A Sermon for a U.U. Fellowship
by Margaret D. McGee
Today I’m going to talk about feet and pee, in stories of attention and change.
At this time of my life—these middle years — attention, paying attention, has emerged as a central issue, the subject that keeps coming back—in conversations, in what I read, and in what I write, whether I’m even aware that it is, in fact, the work’s underlying theme while I’m writing it.
In the years immediately before and after the publication of my first book, Stumbling Toward God, I was also writing a variety of short personal essays centering on incidents in everyday life that carried a special resonance, that touched heart and spirit, that revealed underlying meaning—or mystery—and hinted at something larger lying behind the surface of things.
Only after writing a number of those pieces did I even notice: each one carried a moment of attention—a moment in which that meaning—or mystery—could appear. A moment in which the presence that “disturbs … with joy” could rise up and make itself known.
So those disparate personal essays came together in the chapters of my second book, Sacred Attention, just published, though written over many years.
With so many stories about paying attention under my belt, you’d think I would be the expert on the subject. You’d think that by now I’d be good at it, would be in a state of heightened awareness at every waking moment, my whole being flooded with meaning and enlightenment. And you would be wrong. In fact I’m not very good at paying attention at all. Usually, I have to be forced into it, as my stories about feet and pee will show.
I believe that paying attention is my subject in part because it doesn’t come easily to me—because I do have to work at it. And I know that I’m not the only one who has trouble focusing these days.
So why is paying attention so hard to do?
The current culture doesn’t help, with packets of information being thrown at us at high speed from all directions. To pay attention to anything at all, we have to choose, and then make a real effort to focus on that choice.
My husband, David, and I like to watch sports on television, but we find it hard to follow the game with all the flashing promos and scrolling text that now commonly appear during sports programming. Finally, David fashioned a strip of black vinyl that we can temporarily attach to the bottom of our screen, blocking out the scrolling text that tells about other games—the games we aren’t watching. That way, we can have the experience of actually watching this game.
But I can’t lay all the blame for my lack of attention on contemporary culture. This issue has been grappled and written about as far back as anyone has written about life of the spirit. It has always been hard to pay attention, and I think the deeper reason has to do with reality—with the pain and loss that comes from facing things as they are—from facing the truth.
And yet, as long as I look only for what I believe should exist, I’m going to have a lot of difficulty seeing what does exist—with possibilities, wonders, and even joy unimagined within the confines of my own expectations.
Which brings me to stories of feet and pee. Feet and pee because they are about as basic, simple, and earthy as it gets, and because it is in the simple, ordinary everydayness of life that that the gifts of meaning and transcendence—gifts from God—can be found in a moment of attention.
I’ll start with pee.
Every work day, I leave my house and take a short walk to a little building on our property that I use for my work space—my studio. This building is technically a shed sitting on concrete blocks, but we had it insulated and wired, and it makes a good work space for me.
No phone. This is good. Also no indoor plumbing, which, during the planning and finishing of my little studio, didn’t seem so good to me. I’m a big fan of indoor plumbing. However, hooking the studio up to our water and septic system would have put us in a whole different category of permits and construction costs, costs that did not fit in the household budget. So, with pain and regret, I said farewell to indoor plumbing in the building where I work.
My studio does contain running water of a sort. I bought an old sink from Waste-Not-Want-Not and had it installed to drain directly into the woods. A 2-gallon plastic container with a little spigot sits on a shelf above the sink, and I periodically fill the container from a tap in the house.
The studio also contains a small, portable camp toilet. As a woman-of-a-certain-age, I pee a lot. If I have to run back to the house every time nature calls, then the whole purpose of the studio is fatally undermined.
This camp toilet has two components. The upper component is the seat, which includes a water reservoir holding maybe a gallon or two—good for ten or twenty extremely low-volume flushes achieved by pressing down on a little attached accordion pump. The bottom section is a small holding tank where the flushed contents go.
Every weekend, usually on Sunday, I take the camp toilet apart, carry the bottom section up to the house, dump the contents into a regular toilet, flush, and then rinse out the tank. I pour in a small amount of household disinfectant and carry it back down to the studio. If necessary, I add water to the seat/reservoir. I put the two components back together, and I’m good to go for another week.
All the time the studio was under construction, I worried about this system—worried that lugging water out there for daily use would be a pain in the neck, worried that I wouldn’t like messing with my pee.
And then, to my surprise, from the first day of operation, I liked the setup tremendously, and have liked it ever since.
I don’t deny myself water in the studio, I’m just aware of what I need and use. That little spigot above the sink is never left running, and every teaspoonful that comes out of it gets used in one way or another. It turns out that two gallons of water on a shelf over a sink last much longer than expected—much longer than any of the gallons that are invisibly pumped from our well through pipes in the walls of our house, to come out a household faucet and pour down a drain, out of sight and out of mind. Turns out I don’t have to fill that container anywhere near as often as I’d feared.
And I’m never tempted to run back to the house just to pee—in fact, I like the simplicity, the basic, obvious mechanism of my little camp toilet. I carefully tear off just as much toilet paper as is needed, no more, because more paper is harder to flush, and too much paper makes the tank hard to clean.
Mysteriously, this practice, this moment of attention to toilet paper, has expanded, all on its own, to every encounter I have with toilet paper—not out of a sense of deprivation, or obligation, or even ethics, to be honest, but because I like the feeling of purpose it gives, the conscious connection between myself and what I’m doing.
Also, it turns out I don’t mind dealing with the contents of the tank on Sunday. That feels good too. Like I’m taking care of myself. Taking care of my stuff. On those Sundays when the week’s work has generated a particularly weighty tank, then, all the while carrying it up to the house and dumping it out, I’m thinking, “Okay then. Good week. Got something done this week.”
Forced, unwillingly, to focus on water, toilet paper, and pee, now I find myself in new relationship with all three, and also find inherent—indwelling—in that relationship, a mysterious presence that disturbs with joy.
Now, on to feet.
It’s a lovely midsummer afternoon. I’m taking a walk with my friend Carolyn. Carolyn and I are both writers, and we take fairly vigorous 3-4 mile walks, preferably with some elevation to get the heart pumping. Along the way we talk about life and work—feeding body, soul, and mind in one efficient hour. So. Here we are at Ft. Worden, climbing Artillery Hill. Suddenly, I’m taken up short by a jabbing pain in my right heel and along the bottom of the foot.
Odd. My ankle didn’t twist. It’s not a stone in my shoe. I keep walking.
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
I try changing my gait. Put more weight on the outside edge of my foot. On my toes. On the inside edge of my foot. Anywhere but that painful heel and arch.
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
Carolyn sets a brisk pace on these walks. Finally I have to admit to her that I’m having trouble with my foot. We slow down a bit. Okay, that’s better. We speed up again.
Ouch, ouch, ouch.
All my life, up to this moment, I have not given my feet a second thought. Treated them like slaves that exist to do my bidding. Cheap shoes. Crummy arch support. No stretching before walks. Never had a problem. So what’s happening now is a big shock. And I think that I’m paying attention to my feet, but the truth is, I’m still in denial. It’s pain I’m focused on, not feet. I’m even in denial about the pain: telling myself it’s just temporary. Pretending it isn’t happening.
Ouch, ouch, ouch.
Finally it’s Carolyn, not me, who says, “You know, we ought to stop. You need to get off that foot.” So we turned around and slowly walked—I hobbled—back to our cars, and I drove off into a new world.
At the doctor’s office I learned a new term: plantar fasciitis, and also learned it was one of the most common conditions he treated these days. Once again, my generation, the boomers, have all hit the same milestone in the same few years. Our arches are collapsing in near unison.
He said my case wasn’t very bad and my foot could probably mend on its own. I might even get away with over-the-counter orthotic inserts rather than the four hundred dollar custom jobs, provided I follow his instructions, which were detailed and involved a whole new attitude toward my feet. I happened to have a massage appointment later that week. After I told the massage therapist about my new problem, she asked me to wiggle my toes for her. My big toes wiggled, but the other eight just trembled a little. She said, “Can’t you wiggle all your toes?”
I dunno. Never thought about it. Guess not.
She placed her finger under my toes and told me to push. A faint, faint response, four flabby little sausages softly patting her finger. She said, “Okay, you have muscles. You can do this. Work on your toes every day. Push them against your finger. Try to pick things up with them. Every day.”
In the following days, I spent a shocking amount of money on good quality shoes and orthotic inserts. Did calf, Achilles tendon, and foot stretches numerous times a day. Exercised my toes. Never put weight on a bare foot. Gave my feet the kind of care that they had never received in life. After three weeks of this, I took my next serious walk. Just one mile, very slight elevation, moderate pace. No pain. And let me tell you, the endorphins went nuts afterward. My body wept in relief.
Today, I can wiggle all ten toes, no problem. It’s fun. It’s fun to wiggle your toes while watching sports on television. Lends a sense of participation to the event. It’s fun to wiggle my toes during sex. Toe wiggling has enhanced my marital relations. Who would have thought?
And today I’m back up to the 3 or 4 mile walk with elevation—after stretching calves, Achilles tendons, toes and arches, of course. And during those walks, even through good quality athletic shoes and orthotic inserts, my toes grip the earth! I am a tiger, moving forward, connected to the ground on which I walk. You know what? It’s great.
By paying attention, I formed a new relationship with my feet, and in that relationship, found myself again disturbed by joy.
I don’t want to over-analyze these stories—small happenings in the big scheme of things—ordinary, common, even trivial. And yet we’re told that the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can and does affect the weather on the other side of the globe.
For years I’ve known that I could do much better by the environment by making different decisions in small ways at home, but it’s been hard to get myself to do it. Didn’t want to think about it. Now, I know that I’m using much less water and much less toilet paper in the course of a week, without thinking about it much at all, just by paying attention.
And as long as my feet were ignored slaves and not valued friends, I had no idea how much fun feet could be.
A prayer can begin with the words, Dear God, and a prayer can begin with a moment of attention. In a prayer of attention, I become a living isthmus, a barzakh, between God and the created world. My stories of feet and pee are stories about prayer, about one way of engaging and conversing with whatever it is that makes things be. A way that includes both loss and redemption, where something broken is healed. A way that leads to the place where “we stand in awe of things that do exist … disturbed [and surprised]… by joy.”
This sermon was delivered at Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Port Townsend, Washington on January 13, 2008.
The phrases “disturbs with joy” and “we stand in awe of things that do exist” were taken from the January 13 QUUF service’s responsive reading, which was adapted from Wordsworth, Watts, and Ouspenski by T. Daniel Gilmore.
The image of being an isthmus or barzakh between God and the created world is taken from Ibn Àrabī, as explained in a paper titled “Faith That Works in a Disbelieving World: A Mythic Re-Visioning of Religious Experience.”by Dr. Norvene Vest, a Benedictine oblate who recently completed her Ph.D. in Mythology in the tradition of Depth Psychology. Here’s the relevant excerpt from Dr. Vest’s paper:
The concept of uniting the passionate imagination with a movement toward God is foundational to a stream of Sufi mysticism initially developed by Ibn Àrabī in the eleventh century. In the transforming work of imagination, Ibn Àrabī conceives the human being as a kind isthmus, or barzakh, between God and the created world, transmitting to the created world the light and truth of God, while also communicating the twinkling reflections of the created world back to God. This barzakh, like a metaphor, links a known to an unknown, uniting two similar but dissimilar things. The barzakh is neither one nor the other of the things it links, yet it shares in qualities of both.
The lens of imagination offers a way to inform and direct spiritual passion toward wholeness, serving a mediating and integrating role for the sensate and the conceptual, by bringing God’s reality into the world and vice versa….
[This requires] a kind of dying, a relinquishment of old certainties and a willingness to trust the living God in what may seem to be darkness. The new vision does not offer certainty, but rather invites an ability to live at ease in an open story, a story that is always renewing itself, always subject to ambiguity and creative disorientation. The mythic vision proposed here is a lively one, fluid and full of surprises. It rests in the idea that the key to the spiritual life is a kind of ongoing conversion of heart.
I love the idea that just as the created world, including me, grows and changes, God is also growing, changing, and that our action in the world provides some of the “juice” for that change. This gives me a feeling of engagement in creation—a sense that I play a small role in the ongoing epic myth of the cosmos.