poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

A Visit from the Dalai Lama and 10,000 Shades of Blue

More important than what was recorded, these evenings
deepened my life: they framed every event

or thought and placed it with care by the others.
As time went on, that scribbled wall—even if
it stayed blank—became where everything
recognized itself and passed into meaning.

–William Stafford, “Keeping a Journal”

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“The next hot job in Silicon Valley is for poets,” says the Washington Post today, describing how the tech industry is working to improve the interactive quality of the voice and personalities behind the artificial intelligences we interact with on the Internet, like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. To do this, software engineers are turning more and more to poets, fiction writers and comedians in a new wave of jobs in artificial intelligence. Additionally, an article in Motherboard, Robots are coming for our poems,”now two years old, examples are given of robots co-authoring Shakespearian sonnets and haikus. An android learns the algorithms of language you give it, makes predictions about what words will be chosen over others, and uses these to write a poem. I don’t know the definition of “co-authored” as it is used in the context of the robot working together with a human, or how many trials it took to get a poem that feels cohesive and reads like a poem, but I enjoyed the sonnet, as well as a haiku a robot created that are included in the article.

Sasha Chapin’s article, “When robots write poetry,” written this past February, also describes how the algorithms are used that enable robots to write poetry. More interesting, however, is Chapin’s statement at the end of the article, “The coming artificial beings may love good poetry for the same reason we do: how it can seem to bridge the boundaries between consciousnesses. But they will possess a consciousness we couldn’t possibly understand. And when they write poetry, it will not be for us.”

While I question whether robots have consciousness, as Chapin implies, there is a difference between a living, human mind raising questions and pondering life and poetry artificial intelligence produces using algorithms, rather than conscious reflection. The Atlantic reports that number of non-book readers has tripled since 1978. Currently, I’m preparing to present a week long workshop on poetry and poetry writing with middle schoolers at ACS Hillingdon International School, a school just outside of London. As I consider what those students’ interests and concerns might be, I’m turning over the question in my mind, why is it we write for purposes other than to carry out necessary tasks, and in particular, what value does writing poetry hold?

Though  it may be helpful to learn that the job market is currently opening up for poets and fiction writers in the tech industry, there are deeper reasons to write and to read poetry, and these have to do with the poetry’s potential to connect us to the physical world, notice its mystery, and value its presence. If you’ve not seen this short TED talk about the worldwide telescope, it’s worth viewing. What Google earth has done to map the world is now being pieced together for the universe, enabling you to map your own virtual tour of the universe with images currently available. When I watched the talk and viewed the images, I felt humbled by the wonder of all that is—the immensity of creation and the miracle that I’m alive on this planet, existing amidst it all. Writing poetry is the opportunity to reflect on that wonder. Perhaps it’s interesting that a robot can write poetry, but how much more amazing it is to experience the poetry writing process yourself—to try and put words to what it means to be alive in this moment. As Salman Rushdie describes, “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” That’s a challenging task, but certainly a valuable one.

Recently, the Dalai Lama visited the school where I work. During his talk to the student body, he repeatedly emphasized humanity’s interconnectedness with each other and with the natural world. A compassionate heart and a calm mind go together, he explained, and a disturbed mind affects the body. There’s hope for a more compassionate world if we make an attempt, he said. With anger, there is no hope, and he admonished us to make an effort.
With effort, this century can be a happy, a peaceful century, he explained. When there is too much stress, violence comes. Human rights violations are first emotional problems, he stated. Violence comes as a consequence of emotional problems. “We have to make an effort to promote more warm heartedness so there will be no opportunity to kill or bully, because we take care. No one can survive without community,” he said. Selfishness destroys your own happiness. “Society is the basis of our happy life, so we have to take care of society. West needs East. Southern and Northern worlds need each other—not this notion or that,” he said. Around us we see so much fear and distrust, yet friendship is dependent on trust, and trust is dependent on compassion, he explained. Narrow mindedness and shortsightedness brings disaster.

In aiming to build a compassionate world, poetry is a valuable asset. Poetry nurtures our inner life and helps us to understand what it means to be human and to stand in relation to the world around us. Robots might be able to write, but we are human. We want to know what that means—what we can give to the world to meet its deep need, and thereby meet our own deep desire to feel we belong in this world by knowing what we can give to it. Writing poetry, in its aim to find the best words to describe experience, requires observation and awareness, as well as reflection. Because the problems we face both individually and collectively are complex, the practices of observation, awareness are especially needed. Deep reflection, allows us to work out our connections to each other and to the natural world, along with the disconnects we experience in trying to do so. Deep reflection is the territory poetry explores.

Before Old French gave the English language the word “orange,” English speakers referred to the color as yellow-red, ġeolurēad in Old English, according to, Matt Soniak, writer for Mental Floss. It’s not that orange didn’t exist before we had the word, but having the word created a clearer picture of the idea. Tech Insider the origins of another color, blue in this video, demonstrating that without a word for something we physically experience, such as the color blue, people have significant difficulty recognizing it. This phenomena emphasizes the benefit of both verbalizing what we are experiencing, as well as reflecting on those experiences in written words. Additionally, because languages have their own music and mirrors, reflecting the world in different ways, speaking and writing in more than one language expands the potential language has to enable us all to better understand ourselves and our interconnection to others and the world around us. If we are going to find how to live together peacefully, as the Dalai Lama suggested is both possible and important, we need tools to do so. Writing and poetry in specific, is a wonderful tool to use for this purpose. As T. S. Elliot said, “Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”

It’s possible that one could sit with pen in hand or type at the computer, and plod mindlessly through a series of steps or items and produce writing. I’ve read this kind of writing before. But if taken to heart, writing can be a tool that enables the mind to unwind its string of thoughts and make patterns that hold meaning and change our lives both individually and collectively. Poetry and literature is our attempt to explore the meaning of being human. As Barry Lopez, explains, “I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one’s life. Wherever I’ve traveled–Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan–I’ve found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us.” We need stories, and poetry. They are our thread through the labyrinth of existence.

While diving in the Maldives a few weeks back, the boat I was living on passed over and past 10,000 shades of blue—blues we have no word for. I found a wonderful color palate for different shades of blue, along with their names on Wikipedia, but though many colors are represented here, it falls far short of what the eye actual sees—the way the white-blue sky bends down into the sea and becomes the sea, for example, or the depth of blue reaching for infinity behind the shoals of yellow, white and black banner fish, along with all the subtle gradations between shades of turquoise as water shallows and then brushes against white sand shores. To try and name any of the experiences we have is to call them, again, into existence, and to share with others what moves us, and what is meaningful–this is what poets aim to do. It is the focus and goal of their efforts, even though what we hold most precious is often beyond naming. “The power of poetry,” says Michael Lewis, “is the ability to express the inexpressible, and to express it in terms of the unforgettable.”

If we are to build a compassionate world, we need to be able to recognize how to nurture our lives and wellbeing of the world around us. We need to be able to reflect on our lives. In his poem, “Keeping a Journal,” William Stafford, identifies the value of writing in his closing lines when he explains how through the process of writing he found his journal to be a place where “everything/recognized itself and passed into meaning.” To speak with an open heart in a journal or a poem takes courage, but in doing so, we can gain insight into ourselves and our relationship to the world, insight that can enable us to transform the way we live and interact. Writing poetry helps open our eyes and reach for meaning. As David Whyte says in his poem, “The Opening of Eyes”

That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.

We write and our lives are deepened. This is what is important about poetry—it teaches us how we can live.

pilgrimage, place, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

To Bodhgaya and Beyond

The great story weaves closer and closer, millions of
touches, wide spaces lying out in the open,
huddles of brush and grass, all the little lives.

–William Stafford, from “Over in Montana”

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Buddha on the side of the temple at Bodhgaya

Bodhgaya, India, is the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment after forty-nine days of meditation under the ficus, otherwise known as the Bodhi tree, a tree related to the mulberry. Because Bodhgaya is a place of historical significance,  I wanted to visit it while living in India. Two weekends ago, I had that opportunity.

The Bodhi tree is a ficus religiosa . Its leaves, even without a breeze, are said to be continuously moving. “O Ashvatha, I honor you whose leaves are always moving…,” says a verse in the Bhagavad Gita about the tree. Gods are thought to live in the leaves causing them to move, and thus the official name, ficus religiosa–the religious fig. The name fits, in particular for the bodhi tree in Gaya. Though the tree standing in Bodhgaya now isn’t the actual tree the Buddha sat under, it’s a relative. Sanghamitta, the daughter of the 3rd century BC Indian emperor, Ashoka’s, brought a branch of the original tree the Buddha sat under to Sri Lanka and planted it in Anuradhapura. The original tree was destroyed, how is uncertain. There are various versions (see more here) of how this occurred, though most accounts state that the a shoot from the Sri Lanka tree was brought back to India and replanted at the original spot.

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Bodhi tree, Gaya, India, where the Buddha attained enlightenment

Bodhgaya is a holy site and a pilgrimage destination. One of the things that struck me the most while in Bodhgaya, was how many distinctive faces I saw as I sat near the tree, observing as people made their circumambulation around the shrine. Many visiting were monks and nuns performing ritual prayers, but others were like me, there to stand in a place considered holy, and to absorb what it had to share. For all the crowds, the place still manages to have a sense of calm, probably because so many there are intent on doing their prostrations and sending up prayers.

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It struck me how similar people are in the way they express devotion or carry out holy acts, though they are from different religions. Burning candles and incense, offering prayers, bowing down, ringing bells, bringing flowers,–these are commonly used in acts of worship in many religions. Bodhgaya attracts a wide spectrum of people from Buddhist countries, but people from many walks of life and countries in various parts of the world had come to stand in the spot where so many before have journeyed to send up their hearts’ longings–or possibly to set them down. Possibly, however, some pilgrims had come simply with an openness, willing to receive whatever understanding their minds brought to them while standing there, listening to their heart’s inner whisperings.

I’ve been learning about Buddhism, since arriving in India nine years ago, and somehow I expected to feel moved while standing in such a holy place. Instead, I found myself noticing people’s feet, and thought of the many journeys people had taken to arrive at this place where our lives briefly intersected with a smile or a short glimpse.

Once surrounded by forest, Bodhgaya it is now a city with apartments, shops, restaurants and hotels. To imagine the place as it was when the Buddha spent time there requires you to stretch your imagination. People continue to come to this place, because they wish to make a connection with the long chain of seekers, hoping to gain insight into how to live.

Pilgrimages are taken for many reasons, but one important reason is to the desire to expand beyond the boundaries one currently lives in– to break through the skin into something new, perhaps as the snake does when it sheds its old skin because it has grown bigger. Thoreau, purposefully set out to let his soul grow bigger when he spent a year living outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts on Walden Pond and wrote his famous meditations on living known as Walden. Thoreau speaks to the those of us who have felt the desire to step out of the hamster cage of events that keep us continuously rolling, and who long to live meaningfully. “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour,” Thoreau asserts, and we are led to explore the idea that every life is worthy contemplation, of spending time reflecting on what our actions mean. This act isn’t meant to benefit just a few lucky ones who can take the time off to do so. We can do this daily as when we give our full attention to whatever it is we are doing, wherever we are walking or sitting. Listening deeply to those we are in relationship, listening to the world we walk through allows us to sense the holiness of life itself underneath the surface of all that is.

While wandering through the temple grounds at Bodhgaya, I read a quote on a plaque. The quote’s first portion eludes me, but the second portion read something like “Now I enter the forest of my old age,” and it struck me as a metaphor for transformation in general. We may have been walking through a plain before where things could be easily seen, but when we change, we enter a forest. Things aren’t necessarily easily found or understood. Perhaps we are even purposefully looking for a different path from the paths we once knew or walked. A whole new life can appear. As we age, though, I think of forests in the fall, flames arising from the myriad leaf faces, the sugar inside burning before the leaves let go to the earth.

Thoreau chose to go to the woods, and set aside a year to live in a small cabin on Walden Pond. Many of us can’t do that, or at least don’t feel it’s possible until reaching such an age where regular work ceases. Thoreau bravely took time out to consider to look for life before old age.  Thoreau chose to live simply during his year away, in order to find what it is that matters in life. He went to the woods, he said “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 did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” This is a brave statement. It requires an openness to life, to what you might understand if you listen to the world around you, including listen to the physical world.

The Buddha, as well, encouraged people to let go of their attachments in order to find life. We may be born in one place, have a particular history or speak a certain language, but we need each other’s differences. The interconnected nature of our physical environment itself demonstrates this reality. Other people in other places with perspectives different from our own have experiences worth listening to, insights worth understanding. I notice fear is such a strong motivating force in the media but it creates so much suffering. The Buddha’s path began with a question, “How do I relieve suffering?” What if we were to live differently? What if everyday in recognition of life’s dearness we deliberately asked “How do I live so I learn what life has to teach me today? How do I live today so that I don’t discover when I come to die that I’ve never lived?”

James Wright, in his poem “The Blessing,” shows the reader what it is like to live attentive to the details before us as he describes his encounter with ponies off the side of highway in Rochester, Minnesota who “have come gladly out of the willows/ To welcome my friend and me.” The ponies greet he and his friend with “shy bows,” then begin munching the grass again, as they have been all day. As the speaker of the poem carefully observes them, he becomes aware of the wonder breathing beneath the experience, “…Suddenly I realize/ That if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into blossom.” We become more than we are when we let ourselves experience that we are connected to all that is.

May we all break into blossom.

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poetry, spirtuality

Awaiting a Renaissance of Wonder, Varanasi’s Portal

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Ganges River, Varanasi

I AM WAITING 

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting

a rebirth of wonder

(See the full poem here)

Days before leaving for the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, I read Ferlinghetti’s poem from his book, Coney Island of the Mind. The poem ends, “and I am awaiting/ perpetually and forever/a renaissance of wonder.”  Ferlinghetti repeats a variation of these words at the end of each stanza, and since reading them, I can’t get the poem out of my mind, especially since visiting Varanasi where you don’t have to turn a corner to be surprised by wonder. Wonder walks down every street, floats down the river, and fills the sky with light and smoke. The Celts believed there are certain places on earth where the veil between heaven on earth is so thin that you can see through to the other side. Varanasi is such a place.

A city inhabited for 5,000 years, Varanasi is a stoop-backed, broken down, broken open ancient place where life, death, joy and suffering live openly side by side. Its narrow, (approximately) four foot wide streets spill over with foot traffic, broken brick, refuse, water, cows, cow pies, motorcycles, bicycles, and pilgrims, all hoping to move. Waiting in long lines winding through the humid streets in 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) degree heat holding offerings of flowers, rice and red tika powder, pilgrims wait for hours to enter temples. Though it might not fit my ideal of how I want heaven’s portal to look or be, Varanasi embodies how things likely come to be at the end of one’s life: poor–left with nothing in the end but our failing bodies, bent down in humility, and waiting to be released into the elsewhere. Varansi is one of India’s most holy cities. Though there is suffering most everywhere you look in India, suffering, for Hindus, meets its end on the banks of the Ganges. To die in Varanasi and have your ashes cast into the river is to enter moksha–to never have to be reborn again into the cycle of birth and death. Death after death, millenia after millenia, this 2,525 km/ 1,569 mile river absorbs the ashes of a multitude of suffering and more.

For the Hindus, the Ganaga (Ganges) is sacred–a goddess. According to the World Wildlife Federation, “Approximately 1 in 12 people in the world (8%) live in its catchment area…Together the Brahmaputra and Ganges water sheds span 10 biomes and contain the widest diversity of all large river systems.”The river supports somewhere around 500 million people. Nevertheless, “Every day, over 3 billion litres of pollution, mostly toxic chemicals and untreated sewage, enters the Ganga, putting countless lives at stake,” Reports the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. Watch this 20 minute National Geographic Live, Chasing Rivers, Part 2, The Ganges, and you will see a fascinating and  fantastic insightful, and powerfully engaging look into the Ganges, its social and religious significance, as well as the environmental issues surrounding it.

The word sacred means to be set apart, while the English word, holy, or whole, uninjured “that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be transgressed or violated,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Alongside this river of life flowing down from the high Himalaya and our desire to be released from suffering, flows the river of our industrialized and overpopulated world with its humming electric wires and ever charging lithium batteries in our iPads and cellphones. Sewage, chemicals from leather production–all go into the river, the goddess who can take it all, because she is, after all, a goddess, is the thought of some.

At some point while growing up, I remember hearing that in days gone by people didn’t place anything on top of their Bibles because they were thought to be sacred. Similar to this notion of treating the sacred differently, when visiting an ancient temple on the island of Samos in Greece, I recall being asked to remove my shoes because the area was still considered sacred, even though people no longer worshiped the gods that were once housed in that temple. What makes something sacred involves an awareness, a setting apart and a setting aside. We do this with portions of the earth that we decide are special in some way. The Monterrey Bay in California is one of these areas. After decades of abuse resulting from pollutants and over fishing was made into a marine sanctuary, the Monterrey Bay is now a place where sea life thrives, and where “Every summer, a vast array of animals travel thousands of miles to reach the waters of the Monterey Bay — home to one of the biggest wildlife gatherings on Earth,” according to the Mercury News article, ‘”Big Blue Live’: Monterrey Bay to star in its own ‘Reality Show.'” (You can see more about this documentary here.) In the Monterrey Bay, you can find “humpback whales, blue whales, sea lions, dolphins, elephant seals, sea otters, great white sharks, shearwaters, and brown pelicans,” says the PBS, who, together with BBC, is creating the Big Blue Live documentary on this wildlife gathering. The sacredness of something requires our recognizing its sacredness and treating it as such. This is what has happened in the Monterrey Bay, and it has made a difference. Treating something as sacred can include holy practices in offerings of flowers and light, but as understanding of our interaction with the world grows, it can also include doing other things such as protecting the life in a bay or river and that demonstrate our respect.

According to the The World Bank’s site on “The National Ganga River Basin Project,” domestic sewage accounts for 70-80 percent of the wastewater that flows into the Ganga, Industrial effluents add another 15 percent, with far-reaching impacts on human and aquatic health due to their toxic nature. And, in the absence of adequate solid waste management in most cities, mounds of uncollected garbage add to the pervasive pollution.” Along with prayers, ritual bathing and offerings, waste water management, controlling industrial pollution, and making and enforcing guidelines regarding development along the banks, are all things people can do to show their recognition of the river as sacred. To keep it whole and healthy, the Ganges, like the Monterrey Bay can be treated like a sanctuary.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Hopkins, in his poem, “God’s Grandeur.

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

Nowadays, National Geographic discusses the dead zones in our oceans. If you look at the facts regarding places like the Ganges, and other rivers around the world, you will notice everywhere the blight we’ve left upon God’s grandeur. When we no longer recognize a reality larger than ourselves, God’s grandeur gets harder and harder to see. We aren’t choosing to notice it. As a result, we lose an understanding of what is sacred. In this context, Nietzche’s idea that man’s self-centeredness had killed God makes sense. If you look at the worst polluted places in the world the pollution is created because of human action. In Varanasi, the amount of wood needed to cremate bodies in Varanasi causes deforestation, according to Living On Earth’s article “Ritual and Deforestation in India.” To burn a body takes about a 1,00o pounds of wood. It’s also true that soap used for washing in the Ganga’s water causes pollution. The bigger polluters, however, are industries. If industries do not recognize the sacred that is because those who own and control them are looking to see profits instead of God’s grandeur. Religion could provide a motivation, but regulations are needed.

In his poem, “Poet as Fisherman,” Ferlinghetti writes about the fisherman out on the sea, looking out and “listening for the sound of the universe,”

Whole poems whole dictionaries
rolled up in a thunderclap
And every sunset an action painting
and every cloud a book of shadows
through which wildly fly
the vowels of birds about to cry

The earth speaks to us when we are listening. When nearing death, Hindus want to go down to the water–the earthly element of transformation. Something in us intuitively understands our connection to the earth helps us understand the sacred. Entering the water, the body lets go and opens itself to the ultimate transformation–death. Birth in death, death in birth. This is always the way in India–opposites are bound together–so perhaps out of the death of rivers, an awareness can be born: the need everywhere for people to find the sacred again. We find that awareness, at least in part, through choosing to set aside our self-centeredness, and to recognize the intrinsic value of nature and our connection to it.

Through the centuries, poets have drawn nature as a central source of inspiration and metaphor. Poetry explores where the sacred touches the earth, touches the heart. Our current inability to recognize the sacredness of the earth seems connected in my mind to why poetry is so little read or valued today. Buddhist affirm the interdependence of all things, Hindus, that there is a bit of God in all things. The Psalms state, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.” When you love someone, you show him or her respect. You take care of the person. You listen, you look for a way to touch the person, to connect. We barely look at the night sky these days, however, or notice the moon, what the trees have to say in the afternoon, or notice the way “the sun streaming down/ in the meshes of morning,” as Ferlinghetti describes dawn in his poem, “Uses of Poetry.” Poetry, like dance or art, can help us connect again, help us find the sacred.

My last morning in Varanasi, I rose before dawn to travel down river to watch a ceremony honoring the sun. Men dressed in magenta silk stood on risers facing east. Lifting brass cobras with flames leaping from their bellies, the men swung them in slow, repeated circles while at the side of the audience women sang hypnotic mantras with humming vowel sounds, interrupted in intervals by the men on the risers ringing handbells for minutes at a time. Gradually, the night’s dark turned to dusky apricot, then blazing gold. The sun emerged above the horizon, and struck its rays across the water. There, amidst the funeral pyres and bathers, the worshipers raised their arms to hail surya, the sun, the life giver. I thought of the intensity of the previous day’s heat, the struggle and effort so many took to come to this city, the effort it takes so many in India just to live. As I watched a man slowly row his boat across the illuminated gold water, I breathed in the smoke of death from the funeral pyres, the loss, the heat, and breathed it out again with a new awareness and respect for the sun, for the earth. The ceremony had made the space between this world and the next a little thinner. In spite of the earth’s worn and weary state, in this city, its beauty is still visible.

If we want to rediscover the sacred, perhaps something in us, in our way of living must die in order for us to receive it. For a little while, I am here on this planet. With my words, with my whole self, I am trying to learn how to listen to the world, and as Ferlinghetti states, “I am perpetually awaiting/ a rebirth of wonder.”

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Streetside well, Varanisi
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.