Sunday, January 25, 2015

Why we named our baby Sojourn

(this song is great with this post: The story of choosing the name of our baby isn’t complicated. Jon just suddenly said it, maybe the second or third day after the birth. We had some girl names prepared that made our hearts sing, but none for a boy, so we took it slow. I was curled up with my laptop, having resorted to baby-name websites, and Jon was listing ideas as they came to him. I suggested Soren (after Kierkegaard) and that made Jon think of Sojourn. I loved it right away and we plugged it into the equations we were working out of possible first and middle names, and eventually we solved for X and Sojourn was it! I really have no business using math metaphors. I just wanted to explain the context of why I love the name Sojourn, and share the narrative connected with it, which is one tiny piece of the much larger story of how we moved through a transition of our faith.
It came to pass a few years ago that my ideas and experiences caused me to question the gospel of Nothing Lost. This was never something I sought out or desired, but enough religious certainty had melted away that eventually I had to consider and confront my own mortality in a way that I never had before. Even as a child I was plagued by existential questions--"What if things change? What if I lose you? What if something bad happens to someone I love?" and I was gifted with confident reassurance like a calm hand on my forehead. I could keep everyone I loved, forever. I would exist, forever. Everyone who left found themselves in a place of beauty and healing. All pain had meaning, and there was no lasting cruelty, just trials we didn't understand yet. I clung to these ideas, believed in them thoroughly, rejected any challenge to them, pitied those who did not have my knowledge. But eventually, I no longer felt that my sense of joy and comfort at the prospect of continued existence, and devastation at the idea of Ending, had any bearing on objective reality. I grasped for reassurances that at one time would have seemed silly to me--what about near death experiences? Wasn't it a scientific fact that a human body weighed less after death, which could be implication of an eternal soul? I told my brother that I no longer believed I could receive an "answer" to a prayer about something as cosmic as life after death without feeling that my own hopes and desires would drive whatever feelings arose. How could I confidently trust that warm, pleasant feelings had any bearing on what existed externally of my own mind? This piece of my shifting faith terrified me. Suddenly the prospect of death opened up like a yawning hole in the floor in front of me, a horror. I remember laying between my two children, hands on their sleeping heads, and shaking and sobbing with the pain of my fear of losing them. I forced myself to imagine it, to feel the weight of the possibility. How could it be, how could it be? How could I feel so much and just go out like a light at the end? How could it be real that I might never live in my body again? I lived for a few weeks with this new sheer terror under my skin. I heard clients' stories and tragic news articles with more solemn ears. Questions I'd had resolved for decades and would have considered spiritually immature now floated up and were knocking at my brain. Why suffering? What is the purpose? How could human beings bear the devastation of loss? I told Jonathan how desperately I was seeking to feel comfortable again. "I feel like I've burned down my home, the only house I've ever lived in, and now I'm just wandering in the cold. And any other house, I could just burn that down, too." We were at a stoplight, he gazed out over the steering wheel, then turned to me. "Maybe we were never meant to live in houses. Maybe we were meant to explore." Between the bars of that metaphor was where I found the relief I was seeking--acceptance. Acceptance of the I Don't Know, holding space for hope, for mystery, but also for a possibility of a final parting, no unified purpose or plan for all the peoples who have ever lived. Rather than life becoming meaningless, as others had predicted it would if my faith changed, it was as though every thread of my existence and my conscious self became so much more dear and precious. An affirmation drifted across my awareness somehow and I think of it often "Accept that the present moment is all you will ever have." the practice of mindfulness I studied and worked on with clients became more than a coping mechanism, it was a deepening that showed me how I could more richly appreciate my life, more fully be "in" my life and "with" those around me. I began to feel the beauty of impermanence. One of my therapist mentors told me in the first months I was hired at the FSTC that the secret to happiness is three words, "Be Here Now" (also a Mason Jennings song). I have learned so much by attempting to live by those three words. I am my most grounded, most giving, most deeply loving self when I am able to be fully present in my life, recognize every moment as a sojourn, a short stay, and live it while I am living it. I can think of no reason that living mindfully and giving the present moment what it needs can be harmful in the event that we do continue to exist. Either way, our sojourn here on this "pale blue dot" is all we have for certain, and no one ever knows how long they will have before the seasons change again. 
The word "sojourn" reminds me that we are all strangers in a strange land, explorers, dwelling in a place for a time, then moving on. Childhood, the golden summers, the playing pretend under the trees, the dawning awareness, the loneliness and raw throat from yelling and running in the backyard--childhood is a sojourn. High school was a sojourn, the slow unfurling of courage and learning how to talk to other people. Sojourns, the short months I lived with roommates and companions, the four months I spent in Romania. Each apartment was a universe for awhile, the doors and rooms that held our conversations, our inside jokes and our resentment. I have sojourned through relationships, through classrooms, through jobs, through heartbreak that I was sure would burn forever. It did not. I hold friends in my heart with whom I now have little in common, but our time sojourning together bonds us. Pregnancy is a sojourn through an in-between place, from one steady shore to another. Even though it doesn't seem possible, my time raising children is a sojourn...even the brief time that they glow at their certain ages...the sojourn of two years old, the sojourn of three. A sweet stay, a bright day, feeling the sun of this stage on my face. My little boy's name reminds me to be conscious of the kaleidoscopic beauty and pain of every moment. It is always shifting, we journey on. I am grateful to be flanked by fellow travelers who I love so much. A few weeks ago I shed tears over our sojourn with two children coming to an end.       Jonathan held me and told me, "We'll have a good run, you'll see..." I wrote those words on my wall. That is my hope, to have a good run.
I held my dear baby tonight and kissed his little hands. I tried to focus on each of his fingers, one at a time. I thought how amazing it is that his tender little hand will grow to be as large as his father’s.
When he is old enough, I will read him this poem, and tell him that I was asking the question voiced in the last lines when we chose his name.

The Summer Day
--Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?