I’ve had a couple of rough weeks. Free floating anxiety. Restless sleep. Self doubt. It was as if my psyche developed little cracks and all of that seeped in. I didn’t immediately recognize that I was in distress. Then, this morning, I was awake at 4:00am, swimming in worry and anxiety that wasn’t attached to anything real: would I lose my wallet in the airport when I travel next week? Is my book any good? Am I any good? Such moments of suffering are wake up calls. There’s no outside solace to heal one’s heart; I have to begin at the core. What do I need? What do I want? How can I help myself?
From time to time, we all feel like imposters in the world. We stumble and fall into a hole of despair and then wonder how we got there. Visiting the wounds of childhood past doesn’t seem to provide anything but an excuse. Finding ways to psychologically and spiritually hug myself, does. A lifetime of dealing with depression and anxiety has taught me that if I get too angry or too afraid of too many things, I’m bound to fall.
All love must begin with the act of self-love. That’s easy to state and more difficult to do. What does it mean to love your self? I know that I’m not alone in wondering this. Here are some steps toward self-love that I used this morning. May they be helpful to others. Self-love is like going to the gym. The best results come from continued and consistent practice.
Step One: Meditation
is a practice that can relax, comfort and soothe the beast of anxiety. It seems surprising that such a practice can be
so easily forgotten in the face of emails, texts, social media, deadlines, and
the seduction of creating self-importance through our digital life. Liberation lies in deliberate breath,
deliberate mindfulness, deliberate letting go and surrendering into the
vastness and awe of the miracle that we are.
Step Two: Tears. Holding back the tears of life creates anxiety and strife. Right now, our world seems likes its come off the rails. In witnessing the fallout from gun violence, the suffering of children, the divisions that have turned into an “us and them” mentality, then surely there are tears waiting to be set free. I cried this morning. I cried for our country. I cried for myself. I cried for the people I know who are facing struggles. The act of tears, softened my heart and brought me home to myself a little bit. The list of too angry and too afraid began to dissolve.
Step Three: I’m a
sixty-seven year old woman and one might think that all things from childhood have
certainly been worked out and healed forever by now. But the wisdom of age has
taught me that the wounds of childhood inform throughout one’s life. They are part of our spiritual and
psychological work. This morning, I
closed my eyes and remembered the child I’d been. In my imagination, I got down on one knee so
that I could meet her face to face, and then I wrapped my arms around her and
said, “You are so precious to me. I love you so much.” More tears and a sweet feeling of release
begins to set me free.
Step Four: Listing the things I’m grateful for. I
take a walk every day. My dog and I went
up to the park and along the way, I counted the things that I’m grateful for:
legs strong enough to carry me a couple of miles, neighbors that wave hello and
call out greetings, a belly that’s full, and cooling temperatures that made
today’s walk in the middle of Texas very pleasant. Practicing gratitude helps me to shift my
mind-set and ease the torments of self-doubt.
Step Five: Give this reclaimed love away. Wave back at the neighbors. Call out my own greetings of good
morning. Silently bless the gaggle of
teenagers waiting for the school bus — they’re our future. They deserve my
goodwill. Plan to cook a special
breakfast for my husband.
Step Six: Bow my head and say thank you. Thank you for
my life. Thank you for this day. Thank
you for jogging my memory and helping me make it to the toolbox, thus bringing
relief and a way home. Thank you.
In a perfect world, I would wake up every day and practice all of this. However, I’ve come to see that the imperfection of slipping into the darkness is the invitation and the opportunity to re-engage with my heart. The imperfection and errors that come with being human is the path to humility, appreciation and thankfulness. Today was a reminder to stay the course even though I know that I will stumble and fall again. My heart is all about practice and imperfection. This is the work of living out this idea of love.
Sitting on the deck, I watch the sun crack through the morning clouds in streaks of pink and orange. The air is cool and inviting. Wrapping my hands around a cup of tea, I breathe in the essence of a day coming alive. This is a simple pleasure that fills me with immense joy. I am thankful. It is the first day of the year that I am able to do this. Until now, it’s been too cold or wet. But this morning, the long grey winter and the unrelenting drizzle of spring have given way to warmer temperatures and sunshine. This is a day that deserves to be noted. This ritual of tea and appreciation marks the beginning. There will be days ahead where I will welcome the sunrise in this way. Fortified by a caffeinated brew and the hum of the world around me, isn’t life is good? Celebrate.
What marks the beginning of the spring and summer months for you? Please share with me in the comments.
You simply will not be the same person two months from now after consciously giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life. And you will have set in motion and ancient spiritual law: the more you have and are grateful for, the more will be given you. ~Sarah Ban Breathnach~
Apples are ripening on the tree in the yard. The mornings are cooler. September waits behind the last of the Sweet Williams, peeking into the last of summer’s long days. I am grateful for the coming change.
I’ve pulled this morning close to me, gently placing it my heart. Take the day off. Leave space for God to work in you and through you. Set aside the worry and the angst that you carry as if they were must-have fashion accessories. Take this day to be grateful. This is what I tell myself as I sit tapping the keys on my computer, sitting on the deck and drinking tea.
Jeter, faithful lab is next to my chair. His nose and ears don’t stop moving as he takes in the day. I love that dog. He reminds me not just to be happy, but to be joyful. Grateful for you, buddy. Just saying his name aloud makes him wag.
Dean stretches out on the bed, a day away from the demands and challenges of his work, a day of which he asks nothing except a walk. “Let’s hike up Park,” he says. I am grateful for all of the hiking trails that surround our little valley. Grateful for strong legs and a good heart. Grateful that I walk so much at my age.
There is food in the fridge and in the cupboards. I’m grateful that there is no worry, no insecurity about that, knowing that people in this country, children go hungry every day. I’m grateful for our Ashland Food Bank and that we can contribute and help.
On Friday I did laundry, so my clothes are washed and clean, folded and put away. I am so grateful for clean clothes and clean towels, clean sheets.
I posted the Sarah Ban Breathnach quote on Facebook this morning and a friend from Canada shared it with her friends, translating it first into French. I am grateful for technology that this woman who is so many miles away, read something that inspired me and she was inspired too and the message got shared. What a marvel.
I’m taking a break today. My only tasks are to be grateful and to hike with my husband and my dog. Gratitude fills me. It is a practice that soothes me. It is a path that assures me that there is in this universe, an unfathomable love just waiting for us to surrender. The things that I am grateful for are too many for a list. I think I’ll just rest in the satiation of the practice. May the arms of gratitude surround you.
It is the work of women to balance the world, to know their strength and stand courageously in the light of their truth. A patriarchy without the balance of matriarchy creates an uneven playing field upon which women are subordinates rather than leaders. You don’t have to look too far to see how out of balance institutions and governments create both a physical and spiritual poverty when they do not include the voice of women.
Traveling in Belgium and learning about the Beguines, I was inspired by the this esoteric group of women who sought to remedy the corruption of the church in the 12th century by living an example of spiritual and financial independence at a time when women did not have such choices. For a short period of time, they brought about a reverence and a station for women before their ideals and actions were again muted and absorbed by church and state. So, what did they teach me? How have I changed?
I walked the same cobble stone roads that they walked. I sat in churches where they prayed. I brushed up against the places and times that informed them. I listened to lectures about them, read about them and wondered about them. What all of that ignited in me was strength, the strength of standing strong in the light of my own truth. I have dug for examples in my life and I have found that all throughout history there were women who walked before me who had the same desire to live full and equal lives. I came away from Belgium with newly found and newly reclaimed inner strength to move forward in confidence and respect for myself.
The images of old-world northern Europe delighted my senses and reminded me that the world is a big and diverse place. Still, I doubt that I will ever become a world traveler. I am more of a Hestia, the Greek goddess who found satisfaction in tending the home fires. I am so happy to be home and so happy to have made the once in a lifetime journey. I met wonderful people, taught good writing classes, learned a lot . . . and made sure I did a little shopping.
Now at home, settling into the autumn, I will begin my next novel and spend the winter months holed up in my office creating. The Beguines were creators. They made art and music and I see those things differently now. I see making art as a worshipful thing, a praising of all creation, a joy created in the heart, mind and spirit. My writing is an expression of love through creation. It’s good to be home, slightly altered and deeply grateful for where I ventured out, and also for the return.
The impervious feeling of youth is a delicious drunk of newness and firsts: first apartment, first true love, first heartbreak; the delight of garage sales and thrift shops, that furnish the backdrop upon which one begins to build a life, blissfully unaware of the baggage of childhood that follows them into independence and self-sufficiency. In my twenties, I surfed in the mornings with Bernie, napped in the afternoons and then waited cocktails at night to pay for a life style that was both joyous and fraught with uncertainty as well as longing and idealism. All that created its own kind of pain and regret. No one escapes the wrong turns, but instead we seem to spend our lifetime burrowing into the core of what ails us before we find the gifts within the inevitable ruin.
At twenty something, I swung my long, gangly legs over the precipice of the 1970’s, watching Viet Nam unwind. The grainy television images of so much human destruction were soon to be replaced by Nixon and the exposure of con and corruption that would define the word “sensational” for decades to come. And as twenty marched ahead into thirty, I realized one day how difficult it was to pay the rent, and repair the car and I had new empathy and understanding for my mother, who worked at a time when the cartoon character of a wolf chasing a nubile secretary around the desk wasn’t that far off the mark.
While the twenties, for many of us underscored a time of adventure and ideals, the thirties was of time of finding a comfortable position within the grip of unrelenting responsibility. Overtime at my work place became a way of life, a badge of proof that I was committed and in the game for the long haul. I bought my first “new” couch and read T.S. Eliot, Yeats and May Sarton for leisure. I wrote in dozens of spiral bound notebooks– an attempt to discover who I was and who I was becoming, and whether or not I had just put on the costume of adulthood without really checking out what I was wearing. Thirty gnawed the bones of idealism and free-spiritedness, replacing the hunger for those things with “want.” Want is a thorn in the foot of human condition, a lusting and longing for those things or people just out of our reach; a strange coming to grips with a shadow of greed, that if we are honest, dogs us until we wrestle it to the ground and learn to balance it with a generous heart.
When I turned 40, I had a realization that life was just a series of stories and somehow we were all connected by those stories. By then I was married, with a choice to remain childless, but with a passion for creating business and a raw and reckless spirit, still wild from my surfing days that allowed me to take the risks necessary to be an entrepreneur. And having a partner with which to play that out remains one of the great satisfactions of my journey. The time of work and creation was marked by this decade and the joke of “over the hill” was really more about the pinnacle of the hill and the overview provided from the vantage point of focus and determination.
Fifty saw the departure of my mother and though I felt beyond independent and accomplished when she left, her absence was piercing in a way I could not have anticipated. She lingers still, her hands seeming like they are mine, veined with age. I catch glimpses of her in the mirror, a face layered over my own as I brush my hair. Life is shorter than you think.
So in my sixties now, the question of age as a number and whether that means anything or not? It means everything. Age is a marker, the signs that dot the highway that tell you how far you have come. Age is a container for the experiences that push us forward and challenge us to unfold. Age is a reminder that physical strength lessens with the years and beauty fades. Whether or not we like it or want it, age is what pulls us to our knees while it knights us with the sword of humility and hard-won wisdom. What lies beyond? In my twenties, I could not sit still in the morning hours, knowing that the surf was up. Forty years later finds me on my deck, holding a cup of tea and easing into the day as I marvel at how the apples on the tree in my yard have gone from green to red and are becoming larger in the summer sun. The cycle of beginnings and endings are everywhere around me in nature. In my heart I let go of memories that are stitched with pain and discomfort. They drop like apples from the tree. I like to recall instead the touchstones of surfing and careers and a life education that was beyond divine. I revel in the partnership of a marriage, now tender and softened with grey.
I embrace the years, each decade a lamp unto the soul, lighting the way into becoming human. The striving for some sense of self-honesty and awareness, for a sensuous breeze in which to throw back my head and close my eyes as life takes me; this has made the journey purposeful. To paraphrase Mr. Yeats: “I am an old woman with a dry mouth, waiting for the rain.”
My friend Susan returned from retreat and showed me the rosary that she had made; read to me the prayers that she had written and prayed. It ignited in me a deep inspiration and realization that I might make a rosary too.
Rosaries were a part of my childhood. My grandmother Julia sat on her knees in the garden praying the rosary, nimble fingers rolling each bead, her lips formed in silent recitation of the prayers she knew by heart. She sat this way on the ground, snap peas filling the lap of her apron, a basket of freshly picked vegetables on the ground next to her. This and other images filled me:
Old women in the musty smelling church, their heads wrapped in babushkas, rosaries dangling from gnarled fingers, faces tilted toward the altar as they pray each bead in earnest.
Little girls in white dresses and heavy wool coats, fighting the cold as they hold rosaries and Sunday Missals on the day of their first communion.
In my childhood, rosaries were serious sacred. Objects filled with intent. Talisman of comfort and surrender.
This idea of making a rosary and creating its prayers spoke to my heart, which continues to grow a wider and broader theological brush stroke than the rigors of school girl prayers. I trust that the Divine guides me to dig into my being and find my own unique way to converse and praise.
One morning shortly after Susan had shared her rosary with me, I was sitting in meditation when the spark of inspiration burst into flame. Approaching my 62nd birthday, what I needed to mark this passage was a crone’s rosary. I hold the term crone in the original form in which it was intended–that of a crown, the crowning of the wise, old woman. I want to be her. I want to appreciate the overview that age and experience affords you. I aspire to the wisdom and wonder that lives in me and asks that I honor it.
In my vision, I saw the stem of the rosary with the symbol of the mother of the universe. The five beads on the stem would represent “gratitude,” because gratitude is the fullness that I desire to live and is the doorway to all of my prayers.
The first ten beads would represent “reclamation,” reclamation being the theme of this decade of my sixties–a time to reclaim and reframe what is broken and cherish it still.
“Transformation” would be the second ten prayers, as so much of my crone is about gathering and sorting, understanding a life that is still unfolding, and much more willingly so, in transformation.
The third set of prayers represents “intuition.” Having spent a good deal of life not trusting my gut, giving in to people and events that didn’t always serve me– now is a time for this crone to honor her intuition. Trusting the intuition of making the rosary and trusting my own direct connection with all of creation is cause to celebrate.
The final ten beads are prayers of alchemy. What that means to me is that I have been changed by Grace. Alchemy represents an integration of the transformations of life, and at this stage I am starting to see all of it as gold.
The prayer of gratitude separates each section of prayers.
My first pass at writing my prayers, while descriptive and sweet, proved cumbersome. It took a few times praying the prayers to find the appropriate rhythm and edits. And it may be that as time moves on, the prayers will change again. I see faith is a living, breathing, fluid thing, intimate to the one who carries it.
So, this is how the Crone’s Rosary came to be. On my birthday, I sat with Susan in her beautiful crafts room where she has created a vibration of praise through creativity, and she and I read the prayers aloud for each section of the rosary as I strung together the beads that I had gathered. It was a perfect way to mark my 62nd year. The morning after, I prayed my Crone’s Rosary for the first time, celebrating spirit, inspiration and creativity.
THE CRONE’S ROSARY
Holy Mother of the Universe
Wisdom of the cosmos,
I sing my heart in praise of all Creation
We are One.
May God’s breath reclaim and reframe my broken pieces
Holding them in healing
To be given again
From the womb of this sacred heart
Rebirthed in acceptance and peace
I am at peace
As transformation unfolds
Petal by petal, a gentle infinity
Embracing this story, this path, this life
In the eternal embrace of God’s Love
I am born again in the light of this sacred dance
Giving thanks for the waters of intuition
For the Divine gift, asking to be felt
In the holy expression of creativity
Embracing suffering and compassion
Dark and light
I give thanks for vision
The hand of Grace stirs all creation
May I be awake, authentic and true
Arising in the light of an open heart
Illuminating the path I walk
Giving way to wisdom
Giving way to praise
For me, turning sixty marked the threshold of old age. I will be 62 this year, so now I am really in the thick of it! It does not mean that I have gone gently into that good night, but it does mean that the physical, psychological and spiritual changes of this particular passage are no less exciting or daunting than the changes of my twenties. I recall the young woman who I once was– full of edge and humor, pathos and pain standing on the precipice of life and daring herself to fly.
These past months have brought about a whirlwind of change and resolve and there are days that I marvel at how life continues to build upon itself regardless of years and days that I feel I should just lay down and take a nap until it all passes. My husband and I retired from our business late last summer–thirty-seven years worth of work that came down to some boxes for storage and a few tearful goodbyes. Then we started a consulting business that allowed us to work from home with less hours and far less stress. It provides some purpose, a context into which we build daily hikes with the dog and meals that are now served with leisurely conversation.
And at this strange new threshold that leads into the last chapter we dreamed a new dream. We recently bought a home in a small town in the northwest that will undoubtedly provide a greener moister climate, a larger garden, and a deck from which to watch the world.
I have friends that rail against this age and approach it with fear and even a little anger. You can fight it all you want, but we all march toward death everyday. Since that’s what is true, why not live and embrace every event to the fullest? I like being in my sixties. I will probably like being in my seventies. For once I have some real perspective from which to view a life richly textured–a life that knows the joy of celebration and a life that also knows how to suffer so that suffering can teach and even inspire.
These next months will be more packing and unpacking, a stream of logistical tasks that moves us from Colorado to the great northwest. I picture myself sitting on the deck of my new home, wrapping my hands around a mug of hot tea, watching with wonder as the early morning light creeps across the yard. I see myself sitting at my desk tapping away on the computer recalling or creating stories. And time and time again I see myself holding onto the hand of my husband, my friend, my partner as we look up into the dark sky on a summer night, counting stars and knowing that at the end of this chapter, we will return to the star dust from which we were born.
The massive roll-top was a beast of a desk. Purchased his first year in practice, it represented what he was becoming: a teacher, a doctor, a man with vision and a heart full of idealism. It had stood out at The Antique Guild, the place where a generation of us longed for things worn and aged from a different time, history and story that could be traced in the grain of old oak and an imagining of where it had come from.
When the top was rolled up, twelve small drawers outlined the top of the desk, dropping down into other small compartments and shelving, but leaving a large surface for writing, for books, for charts and manuals that became part of his life. File drawers were stuffed with notes and articles about nutrition and biochemistry. The whole thing was chaotic and scattered, but he knew where everything was and I knew better than to ever touch anything or try to move things around. In the evening he rolled down the top and covered the whole mess as if tucking in a child for sleep. And on the workday mornings, he opened and awakened it, shuffled the papers and articles, sat with his patients, one elbow resting upon a surface that bore witness to his work and its unfolding.
It came to life before anyone had a personal computer that required space for a tower or a printer or a screen; before desks would contain those carefully placed holes for cords and phone lines. All of that came later, as the desk grew impractical for keeping up with a technology that had no respect or reverence for it’s fine lines or history. Still, the desk moved with us from office to office, the largest piece of furniture in his room, the marking and symbol of a man who created life on his terms in his unique way, without worry or concern for pleasing those around him, but instead exercised a fidelity to raw authenticity. Like the desk, larger than anything in the room, my husband, the “him” of this ode is in many ways larger than life when it comes to how he did his 37-year career.
Somewhere in August we made the decision that it was time to move on to the next chapter of our lives. Consulting work came easily to him. He had become the grey beard in the room who had something to teach those youngsters about bio-chemically based nutrition. Life now offered work from an office at home that has a different desk, one built for computer screens and printers. The tailored attire of his career would bend to a pair of sweat pants and a soft, cotton t-shirt. Here came the gentle ending to a long story, a good story. . .and the ending to the good desk, a glorious beast of a desk that dominated his office for 37 years. As the new chapter began to reveal itself, the desk was let go.
I sat in the hallway of what was once our office building when they came to get it. We had tried to sell it, only to realize that the young people in this brave new world needed and wanted the strategically placed holes for cords; the place for screens and printers; a surface that was sleek and modern. They craved Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn not the story or history as told in old oak grains in what was becoming an antique and a relic of a dated past. Significance changes with each generation, and the desk had served its purpose well. We donated it to the Hospice Thrift Store.
Two men came in on a Wednesday morning and unscrewed the top and the sides and wheeled it past me in three different pieces to what I hoped would be a new and fitting home. I wished that it would wind up with someone who would appreciate it and who would run their hands across the grain and wonder what stories the massive beast held in its still beating heart.
We grow old. Our precious things lose meaning but our purpose remains: a place to study, a place to write or to read, some corner we create to carry out these small actions of our life that grow us and hold the potential to become big when talents are shared. The old desk went down the elevator and into the truck in three pieces and I could not hold back the tenderness of a few tears for what is the closing of the curtain on a chapter well lived for both the glorious beast of a desk and a man who continues to courageously do life on his own unique terms.
Somewhere, lost in the obligations and responsibilities of day-to-day life, buried under the rubble of forgotten things, a bright orb of thought shines in the darkness. It is here that I begin again, picking up the pen to tell a story:
A lifetime of work behind me, for the moment—I find myself “retired,” not even sure that I have any infinity at all with that word. To retire is to go to one’s room, shut the door and lie down. I am not ready for that. At the same time, I am not ready to take on the world with some great expertise and experience, but rather find a gentler middle ground that affords me mornings of tea and reading, hours of writing practice, walks among cottonwoods and a sense of gentle purpose that still allows for a contribution to the world in which I live.
Like a high school girl biting her nails in the guidance counselor’s office, I do not know what I want to do. All the while, I receive offers to consult on this or that, to plan and produce and to create a little something that flows into a checking account. I do not think that I am ready to give that up and yet there is a satisfied weariness in me that compels me to a greater quiet.
I have spent the last several weeks unwinding a clinical practice for my husband who doctored patients for 37 years. I worked with him for 24 of those years. The goodbyes were emotional and I ran around feeling like I had to take care of everyone. It left me tired and numb. A whirlwind of activity including a yearly retreat that I organized for 250 people topped it off and now, for the first time in the span of things, I am at my keyboard, my symbolic pen, trying to put my thoughts in an order that makes sense and brings me comfort.
It all seemed to go by so fast, schooling, friendships, marriage, work, the things that define you until you can get to the core of something else, something greater that doesn’t need a label. I imagine my life a film, and what I desire now is a slow and interesting fade and not a sudden stop.
This morning I sat on the deck with my tea, as I often do, gazing at the fading stars and a bright half-moon. Hoping for a deep stillness, I was interrupted by a Labrador retriever who lives to have the tennis ball thrown. In his persistent and unrelenting manner, there was no peace, only the sound of the ball being dropped, panting and a blond dog jumping up and down as I acquiesced to the inevitable. Similarly with the state of things in my life now, a hope for quiet and a joyful disturbance that keeps saying “not quite yet.” I suppose I should say “stay tuned. . .”
Each year I plan a retreat for my community. This year I am bringing Dr. James Finley to Boulder, CO on September 20, 21 and 22, 2013 to lead a retreat on Meister Eckhart and Letting Go. This is an interview that I conducted with Dr. Finley a couple of weeks ago. To learn more about the retreat and how to attend, please visit: http://www.finleyretreat.com
A Dialogue With Dr. James Finley About Letting Go
With Stephanie Raffelock
“Letting Go” is a phrase employed by psychologists and theologians alike that inspires and encourages us to loosen our psychic grip, if you will, on outcomes and desired resolves. But how exactly, beyond lip service, does one actually “let go?” And what does letting go mean in terms of our spiritual unfolding?
I sat down recently with retreat leader and psychologist Dr. James Finley to explore these and other questions about what it means to let go and how that particular process might inform in our daily journey into prayer and contemplation.
When we talk about letting go in spiritual sense, are we talking about a kind of surrender into something greater? Would you please distinguish between letting go and surrender?
The starting place for me is to accept the fact that it takes a committed effort to reach any kind of wholeness or fulfillment. For example, as it applies to love: Two people meet and fall in love and they have high hopes that over a lifetime together they are going to grow in love together, but for that to really work, they have to be doing love’s work. That is to say, the desire must be bolstered by a lifetime of effort.
The same thing applies when a couple decides to have children. It takes a lifetime of fidelity to challenges that good parenting requires. So too with committing ourselves to one of the healing professions, or to going through our own healing process. So too with poetry and the arts—all the fundamental modalities of a fulfilled life require an ongoing effort.
Yet, what happens as we commit ourselves to these transformative processes is that we come to points at which we reach the end of our own resources. We experience our limitations in being unable, by sheer brute force of our own efforts, to achieve our noble goals.
It is at such times that we are tempted to panic or get discouraged. Then we discover the way forward lies in learning to let go of imagining that we can force our way through to the goal we seek. As we relax into the situation, we begin to realize that the way forward lies in learning to let go of our own abilities as having the final say in what is possible, so that resources within us and beyond us can come rolling through, bringing us, in all sorts of unexpected ways, to the wholeness and fulfillment we seek.
The need for effort remains. But the effort is infused with a quality of an ongoing letting go that allows graced possibilities to flow through our limitations and shortcoming, leaving us grateful and amazed. Such is the disciplined effort of the mature lover, the parent, the poet, the healer. The way forward lies in leaning into what needs to be done in an ongoing stance of letting go that renders us supple and responsive to what needs to appear, what needs to happen next.
Shortcomings, both real and imagined, when deeply seen and accepted, are an important part of the transformative process of learning to let go. If we do not let go of the need to be perfect, our need to be perfect will get in our way. Likewise, if we do not let go of our fear of failing, our fear of failing will get in the way. But as we learn to let go of the need to be perfect and the fear of failure, the intimate, earthy stuff of being a vulnerable, loving human being begins to shine through. In an ongoing process of learning to let go we bear witness to the great truth that the master limps. The mastery of life is intermingled with the ongoing weaknesses and limitations that gives life its rich and many layered texture and meaning.
This blending of ongoing effort merged with an ongoing interior stance of letting go, gives insight into the nature of spiritual practices. Lovers cannot make the moments of oceanic oneness happen, but together they can engage in the acts that embody a mutual letting go that offers the least resistance to being overtaken, yet one more time, by the gift of oceanic oneness.
The poet cannot force the poem out onto the paper. But the poet can assume the inner stance of letting go that offers the least resistance to the gift of poetry welling up and out onto the paper. The one committed to healing reaches points at which he or she cannot make healing happen. But the one committed to healing can assume the inner stance of letting go that offers the least resistance to the graced event of healing.
The spiritual life seems to evolve out of moments in which we fleetingly glimpse a mystery, without which our life will be forever incomplete.
This awareness is followed by the realization that I, by my own powers , cannot force my way through into mystery of the fulfillment I long for. Nor can I coax the mystery to take me to itself. What I can do is learn to let go of the illusion that my inabilities have the final say in what is possible for me. What I can do is let go of the control I think I have over the life I think I am living. What I can do is get vulnerable in the messy, intimate process of letting go, so that what I am powerless to achieve can grant itself to me in my very powerlessness to achieve it. That is what makes the awakening event to be an “amazing grace.” Who would have guessed it? The mystery that is always beyond me is always giving itself to me in my ongoing stance of letting go of my ability to reach it on my own terms.
Much as we humans may try, somehow superstitions can and do creep into our faith. Would you talk a little bit about letting go of superstition and immersing in spiritual letting go?
Superstition is magical thinking that we buy into. A closer look reveals that it is not really trustworthy. In the light of the wisdom traditions, we can single out four superstitions we sometimes buy into: the first is the superstition that the ego can, by its own abilities, reach ultimate peace and fulfillment in love, in creativity or any foundational aspect of life. The opposite superstition is that my inability to achieve the noble goal condemns me to never reaching it. The third superstition is that some power will achieve the noble goal for me if I perform the right ritual or believe the right thing. And the fourth superstition is that anything other than whole-hearted effort accompanied by an ongoing stance of letting go is going to bring me to the wholeness and fulfillment I seek.
Someone said to me once, “Just surrender into God’s love.” And while their direction sounded poetic and beautiful, I didn’t really understand what such an action really meant. What is meant by surrendering into God’s love?
Someone comes into therapy, distraught and traumatized. If I say, “ Just surrender to God’s love,” I am disrespecting the painful place in which they find themselves. I must first acknowledge the reality of their suffering, let them know that I am so sorry this is happening to them and then sit with them in the intimacy of such suffering. Within the space of compassionate empathy, I may say, “I get the feeling that this suffering is not the only thing going on here. I get the feeling that this suffering does not have the final say in who you are. If it did, it would have annihilated you. Therefore, there must be something in you that is not reducible to this tragedy.” The point being that the notion of surrendering to God’s love in the midst of suffering becomes a real and helpful goal in the context of an intimate acceptance of suffering, infused with an intimate sense of God being somehow present in the suffering as kind of promise or hope that is somehow already present in some obscure manner that is not easy to explain. A lot of healing flows from two people sitting together in this intimate and obscure path to wholeness.
I know that recently you have been doing some work with The Twelve Steps of AA and the process of letting go. Surely there is a letting go process in the healing of addiction. Please tell me a little about that.
What I have been exploring is that each of the twelve steps of Alcoholics anonymous is a pathway to “mystical sobriety,” that brings a person to a liberation from the tyranny of suffering in the midst of suffering. Each of the twelve steps can be explored as a path leading to mystical sobriety that brings a person to freedom from the tyranny of death in the midst of death. The art of letting go lies at the heart of this path to mystical sobriety.
It’s easy to keep “letting go” as an ideal in your head, but is there a concrete process that you would share with your readers that each of us can take to begin the letting go/surrender process?
There are three guidelines in the wisdom traditions that can help us in the ongoing, daily process of letting go. The first guideline is to find your practice and practice it. That means to find that act, that person, that community, which, when you give yourself over to it with your whole heart it unravels your petty pre occupation with your self-absorbed self and in doing so sets you free to be who deep down you really are and are called to be. Your practice might be sitting silent and still in meditation. It might be gardening, or taking long slow walks to no place in particular. Or your practice might be reading or writing poetry, painting or some other creative activity. Or your practice might be being vulnerable and open with the person in whose presence you are taken to the deeper place. As Eido Roshi, put it, “if you are faithful to your practice, your practice will be faithful to you.” Little by little, practice becomes habituated into your day. Little by little, your life becomes practice.
The second guideline is to find your teaching and follow it. By this is meant to find those words that access your heart and elicit a deep “yes, this is true.” These words name me. They reveal to me who I deep down really am and long to be. These teaching may be found in the scriptures, or the words of a poet, or someone whose presence and teachings offers guidance and encouragement in your life. Little by little your daily life becomes your teacher.
And the third guideline is to find your community and enter it. Your community is found in a person in whose presence you know you are not alone on the path of letting go. Your community may be the presence of a teacher or mentor, a spouse or fellow traveler on the spiritual path. Your community might be found in a group that gathers for meditation or prayer that offers support and guidance on the spiritual path. Eventually, you discover everyone you meet, that all your fellow human beings are your community.
In the spirit of these teachings, James Finley will be in Boulder, CO September 20, 21 and 22, 2013 leading a retreat on Meister Eckhart and Letting Go. To learn more about the retreat and how to attend, please visit: http://www.finleyretreat.com
As I was coming out of the dream I heard myself say: Holiness is not something attainable, rather it arises in each of us from an authentic heart—an invincible preciousness, as my friend Jim would say.
There are decisions and choice points in each of our lives that are the needle piercing the cloth, carrying the thread that weaves its way into the markings of the journey. My choice point began at sixteen in the back seat of a Lincoln Continental–heavy make out sessions with my boyfriend Dan in his father’s car, followed by reading Khalil Gibran aloud to one another– a sensuous world punctuated by ancient wisdom. The religious experience, if you will, as put forth by Rumi—“there is some kiss we want with our whole life—It is the touch of the spirit upon the body.”
In the early days I simply experimented, open to anything that lifted my eyes toward the heavens and burrowed into my depths—dropping acid and looking for God in the Sierras; driving to Ojai to be with Swami Satchidanda as he conducted Sat Sang. Later I sat in churches with broad theological brush strokes that were inclusive; read A Course in Miracles and meditated until I was dizzy. It was chaos that would one day make sense. I became a lay scholar, reading Howard Thurman and Reinhold Niebuhr, trying to wrap my head around the spiritual life , only to create a sticky affectation that would later require peeling away.
To put it in perspective now: All the gurus and meditation, the silence of prayer and the beauty of cathedrals did not bring me any closer to enlightenment than my Labrador retriever and the joy of walking him in the woods. The authentic heart arises as I sit on my deck and watch the neighborhood march its children to the bus stop bundled like little Michelin men in parkas and hats, accompanied by parents and dogs who are part of the life ritual. God is not in the chalice, but in mittens dropped in the snow.
When bad things happen, like the shooting at Newton or in Aurora, our country revisits the idea of “mental health.” The truth about mental health care is that it is a fairly new field and as such, has yet to grow into itself. Theories abound and medication for what a group of guys in lab coats deem to be a mental illness is often worse than the condition it’s supposed to treat.
We live in a climate that does not fully support mental health. I am not just talking about the ability to talk to a psychologist or have your M.D. write a script for Prozac or Zoloft. I mean that we live in a country that is not conducive to the health of the psyche. We hold little value for personal silence, reflection or the contemplation of life. The community that we all crave is being taken over by inane relationships on Face Book, that we convince ourselves are real. We seem to have lost the ability to make eye contact, because thumbs are flying over the keys of our i-phone hoping beyond hope to somehow “connect.” And all the while, advertisers mark us to sell us the products that we need to make us full and better people—something to whiten our teeth, shine our hair, thin our thighs, make us look cool. And maybe, just maybe if we use some of these products we will attract the friendships, intimacies and relationships that are part and parcel of being a healthy human.
In recent weeks a new manual, a bible really, of disorders, dysfunctions and illnesses has been released by the American Psychiatric Association. It’s called a “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” In this book, with these codes, you have a mental disorder if you grieve for too long and your therefore you may require Psychiatric Intervention. Translation: a drug for what ails you. Similarly with restless leg syndrome, caffeine withdraw and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Under the guidelines of this new manual, over 50% of the population would require medication for something, and that is good news for the pharmaceutical industry which takes a certain kind of perverse glee in people staying sick and profit margins staying fat.
It’s as though every emotion can now be considered pathological and your lack of happiness is treatable through the chemistry of Big Pharma. There is no normal anymore. Worse, no “quirky” normal. For anyone who is familiar with the suffering and loss of life, familiar with the harmless nuances of “everyday”neurosis, there’s a diagnosis, a handy code for the insurance company, and a new pill coming your way, courtesy of Pfizer. Navigating the rough events within our lives, teaches us to be more compassionate and often more grateful individuals, a process denied us by brain drugs.
This is the last stripping away of any real mental “health” as far as I am concerned. When we start putting the reactions and emotions of people into categories and boxes to be “treated” instead of assuring and reassuring folks that the challenges of life are what being human is, we have forgotten that we are supposed to evolve and mature throughout life as a result of the rough patches. The common thread, not talked about, that weaved its way through the perpetrators of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown and Aurora, was that they were all medicated. The best intention of helping by the psychiatric industry can and does create a kind of chemical brain soup, courtesy of the drug companies that surprises us with consequences that we cannot yet predict. A refillable prescription for an SSRI (selective serotonin uptake inhibitor like Prozac), chased by a cocktail of Abilify, a popular anti-psychotic, takes about 10 minutes of face time with your M.D. who may not be trained by anything other than the Big Pharma literature that a perky drug rep dropped at his or her front desk.
Unfortunately, unlike the things that we can put under a microscope to determine the need for antibiotics, no one can put mental health diseases or disorders under the same kind of scrutiny, so the medication of such things is a roll of the dice. I am not against medication. Some people are in such a bad state that medication may help, and I do not think that anyone should have to suffer; but I do think we medicate too much and too often, for too many things– and in too many instances we medicate when it is not needed. Even the best medication is often a band-aid that does not address core issues. It’s interesting to note that there is a diagnosis for “too much grieving,” but I wonder if some of the problem is that we live in a country where people don’t get to, or don’t know how to grieve, and the lack of the grieving process will then manifests itself in symptoms. A pill cannot teach you how to grieve or how to let go. These are life lessons that should be far removed from medication.
This morning I made my list for achieving good mental health, because I am one of those individuals who left to the devices of modern-day psychiatry would probably be medicated. I deal with a life where anxiety comes and goes; where fear is sometimes way too familiar a companion; and where sorrow can overcome me. But I honestly do not think I am alone in this. I think that what I have described is just part of being alive and that it’s less a disease or dysfunction, and more the nuance of being sensitive, creative and struggling for awareness. So, here is the list that helps me:
1. Distinguish between depression and sadness. Sadness is part of the messiness of life and depression keeps you from getting out of bed. Sadness does not need medication. Sometimes you hurt and sometimes you feel good. That’s just the stuff of life.
2. Make friends. Set aside time to get a coffee or go for a walk with someone and listen to their story…share your own. We all need a tribe to which we feel we belong.
3. Exercise. A good, brisk walk, will get the endorphins going and can help snap you out of a melancholy mood.
4. Don’t drink too much. Alcohol is a depressant.
5. If you don’t have an animal, volunteer at a shelter. You’ll meet potential friends and animals are great healers.
6. Nurture a creative outlet: dance, art of any kind, writing. Express the light and the dark. A lot of good art takes form in the shadow.
7. Avoid self-diagnosis and instead rely on something inspirational. I have a few books that I dive into when I get blue. These days I like reading David Steindal-Rast, who has made and entire career of promoting gratitude. Good stuff.
8. Reach out to the world. I have found that a little volunteer work goes along way in soothing a troubled heart.
9. If you are having a rough time—belly breath for ten minutes. It’s good to develop some kind of meditation or prayer practice that gives you a place to let go your burdens and reclaim your breath. When you breath just in your upper chest—it’s like panic breathing, so deep belly breathing can literally lower your blood pressure and make you feel calm.
10. Don’t get too lonely, too tired or too hungry. Did you know that the symptoms of depression look just like symptoms of exhaustion?
So probably none of that will revolutionize mental health care, but it seems worth mentioning that there are too many diagnosis and too many pills and life was never meant to be a smooth, one-dimensional ride without strife.
Nature has everything to teach us if we are willing to be still and spend time being with her. A few weeks ago a robin chose to build her nest under the portico that offers shelter above our front door. It was a good place–protected from the elements and other critters, like the neighbor’s cat. For days, the robin named Isabelle by my husband, scattered building material all over the front porch and we watched through the window as she carried one strand at a time to the small ledge. It seemed an impossible task, but one day we looked outside and there was the perfect, most beautiful nest ever.
Isabelle spent days sitting on the nest and a little research revealed that robins gorge themselves on worms and grubs in the morning and the lay one egg in the afternoon. They do this until they have the desired size of family, I guess. The eggs hatch 12 to 14 days after the last egg is laid. A patient mother, Isabelle sat on the nest day and night and we avoided using the front door so as not to disturb her. Whether it’s a human or a robin, impending motherhood does make a woman beautiful and Isabelle had a special glow about her.
Here is the surprise: Isabelle’s husband, whom I name Igor—brought worms and fed Isabelle as she sat on the nest. Sometimes Isabelle just needed to stretch her wings, and Igor would perch on the nest guarding the eggs. Before this miracle unfolded above my front porch, I never would have described a robin as “macho,” but Igor is a macho guy. When guarding the nest he had that “don’t mess with me or my family” look to him, a puffed up chest to emphasize the message.
It was touching to watch how he protected his family, gave his wife a much-needed break and brought food to her. A few days ago the eggs hatched. At first we couldn’t see the babies, but we saw that both Isabelle and Igor brought food and were feeding something in the nest. Then one morning we saw two bald heads with mouths open wide accepting food from mom. I am still not sure if there are two or three babies, but I imagine that we will find out as they grow.
Isabelle and Igor got me thinking about my marriage. My husband isn’t what I would call much of a romantic, but like Igor, he brings me food, never fails to ask if I need or want anything when he leaves the house. He holds my hand when we are watching movies and he keeps an eye on the oil levels in my car. I know that he would protect me with his life and he encourages me to stretch my wings. He would make Igor proud. It’s a practical and mature love that has an organic sweetness to it that far exceeds a dozen roses.
Nature can teach us a lot about how to live a balanced and happy life. Having Isabelle and Igor show us how it’s done, helps me observe the natural world with a renewed sense of wonder and curiosity. Sometimes, well most times, humans think we are the be all end all; that we know everything and that we are a superior life form. I don’t think so. I think we have more to learn from the natural world than we realize. In fact, it may be our salvation.
A shrill whistle from the teakettle pierces the morning fog. Boiling water into a cup, measured teaspoons of honey and Earl Grey, a jolt of caffeine providing passage into the day. A laptop and resolve to practice writing complete the ritual that plays out for its own sake, sunrise after sunrise. I have grown comfortable with the unrelenting boundaries that I construct around my life to give some semblance of making it work.
Aldous Huxley, “The Doors of Perception”—I read it when I was seventeen– stories of a consciousness expanded with a psychedelic –the possibilities of a higher self that spoke to the longing of a generation. Those ideal years seem far away now, an experience of becoming great that slipped through our fingers as our generation, like every generation is worn down by life. Still, passage through that doorway defined me. It stripped away something polite and exposed edges that were painful, but interesting. The desire to conform became disdainful and my life would forever be passionate and overly emotional. I am a pair of animated hands diving deeply into the rich red and black earth of creativity hoping for gold.
Riding in a car on Santa Monica Boulevard in 1969, I was always headed toward the beach. That was when I heard “Riders on the Storm,” a sing-song kind of chant that allowed the listener to get lost in a trance of the rock n’ roll experience. It wasn’t just about the music. It was about the attitude, the recklessness and abandon that gave the finger to conformity with its ache to explode the norms.
We were so young and so arrogant as not to see how our parents had sacrificed pieces of their bodies and their heart to fight in a World War that was the battle for the soul of man. It left fathers sitting alone in over stuffed chairs, relegated to corners of dark garages, lit only by the tip of a glowing cigarette; and housewives who knew better than to ask “what” or “why” and instead honored the space needed by warriors to lick wounds that constantly broke open. Conformity for them was the band-aide and my generation could not possibly understand. Our fathers passed through the doors of hell at Normandy and Iomega, a wretched memory now past, but constantly present, while The Doors blared from small radios in their children’s rooms and copies of Aldous Huxley were read late into the night, all a kind of Holden Caulfield story unfolding in millions of homes across America.
When my mother died, I began to struggle with a sense of relevance. Sixty is the threshold of old age. You can dress it up. Tighten your face with surgery, but eventually everything sags and puddles at your feet as life slips from your grasp and the music of your youth has no meaning for twenty-something’s who look at you with the same imperviousness with which you once viewed your elders. I eye the door cautiously, heartened by nieces and nephews who discover Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts and want to discuss them late into the night. The desire to get bigger in your heart and mind may be eternal, whereas the music of your youth is just a temporary soundtrack for the experience.
My mother sat at the doorway of death and waited, numbed by drugs that pulled her toward the entrance. The good daughter said the rosary and I just watched. You always knew that it would happen, but somehow you are never prepared. “Riders on the Storm.” Something sing-song to rock back and forth to. Close my eyes and understand that the doorways and the passages are what make it exciting. What’s on the other side? I don’t want anyone to say a rosary for me. It’s too conforming. Instead scatter my ashes on the beach and dance on them, pounding them into the sand, then pour a cup of Earl Grey over the whole mess and read from the last passages of Prufrock—“I grow old. I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
It’s all just a long hallway of doors. I grow old, I grow old. . .a non-conforming wordsmith who writes her way into each day with a cup of black tea and hopes to write her way out, telling as many stories as possible until the last breath when the last door slams shut.
I felt especially bad for Mr. Partee. He stood in the back yard with his face tilted toward the sun, cup of coffee cradled in his hands, eyes shut in absolute bliss as his face drank in the warm sunshine.
“Great morning, isn’t it?” I called out. He smiled without turning. “I believe I can finally put the snow boots away,” he said. We were both in t-shirts and pajama bottoms. My neighbors have gotten used to seeing me that way. My yard backs to a strip of open space that has no fence as do the other yards. It’s not allowed a fence because of some odd HOA rule, so when I am outside, I am outside for all to see–those who are walking their dogs or jogging by, and Mr. Partee, who doesn’t seem to care because he wears a similar uniform– plaid pajama bottoms and a t-shirt. While Mr. Partee reveled in the sunshine, I went about my backyard business of exercising the “super duper pooper scooper” whose immense jaws save me from bending down with plastic bags in hand to pick up the dog poo.
My husband and I had just returned from a vacation where we worked on our tans while Colorado got hit with one of the snowiest April’s ever. We came home to 72 degrees on a Saturday and all of our neighbors raking mulch, planting pots and like Mr. Partee, lifting their faces in worship of the sun.
As hubby and I ran our errands and came and went, we noticed that Mr. Partee had set up camp in his back yard. He had taken all of the patio furniture off of the deck and hosed it down. His wife and children were wiping down the chairs and rearranging them on the deck in anticipation of spring’s warmth. The day wore on and the sun lingered into the evening light of 7:00pm, and still Mr. Partee sat on his deck, talking on his phone, feet propped up on chair and a Corona now in hand.
Sunday was even better, warmer, lighter, tulips opening and welcoming and I couldn’t wait to go to work on Monday in a cotton skirt, sandals on my feet. Oh this is going to be a wonderful spring. And then it happened. As I said at the beginning of the story, I felt especially bad for Mr. Partee. It is the Rocky Mountains, but who would have imagined, or dreamed of a foot a wet snow on May 1st? The snow did not stop to take a breath all day while it blanketed the town with its low, grey skies and stinging white flakes, that although beautiful, buzz killed the mulching, the deck cleaning and the tulip blooming that had happened two days earlier.
Today the skies have turned blue again. In spite of nature making a mockery of our spring dance, there is a hopeful excitement that the warm weather is coming. And though there is too much snow for either Mr. Partee or I to stand in our back yards in our pajamas and tilt our faces toward the sun, I am guessing that he was putting his snow boots in the very back of the closet this morning believing this time, it’s for real.
Occasionally, I teach a creative writing class. I teach off the beaten path in dark corners that don’t get too many visitors—homes for seniors, halfway houses and jails. The stories in these places are less polite than the stories you get from a class at your local community colleges. I teach in these places because writing has helped me to better understand and accept myself, so I share the process in hopes that it may help someone in this way too. Writing is how I make sense of who I am and what I’ve lived. Writing is the talent that I give as service.
Aside from a few newspaper articles and a couple of magazine pieces (I wrote a piece for Quilter’s Magazine once) and few big blogs like Care2, I am not a widely published or famous writer. I write because I am a writer, one of what I imagine to be millions who get up each day and scale a white screen or blank page, looking for the right turn of phrase to convey the story, the life within life. I blog a couple of times a week, because it just feels right to see a finished piece that you are willing to put out there. It’s a risk. The more authentic a writer you become, the more you risk.
I knew a man when I was in my 20’s– Murray Schisgal. He wrote a whimsical book: “Days and Nights of a French Horn Player.” He went with me to an acting class that I was taking. On the drive home he gave me a great piece of advice. He said “don’t worry about whether people like your work or not. You should worry about whether or not they remember you.” I write to leave something of myself, just the way the Sumerians did. The written word is the story of being human. We live in a time when literacy has never been higher and in spite of inane tweets and texts, there are those of us who want to tell the human story in complete sentences. Please God let me be remembered for half-way decent descriptions!
Jessica was a student of mine at The Jefferson County Detention Center. She was eighteen and landed herself in jail for over-using, abusing and in general screwing up her life with meth. She was so pretty, so young. Armed with Jesus and G.E. D. she always sat close to me, beyond excited about discovering Emily Dickinson and May Sarton. She wrote strong, haunting poems about the sensory experience of meth, longing essays about “getting it right,” and I so believed that she would. When I knew she was being released, I left a Natalie Goldberg book for her. I penned a note of encouragement and gave her list of resources—a contact at Naropa’s Writing program, a lead on a writer’s workshop that would give her a scholarship. But she never called anyone. I heard months later that she was back at Jefferson County and sent her regards. The system slithered and coiled itself tightly around her. Drugs lulled her into submission. Now she belonged to them and I learned the sad song of “you cannot save anyone,” you can only give what you’ve got and the rest is just the rest.
I read books about writing. I look for ways to deepen and keep it real. Some mornings I think about Jessica and I wonder where she is and I am afraid to know. I sit in my warm little house, with my nice cup of tea, caffeine being the only thing that I am addicted to. I write my life on a laptop and I look for where my story connects to others. I was connected to Jessica. We both longed to get it right. We both wanted to leave something that asked to be remembered.
Walking into the locker room after my swim, I heard them before I saw them, a giggling, chatty pack of them. Teenaged girls. As I approached my locker, I noted that they were everywhere, a veritable swarm of locusts taking up space with towels, bikinis, lip gloss, incessant texting, and talking. I waded through them, “excuse me, you are sitting in front of my locker. Excuse me, I need to get to my…thank you.” Youthful energy smacking me in my face each step of the way.
One young woman, adorable in her black and white bikini, also wore a grey wool hat. She stood in front of the full-length mirror adjusting it as I struggled out of my wet bathing suit and into street clothes. I guess that’s the new look for bikinis, but it seems like it would be so hot. Then I heard her friend say “How are you going to swim if you don’t get your face wet?” She put an arm around her as black and white bikini pulled off the grey wool hat, revealing a totally bald head. “My eyelashes and eyebrows are beginning to fall out too and what if the water makes it worse?”
“Don’t worry. You look cute.” The swarm of teenaged locusts suddenly morphed into something other than what I had imagined. Six young, kind women who under normal circumstances in my book, would be overly concerned with how they looked and who they were seen with—because that’s the cluelessness of being 15, right? Wrong. Oh so wrong. I bore witness to six young angels, one of them bald and obviously dealing with sickness and suffering that no fifteen year old should have to deal with, and all of her friends who had brought her to the pool to swim; who rallied round her with love, support and protection. “You look cute,” another one of them echoed and then they disappeared—off to the pool in their little pack.
In an ordinary moment in an ordinary place, I was blessed to experience an extraordinary hope. I am sometimes cynical and disheartened by a world grown harsh. But here, in the locker room at the local rec center, I found gentle inspiration in a gaggle of teenaged girls who embodied hope in the simple actions of what it truly means to be a human being.
Here is something that both of my parents gave to me: they taught me that it is wrong to judge another human being by the color of their skin. I grew up with a sense of inclusiveness. My father told me that it was the contents of a man’s heart by which he should be measured. I never knew any other way of looking at the world. I also grew up in all white neighborhoods and went to all white schools, so I couldn’t possibly grasp what it was to be black in America in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
I didn’t meet my first African-American person until I was 18 and had left home. Moving to Los Angeles in 1969 provided me with a much more richly textured life that exercised the inclusiveness with which I was raised, and educated me to the tremendous amount of inequality, which still needed to be made right in our country. And though a lot has changed since my girlhood, I still see the injustices of a white America and a black America all around me. My work with incarcerated women underscored that heavily. Most of my students at the jail were either African-American or Latino women, revisiting the system for the umpteenth time, sentenced by a judge and sentenced by the conditions from which they came.
Yesterday I saw a movie that inspired me–a story of racism in America and the possibility for change. “42” is about Jackie Robinson, baseball’s first black player to be integrated into the major leagues. Until 1947 there was major league baseball and there were the “Negro Leagues.” Like everything in America, life was segregated. The sign on the bathroom door said “Whites Only.” The sign above the drinking fountain said “Whites Only…” an ugly, shameful part of American history.
Branch Rickey was a businessman who owned the Brooklyn Dodgers, who in those days actually played in Brooklyn. He loved the game. Here is what is so moving to me about Branch Rickey: He was a business leader who had a deeply rooted sense of social justice, and he was willing to try to make the world a better place because of it. A business leader with a strong sense of social justice is practically an oxymoron these days. You just don’t see that anymore. As Branch Rickey points out, Jesus tells his followers to “love your neighbor as you would love yourself,” more than any other directive found in scripture. And this inspired him to bring Jackie Robinson to the major leagues.
In 1947, the climate of American was neither kind nor receptive to an African-American playing ball in the major leagues. The major leagues were the exclusivity of whites. Everything was set up to underscore a wrongly perceived inferiority of African-Americans and a wrongly perceived superiority of white people. There was one game where a policeman tried to arrest Jackie Robinson for playing on the same ball field as white people—even though he is a Brooklyn Dodger. Robinson had to leave the game. Back then, that stuff happened. Any association between the two races was held with contempt.
Robinson was called horrible, ugly and demeaning names. But Robinson was not only a great baseball player; he was a great and courageous man. He did not fight back. He couldn’t. Any fight in which he participated would have been construed as his instigation. The press back then was mostly racist and ignorant too. So Robinson became the ultimate peaceful warrior, who suffered great humiliation to further the game of baseball and right the wrong of segregation in sports. Moreover, he suffered great humiliation in order to advance and evolve the hearts and minds of a racist America. He paved the way for a new generation of black athletes and a new mind-set for Americans.
After the movie, my husband and I talked a lot about Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey over dinner, and drew the correlation between the hard-fought battle for equal rights for African-Americans and gay marriage rights. At the end of the day it all comes down to human rights. The right as a human being to live your life fully, without being ostracized or excluded because of the color of your skin, your sexual orientation or any other external nuance of nature. We still have a long way to go.
“42” is a movie that I will see again. It’s a reminder of how horrid people can be and how amazing people can be. There were plenty of individuals who supported Jackie Robinson, and were not afraid to stand up for what they believed and Jackie Robinson gave them a reason to stand tall in the light of that truth. 42 was the number on the back of Robinson’s uniform. After seeing the film, that number will serve as touch stone in my life of how important inclusion and compassion are in the grand scheme of things.
I’ve read that if there is a question when you die, it’s probably this: Did you live fully and love well? In my sixties, I am more taken than ever by what really should be for me, a daily inquiry. There is an arc to life that I feel I have crested, but not yet completed. Is the trajectory down hill as potentially invigorating and vitalizing as the strong trajectory up? Today, I would have to answer yes, but it is a different yes than the one I might have given twenty-five years ago.
Twenty-five years ago, tennis was my game. I loved the feeling of getting up early and hitting for an hour before work. I loved the cute little tennis outfits. It was a vibrant game and it made me feel vital. But as nature sometimes compels, that particular sport was finite in my life. A scoliotic back and disc degeneration saw to it. Those two physical messengers had their way with me. Eventually I would stop playing tennis, downhill skiing, or any type of aerobics where my feet hit the ground and my back took a pounding. So, what was left? Walking.
Walking is an activity that nurtures aliveness. I have learned to walk all year-long and in all conditions. I walk in the spring and marvel at the wild flowers that fill the meadows and mountainsides. I walk in the summer and stop to take sips of cool water and breath in the offerings of the panorama. In the fall, I delight in the changing of leaves. And of course, the great winter snow hike has become one of my favorites, because in my way of seeing, there is nothing quite as joyful as watching my dog romp through snow, and nothing quite as exquisite as the lone grey heron standing on the ice, keeping watch over the frozen water.
Being in my sixties has given me a perspective of the grace contained within the conflict and challenges of life. Cocky thirties made me think I could do life without such things, but I realize now that I would not have wanted to. There is a comfort in knowing that your marriage is so solid and committed that in spite of disagreements, snarls and frustrations, there was never an instance where you didn’t eventually sit down and work it out, thereby strengthening the union.
As for failure, you can put up all the posters of “Failure is Not an Option” that you want, and good luck with that! I have failed many times. Sometimes I have beat myself up for those moments, wrapping the failure around me like a scarlet letter. Failures though, have propelled me forward in business, friendships and making peace with the limited, finite human being that I am, albeit with an infinite and loving soul. Failure has taught me that God loves me in every moment. Failure is, as Billie Jean King once said, “only research.”
There was a time in my fifties that I mourned the loss of youth and its beauty. I don’t know a woman (if they’re honest) who hasn’t stood in front of a mirror and gently pulled the skin of her face back to remind her of a time that her face was not headed south…and then entertained for a moment some magic surgery that would restore it all, if only for a while longer. In the blink of an eye, the world seems as though it is no longer yours, but belongs to women who still wear high-heels and know their way around an i-phone. But the grief of that passing, was kind and swift and I have started to grow comfortable with the sags of my face. The important things are that I stand tall and straight and that I walk. I am learning that the geese that fly overhead sing their songs for me. I have begun to understand that the fox that trots across the open field and stops to look at me with curiosity can fill me with wonder. In short, I have slowed down enough to take in the sights and sounds of the natural world, letting it fill my heart and speak to me, and that makes me feel as though I am living fully. I know that I can and will walk until the end. When Dylan Thomas wrote “Do not go gentle into that good night,” I believe that he was talking about living until you squeeze out the last drop from it.
I still stress too easily. I give in to the sorrows. But even those things, when observed with clear eyes and distance show me that they have added texture to a journey that keeps edging me toward the meaning and purpose of being human. Stress is just a wake up call to stop and breath deeply, go read People Magazine and take a hot bath. Stop and realize that nothing is so important that it should disturb your health or your peace of mind. That’s the tough one—we all make things too important and over identify with that importance. It’s a killer. As for sorrows, a little sorrow in life can break open the heart to the suffering of a world that needs you to reach out. Too much sorrow is like indulging a seductress that will take you somewhere you don’t really want to go.
Cycles of the season, cycles of age, all of it meant to be. The sixties are not so bad. In a way, I feel like I am doing my best work. I finally have some perspective on life and am now looking forward to what my seventies might bring. I love to write my thoughts and then go walk in the early hours of the day. And as Irenaeus said; “The Glory of God is man fully alive.” Did you live fully? Did you love well? Is it ever to late to take those questions to heart and count the blessings and the joys of waking up and doing the day one more time–fully alive?
Enormous in the sky, a full moon cast a glittering ribbon of light upon the dark, black waters, a path that if followed leads you to the weaver. Deep, deep, down at the bottom of the ocean, the old woman who does not remember how she came to be among the fishes and the coral, sits at a loom and weaves the loose weave of nets from seaweed strands brought to her by her by dolphins. A shuttlecock made of shell moves back and forth, back and forth in her bony hand, stringing the weed over and under as the net takes shape. When finished, she will give it to you to cast into the realm of dreams, but you must know how to ask her—to tell her that you long to gather the inspirations and visions of what might come to be. You must ask her nicely and promise to pull these things close into your heart, nurture them with delicate care so that they will grow.
Bringing offerings of small round stones and sea glass eroded by the undertow into smooth, shiny currency to lie at her feet, I wait for her to sing to me–long, beautiful sad songs. When I do not sleep well and cannot enter the dream, I try to remember the melodies to sooth myself.
Morning brings a headache, and cups a strong black tea sweetened with honey and cinnamon. A deck of tarot cards and “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” sit next to a notebook and pen on the side table. A pair of severely smudged reading glasses, slightly bent have been folded and placed where I am sure they will be found again, even though I end up searching, never remembering exactly where they were left. Light has entered the room enough that the lamps can be turned off and the day begun. Old woman, don’t let me lose the feeling tone of you. Don’t leave me.
What will the dolphins tell you when they come to swim by your side? Will they nip at your hands and feet and push you with their long dolphin snouts, urging you toward your fate? Did you bring the net?