The Slow Way: Finitude and Moving Toward Hope
Practicing the courage to honor the past, hope for the future, and be grateful in this present moment.
The more I explore rest, slowness, and the remarkable idea that we can’t hustle enough to overcome our humanity (which is to say, our mortality), the more I feel drawn to a reality underneath these invitations toward slowness: our finitude. I’m talking about our limits, our inability to live a multitude of lives in this one. We are contained here, to the careers we’ve chosen or that have chosen us. To the people we’ve loved, and the small circles of relationship we can truly invest in. And, as much as we might wish otherwise, to the place where we live.
Every stretch outside of those finite realities will require an exchange. If I live in New Jersey and spend the weekend (as I did last week) in Texas with my mom and brothers, nieces and nephews, I am literally exchanging my usual time with my kids and husband, who stayed behind, for time with my Texas family. Now that trade feels like the right choice. But still, it’s a trade. Likewise, in my choice to spend my working hours writing and podcasting and building a career around words, I have also had to reject other possibilities of work. I never got my degree in teaching. I don’t own an adorable plant shop. I haven’t completed seminary, as much as I might like to. Choosing one path automatically creates more limits. In his book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman calls this “an icy blast of reality.” Our limits are simply part of our humanity, or in other words: “you definitely won’t have time for everything you want to do, or that other people want you to do – and so, at the very least, you can stop beating yourself up for failing.”
This past week I read No Cure For Being Human, Kate Bowler’s lovely meditation on the reality of our human frailty, and our desperate need for hope. She says it this way, “No matter how carefully we schedule our days, master our emotions, and try to wring our best life now from our better selves, we cannot solve the problem of finitude. We will always want more. We need more.” She continues a few paragraphs down: “All of us struggle against the constraints placed on our bodies, our commitments, our ambitions, and our resources, even as we’re saddled with inflated expectations of invincibility. This is the strange cruelty of suffering in America, its insistence that everything is still possible.”
This past weekend, when I was on that trip to Texas, my brothers, sisters in law, nieces and nephews all gave our Friday and Saturday to clearing out the garage that had been my dad’s haven. He had always kept his massive collection of tools haphazardly tossed every direction, though he always knew where to find everything. We worked and worked to clear out the unnecessary, to divide and organize the tools, and to help my mom make that space her own. In the process, we pulled out two bins full of my grandmother’s amazing dresses from the late fifties and early sixties. Gorgeous pieces that were cut so small, none of her descendants could fit ourselves into those tiny waists. No matter how gorgeous a thing might be, there are moments when we have to acknowledge that it’s time to let them go. We dropped those pieces off at a local vintage shop.
Here’s the thing: everything is not possible. And that’s why grief exists. It exists in the small ways: My grandmother will never live on this earth again. Her forty year old body will never dress in that gold Jackie O dress and jacket that made this granddaughter swoon. And my body, with its broad shoulders and non-fifties-style waist, is never going to fit in that swoon worthy dress either. My grandmother is gone. And I am not my grandmother.
In the same way, that garage with its chaotic collection of tools, the space that brought my dad so much joy, couldn’t continue to exist as it was. His tools are ours now, and it was right to bring order to his chaos, to separate out tools for his grandchildren, and take his table saw and wood working supplies to new homes. My mom will be happier to use that space, and my dad’s tools will have a new life. As each of his progeny builds their own toolboxes, fixes the broken things in their spaces, we’ll think of him and the infinite patience he had for digging through his garage for the exact right screw for the situation.
We grieve because what we lost cannot be undone. And we have to move forward in the world, marking the lives that were here, and moving toward hope.
As Bowler says, “Someday we won’t need to hope. Someday we won’t need courage. Time itself will be wrapped up with a bow, and God will draw us all into the eternal moment where there will be no suffering, no disease, no email.” (My soul cheers at that email promise. Let it be!)
“In the meantime,” she says, “we are stuck with our beautiful, terrible finitude.”
A Slow Practice
How do we practice hope? How do we lean into what we have lost while clinging to the goodness that awaits? How do we grieve the dangers of the culture we live in and still find courage to push justice forward into the world?
Today I want to suggest something a little different for our spiritual practice. Let’s make a holy list. A list that may help us remember, a list that may remind us of what is ahead.
Today I want to invite you to write a poem as an act of prayer. (I know! Who signed up to write poems around here?) We're going to make a list poem, where we list the characteristics and memories we have attached to a specific person. This may be an act of memory that is sweet, or something in the present that is painful. But I want us to practice honoring the details that make a life, recognizing that there are details making our lives as well.
There’s a practice of hope in celebrating a life that we loved, a life that we carry with us. And that act of remembering also reminds us of our own finitude. This poem is by Robert A. Fink, a former professor of mine whose poems I love deeply. This is taken from his book, Tracking the Morning.
by Robert A. Fink
on goose-feather beds,
thick Blackburn Syrup
on Gladiola bread,
winter morning sausage,
summer iced tea,
sweating chocolate pies
and black-eyed peas,
faded gingham dresses,
her gray wool shawl,
the cane-bottomed rocker,
soft, gospel songs
and Mild Garret Snuff,
glassed false teeth,
long wrinkled fingers,
small callused feet,
cool, well water
in an overflowing cup.
Take some time to read this again, going more slowly this time. Our culture teaches us to read quickly and jump from big idea to big idea, but poetry invites us to receive every word, every phrase as important. See if you can let yourself enter into the world of Miss Viola.
Now it’s your turn. Take out your pen and paper, or fire up that computer. You may not be a poet. Who really is? But everyone can make a list, and everyone can reach their minds back to someone they loved and the world that surrounded that person. Take some time to make that list, describing the particular things or smells or experiences surrounding that person you love.
Now, I think writing something beautiful is a spiritual work in itself. But I invite you to one more practice of prayer. Can you take that list and offer it as a thank you for whoever your Miss Viola is? You can speak your list aloud as a thank you to the presence of God. Or you can hold each phrase of your list in your heart as an act of prayer.
Conclude with this passage from No Cure For Being Human (formatted into a prayer by yours truly): Lord, “we are trapped between a past we can’t return to and a future that is uncertain. And it takes guts to live here, in the hard space between anticipation and realization.” Give us the guts to honor the past, hope for the future, and be grateful in this present moment. Amen.
A List of Things
“How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church” in The Atlantic this week. “To many evangelicals today, the enemy is no longer secular America, but their fellow Christians, people who hold the same faith but different beliefs.” This article breaks down the massively concerning paranoia and fear that has led to a Christian nationalism built around falsehoods and radicalization.
Here’s another article this week about the same breakdown in the evangelical church, this time following a pastor forced out of his church for pushing back against radicalization and conspiracy theories: “Jesus talks about how he is the truth, how central truth is . . . The moment you lose the concept of truth you’ve lost everything.”
I’m looking forward to seeing this documentary: “Rocío and Me” about a Mother/Daughter relationship, synchronized swimming, and Down syndrome.
Speaking of Down syndrome, this week’s episode of The Lucky Few is a focused on the reality that there is no federal law preventing discrimination against people living with intellectual disability when it comes to organ donation. In fact, many states still allow for blatant discrimination against people with cognitive disabilities who are waiting for organs. I wrote about it on Instagram this week. Here’s a link to my conversation with the amazing self-advocate Charlotte Woodward, whose articulation and intelligence ought to make all of us question our assumptions about people living with ID.