’m uncomfortable and apparently it’s not going to kill me.

Ronald Rolheiser advises us not to resolve tensions too easily. Perhaps sitting with discomfort, with tension, allows different options to grow.

I’m reminded of getting to know loneliness during the year I spent teaching English in China. I lived in a small city and had only one other American to share the experience with. Everything from the language to the food to the social norms was unfamiliar; people stared at us wherever we went; and though I wouldn’t trade that year for the world, it was intensely isolating.

So I spent a lot of time feeling lonely, which at first also felt awful. Then I began to recognize loneliness. Then I realized that I was likely to survive it because, after all, it had happened before and I appeared to be OK. By the end of the year, loneliness and I established a familiarity, and when it came around, it was like opening the door to an old friend—oh, loneliness, hello, come on in, have a cup of tea.

Perhaps now I am beginning a familiarity the uncomfortable state of not knowing what comes next. Discernment—paying attention to where God or life is leading us—doesn’t generally happen on our timeline. Most things that come into being, from oak trees to humans to right action, seem to require some kind of gestation period, a process that this human is often impatient with.

But just as it’s much better for a baby to be carried to full term, so too with taking the next step. And just as it is not the most comfortable thing to carry that baby, so too with the next step.

Evil Queens and Open Hearts

This whole opening my heart thing has turned out to be really scary, so I’ve been avoiding it for the past few weeks. My favorite escape has been binge watching the TV show Once Upon a Time. Luckily, I’m almost done with the third and final season on Netflix, though finishing it will provide only temporary salvation—there’s a new season coming soon.

The show is nominally about fairy tale characters who get stuck in Maine because of a curse, but really it’s about abandonment, love, and forgiveness. What I’ve learned so far is that emotionally wounded fairy tale characters protect their hearts by not letting other fairy tale characters love them. Or by removing their hearts and sticking them in boxes. Though we non-magic types don’t have the latter option, I suspect we share the former trait.

What’s so risky about letting others love us? Clearly, when you let someone love you and love that person in return, the evil villain will have power over you because you don’t want to see that person hurt. Or, if you’re not being threatened by an evil villain, you might be terrified by—I might be terrified by—the transformative power of love.

Transformation is a tricky thing because we don’t control it. We don’t know where we’re going to end up when we start down the road. Two of the most evil characters in the show turn into heroes because of love. While that sounds like a good thing, that’s a pretty profound identity change to navigate. Who are you if you’re not who you’ve always told yourself you are?

So protecting one’s heart is, on the one hand, a completely rational thing to do. The problem is, at least on the show, the characters who do that end up miserable, lonely, and rather destructive toward those around them. I think that result probably occurs on Earth as well as in the Enchanted Forest.

But if we do choose to open our hearts, we might find ourselves happy, though more likely at a beginning than an ending.

What Do We See?

Many years ago, I worked with a woman who lied habitually. It took me a while to realize what was going on because I’d never met anyone with that habit.

One day she told me that a coworker would be out for a few days because he’d received a grand jury summons. She said, “I thought he was lying, but he brought in the jury summons.” I hope my jaw didn’t literally hang open in front of her. I understood all at once that she thought everyone else lied the way she did and that her life must be really isolated, difficult, and unhappy.

The priest giving our parish Lenten retreat put it this way: people who lie can’t see other people. I think we miss seeing each other in so many ways. I often assume other people are approaching me with the same small, fearful voices with which I’m approaching them.

A small example: I hate it when I’m driving in the left lane and someone zooms around me in the right lane and then cuts back in front of me, not because it’s unsafe but because I’m insulted that the person thinks I’m going too slow. As I was speeding to catch the van the other morning, I saw my impatience and frustration with the person in front of me who was going slightly under the speed limit and realized that the people on the freeway might be perfectly happy to zoom around me. I’m projecting my frustration onto them.

A larger example, I sometimes worry that my friends are mad at me or don’t want to be around me when there is zero evidence or history to support this concern. (If you need a good laugh, The Onion did a marvelous piece on this particular psychosis.) Which means I’m not seeing my friends, some of the people I love most in the world.

So in a very real way, whatever I’m doing to myself, I’m doing to others, and vice versa; however I’m judging myself, I’m judging others the same way, and vice versa. One more argument for loving kindness all around.

Two Steps Back

If I were a space capsule, my re-entry from last weekend’s silent retreat at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur into the everyday would have included some layers being burned off in the atmosphere. This might have had something to do with my decision to give up protecting my heart as my Lenten practice.

On the last morning of the retreat, I was trying to be present as I ate breakfast, looking out at the fog that hid everything beyond my little garden, and worrying about this whole open heart thing. I looked down at the empty sugar packet I’d used for my tea and suddenly there was holy presence of sugar packet.

This was not an art deco sugar wrapper. This was your standard white with scrolly blue letters proclaiming, “Sugar, sugar, sugar.” It was a little rumpled and, in that moment, exactly as it ought to be, as if the essence of this particular sugar packet were shining through. This awareness lasted for a little while—holy presence of bowl, holy presence of plate. Then it faded, and we drove home.

I was determined to “keep faith with my newly awakened heart,” as Jim Finley says. Then I went to work Tuesday morning.

At my parish’s Advent retreat last year, Father Jim Clarke said that when you ask God for something, God rubs his/her hands together and says, “OK, let’s get down to this,” and shows you exactly how much you need to work on what you’ve requested. It was a normal Tuesday—I was late, work was busy, some things went according to plan, many did not. But by the end of the day, I was angry and impatient and had made snide comments about people I didn’t think were doing their job well, people who I had been practicing holding in my heart for months.

There are so many ways I protect my heart. Dwelling on others’ shortcomings and wrapping my own identity up in how well I do my job are only two. Worrying that people will like me and having imaginary conversations to convince people to see things my way also come to mind.

I don’t know how this is going to work. I never do at the beginning of Lent. But I still have the sugar packet and thirty-eight days—clearly enough time to complete a lifelong practice. Pray for me.