Saturday, June 30, 2012

My Monastery Is a Minivan

My Monastery Is a Minivan: Where the Daily Is Divine and the Routine Becomes Prayer, by Denise Roy

I discovered this book when I read a review for one of Denise Roy's more recent books (Momfulness)...and being a chronological-type reader, I decided to start with this one. Plus as a new (initially reluctant) minivan parent, I liked the title, which comes from Roy's childhood desire to become a nun.

As you might guess, she didn't become a nun--instead she became a mom to three sons and one daughter. She also has an M.Div. and is a psychotherapist and spiritual director. This book is all about finding the divine in our everyday lives.

Roy begins her series of essays with a quote from Frederick Buechner, "There is no telling where God may turn up next--around what sudden bend of the path if you happen to have your eyes and ears open, your wits about you, in what odd, small moments almost too foolish to tell."

Each short essay in this collection is a gem and makes me think more mindfully about my own life and family. She uses wonderful quotes and poems to enhance her points, such as this one by Margaret L. Mitchell:

When it is all, finally,
Too much,
I climb into my car,
Roll the windows up,
And somewhere between backing out the driveway
And rounding the first corner
I let out a yell
That would topple Manhattan
How do you pray?"

Or this one, another by Frederick Buechner:

"The sacred moments, the moments of miracle,
are often the everyday moments."

And this one by Bapuji:

"Those who do not know how to sing and dance
will never reach God."

In one of my favorite essays, "Potato Stories," Roy shares four stories about was about the Korean custom for washing potatoes. When they want to wash a lot of dirty potatoes, they don't wash them one by one...instead they put them all in a tub of water, put a stick in the water, and move it up and down, and the potatoes bump into each other, helping to clean them. She compares this potato bumping/cleaning exercise to being in a community of faith, "When we join hands, our prayers and our lives bump up against one another, and something holy is made in the process."

One of the other potato stories can be found all over the Internet:

One of my teachers had each one of us bring a clear plastic bag and a sack of potatoes.  For every person we’d refuse to forgive in our life, we were told to choose a potato, write on it the name and date, and put it in the plastic bag.  Some of our bags, as you can imagine, were quite heavy.

We were then told to carry this bag with us everywhere for one week, putting it beside our bed at night, on the car seat when driving, next to our desk at work.

The hassle of lugging this around with us made it clear what a weight we were carrying spiritually, and how we had to pay attention to it all the time to not forget, and keep leaving it in embarrassing places.

Naturally, the condition of the potatoes deteriorated to a nasty slime.  This was a great metaphor for the price we pay for keeping our pain and heavy negativity!

Too often we think of forgiveness as a gift to the other person, and while that’s true, it clearly is also a gift for ourselves!

So the next time you decide you can’t forgive someone, ask yourself… Isn’t MY bag heavy enough?

In "Night," she writes about her neighbor Debbie, whose aging mother has become very ill. She asked her neighbor about the hardest part, and she said, "The middle of the night. Getting up at three in the morning to change Mom's diapers and having her look me in the eyes and ask "Where's Debbie?'" This resonated for me, as I was thinking about my cousin who has been caring for her ill mother (my aunt, who recently died of cancer) and father with Alzheimer's. I remember those night times when my sons would wake me up to nurse, and we were the only ones awake in the house. Roy shares this passage from Jane Ellen Mauldin, which I love:

"As I trudged alone through the night hallways, I staggered to a call as old as humankind. That night and every night, mothers and fathers around the world awaken to reassure restless children. That night and every night, grown children arise to calm fitful, aging parents. Those night hours are long and lonely. Our burdens and tired bones are ours alone to bear. There are, however, other people out there who are waking even as we are. There are other people who bear similar burdens--whether it is simply to reassure a child for one night, or to help a dying loved one be at peace, week after week, until the end.

We who rise do so because we choose to do it. It is an intense, physical demand; it is also an honor as ancient as human love. We are part of the circle of families and friends who nurture Life from its earthly beginning until its earthly conclusion."

In "Blessing One Another," she shares a story about shopping with her daughter and observing a horrible interaction between an assistant manager and a delightful young child, who had been twirling around and dancing with a butterfly on a stick, much to the assistant manager's horror. Roy is able to intervene on the mother's behalf (the mother is Hispanic, didn't see what happened, and is cowed by the situation) and share the story with the manager, since she observed the interaction. She starts out this chapter with this poem by Galway Kinnell:

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within,
of self-blessing.

She knows with certainty that the same incident would not have occurred with her own daughter because of the color of her skin. She discusses the effect of prejudice on a small child's ego, and how the mother was "saying words of kindness in the hopes of restoring to the child a sense of her goodness. But I also thought of how different it would be if she had help. What if she had all of us doing this with her, reminding her daughter of her beauty? How different this girl's life would be." She concludes the story by saying that this is how we help God out: "by telling one another in words and in touch that we are lovely and whole and worthy of blessing."

In "Hiding Places," Roy writes about the pain of miscarriage, and her own experiences of having three miscarriages...of which the cause was never determined. Then after letting go of their dream of having another child, suddenly she became pregnant again. In our case, my four miscarriages occurred between our oldest and middle child, and as much as we wanted another child, it was so heart-achingly painful to keep trying. Then finally, it worked--and I had Kieran, my middle son. Roy talks about people's tendency to hide away their pain and grief, deepening their sense of isolation, but "It is only when we have the courage to open the door to the hidden parts of our lives that our suffering can be transformed into wisdom and compassion." This I know is true. Without grieving for each baby I had lost, I never would have been able to be happy in the world.

Another gem I found in this book is a ritual that Denise Roy has in her family. When a boy reaches the age of 13, he goes on a camping trip with other men in the family as a rite of passage. In her appendix, Roy shares some of the questions they discuss:

"Who are my heroes?
What is my philosophy of life?
What do I feel about work?
What gives meaning to my life?
What are the qualities of my mother I admire? Of my father?
What qualities do I value in a relationship?
What does intimacy mean?
What are my dreams for myself?
What does success mean for me?
What brings me joy?
For what, or whom, would I sacrifice my time, energy, health, or life?
What is my idea of power? What is the source of my power?
What are my gifts?
What do I fear?
What is sacred?
Who are my people?
How do I most enjoy life?"

This is the best thing I got out of this book: in a family full of male children, I want to start this ritual. My oldest son (and the oldest grandson) turns 16 this summer, and I've asked my husband, dad, and brother-in-law if they would be willing to take him on such a trip. I love the idea of rites of passage, and this could be a truly meaningful one. They might even take some drums! :)

I really enjoyed this book and it gave me a lot to think about...good reminders of finding the sacred in everyday life, not taking things for granted, and remembering that prayer and meditation comes in many forms.

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