During these days of “compassionate retreat,” this April, across holy faith traditions, invites in a closer relationship to the divine, however we know that to be. Too, the “super” full moon in Libra – the biggest of the year – with its astrological emphasis on balance, harmony, and being in right relation with all, welcomes Passover and Easter and amplifies the significance of these holy days. I take a moment to reach out from our home – where we are well – to yours…
May you be well, safely tucked in with your beloveds.
May the moments of anxiety and unease be few and far between.
May grief with what is now over and what is now lost, be borne with an open heart,
and flow through you as the fresh watered river.
May deep rest, fresh air and sunshine restore you and be like
the warm embrace of missed family and friends.
May good food nourish your body,
favourite memories and meaningful conversations feed your heart and mind.
May the slow and quiet bring you clear insight and deep illumination,
helping you discern your next wise step.
May gratitude and generosity, kindness and grace be your constant companions.
I love our Annie dog for her daily nudging to get outside and walk – her, me, us. Like clockwork, come early afternoon she’ll fetch me. Typically finds me sitting at my computer so it’s easy to put the full weight of her head on my arm to signal, COME. She is patient and knows it might take a minute or several, and I have a commitment to her, to come.
We’ve had a cold start to spring, with lots of snow, and this week, temperatures well below freezing, and well below that with wind chill. Frankly, oddly perhaps, I’m grateful. Because this prolonged winter with its invitation to cocoon, might help us all “stay home” and do our personal best to contain this, as yet, incessant spread of COVID-19. Yesterday afternoon, another brilliant blue sky sunny cold day, Annie and I were the only ones on the path through our bit of urban nature, the golf course five minutes from home. It’s spacious, lined with trees – cottonwood and aspen, mayday and spruce. It’s quiet enough to hear waxwings twitter, sparrows chirp, and now the returning geese honk. And it’s open enough to see wide expanses of sky and clouds floating overhead.
Lately, with the sun higher in the sky, we’ve taken to sitting on a bench at one of the tee-offs. I help Annie up and nestled in the crook of my side, with my arm holding her warm, we sit together and take in the view, breathe in the scent.
Lately, I find myself praying – to the sun and the moon, and the stars and clouds, to the sky and the trees and the wind and the birds, to the god of my being and beyond. Sometimes silent, but often out loud, with Annie as my witness, I say “thank you” for as much and as many as I can remember in the moment. I speak my worries. I ask for guidance and help to stay present with the “bigness, muchness, fullness”of these unraveling times. And I ask that my life be my prayer.
“It is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in this broken world.”
Mary Oliver, Redwing, 2008
“And I pray….my life is a prayer more conscientiously now.” I first spoke these words in an email to a dear friend a few weeks back. It just came, in the moment, fingers pecking at the keyboard. I paused. True, and what does this mean? How does one live one’s life as prayer?
In a first draft of this post, I had a list of things that I’m doing. But when I “winnow to essence,” the simplest, truest response is notice, name and thank people being and bringing their best to the world. Be kindness. Be.
“It is a great gift to yourself and also to the world… to get settled inside yourself, to know what it is to befriend reality, to figure out how to stay soft.”
Krista Tippett, On Being, 2020
There are moments when this hardly feels enough. When I hear of friends living on the brink, doing all they can, moment by moment, to recreate business plans to stay afloat. Or those who have been laid off as community services shutter. Or learn it’s a distant family member stuck on the cruise ship no port had permitted safe harbour until now, wondering if her spouse, diagnosed positive, will make it home, alive. Or read the text from my “sister” in Germany, she in self isolation with a chronic respiratory condition, but on the phone day and night with her team of pharmacists to ensure the best care for their community, while frantically sourcing medicines that are fast running out.
Then a wave of sadness.
Then a deep breath to remember this is my offering. It comes from my deepest regard and kindness. With the highest intention, for the good of all.
It has to be enough.
“Enough. These few words are enough. If not these words, this breath. If not this breath, this sitting here. This opening to life we have refused again and again until now. Until now.”
Yesterday I woke early with my husband. Our patterns are different. He, the perennial night owl, typically rises later, giving me my cherished quiet hours, giving me delight in tending to Annie who is always eager for her breakfast, always entering the day in a great flourish. I love that about her, about him.
Yesterday the sun shone bright in the early morning sky, giving glisten to the fresh skiff of snow. The sky, that signature Alberta blue, void of cloud, full of invisible stars and moon now new holding quiet hope for its next waxing.
Read the story posted by a local nurse in one of our hospitals describing the toll on her and her colleagues working in these rigorous, strict, uncertain conditions. Describing grief, hers, theirs, their patients. A story no longer anonymous on the page or screen. It comes home, here and now.
Listen to “my” radio station (the one I helped raise from the ashes of mismanagement years ago) and note how each of the programmers carefully selects tunes to support the artists whose concerts and tours have been dashed, and to entertain and inspire us. I send a quick email to the morning programmer. His signature joy-filled voice and appreciative nature, always appreciated, are now an especially welcome start to my day. A quick station change to hear our national station has committed to several hours of daily programming exclusively featuring our Canadian artists. Each doing what they can to acknowledge, to support, to say thank you.
Drive along that well driven work route, usually busy with fellow commuters, now quiet, with only a city bus turning the corner on its well driven route, a city snow plough dusting off that night fall. Stopped at the lights, I mouth a “thank you” across the lane to the fellow driving the sidewalk sweeper.
Suddenly tears come fast, blurring my vision. I pull over to give myself over to it. The remarkable, poignant realization – again – that every one of us living on this precious planet is going through all of this together, alone together. The odd beauty in this odd symmetry of circumstance. The enormity of it all, simply gave way in the face of noticing on another blessedly brilliant blue sky sunny cold day. It pierced my already full heart and my tears came.
In these days of “compassionate retreat,” we wax and wane with the spectrum of emotions. We learn to welcome grief in all her variations – sorrow, fear, anxiety, doubt, cynicism, impatience, irritability, despair, numbness, denial – and know it’s all true.
We hold our hearts overflowing with compassion, wonder, healing and grace, and know it’s all true.
We notice moment by moment the small and large kindnesses of others, the gestures of care and concern, the abilities to stay connected, the beauty of another day, the laughter in a joke shared, the sacred sacrifices of every blessed person in every essential services across every community that keep us going. We know it’s all true.
And we know,
This is Holy Grief.
This is Holy Gratitude.
This is Holy Love.
“Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farm boy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.
A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.
So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”
– Hermann Hesse –
Wandering: Notes and Sketches, 1972
Special thanks to Christopher New who read this during the live stream from the Spiritual Seekers United in Community gathering, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Edmonton, Alberta.
Not chosen but invited, it arrived early into a simple, elegant process offered by Abbey of the Arts, called “2020, Give Me a Word.” Developed for the twelve days of Christmas, but available in early December, I’d receive an email invitation to “create some space each day to listen and see what word comes shimmering forth from the dailiness of my experience.”
At first, “at home,” which evoked being home and staying put. Perhaps wise counsel given I’d had another autumn full of travel. This time I’d become quite ill during my last trip in early December, a visit with a friend I’d not seen since the passing of her husband. A disappointment for us both when first, our great plans for trekking in the desert mountains became dashed by my excruciating case of plantar fasciitis. Then, a viral infection contracted days before departure had me reach for the emergency cipro to be well enough to get home without an ear-blocked, cough-racked flight. Just recovered and now into a serious grip of Arctic winter cold, staying put, at home, has been the order of the day.
But as the twelve days passed, with a new practice offered to evoke or ripen – a contemplative walk in nature, writing a poem, illustrating the word visually, attending to my dreams, consulting a soul friend – “at home” became distilled to “home.” Still that comfort with being at home (the best place to be when you’re sick and it’s ridiculously cold outside), but now with a spaciousness that allows mystery to unfold, shadow and surprise to emerge, dreams to awaken.
Last week, browsing somewhere, I came across these wondrous words in an essay, “To Find Your True Home Within Your Life.” Home came knocking.
The mystic Thomas a Kempis said that when you go out into the world, you return having lost some of yourself. Until you learn to inhabit your aloneness, the lonely distraction and noise of society will seduce you into false belonging, with which you will only become empty and weary. When you face your aloneness, something begins to happen. Gradually, the sense of bleakness changes into a sense of true belonging. This is a slow and open-ended transition but is utterly vital in order to come into rhythm with your own individuality. In a sense this is the endless task of finding your true home within your life. It is not narcissistic, for as soon as you rest in the house of your own heart, doors and windows begin to open outwards to the world.
“And” teaches us to say yes
“And” allows us to be both/and “And” teaches us to be patient and long suffering
“And” is willing to wait for insight and integration
“And” does not divide the field of the moment
“And” helps us to live in the always-imperfect now
“And” keeps us inclusive and compassionate towards everything
“And” demands that our contemplation become action
“And” insists that our actions is also contemplative
“And” is the mystery of paradox in all things
“And” is the way of mercy
“And” makes daily, practical love possible
In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok you would never see him doing such a thing, tossing the dry snow over a mountain of his bare, round shoulder, his hair tied in a knot, a model of concentration.
Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word for what he does, or does not do.
Even the season is wrong for him. In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid? Is this not implied by his serene expression, that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?
But here we are, working our way down the driveway, one shovelful at a time. We toss the light powder into the clear air. We feel the cold mist on our faces. And with every heave we disappear and become lost to each other in these sudden clouds of our own making, these fountain-bursts of snow.
This is so much better than a sermon in church, I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling. This is the true religion, the religion of snow, and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky, I say, but he is too busy to hear me.
He has thrown himself into shoveling snow as if it were the purpose of existence, as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway you could back the car down easily and drive off into the vanities of the world with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.
All morning long we work side by side, me with my commentary and he inside his generous pocket of silence, until the hour is nearly noon and the snow is piled high all around us; then, I hear him speak.
After this, he asks, can we go inside and play cards?
Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table while you shuffle the deck. and our boots stand dripping by the door.
Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes and leaning for a moment on his shovel before he drives the thin blade again deep into the glittering white snow.
– Billy Collins –
Click here to hear Billy Collins read with pianist George Winston.
Almost half way into this first month of this new year and how easy it’s been to riff on the “perfect vision” metaphor of 2020: clarity, focus, vision, insight, foresight, hindsight.
Lately though, I’ve been struck that this is a year where “forty” (20+20), with its symbolic significance across spiritual traditions, holds potential for deep personal growth.
“In spiritual literature, ‘forty’ is often used to indicate a term of learning or change, such as the ‘forty days and forty nights’ of Noah’s Flood. Forty is called ‘the number of perseverance,’ marking a period of growth through testing, trial and purification. After the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites endured ‘forty days of wandering’ in the wilderness before they were ready to enter the Promised Land. Jesus, following the ancient practice of the prophets, went into the desert for a great seclusion of forty days, which he described as a period of purification and preparation for the next stage of his work. The Buddha attained final enlightenment after forty days of continuous meditation.”
Henry S. Mindlin, “The Life and Work of Hafiz” in I Heard God Laughing: Renderings of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky, 1996.
Thinking to when I turned forty, it was ripe with finding meaning and making ritual to acknowledge a coming of age. Looking back at the months preceding that birthday, it certainly was a time of learning and change, of perseverance and growth. One of those “dark night of the soul” times where, following what could only be intuition, I went through a process that included finding a sacred space into which I would eventually co-create and re-enact the ancient ceremony of baptism and name change to formally honour my mothering ancestors.
These past weeks of Solstice, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and New Year reflection, with the interior image of dark desert lit only by moon and star, shine luminous with promise. Friday’s full moon eclipse and subsequent planetary alignments foreshadow powerful opportunities for tending to the inner work of one’s sovereignty. I feel the pull of “magic and dreams and good madness.”
“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful. And don’t forget to make some art, or write, draw, build, sing, or live only as you can. And I hope in the next year, you surprise yourself.”