pilgrimage, Presence, Uncategorized

Waiting and Transformation

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WAITING
Anna Citrino

The heat rises each day in Delhi now, and the trees
on my street have lost their leaves. The branches,

gone barren, crave a new life. They hold open the palms
of their hands in yearning. Hour after hour, the sun

kisses their fingertips saying, “Not yet, keep going.
Keep on,” as the trees breathe in the circling birds,

and breathe out their emptiness. They want to blow
open in sirens of life, to scream like a child in wild glee,

want to turn on the colored search lights, to shout out
the story of a yellow Eden. They want to sing

in a ten thousand blossomed glory, setting fire
to the air. But they don’t.

They wait. Day by day, a pyre of sticks, they stand
quietly shriveling into the sidewalk, as if

they understand the silence, the humility,
out of which life finally speaks.

Landscapes can embody both longing and renewal. When I lived in New Delhi, a tree grew along the roadside in front of the school and in the courtyard inside the front gate. As the year moved toward spring, I noticed the trees beginning to lose all their leaves, just as it seemed to me that they should be bursting with life. I thought the trees were dying, and felt very sad to see them go–all of them alongside the roadway drooping and bereft of leaves.

The trees were not dying, however, though they appeared to be. They were actually getting ready to burst forth in blossom. By May the trees, the cassia fistula, had become enormous clouds of brilliant yellow clusters of flowers cascading down from the height of their branches. Their vibrant color embodied New Delhi’s intense May heat where temperatures climb over a hundred Fahrenheit (in the thirties in Celsius) accompanied with May’s monsoon season humidity. Like drifts of yellow sun, their blossoms fell in thick drifts along the roadside. It felt like the trees had to lose all their leaves in order to make way for the myriad blooms.

Some people liked to call these trees the graduation trees as their blossoms arrived at about the same time as the school year’s end. People would leave school to ride out into their summer holidays and their new or their other lives, accompanied by the generous beauty of these trees celebrating their long awaited for transformation. I learned from these trees behavior that what is true in one environment doesn’t always hold true for another, and that sometimes things that appear to be dying might actually be making ready for something entirely new to occur, even, perhaps, something glorious.

 

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It’s a fortunate coincidence that the tree blossoms at the school year’s end, a time when tired teachers are very much in need of a boost to carry them into a time of rejuvenation and restoration before beginning a new school year.  It isn’t only teachers that need renewal, however. Many people carry on through years of work holding up their families, nurturing other people’s health or hold the safety and wellbeing of others in their care, and must find how to sustain themselves and others through long periods of time. Whether its for graduation, a job, retirement, better health, a word of encouragement or a hand of support, we are often awaiting renewal like the trees, preparing and storing up reserves for the arrival of that transformative time.

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Often, when we put closure to certain phases of our lives, people like to know what we’re going to do next. We don’t have to know everything about our future though as we move toward change. We each have our our own way of opening and can allow ourselves to learn how to unfold in our own time. Success and the continual idea that we must be doing something so we can be called successful or call ourselves successful can make us deeply unsettled, and can prevent us from living satisfying lives. To wait on ourselves, and to listen deeply to the rhythms and needs of our lives is important to living meaningfully and with contentment. Before bursting forth into blossom, nature practices stillness, goes into her dark place and can look as if she’s dying. Like the cassia fistula, we can hold back, listening to our inner selves.

Several years back now, the first blog post I wrote on this site spoke about the mandorla, the ancient symbol that can be found in cathedrals’ stained glass where two circles or ovals overlap. The overlapping portion symbolically represents that area where wholeness develops, and growing into oneness occurs. As Robert A. Johnson explains in his book, Owning Your Own Shadow, the Dark Side of the Psyche, “The message is unmistakable; our own healing proceeds from that overlap of what we call good and evil, light and dark. It is not that the light element alone does the healing; the place where light and dark begin to touch is where miracles arise. This middle place is a mandorla, ” The shadow times, times we’re seemingly dying but are still living, the times where all is still and it seems nothing at all is happening as we wander and explore, aiming to understand experiences, feelings or ideas are important to our inner growth and wellbeing. “Only awareness of your shadow qualities can help you to find an appropriate place for your unredeemed darkness and thereby create a more satisfying experience. To not do this work is to remain trapped in the loneliness, anxiety, and dualistic limits of the ego instead of awakening to your higher calling,” writes Johnson, explaining how important times of emptiness are for our inner lives to grow.

We live inside a mandorla–a world where opposites overlap. Whether change occurs slowly or quickly, our lives are always in transition, moving from one world into another. The stillness and space between the oppositions in our lives is where we learn how to transform our lives and periodically allow ourselves to eventually burst into blossom. While we search for the boat of insight that will carry us to the other side of understanding, we can practice being still and enjoying the moment we’re in.

 

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Presence, spirtuality

Confronting the Essential

Washington TreesSome time back I remember listening to Naomi Shihab Nye talk about what it’s like writing a poem on Bill Moyer’s Language of Life series. Sometimes you set out to write your poem and you think you know where you’re going. “You think you’re going to church,” she explained, “but instead your poem takes you to the dog races.” When writing, you have your ideas, you practice writing, but you also don’t want to make a  habit of forcing the work. It’s also a good idea to follow where the muse leads, and  sometimes a more powerful piece of writing results. You want to pay attention to the inner voice that suggests, maybe this other thing is a better idea.

Recently, I’ve been noticing how many other kinds of situations in life arise that are similar Nye’s description of what happens when sit down to write. You go to work each day enjoying your job, for example–finding it interesting and productive, and then people come along with a different ideas–a whole new system, for instance, of how things should be done. Suddenly your plans, your way of seeing things, are altered. Or perhaps you are out exercising regularly, doing what you can to stay healthy, then you go to the doctors for your check up and discover you need a biopsy for what might be cancer. Another possibility is that you spent your life working at your job, being responsible and saving your money for your last years so that you can spend them enjoying your retirement, but then one of you has an accident and the other one spends his or her final years caring for the one who fell ill. The business you work at might unexpectedly be sold and  you might suddenly find yourself out of a job. A different possibility might be that the person you’ve been married to for 20 or 30 years, had children with, the person whose life history you know and whose foibles you love and accept comes home one day and tells you, “I don’t think this marriage is going to last.” All these stories and more like them have happened to people I know. You think you’re on track, you know what you’re doing, but then something else happens and you’re heading for the dog races. What then?

There is an old Zen story about a farmer whose horse runs away. All the neighbors tell him, “Oh, such bad luck! That’s terrible.”

The farmer’s reply is, “Maybe. We’ll see.”

Next thing you know, the horse returns to the farmer’s land, and not only that, he brings seven more horses with him.

“Wow, that’s wonderful,” his friends and neighbors tell him. “Look at what you have now! You’re so very lucky.”

The farmer hears their words, and simply replies, “Maybe. We’ll see.”

Because the new horses were wild, they needed to be tamed, so the farmer’s son went out to tame them. In the process, he was thrown from one of the horses and broke his leg. “Why, that’s terrible,” the farmer’s friends and neighbors said as they gathered together in the evening over tea. “What bad luck you have again,” they said. “How are you going to get on now?”

The farmer just looked at them and said, “Who knows? We’ll see.”

A short time afterwards military officers arrived in the village looking for able-bodied young men they could find to fight in a war the government was involved in. They looked throughout the village for all those young men who were fit and conscripted them into the army. When they came by the farmer’s house, they saw that his son had a broken leg and couldn’t fight, so they passed him by.

Yet again, the neighbors gathered round the farmer to tell him, “How lucky you are! Your son doesn’t have to fight in the war.”

Once again, the farmer replied, “Maybe.”

As you can see, this story could go on at some length, event after event looking first good, then alternatively terrible. I think there comes a time in all of our lives when we are confronted first with things that look absolutely terrible. Maybe we will lose our sight, or the use of our limbs some day. Maybe we will get Alzheimer’s. Maybe we lose our house. Maybe the country we are living in is suddenly moves toward a situation of unrest, or a natural disaster occurs that is devastating. We develop our plans for our lives. We have our dreams, and we want things to go a certain way. What can we do to prepare ourselves for loss, for enormous change, or even just inevitable change? How can we be open, however, to the possibility that when our future or even our day takes to the dog races instead of to church, we will know what we need to hold on to, and what let go of?

Maybe you have heard of Sue Austin, a woman in a wheelchair goes diving. To hear her speak is inspiring, and to see the photos of her swimming underwater is truly beautiful. You can watch her TEDTalk, and you will see for yourself. Ms. Austin’s goal is to change the way we see a person in a wheelchair, and to show how a wheelchair can also liberate and open up new possibilities in a person’s life. As the tale with the farmer illustrates, what looks so terrible might not necessarily be as bad as it seems when put into a different context. Maybe the thing that looks like the worst thing that ever happened to us could become the thing that saves us, similar to how the farmer’s son didn’t have to go to war because of his broken leg.

On the other hand, it could be that what happens to us might be worse than we could ever imagine. Nevertheless, again, as the story illustrates, things always change, even the terrible things can change. It’s true that we could lose our jobs. It’s true we could lose our health. These kinds of difficult changes make me wonder: what am I doing with my life? Am I living the way I want to be living in order to be accountable for the gift of life that God has given me? What motivates me? What is calling to my spirit to follow it? Am I bold enough to pursue it? What would happen if I did?

There is a wisdom of the heart, and there is practical wisdom. What is the wise thing to do? What do you want to get to the end of your life and say you lived for. Henry David Thoreau went to live at Walden pond as an experiment in living simply, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I am thinking very seriously about his choice. How much of what I am doing is noise and clutter getting in the way of what life is really trying to tell me about? You hear or perhaps have seen or known people who have had what has been termed a mid-life crisis where they are asking themselves what they are really doing underneath all the actions and choices they have made thus far in their lives. What have they built with their lives, they wonder? Who am I? Maybe we need to be asking ourselves these question all along in our lives so that we can live more authentic lives throughout our lives and not have to come to the point of a crisis.

We want to live our lives from the center of who we are, and that means taking time all along to know who we are, to listen. This is why it’s valuable to take time each day to pause, to offer gratitude, to reflect. Richard Rohr in his CD Healing Our Violence Through the Journey of Centering Prayer says, “All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not. Then, when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough, you’ll find that the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and is all that you need. At that place, you will have nothing to prove to anybody and nothing to protect.

That place is called freedom. It’s the freedom of the children of God. Such people can connect with everybody. They don’t feel the need to eliminate anybody . . .”  In some way, most of us are afraid to let go of the security of our jobs, our houses, our hometowns–the things that have formed our identity. Rohr, in Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer has an interesting insight, however, regarding those who leave the beaten path, those who begin their experiment in living to confront the essential facts of life in order to live intentionally. “The people who know God well—mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator.” Is this true? Seamus Heaney’s final words to his wife were “Don’t be afraid,” and losing the one I most love is going to be the hardest, most fearful thing some day. ““The most common one-liner in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.” Someone counted, and it occurs 365 times,” says Rohr in Falling Upward.

photo-20Things change. What we think we are standing on may move. At some point we are going to lose everything–we will lose our own life and the ones we love. But we don’t have to be afraid. How am I going to get to that space? I’m thinking hard these days about what I’ve held on to thinking that it will bring me happiness. But what is real? What are the essential facts of life, that if we learn them when we come to die, we will know we have lived? That is what I want to have the courage to live for.

Presence

The Value of Nothing Much

Today is one of those days when nothing much happens. Outside the sky is gray, the fan in the hallway drones, birds land on the roof momentarily and then lift off only to land on a perch a few feet away. It’s not a day to make great plans or accomplish anything. It’s a day to sleep in, draw, read, bake bread, swim, go for a walk–a day to savor sinking down into the humus of being and rest in the arms of living where there are no set schedules, no timelines to meet. It is a day to remember that being human, the gift of being alive is an unmeasurable essence, important beyond the list of what you want to accomplish.

Recently, several friends and acquaintances have had to make emergency trips to the doctor. One person experienced a heart attack and will need to change his profession. Another friend, after her bout in the emergency room told me that she realized that you can do all the right things for your health–eat right, exercise, rest, but in the end you aren’t necessarily in control of  your life. Things can happen. Taking a down day, a sabbath day one day in the week, where you do no work, is a way of purposefully letting go of the world that tells us that we need to have control over all aspects of our lives, and that meaning is found in what we produce and consume, that we must always be “on” and on top of all we do. Purposefully setting time aside where we chose not work is challenging in a world where we are encouraged to be forever task and goal oriented, where we are threatened with the idea that if we don’t keep climbing  we won’t stay up or catch up with the rest of the world. There won’t be enough of whatever it is we want left for us. We won’t be “good enough” any more. To stop working is to begin to live in a different kind of time where time is not money, but a gift. We can begin to see the world around us and become more aware of nature and its gifts, given not through our own efforts or because we deserve it, but freely available to enjoy–a kind of grace to open our eyes to.

We can point to practical reasons to step away from work. For example, recent brain research teaches us that taking time out from a project we are working on allows the creative mind to work at a different level. Aha moments often occur during these times when we’re not intentionally working on a project. Since I’m between creative projects right now, some serious downtime could help me think of how to start my next project. Rest also helps the brain to restore itself.  Scientific American’s article, “New Hypothesis Explains Why We Sleep” suggests that when we sleep, the synapses in our brains weaken, possibly so that they won’t become “oversaturated with daily experience and from consuming too much energy.” This, scientists believe, helps to aid memory.  Rest strengthens us! More important than downtime being useful for the creative mind and memory, however, is the fact that we need rest so we can reconnect with our bodies and remember the importance of being.

As pointed out in this interesting video on materialism from the Center for a New American Dream, our culture has an imbalance in looking to materialism and consumerism as a way of trying to meet what are essentially emotional needs. A more satisfying way of living might be to take time to build community and meet with friends–to build deeper connections through conversation so that we know in our hearts that we truly matter to others. Consumerism and materialism breeds a sense of lack. Time with friends breeds a sense of community and belonging, allowing us to feel more content.  We can also take quiet time for ourselves that enables us to restore our inner selves so we have a self who can continue to give ourselves to others and to our work with an open heart.

If taking time out of the week for rest and restoration calls out to you, know you’re not alone. The Sabbath Manifesto, is a group that encourages others to unplug and get out and enjoy life by getting outside, meeting with others to eat, light a candle, and find ways to give back. The Abbey of the Arts, is an online community directed by Christine Valters Paintner, whose aim is” to nurture contemplative values, compassion and creativity in every day life.” One of those values is to “commit to finding moments each day for silence and solitude, to make space for another voice to be heard, and to resist a culture of noise and constant stimulation.”  When you think about it, it’s a radical thing to do.  Learning to let go and to regularly step inside the place of being can be one of the great life gifts you give yourself.  It is a rare and wonderful gift indeed. Savor it.

Presence, spirtuality

Gifts of the Hands

Hard work is good for us. It teaches us the value of what we have and it builds character. My mother used to say, “Do something hard every day. It builds character.” There are so many things to learn and do in life–the world is full of a myriad of possibilities, and it’s satisfying to rise every day with a purpose set before you. Something I’ve been paying more attention to recently, though, is the need to let go of goals and take time to nurture being. Brian McLaren, in his book, Finding Our Way Again, the Return of the Ancient Practices, talks about seven ancient practices in the Abrahamic faith traditions: fixed-hour prayer, fasting, Sabbath, the sacred meal, pilgrimage, observance of sacred seasons, and giving. These life practices, McLaren calls humane practices, because they “help us practice being alive and humanely so. They develop not just character but also aliveness, alertness, wakefulness, and humanity.” Sometimes I get caught up in the pressures of goals I set for myself or the pressures or obligations I have or perceive I have related to work. Too often I let my mind dwell on this concern or that, then the pressures close in, and I fall into a place of forgetting that what happens in my life is not all up to me. If I can consciously accept limitations, and live with being incomplete, it can help me learn that I will never actually “arrive” in life. All of life is process, stretching, growing. My task is to grow more and more into myself. Inner fulfillment or satisfaction will not come through competition or through other’s vision of who I am or should be.

So, taking some time each day to purposefully go slow seems especially important when living in a fast paced or competitive environment. McLaren explains, “That’s why, through the ages, people have tried to find ways to tend themselves, to do for their souls what exercise does for the body, or study for the minds. Through these character exercises, they give birth to the person they are are proud of becoming, the person they are happy to be, the one who is trying to be born in them every day…Spiritual practices are actions within our power that help us narrow the gap…They are about not letting what happens to us deform us or destroy us…(They are) about realizing that what we earn or accumulate means nothing compared to who we are.”

Married to someone who loves to cook, I’ve learned to understand how preparing food for others is an act of love. Years of practice making a zesty salsa with the perfect balance of tomatoes, onion, lemon and cilantro, or hours in the kitchen making foccacias to get the perfect texture in the bread, sewing up the deboned turkey and filling it with oyster, cornbread, nuts, celery and pomegranate stuffing–none of this is fast food. It’s not meant to be, and taking it slow–the physicality of slicing the tomatoes, cutting the nuts, getting your hands in the dough, moves food out of the realm of a commodity of something that is bought and paid for, and back into realm of relationship. Greens in your hands as you run them through the water, you think of those have grown the food, and you become aware of your interconnection to others, to the web of life itself–the force of life that blesses us over and over with the earth’s gifts.

Today in the middle of a very busy time, we took time to have a gathering at our house, and tonight we are preparing a turkey for a gathering of friends for a belated Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. It can take years to make a good salsa or bean dip that makes people stand by your table for hours, but it’s a happy thing to notice when it happens. All week, all year we work hard, then we take time out to be with others, believing that somehow the rest of the work that’s pressing in and needs to be done we will somehow get done. We consciously choose to let time move slowly. The work can wait for a few hours or a day. Instead, we spend time pouring love into the food we make food to share with others, we spend time in the presence of friends.

Michael's focaccia
Michael’s focaccia

Feasting is a part of every culture and every religious tradition, but every day we can make our meals as a conscious act of connection to the earth and of gratitude for each other. Cooking a meal with the hands is a gift of love.