community, spirtuality

What Makes Love Last?

-how fortunate are you and i,whose home  is timelessness:we who have wandered down  from fragrant mountains of eternal now  to frolic in such mysteries as birth  and death a day(or maybe even less)

E.E. Cummings, “stand with your lover on the ending earth-” 

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Redwoods, Nisene Marks State Park, CA

I will soon be celebrating the marriage of one of my family members that has lasted several decades, 40 years to be exact, and I’ve been giving some thought as to what it is that enables a love relationship to endure over such an extended period of time. When my parents were in their 60’s, I interviewed them about their lives, asking how it was they met and married. My parents married during the Great Depression and it was a simple affair–no party, no special wedding dress, no photos. It was a regular day except they got married, and that event changed their lives. Neither of them emphasized the romantic aspect of their relationship in relating their history to me, and yet I never doubted that they loved each other and were committed to the relationship even though there was a period of years that my father lived away from home managing jobs in other states and came home once or twice a month. What was it that enabled their love to endure through time? Communication seemed an important key to my parents’ connection to each other. I remember hearing the low hum of my parents’ voices through the walls in the mornings and after we children went to bed. There was also a a commitment to the relationship in the bigger, long-term sense–that they were there for each other and for their children, even when apart. During WWII Dad worked in Hawaii, and also worked out of town for a number of years when I was in junior high and high school–but my parents wrote each other letters frequently and regularly made trips to be with each other. Dad wrote stories and poems that he shared with us as well.

My parents were also committed to being there for people in the larger community–to helping neighbors, friends and other people that they came in contact with or learned about that needed help. Dad built and repaired things for many people, and brought people turkeys at holidays, for example, while Mom sewed quilts and clothes for others. My parents didn’t live simply to improve their own lives, they contributed to their community. Helping others was an important part of living. Together they embodied what Martin Seligman in his study of the science behind of what creates a meaningful life has found–that people who feel their lives offer them a deep sense of meaningful fulfillment are those that use their personality strengths for a purpose larger than themselves. Much of this kind of caring, this love, can be carried on without words. It is a way of being together. Love is given in the tone inside and underneath the words, and is the mood inside the actions spoken with the body. As one of my friends told me, “A lot of what love is is simply showing up–being there for each other.”

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Forest Path, Nisene Marks State Park, CA

Being there for each other. What does that look like? The Buddhist leader and monk from Vietnam Thich Nhat Hahn in an interview with Oprah, explained when asked if he meditates every day, that he is also meditating “while drinking, while talking, while writing, while watering our garden, it’s always possible to practice living in the here and the now.” (Read more on the Oprah website “Oprah Talks to Thich Nhat Hahn” here.) Thay (as Thich Nhat Hahn is also called) goes on to say that when sitting with someone, “Darling I am here for you,” is his mantra. He explains. “When you love someone, the best you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there? ” This attitude of a listening heart is what I mean by showing up for the ones you love: in your full being you are intentionally, consciously present. You are listening not just to the other person’s words and actions, but to his or her heart, to the silences and things the person can’t quite articulate, even if you’re not sure what everything means that you are hearing or noticing. You are present for the other with your full self, and you work to know who you are so you can give yourself in a caring, open way.

Pamela Dussault in her The Huffington Post article, “5 Essential Steps to a Happy, Enduring Relationship” suggests that couples need to know their purpose for being together. The base for the relationship rather than focused on fear or the desire to control, has the focus of sharing life of companionship. Also, she describes that enduring relationships are those where partners have the ability to give and receive without having expectations. Lastly, she says partners in happy relationships connect with each other both emotionally and spiritually, appreciating the partner’s uniqueness.  A key, she suggests is that “your partner must be seen, loved, appreciated and cherished for who they are, as they are.”

Romantic love has been central to the idea of marriage in the Western world since the time of the Middle Ages and the troubadours when knights accomplished their deeds for the love of their lady. While enduring love can include romance as well as traditions, negotiating between both passion and what makes a love stable, creating a relationship of lasting love encompasses a larger territory than romantic love or tradition alone. To ask what makes love endure is to ask what is the source or foundation of the love. To ask what creates love’s foundation is to ask what is it that makes love meaningful. To ask that is to ask what makes life meaningful, and to ask what makes a life. Is life just going through the days sharing food and shelter? Is it doing a sport or if talking about a relationship, is it participating in a sport or (any other activity) together? Is it having children together or accomplishing tasks at work? Certainly, these are parts of what life is, and some of these things could be called necessary elements of life, but if that were the whole of what it was, life could still feel empty. If life were composed of going through certain actions, or saying the right words at the right time in the right way, that also wouldn’t be enough to make one feel he or she was really living life.

E.E. Cummings’ poem at the start of this post begins with the line, “stand with your lover on the ending earth.” The earth is a physical object, and all objects wear out or wear down over time. At some point the earth and everything on it will end. Cummings begins this love poem in the awareness that all is at the “mercy of time.” We will die. The earth will die. But love is somehow beyond time. The home of all love abides in a mysterious essence beyond time. It is part of what Cummings describes as “the fragrant mountains of eternal now.” We frolic in the mysteries of birth and death, but acts done in love, living done with love, time where we sit with someone with the attitude and heart that communicates both with words or without them, “Darling, I am here for you,” that lives on in a place both in and beyond time. That love allows us a taste of eternity. Annie Lighthart’s, poem, “The Second Music,”  elaborates on this idea where describing the everyday events of life she says,

Now I understand that there are two melodies playing, one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard yet always present.

There is the world we live in–all the wondrous sights our eyes have seen, our ears heard, our bodies felt; the wide oceans with their ten thousand colors of blue, the forests of intense greens, the smiles of a child, birds in flight, clouds drifting by in the vast sky, the hollows and hills of everywhere, rain splashing on stone streets, the icy lace clinging to trees, the laughter of the ones we love, the last touch of a hand from one who is leaving us, all these experiences, and so many, many more wonders known while walking in this world, these are ours, and inside of them “If the truth of our lives is what it is playing,” Lighthart goes on to write, there is a “second music” that she stops to listen to that is underneath and through all these moments, sights, sounds and experiences. She ends the poem by saying “I set my ear to it as I would to a heart.” This is the love that is living–I could say hiding–inside of the physical world. We perceive it with the heart because what is known with the heart is what lives on. That is the love that endures–the part of life when we are fully present with another. Love that endures connects to this larger love. That is the love that weaves the world together.

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Bridge, Nisene Marks State Park, CA

Recently, we had a guest visiting our house who is approaching her 80th birthday in September. When I asked her what is something that age has taught her, she replied, “Your age isn’t who you are. You are more than body, emotions or thoughts, more than any of these or all of these together.” None of us loves perfectly. Loving someone, anyone, is more than what we do or say, more than time together, more than body or emotions shared. Love is a journey, just as marriage is a journey, a pilgrimage toward love. You have to get out there and walk the trail. Sometimes you take a road you think is the right one but you get off track. Sometimes you might walk a long way through dry, flat land. You walk in rain and sun. You walk up hill. Sometimes you get tired. Nevertheless, love begins each day living in attitude of walking together. You walk and you listen to each other. Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. Now put the foundations under them.” This is the work of enduring love: you practice being present in small moments (and most of life is lived in those small moments, the daily acts) so that we will be able to be present for the big moments when they come. Our giving ourselves to learn to walk together and to listen to each other is what carries marriage across the threshold into the sacred and allows us to taste what is eternal.

place, poetry, spirtuality

Going Wild–Walking Out Into Nature

“Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.”– Wendell Berry

In a few weeks I will be back home in California and able, once again, to walk out my door onto the earth and stand in the garden. I will pick berries and pull weeds, prune and plant. Growing a garden connects us directly to the earth. To garden is to learn something of what the earth needs and to care for it–to have a relationship with the earth and to love it. I miss that garden, that particular piece of earth. If earth is our mother, then I am its child, and sometimes I just want to go home–home to that particular landscape that looks and smells like home, where I have dug and weeded and planted, have walked many times–where I’ve given the trees names. When I go home, I will look out my window to see trees and mountains. I will be surrounded by nature. What a gift that is to the soul; what a pleasure to walk through greenery in forests and wild places.

But all this is still a few weeks away. For now, I am still in India. Last week was labor day holiday, and I took a short trip with friends to Musoorie, a city in the Himalaya foothills, a hill station resting at 6,500 feet, and place with roots from the time of the British Raj that is today popular with honeymooners. A walk along Camelback Road, brought views of iris growing wild on the forest covered hills, steep valleys, and the snowcapped Himalaya in the distance. We arrived during a rain storm, and the following morning, the sky was as blue as I’ve seen skies get in India. Tree leaves literally glowed in the light. This is the India I love to be in, the mountains, where the urban coat can be cast off, and the world’s natural form emerges. I felt myself alive again, filled with a sense of wholeness, looking out at the world in wonder.

Often after being out in nature, I feel more whole, as if I have returned to myself, as if in some odd way I’m being healed even though I may not have been particularly aware that I was “ill.”  Since returning to Delhi, I’ve come across an Atlantic Monthly article explaining new research showing how, as the article’s title says, “Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies.” People who can view nature from their windows after operations generally recover more quickly, for example. “The business of everyday life — dodging traffic, making decisions and judgment calls, interacting with strangers — is depleting, and what man-made environments take away from us, nature gives back,” reports Adam Alter. The theory for how nature does this is called Attention Restoration Therapy, Alter explains. Human made environments ramp up our attention. Nature, on the other hand, asks little of us, and therefore calms our attention. The Japanese, the article goes on to say, have long advocated what they term forest bathing– long walks amongst trees, breathing in the wooded air, and the research on the effects of this activity “compared with people who walked through urban areas, shinrin-yoku patients had lower blood pressure, lower pulse rates, and lower cortisol levels, a marker of reduced stress.” That’s pretty nice! You don’t have to go to Japan to experience forest bathing, however. People in California, are promoting this idea as well, and you can head out into any forest. The idea, according to Brian Wu of the LA Times, is to go slowly, not walking more than three miles in four hours, take rests as you like, drink water or green tea, read.

Going to the mountains, or going to the garden. As it turns out, gardening, too, is good for the soul. Sue, Stuart-Smith, in her Telegraph article, “Horticultural therapy: ‘Gardening makes us feel renewed inside,” suggest that when we plant seeds we interact with the earth in a way that binds us to the mystery of how a seed produces life and our minds connect that with the mystery of our own lives. When gardening, one learns the importance of cutting away and pruning, of digging and weeding–all metaphors for what we must do in our own lives if we are to nurture what it is we have as seeds within us that want to grows.

American culture seems filled with the notion of getting somewhere, setting goals, becoming somebody. We get caught in the stimulus, the distraction of competition. After a while, however, this all grows tiring or we can lose track of who are, what we care most about. We lose our zest for life and get caught up in trying to make our mark or make a living, when we’re not actually living very much. Instead, we are walking through one procedure to the next, only partly alive. Feeling this sadness, this loss, however can be a very good thing as it can lead us back to ourselves. Wendell Berry writes,

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,

we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

As Berry implies, obstacles and questions we don’t have answers for can help us find what makes us sing. When we open ourselves to the Mystery, or to mysteries bigger than our own life, we can experience how everything that is worth something in life isn’t necessarily connected to our effort or accomplishment. Our life stream wants to move from behind the dam that blocks it. It wants to flow, and confronting the question of why it isn’t can help us find they way to let our lives sing again.

The Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, in his book The Heart is Noble, writes, “The particular profession or job you do is not the most important factor…Whatever work you do, you have to give yourself opportunities to just be. Even if it is only once a day, you should find a moment to just be  yourself in the course of each day. This could be through a short period of meditation or quiet reflection in the morning or the evening, or in whatever way best suits you. The point is to reconnect with yourself. Otherwise, the whole day you are running around and busy, and it is easy to lose yourself. To guard agains this, you should make efforts to return to yourself and recollect what is essential for you.”

Whether it be forest bathing, gardening, or painting on pottery–as I have done this afternoon–whatever it is, let us find those things that return us to ourselves, that allow our hearts to sing so that when we come to the end of our day or days, we will find that we have lived, we have truly lived.

Beauty, creativity, spirtuality, Uncategorized

At The Edge of Emptiness

“Prayer begins at the edge of emptiness.”–Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Heschel’s words strike me because there are a lot of things I don’t have answers for. Aware of my smallness in face of the suffering around me every day, I stand at the edge of emptiness and cry out.

When riding out into traffic, I’ve started a practice of looking into beggars’ faces who come to my window, or when someone speaks to me in the market asking for money, or when I see who is suffering, a family living on the street, for example, also animals who suffer, and in my mind I say, “I wish you well.” It’s a kind of prayer, and though it’s not directly answering the needs they have, it’s a way to keep my heart open–to keep noticing even though I might not be able to help the person in the way they ask of me. I want to see their humanness, and to be reminded of my own weakness and vulnerability.

Certainly, even in the lives of the desperately poor, there also must be times of joy. Even so, the human need in Delhi, is great. All the arms reaching out, the eyes–the world’s needs are immense. This week Nepal has its worst earthquake since 1934. The suffering is enormous. It will take decades, to recover, life times to become new, and we feel the grief hanging in the air as we go about our day.

The poverty in this world is not made up of physical poverty only, however. There is poverty of spirit, poverty of heart, and this is where I think that those of us in the developed world have a great lack. Everywhere around us today, from psychologists like Martin Seligman and his ideas about flourishing, to religious leaders like Matthieu Ricard, people are talking about how to be happy. Even Pope Francis has come up with his list of 10 tips for a happier life such as taking time off to be with your family, and spending time in nature. People who study what makes us happy tell us that focusing on what brings us a sense of well being actually helps us to become happier, and of course that is a good thing. But sadness and melancholy are also a part of life, and experiencing sadness and melancholy can help us become more compassionate, as Courtney Stephens explains on this animated TED Ed lesson. We learn from our sadness how to be more human.

I don’t know how best to respond to the sadness in the world, the grief so many feel, but want to give something of myself to meet that need. One must start somewhere, however small. It’s the start that counts. It makes room for greater opening, and I know I need to open.

FullSizeRenderFor months now I have been working on poems on the subject of food. It has taken some time, longer than I expected because new ideas for poems keep surfacing. I am now nearing the end of the poems I want to write for this series. I hope I’ve written well enough that after putting the poems into a manuscript I’ll find a publisher so I can use the proceeds from its sale to give to an organization that helps prevent hunger here in India. I hope it will be of some good. In the process of writing these poems, I’ve also been rereading about creativity, and returned today to Rilke’s Letters To a Young Poet where I read,

“…Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

The need in India has been here for decades. It’s not going to go away in the near future. The sidewalk on the street where I live is in a perpetual state of change. It’s put together one month only to be torn up the next, a metaphor for my own incompleteness–of starting over, trying to make things work, change, to get things “right.” Whatever it is that causes that sidewalk to have to be torn up so often is a mystery. It’s just the way things are here. Likewise, whatever it is we are making or doing with our lives, it isn’t necessarily what we see on the surface. What’s really happening comes from a place far deeper, beyond the reach of our own understanding. I look into the face of my partner who I’ve known for decades now, and find him still a mystery, and stand in wonder. Who am I, I don’t even really know. Definitions, lists and examples aren’t enough to explain. Similarly, how can I in any way touch or meet the vast needs of a world as immense as India? I can’t. As Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 65,

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,IMG_4080
But sad mortality o’er sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O! none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

We are all frail and mortal. Beauty’s action may be no stronger than a flower, but still we need that flower. We all need to be touched, to be met, to be needed. So, I write on, my words, tiny splotches on computer screens of light wavering inside the colossal of India’s immensity, prayers of pale petals– ink floating down the Yamuna hoping to touch other lives.

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.

place, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Growing Older

A friend of ours will soon turn 50. We’ve known each other for years, and he will be having a party to celebrate. When my father turned 50, he let us all know he was half a century old. That seemed old at the time, but Dad didn’t really seem that much different than what he was when he wasn’t yet that age. When are people actually “old”? That probably differs from person to person, and from era to era, but something changes in the way you feel in the world when people perceive you as old.

In a capitalist culture where what’s new on the market drives people’s perception of what is “cool” and worth noting, old things are generally considered passé–out. People change their Facebook profile pictures sometimes daily. The new computer or phone model comes out and people discard the old one. The average American, for example, replaces his or her cell phone every 22 months, according to Scientific American. Following along with this mindset, Mother Nature Network reports that “[t]he U.S. produced 11 million tons of e-waste in 2012.” It’s expected to grow 33% by 2017.  Maybe the capitalist consumer perspective affects the way we look at old people and causes them to be seen similarly to old products. They aren’t “cool” anymore, and are put on the back burner or are tossed out, even though they still might have much to offer–and though throwing them out, so to speak, creates toxicity in the way we relate to each other.

Researcher on aging and consumption patterns, Michelle Barnhart from Oregon State University says on the University’s News and Research Communications site “Our society devalues old age in many ways, and this is particularly true in the United States, where individualism, self-reliance, and independence are highly valued.” This may account for why our thinking about older people is mostly negative, she suggests.

The general public’s thinking about old people is erroneous. Why should it be true that if you’re old, you’re obsolete as well–that your ideas and ways of thinking, perhaps even your being, doesn’t quite count for as much? As democratic societies, we say we value human rights, but how do we demonstrate the value of what older people give to society? The Guardian describes a study by the Royal Volunteer Society in the UK in 2011, and notes that older people are in fact an asset, not a drain to society. “Taking together the tax payments, spending power, caring responsibilities and volunteering effort of people aged 65-plus, it calculates that they contribute almost £40bn more to the UK economy than they receive in state pensions, welfare and health services.” In an effort to make visible the positive and tangible impact of the caring and volunteering that elderly people do, the study goes on to say that the “calculations on the net contribution of older people have been made by economic analysts SQW. It estimates that older people benefit the economy to a total of £175.9bn, including delivering social care worth £34bn and volunteering worth at least £10bn, compared to welfare costs of £136.3bn.” This is a considerable influence in monetary terms, even more so in human terms. Instead of fading away into irrelevance upon old age, the elderly make significant contributions to society–contributions that are not necessarily recognized.

Additionally, contrary to the cranky, negative stereotype many have of older people, elderly people are actually more adept than younger people in social emotional skills according to Helen Fields, in her article “What’s So Good About Growing Old” on the Smithsonian magazine’s site. Fields explains that, “Subjects in their 60s were better than younger ones at imagining different points of view, thinking of multiple resolutions and suggesting compromises.” It takes decades to learn how to manage social skills, Fields asserts, and older people are on the whole actually happier than younger people. Psychologist Laura Carstensen, at Stanford “led a study that followed people ages 18 to 94 for a decade and found that they got happier and their emotions bounced around less.” There is a stereotype that persists regarding older people, says Cornell sociologist Karl Pillemer, “and that stereotype is typically incorrect.”

Forgetfulness is something often associated with old age–forgetting the name of an author you read some time back, or the name of the book, the name of a co-worker, or a place visited. Billy Collins’ poem “Forgetfulness” describes a number of these incidents, and how little by little, the numbers, figures and names depart,

“as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.”

I love the way Collins’s poem brings us to a new view of forgetfulness–

“No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.”

In fact, some new research emerging might change the way we understand aging and the mind as well. NY Times blogger Benedict Carey, in a recent post, “The Older Mind is a Fuller Mind”, quotes the lead author of recent research about memory and aging, Michael Ramscar from the University of Tübingen in Germany, that puts into question how steep the age-related decline for cognitive processing is, as well as bringing into question some of the research measures cognitive scientists have used. According to this study, “the larger the library you have in your head, the longer it usually takes to find a particular word (or pair).” The amount of information in long-term memory might be affecting the retrieval of short-term memory. “It’s not that you’re slow. It’s that you know so much,” suggests Carey.

Quite a few years back when my husband and I first began living overseas, we used to often spend the evening with an older couple we worked with at a school in Turkey. They were probably 25 or more years older than us, but we loved being with them. They would share the unique foods they scoured the markets to find. We’d share stories, and laugh with them for hours. We traveled with them as well, driving up the Turkish coast to visit Troy, and then on up to Alexandropolis in northern Greece—the area where the Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey is traditionally believed to have lived. This older couple inspired us in our journey of reaching out to understand and explore other cultures, to step inside history, and to connect to it anew. They had a deep love for the culture we were living in, had returned to live in it a second time, and helped us to love it in all its variety and uniqueness. The role this older couple played in our lives was an important one, influencing the direction we moved into with our lives, and I am very glad for that friendship and its lasting effect on who we have become.

Old age might, for some, be seen like a foreign country, with different reference points and ways of living, thinking, and being. When we encounter older people, do we really see them? Do we notice them and allow ourselves to know them, and to learn from their perspectives? Age and death will surely come some day. How are we living now that will enable us to be the person we want to be when our own end comes? This is a question Joan Chittister explores in her book The Gift of Years. The pain of the wrongs that occurred when we were young is the thing older people must come to terms with, she says in the YouTubes, part 1 and part 2 about the ideas she presented in her book. We must go down into the innermost part of ourselves and learn how to find peace, she explains. Old age is the time to look at ourselves in the light, and come eye to eye with the mirror of who we are. “If we’ve been dishonest,” Chittister asks, “can we face the truth of ourselves? Can we see ourselves as the small part of the universe that we truly are, rather than the center? Can we speak our truths without having to be right?” Chittister says life isn’t about age. “It’s about aging well and living in to the gifts offered in every stage of life.” We all must come to terms with growing old. More than that, we can use our life to learn how to live well between whatever age we are, and whatever age it is when we realize, that “yes,” we are old now. Is it because it is hard to look closely at our interior selves that our culture has difficulty appreciating old age or valuing those who are older? The end time of life, Chittister says, is the time to “put down the remnants of the past and to learn from the present moment, and find it enough. It is the time to live with life as it is, and find it, too, is enough, to live with ourselves as we are and find it enough.” This is challenging, but something that seems worth doing at any age. Noticing, listening to, and cultivating friendships with older people seems a wise thing to do to set us on that path.

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.

pilgrimage, Reading, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Living Contentedly

20180913_183435-1-e1549430118152.jpgThis is the time of year when international school teachers begin to pursue jobs in new locations if they are planning to move to a new school the following school year. There is a lot of appeal to moving to a new school in a new country. It is exciting to explore a new culture, to enter into a new world that holds a different way of thinking, living and being as there are always valuable things to learn from other cultures, and living in one makes you examine your own life and values.

On the other hand, there are also good things to be said for staying in one place and going  deeper into the reality you are confronted with in the culture you are currently in? How can you learn what the place you are living has to teach you about yourself? I find it challenging to live in a city as big as Delhi, where to get out of the city takes a few hours, and where access to nature is limited. Something in me longs for a walk in the woods,  needs the opportunity to stare out at the sea spreading into endless space.  Something in those experiences feed me and reconnect me to Life, and help to restore me to wholeness. Nothing like that exists near me, however, and so the task is to learn how to be happy, truly content with the situation I am in, and that is challenging.

Sometimes the notion of moving to a new location slips into my mind, or going on a holiday, but in reality, doing these things would not bring me contentment in themselves, because they are only temporary solutions to the deeper need we all have of how to find contentment. Going on holiday or moving to a new situation could be an excellent thing to do, however, they are not a long term solution for living a contented life. Moving or going on a holiday would only mean trading some things I long for with a different set of things I long for.

No situation in life provides a person with perfect contentment, of course, or if it does, rarely does it last for long. Life has a rhythm of ups and downs. St. Paul said he had found that whatever state he was in he could be content. For most of us, learning how to be content in whatever situation we are found is a life long challenge. Taking on the perspective, however, that difficult situations can enable us to grow and can in fact help to teach us how to be content no matter what our outward situation is like, if we open ourselves to the lesson. That’s not always an easy lesson because it requires practice–consistent focused effort and attention over time. As a result, we would sometimes rather distract ourselves with something that will pump us up and make us excited about this or that. New things can be wonderful. They activate and energize our brains. If we are always in a state of excitement, however, we don’t know how to deal with the opposite side of that experience. We won’t know how to live normal, everyday life very well. We won’t be stable or content. We will always be swinging between high and low.

Our modern culture seems to be built around the idea that “too much is not enough,” as someone I know describes this perspective.  How do we be content with what is?  How do we focus on becoming more of who we are in the midst of a media driven world that constantly works on our emotions to make us feel that we are never quite right or enough, that we need to be who others say we need to be, that we need to keep our competitive edge in whatever it is we do in order to be taken seriously?

I just finished reading Robert A. Johnson and Jerry M. Ruhl’s book, Contentment.  The authors state that discontent is important for our growth.  Johnson and Ruhl are Jungian psychologists who suggest that we need to honor our discontent. “…if you can stand to live in paradox long enough, then transformation takes place and a new consciousness is born. This occurs when one has stopped trying to maneuver external reality so that it will work out as the “I” desires. Contentment, the authors say, requires energy, and we need to learn how to say “Enough is enough,” and they go on to name several things that people can practice to help them regain balance in their lives so they can live purposefully and become whole.

The first thing the authors mention that can help us on this path is to honor the sabbath.  “We all need a sabbath, whether we are religious or not. Without the pause of the seventh day (or sabbath), life simply becomes an indistinguishable blur and monotony rules…Don’t let duties and responsibilities from the week, even work around the house or social obligations, spill over and claim your energy on this day. Make it a priority to preserve an oasis of rest, contemplation, and spiritual renewal.” Keeping the sabbath is a challenging, radically uncommon thing to do in our culture. It goes directly against the thinking that more is better and affirms the idea that you can rest that what you need will be there for you when you need it. Rather than thinking that everything you have or do is totally from your own effort, you are trusting that you will have time, that things will work out. You are letting go of the control and setting aside the kind of thinking that everything you have is through your own efforts.

A second thing Johnson and Ruhl suggest is fidelity to the moment. The authors explain how St Benedict’s novices took the vow of  “fidelity to the moment.” Its purpose was to help those who have just begun their spiritual journey. The idea is to concentrate on whatever is directly before you in the moment. Give your full attention to it in what you say, do and think. My mother taught me as a child that doing the dishes can be a sacred act, if you do it with concentration and an open heart. Everyday acts can be holy, can be offerings of ourselves.

Another thing the authors suggest is to take some time to just be. Reduce the to do list. This is a challenging one, as lists can be never ending for people that are goal oriented. I am reminded of how Thoreau could sit in his doorway at Walden Pond all morning, absorbing the sun and watching the light, and feel it was a day well spent.

Attending to the heart is a further practice that brings contentment. The authors suggest that you find a quiet place, close your eyes, place your hand over your heart. Take some breaths then think of the things you’ve put your energy into during the week. Evaluate how each has added to or taken away from your contentment. Continuing to think of your list, shift your attention to your heart, and ask it what is required for contentment. What does your heart yearn for? Wait and listen, they suggest. Compare lists, and then consider investing some time, money, or energy into what your heart yearns for rather than what you head desires.

The Dalai Llama in his poem, “Never Give Up” says, “Too much energy in your country/ is spent developing the mind/ develop the heart. Tobin Hart, also talks about the importance of keeping children’s hearts open to wonder as they grow and is exploring more of how schools and educators might include practices that help young people learn how do this. The practices he suggests, such as deep listening, use of reflective questions, freewriting, use of poetry and concentrated language, guided relaxation, and other suggestions as well, are different ways of helping us attend to the heart.

Spending time in nature is further activity that can enable you to reconnect to what supports life in yourself. Take a walk in the rain, in the woods, by the sea, in a park. Listen to and watch the birds. Getting out of the door and on to your balcony for a few moments, if you have one, or just staring out the window and noticing what the leaves on a tree are doing, or growing a small plant in your window and taking care of it each day are all ways to spend time with nature in a small, simple way if you can’t easily go for a walk in the out of doors. Satish Kumar, when he was visiting Delhi, suggested that part of school children’s day should be spent in nature, caring for it, so that they learn to make the connection with nature. When we spend time with nature, we learn to feel our connection to it.

Find home. Consider what home means to you and find what the gift of your own home is. Johnson and Ruhl suggest. What is within the circumstances of your own life that is worth affirming as a treasure? We may search the world for our treasure but what we look for is often right in our own home. Like the scarecrow, tin man and lion in the Wizard of Oz, we carry with us what we most treasure, but perhaps we are not noticing what it is we have. How might we notice what it is we have in our home. The practice of noticing these things and also expressing gratitude for these things on a regular basis can help shift our perspective. Gratitude helps bring greater physical and mental health.

There are several other practices that Johnson and Ruhl suggest in their book, but I will post only these for now. The difficulties we confront in our lives are our teachers. They are our opportunity where we can practice how to take the opposites of our lives and put them in a new framework. We can approach them from a different angle, breaking old patterns perhaps, so we can see things differently and begin to live differently. I view it somewhat like what happens when writing. Sometimes  you have to let a draft sit for a time and go out and live, do something different, then come back to the piece and read it out loud or have someone else read it out loud, or you might need print it off. You have to do something different with the work you have made so that you can see it anew. Then you can revise what you’ve done and see where to go. It’s a back and forth process and it involves waiting and listening very carefully to the bigger picture of what it is you are trying to say or do. Life is like that too.  You put old problems in a new framework so you can learn how to change and become new. Then you persevere. Slowly, over time, like all normal growth processes, contentment grows. It is the work of our life, is why we are here. I am still learning.