Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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A Banner Week


This past week has been a red-letter week for me. I have taken some big steps on a couple of important roads in my life, and one of them has already proven fruitful!

The first thing I did is to finally(!) submit my manuscript for Dying With Ada to a publisher. This is the book I excerpted here a while ago, about the year that Henry’s aunt Ada lived and died with us. I’ve put it off for a pile of reasons, most of which were really procrastination, fear of failure, and being overwhelmed with the variety of publishing paths available these days.

The second thing I did was to complete and submit to my SCORE mentor three SMART goals for my professional spiritual work over the next 6-9 months. These goals (and stating them publicly here is part of making them real, and being accountable for their fulfillment!) are launching my shirinmcarthur.com website, leading an online spiritual retreat over Advent/Christmas, and publishing my first ebook.

The third thing was actually “forced” upon me, and involved taking a more direct role (and bigger risk) in one of my editing jobs. This is the one for which I’ve already received positive feedback—and it feels great!

But none of this was easy. Dying With Ada was written in 2011–2012, which means I’ve been avoiding “putting it out into the world” for four long years! I’ve owned the shirinmcarthur.com domain for more than a year now, and have done very little further with it. My fears about taking on this additional risk with this client literally had me on my back (not just my knees!) in prayer last week, struggling through it all with God….

So…how did this happen? What has enabled me to take these important steps? Part of it was the workshop at Ghost Ranch. I have walked out of so many workshops over the years, determined to follow through—and haven’t. And so I prayed that I would follow through this time. I made a commitment (again!) to putting my own writing life first each weekday—rather than diving into freelance work right away—and I clearly stated that commitment to a couple of my fellow workshop participants. I wrote out my morning routine, step by step, and kept it up on my computer each day so I could check my progress, celebrate my successes, have self-compassion for where I didn’t follow through, and commit “one day at a time” to try again. I’ve written poetry, and sent a couple of them to those workshop participants. I will share more, here and elsewhere. I’m pondering starting a second, poetry blog…but I might choose instead to keep the focus on those SMART goals, and maybe the ebook will be a poetry book!

The other thing that happened last week was that, in my editing work and elsewhere, I was confronted (again!) with the lesson that we learn much more from our failures than our successes. In prayer and reflection, IMG_1556cI realized that there is no ideal path, no 100% success rate. I cannot choose the “perfect” path to publishing because there are so many…and in fact, I ended up writing a poem about that! Instead, I need to choose a road, walk a ways, learn its lessons, then decide if another road might be better for next time.

And so I chose some roads, took some steps, and am—at last!—moving forward. Thanks be to God!

Where in your own life are you stuck—for whatever reasons? It might be that, if you take those things to prayer, you will find that the reasons don’t matter. There is no perfect path; what would happen if you chose one and took a few steps, just to see what you could learn?


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Making Music Together


Another famous musician died this past week. As I dipped into the news feed following Prince’s death, I found myself feeling something similar to what I felt following the death of David Bowie. There’s so much talk about what makes these musicians unique and memorable. I’ve enjoyed their music over the years. I’m also not a musical expert; I found myself contemplating Prince and Bowie as cultural phenomena—and pondering what their stardom might have to say about our cultural priorities and spiritual lives.

David Bowie was lauded as both a chameleon and the truest rock star—in the same sentence, mind you! To me, that seems oxymoronic—or is it paradoxical? How can he be constantly changing and, at the same time, true to himself and his musical gifts? Perhaps he had a genius for chameleon-hood, but what does that say about what we Americans want in our music, our entertainment, our artistic icons?

Then there’s Prince, who “defied genre” and also changed his name—that handle by which he was most-widely known—because of a fight with a record company. Perhaps it’s emblematic of the state of our society, that big business has such a hold over us that we might actually have to change our names to get out from under its thumb.

IMG_2692cAs I pondered musical identities, I found myself out in our back yard, listening to the wind chimes in our trees. Those chimes present a very different image of musicality. Each individual chime is of a different length, yet they appear the same when grouped together. They work together, in unity, to create a harmonious sound. They are not driven by ego, business, or cultural priorities. They are moved by the wind—by the Spirit. As John 3:8 says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Contrary to modern Western culture, we are not created to be “unique and memorable”; we are, in fact, created to be different strands in one interlocking web of creation on planet Earth. Instead of working so hard to stand out, we really need to learn how to stand alongside each other and work together.

And so I ask you: What should truly matter about our cultural icons? Is it their genius for entertainment, or for connection? Is it their success in creatively fighting big business, or their ability to transform our society so that big business might not have such a stranglehold on creativity?

What would happen if we were to laud those who seek to work together, creating harmonious music that includes everyone? Is it even possible—or is it paradoxical?!—to single out those who show us our common humanity?


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Pedernal Pearls


This past week was an incredible gift for me. I attended a writer’s workshop/retreat at Ghost Ranch. A dozen of us spent our mornings and evenings together, discussing elements of the writing craft, experimenting with new ways to stimulate our writing, and sharing the results of our work with each other. I came away feeling inspired and energized about my poetry and committed (again!) to making my personal writing (as opposed to my professional writing for others) an integral part of my life.

I also took a lot of photographs and even played with water colors, something I haven’t done in decades. Today I thought I’d share a poem and a painting, on the same subject. I also invite you to ponder where in your life you might need to nurture your creative or spiritual life with new input, practice or support.

 

Pedernal PearlsPedernal

 

Pedernal looms in the distance,

wearing a scant choker of snow.

Clouds dance with her high collar,

throwing a virga shawl around her shoulders.

Wind whips her darkened skirts

As water evaporates beneath her feet.

 

Where did our hearts wander

While our heads were elsewhere?


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Releasing What Is Extraneous


One of the things I did on vacation recently was re-read a favorite short story—twice. I finished reading it once, and immediately felt the need to read it again. On the second time through, part of what kept catching my attention was the fact that nothing was extraneous to the developing story line. One of the things that makes short stories harder to write than longer ones—and poetry more difficult to write than stories—is the need to take out everything that isn’t critical to moving forward the plot or idea of the piece.

Part of what I found myself doing in quieter moments on vacation was similar, in a sense. I was sifting through the crowd of ideas and thoughts and experiences and worries and such that have been running through my mind over the past several months of transition. I was working, consciously, to let go of what was extraneous, so that I could focus on my relationship with God and reconnect with the spiritual center of my life.

DSC_0364cOne of the exercises I did for myself was to make a list of all the ways I saw myself, all the roles I’ve been playing. Then I spent time in prayer, reflecting on each of them, and what held the most—or least—meaning, or need, or hope, or energy, at this point in my life. As the wind whipped through the palm trees, I listened to the rustling sound, wrote a poem about the rustling, returned to an internal stillness. Made lunch. Repeated the process. Re-read the short story. Reflected some more. Released into God’s hands yet more of the issues and items that felt extraneous to my life in this season.

Eventually the word that became central was “let.” Let go. Let be. That sense of allowing things to unfold felt incredibly important—the way that a blog post or poem will unfold when I let go of my need to control it and see what the Spirit, speaking through me, might have to say.

When did you last take time to reflect on what’s essential in your life? When have you “let go” and waited, trusting, for what might unfold? Is this Easter season perhaps a good time to reflect on the roles you live, the ways you spend your time, and release what is extraneous at this stage in your journey?


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A Dose of Imperfection


It’s been quite the busy and chaotic week at our house. After returning from a lovely ten days of vacation, family visit, and general relaxation in Puerto Rico, this week was filled with two sets of contractors who spent much of the week restoring our formerly moldy master bathroom to its former state and installing gorgeous granite countertops in the kitchen.

Of course, despite the best of intentions, nothing worked out perfectly. A painter missed some spots; the water line to the toilet kept wanting to leak; the carpet was late, then wasn’t wide enough for the master closet; they forgot to reattach the dishwasher to the cabinet frame when they were done…and a shelf bracket broke in a kitchen cabinet while they were installing the countertops, and the shelf collapsed, breaking half-a-dozen pieces of my grandma’s antique china.

IMG_2383Obviously, that last issue was the toughest one for me to take. I heard the crash—the sound of breaking china is a dreadful one! Initially, it was devastating—but only for a few moments. It was clear that it was an accident, and I took a deep breath and decided that the only way through was forward. Of course, it was also devastating for the workers; they hadn’t intended to break anything. It put a serious damper on the rest of the day, in fact, which really was too bad for all of us.

Things worked themselves out—as they almost always do. I got to know the administrative assistant at the contractor’s office, and spent quite a bit of time looking for the appropriate replacement pieces of china on eBay. Fortunately for me, my grandma appears to have chosen a fairly common pattern, and I found similar or identical versions of all but one of the pieces with just a couple of hours of careful review. The replacement china has arrived at their office, and is supposed to be delivered to me on Monday—by the same person who will also get our dishwasher safely reattached to its cabinet.

I do wonder if part of the reason why I was able to remain relatively calm with all that happened this week was the fact that I had recently edited a full dozen articles on the subject of perfection for the latest edition of the CAC’s journal, Oneing. All those reflections on the reality of, and graces inherent within, imperfection were helpful in reminding me of the importance of letting go of my preconceptions about how things will unfold.

I also received, yet again, the lesson that our material possessions are just that: possessions. They are not the memories. My feelings about my grandma have not been changed in any way by the accidental destruction of those lovely serving dishes. The fact that the replacement dishes were never in my grandma’s kitchen, or cleaned by her own loving hands, is just that: a fact. Nothing more, or less. I will use those new serving dishes as part of a set, and still call it “grandma’s china,” even if some of those pieces are only “hers” by association, rather than history.

When in your life has imperfection resulted in chaos or destruction? How did you respond—after you got over the initial shock? How did your response shape the events that followed, and your feelings about the event as a whole? How might you approach such events differently in the future? What spiritual wisdom or discipline might be helpful in keeping you grounded in such moments?


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A New Perspective on Resurrection


Our backyard is awash in yellow on this Easter morning. The palo verde trees are scenting the air with their fragrant blossoms, while the tan landscape rocks beneath are covered in a mix of yellow flowers from both the palo verde and mesquite trees. As I wrote this meditation yesterday, bees were humming above my head, busily gathering nectar from those blossoms under the dome of a clear blue sky.

But while this is a lovely image of spring, it’s not the focus of my meditation on this day of resurrection. One of the gifts of a new home is a new perspective on the changing seasons—both natural and liturgical. The beautiful, fragrant palo verde blossoms have been a revelation this spring, but when it comes to providing a new window on resurrection, nothing beats the ocotillo plant.

DSC_8424During Lent (and much of the rest of the year), the ocotillo looks lifeless. Its slender branches reveal nothing but long, sharp spines and scaly bark. But in spring—just about this time, in fact—the ocotillo begins to blossom. It doesn’t bother with leaves at this stage (those only appear during the rainy season). Instead, it jumps straight from the appearance of death to full-blown, resurrected glory. Bright orange flowers erupt from the end of each branch, joyfully proclaiming the life that has dwelt hidden within during the long weeks of winter and early spring.

One of the gifts of the desert is patience. I’ve had to caution my husband multiple times over the years against prematurely removing a seemingly dead plant from the garden because it was just not yet the right season for it to show new growth. As a spiritual guide, I’ve had to learn a similar type of patience with human seasons as well. When it appears that nothing is happening, that there is only death, I trust that the Spirit is nonetheless alive and working, and I wait for the eventual, inevitable signs of resurrection.

DSC_8811cOn this day—and week—as so many of us remember Jesus’ resurrection, I invite you to consider the “dead” seasons in your own life, and the eventual, inevitable signs of resurrection which have followed. If you, or those you love, are not yet bursting forth into blossom, do not despair. Instead, be patient. Wait and trust. Easter will come.


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Lenten Poems


Today I thought I would share a couple of my Lenten poems. Clearly, there is a theme here…perhaps one with which you are familiar…. I invite you to ponder what rises for you as you read, and let it lead you into prayer….


Running in the Present MomentIMG_2173 crop

Lent is booked

Solid

With activities:

Family visits

Travels for work

Travels for pleasure

Travels for “rest”

Oh, and home renovations

 

No time for stillness

Except in “stolen” moments

 

How does the Dalai Lama do it?

I imagine his schedule

Must be just as crazy

 

I remember reading somewhere

Sometime

About his ability

To pay attention

To respond to you

As if you were

The only person in the universe

 

That is truly

Living in the present moment.

 

I also imagine

That he can do this

Because

He has handlers

Who pay the bills

Organize the tax paperwork

Book the plane flights

Cook dinner.

 

Is it possible

For an ordinary person

To imitate the Dalai Lama?

I can only try.

 

I can wake each day

With the goal of

Running in the present moment

And keep an eye out

In my peripheral vision

For the Spirit

Who runs alongside.


 

Of Shoulds and Oughts and Crazy Talk

I am not a robot

But some days I struggle

To resist societal definitions

Of work

And rest

And the forbidden fruit

Of lying in the winter sun

Like a cat

Letting myself release

My human doing.

 

Internal messages

Deeply ingrained

Then projected outward

On loved ones

Who worry.

 

I wonder

How life would be

As a modern monk;

A different set

Of shoulds and oughts

Entwined around a rhythm

Of prayer

And work

And rest

And recognition

Of human being…

 

Come,

Spirit whispers.

Lie in the sun

With me.

 

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