In Barbara Brown Taylor’s latest book, An Altar in the World, she writes about various practices and ideas that, as she puts it, are “saving her life right now.” These might not be the things that saved her life last year, and they might not sustain her next year. But right now, these things are worth sharing.
After 15 months of practice, life with Lilybird is getting, not easier, per se—I still feel harried and behind a lot—but ever more delightful by the day. It must be partly due to the great fun of this age. I had no idea that young toddlers were this fun. She talks non-stop, verbally and with her rather large sign vocabulary, and she is quick to laugh and even quicker to imitate, often to hilarious extremes. This morning when she pushed a book into her favorite hiding place between the mattress and the headboard of our bed, she raised her arms, palms up, and shrugged her shoulders in a familiar (adult) expression of “what happened?” and said, dramatically, “Uh-oh.” Stephen and I dissolved in laughter, which is probably why she repeated this gesture several more times today.
On a rare dinner out together last night (thanks to a new babysitting swap with a friend), Stephen and I talked about how happy Lily has been lately, even with two new teeth coming in. I realized that after a horrible winter of illness (that’s one big reason why it’s been so long since my last post), she is finally well. My doctor assures us that a lot of sickness is normal for this age, especially in the wintertime, but we had a series of sickness that just made moving, re-settling into a routine, and facing daily life overwhelming for much of the past three months. If it wasn’t the horrible stomach virus that wouldn’t go away, it was croup, or pink eye, or a nasty cold, or the forebodingly-named, hand, foot and mouth disease (hard to know if you call your pediatrician or your vet!). Needless to say, Stephen and I also came down with our share of these bugs (toddlers really are little Petri dishes!), and I’m very grateful for the return of health (may it feel welcome here and never leave again).
When I allow myself to let go of my worries for the future (and there are a host of them at the moment) and really settle into the present moment, Lily’s fascination and wonder at everything in the world is what’s saving my life right now. Everything, especially every living thing, captures her full attention and appreciation.
We went to the San Diego Zoo last week while visiting my family, and it was revealing to realize that while the big, exotic gorillas were exciting to her, she didn’t know not to be as excited by the common (not zoo-owned) birds or the interesting bushes growing along the path to the gorilla exhibit. She liked the fish in the hippo pool as much as the hippos (and trust me, these were very plain fish). For Lily, the world is an interesting place. Period. Although, the brightly colored, raucous macaws did merit an extra bit of Lilybird attention (expressed as frantic signing of “birdie” and exuberant clapping). But, I mean, who doesn’t appreciate a flash of extravagant color? (Fun trivia tidbit: Did you know macaws mate for life?)
An Altar in this World opens with a chapter on awakening to God. As a child Taylor loved the world and everything in it. She grew up riding horses, lying in meadows looking at trees, and savoring the wind on her lips. The world was her portal to the divine. As she gradually became more “churched”—and she had a true seeker’s heart, even as a teenager—she was taught that the world wasn’t good, flesh and blood weren’t trustworthy. Only spirit and things not of this world were holy. But, as Taylor points out, at least for the here and now, this world, this em-bodied experience is what we have. It’s how we know anything. I love how she puts this:
To gain wisdom, you need flesh and blood, because wisdom involves bodies—and not just human bodies, but bird bodies, tree bodies, water bodies, and celestial bodies. According to the Talmud, every blade of grass has its own angel bending over it, whispering, “Grow, grow.
And a few paragraphs later:
Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.
Lily seems to still be able to hear those angelic voices whispering to every living thing. And if I let her translate for me, I get to re-see the world as a magical place, a place of wonder where even the plain little brown birds in the park (or, harder to realize still) the crow in the tree in the backyard is a glorious creature whose profile in flight lifts my spirits and reminds me that my heart was meant to soar.
That’s what’s saving my life right now. Well, that and the really good glass of local wine Stephen and I shared last night over wood-fired pizza topped with wild arugula and mascarpone.