Traveling Out to Travel In

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” One of the reasons I have chosen to live abroad is to be able to see the world from different perspectives. Walking in a different world can make you come face to face with the reality that what you may hold dear and precious others may not comprehend. Alternatively, you may be able to see that there is another way of living and being that makes very good sense in the context it exists, or perhaps a very good way of interacting in the world that you could benefit a great deal from if you followed that path.

Sometimes there comes a time, though, when you’ve been journeying out for a long time, and you realize it’s time to come home. Coming home, however, doesn’t always necessarily mean coming back to the same place. It could mean that you need to travel out in order to change. Change is a constant factor in our lives. Life is a river, an energy source that wants to flow, and we need to let it flow through us. We are meant to experience life’s wonder, and live in awareness of it. If we dam river, silt begins to build. Alternatively, if we siphon off all the water into a hundred channels, the river loses its energy flow. Similarly, sometimes coming home to yourself, means traveling out in a new direction, remaking yourself or removing from yourself the things that are blocking the water’s flow so that the silt that has been building up can enter the river and once again flood the land with the nutrient rich soil that allows life to grow.

A few months back I observed a snake hidden beneath the miner’s lettuce growing in the blueberry box in our garden. It sat very still as it hid beneath the shade even though I was weeding around the blueberry’s base. The snake was molting, shedding its skin that was too small for the snake’s body that wanted to grow. When we know it’s time to change, we may need to travel out on pilgrimage, so to speak, into a space without distraction, a place for walking and wandering where we can see ourselves differently and anew, where we can reflect on who it is we are or want to become. Like the snake beneath the miner’s lettuce, we need to be able to lie still long enough, that even though someone else may be pulling out the weeds around us, we can do the work of letting go our old skin so that the new skin can grow, and so we can grow into it.

“Before tourism there was travel, and before travel there was exploration,” wrote Paul Fussell, explaining that in exploration there isn’t a specific path set out. It’s an exploration, a discovery. The path to our new selves may not be a well lit path. How do you know the way? What is closing in behind you? What is opening before you? The children of Israel fleeing Pharaoh’s army as they left Egypt didn’t necessarily know the way through the wilderness to the promised land, but they left anyway. When they got to the sea, they didn’t know how they would cross the water. The way behind them was most certainly closed off, but the way before them opened, even though it appeared there was no way it could occur. Maybe the story is a metaphor, or maybe it’s what really happens to us when we set off into new territories in our lives. It takes courage to begin such a journey.

When we are young, we have marked points of transition, a driver’s license, graduation, college, a first job, marriage. When you grow older, there are no fixed points for transition, yet we all go through them. They are subtler, more fuzzy around the edges. Maybe we all need to invent ceremonies for ourselves, rituals that physically demonstrate the fact that like the snake in the garden, we are molting. We are changing, or have changed. We are entering a new era, we see things differently, or we want to–we want to understand how to re-envision who we are so we can integrate all we have been and done in our lives, what it is we have become so we can give it away.

Maybe during this transition we start to let go of things we have lived with. I’ve noticed how a number of people getting ready to make transitions clean out their closets and garages. It’s a natural part of moving, and in the process, we realize we don’t need everything we thought we did. We see newly that we can live with less and actually have more. What matters most are those we love, and how we can give away who we are, what we’ve taken our lifetime to become. As our eyes weaken, they are opened to the understanding that time is a kind of Holy Land, and we want to live in it by sharing it with others. We want to give away what it is we have created through the whole of our days so we can become ourselves, so we can become whole.

Thoreau, in his essay on walking describes the word saunter as those who were seeking the holy land, the “word is beautifully derived, ” he says, “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la saint terre” — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, ‘There goes a sainte-terrer’, a saunterer — a holy-lander.'” There isn’t enough sauntering in this sense of the word these days it seems, and yet I think we long for it even as the literal wilderness around us diminishes daily.  It would do us good to saunter out on literal walks, or interior ones, but walks where we wander out into a wilderness, where we create silent space in our minds and hearts, or even a small space where we can lie in the shade and do our work of molting. Moses, after all, lifted up the snake in the wilderness for the children of Israel, and when they looked on it, we are told they were saved. Those bitten by snakes did not die. Maybe we will not die either in the process of our transition, even though we fear such journeys, such changes.

Do you recognize that you are on a journey, or do you realize you’re getting ready for one? Eventually, we will die someday. That is a journey we must prepare for with smaller journeys out into the wilderness where we discover who we are and what we are here for. Time is passing. I ask myself, am I living the life I want to live so that when I get to the end of my life and am accountable for my days, I will know I have used them well? I want to have made of my life something that is beautiful, to give an offering back to the world as best I am able.

We journey in order to come home. We leave the garden in order to be able to come back to the garden and know it for what it is. In the words of Thoreau from his essay, “Walking,” “So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.”

Where are you now? What is your journey?


Coming Home to Ourselves

Today Michael and I spent time putting our house in order after moving to a different apartment here in Delhi. Getting things on the wall before we start work helps me to feel settled in. After we got all the various items up on the wall and were taking a rest, I began to wonder about what these objects, what they really are in my life. They all represent something of Michael and I and our journey, but they are also not us, not the journey, not even metaphors for what that journey meant. We are really none of the things on the wall. All of the things on the walls of our house and the objects on our shelves we have we obtained on our journeys since living overseas, and some of them were given to us. A number of the things I would not now select to take home with me, none the less we have them and they help make our apartment look lived in. Having things put up or away makes me feel more at rest and at home.

But what is it that makes a place home, that makes us feel at home underneath a place’s surface features of familiar objects? When I am on our land in California, I feel totally at home, at rest, complete, whole and fully alive, like I did when I was a child climbing the hills in back of our house off of Oak Creek Dr. in Lakeside. There I would roam the hilltops and hillsides through the dry yellow grass overlooking the valleys, and lie on the granite boulders, heat seeping into my skin, sinking into my bones, where I would stare up into the endless blue sky and the eucalyptus trees’ dry branches, watching hawks circle through. No thought of time or its shortness. I am lounging in the arms of the eternal now, just being. Now, when I am on my land in Soquel, again I feel this connection, though I do not really understand why. It has something to do with the land, that particular land with its unique geography. I feel aware of the earth under my feet, and I want to take care of it, to nurture it. The geography of a place affects our spirits, teaches us something of who we are. The Psalmist said, “The Heavens declare the Glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.” If nature reflects God, it helps us see who we are in relationship to the vastness of creation, as well as to its minuteness and particular qualities–it is a kind of microscope, mirror, or telescope, a powerful source of metaphor, and a source that helps us know and define ourselves in relationship to the world.

When I first knew Michael, I remember riding in the bed of someone’s truck when our own truck broke down somewhere around Auburn, CA. The sky had the back-lit blue light that it gets when the sun has just gone down. I looked over at him sitting there, his hair rustled with wind, and thought about how peaceful I felt in his presence, how it was like coming home to myself, and I knew he was my home, my spirit was at home with him. Home, then, is more than a place, more than the land we stand on or the house we live in. Home is about relationship, and has to do with the quality of being.

This morning while Michael was giving me a haircut, I was listening to a short YouTube where Parker Palmer  speaking with an interviewer from the Fetzer Institute talked about how many of us allow institutions to define ourselves rather than seeing that our identity comes not from what we do, but from within, from our own sense of being. We often go through the world thinking, Parker says, that “I am what I do …. my worth comes from my functioning. If there is to be any love for us, we must succeed at something.”  We are living with a kind of unspoken fear about whether we will measure up. Parker explains that seeing our selves not as a being, but someone in a particular role, someone who has become that role–who is identified with what we do, is why many people feel lost when they no longer have their job, or the role they have played for so long changes. Or when their body starts to fall apart, as well, I want to add. We are more than the role we play, or the job we hold, more than any one thing we do or what it is that happens to our bodies. We are deeper, more mysterious than this. We are alive. We participate in a mystery.

How do we learn more how to be when the culture we are from and the world we are in tells us what counts is what we do? I think it takes courage to look beyond the definition of life that is satisfied to stop with a definition of self or selves that can be quantified and labeled. We must find places to look to that repeatedly, daily even, bring us back to that place where we are aware of the mystery of life and of being–where we can wander through the yellow hills and know our essence is connected to the earth and to each other, not to a clock. I want to grow deeper into that place of being, acquaint myself further with who that person is. It will teach me more how to live, how to be alive.

Michael memorized this poem from Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River Anthology and recited it to me when I first knew him. It captures the relationship to life and to the world that I want to walk in, the way it is when you come home to yourself.

Faith Methany

AT first you will know not what they mean,
And you may never know,
And we may never tell you:–
These sudden flashes in your soul,
Like lambent lightning on snowy clouds
At midnight when the moon is full.
They come in solitude, or perhaps
You sit with your friend, and all at once
A silence falls on speech, and his eyes
Without a flicker glow at you:–
You two have seen the secret together,
He sees it in you, and you in him.
And there you sit thrilling lest the
Mystery stand before you and strike you dead
With a splendor like the sun’s.
Be brave, all souls who have such visions
As your body’s alive as mine is dead,
You’re catching a little whiff of the ether
Reserved for God Himself.


Finding Courage

I receive weekly messages in my box from Joan Chittister, of Monasteries of the Heart, and this past week when I received her message, I couldn’t help but think she was speaking directly to me as I am seriously asking what am I meant to do with my life. Here are Chittister’s words:

“We are all on our way to somewhere, however undefined, however unconscious. Without really knowing it, perhaps, we spend our days looking for the way out of the maze of indecision, of discomfort, of unfinishedness that can so easily become the soul’s permanent residence. We struggle for the way to an egress that is not there. We live looking for something that beckons but is not clear. Why? Because we can feel it within us, that’s why. It never quiets; it never sleeps. It just keeps urging us on. But to where? Answer: to nowhere I know, to do nothing I can see right now. Sometimes closer than others, always tantalizing, always just out of reach; the feeling of being in the wrong place gets so strong it can be painful.

The problem is that without clear intention, without ever stopping long enough to determine where we will end up if we stay on the road we’re on now, the purpose of life can sink into the routine of routine and little more. We simply go along, turning with the turns in the road but never plotting a course of our own. Never facing the single greatest question of life: Why was I born? Meaning, what am I meant to be? What was I made to do?

If those questions are never dealt with, never answered, then we may be breathing but we are not fully alive.

We must come to understand that the residual dissatisfaction with life as we have shaped it for ourselves is the very essence of what we name “call.” Clearly, it is at the moments of dissatisfaction with life as we know it now that the door to the future swings open for us. There is something missing in the making of who we are meant to be that we are being goaded to pursue.”

I have chosen to be a teacher, and have truly loved what I do, but something is goading me these days from inside, making me wonder if I am really giving to my life the fullness of all I can be, all I am here on Earth for.  When I listen closely, I am hearing a still, small voice rising up saying there is something more to become and do, what you have been doing so far has just been the preparation. There is another life in the making, working its way slowly toward birth.

If you look at the flowers after they go to seed, like the lettuce that is currently turning to seed in our window box, you will see that before death, there is the seed. The seed can give birth to new life once planted. What especially intrigues me in Chittister’s words above is that the answer she gives for where to go when we are searching for our new direction in life. Of course most of us want that place we go to to be somewhere concrete and tangible, somewhere secure, but Chittister tells us the place we go to is “to nowhere I know, to do nothing I can see right now.”  This is the existential leap, isn’t it–the faith or courage to step out when you can’t see?

Anais Nin said, “Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.” Learning to live with courage is a bit like rock climbing. My husband Michael took me rock climbing in the early years of our relationship. When I did my first climbs, I wanted to cling to the rock and pull my body in close to it. The rock seemed so solid and safe, but in reality, to keep my balance when climbing it was better to stand up on my toes and give myself a bit of distance from the rock. That was non intuitive and a bit frightening, but when I did it, I could see how much easier it was to climb up the rock’s face.When we reach out for this new place we want to go with our lives, it seems intuitive to want to hold on to something secure and solid. Maybe this is the right thing to do if you want another version of what you already have, but what if you want a whole different way of living and being?

I don’t know. And I don’t know if I’m ready for the big leap into the dark at this point. Change that endures is, or needs to be a process of organic growth, a slow process of change over time. Can a person become more courageous through practice? I don’t know.  But I can practice going toward a place of change in small ways. I can use my mind and imagination to stretch out into the unknown. Arms open, I can sit quietly saying to the universe, “Here I am,”  practicing opening to a new way of living in my heart. I can lean in to life and listen for the way I should walk. As the Thai proverb says, “Life is so short, we must move very slowly.” Slowing down purposefully each day can help me to listen to what it is my life is telling me. I can pause purposefully each day and come home to myself in an attitude of openness to what it is I am being called toward in those areas I feel dissatisfied with, and simply listen for what is surfacing.

Since all of life is a journey and the process is just as important, if not more important than the end of the journey, while waiting to understand what the next direction of my life should be, it is important, in the mean time, that I go to work and let myself dwell with the questions and uncertainty as an important part of the process. There is deep value in living out the questions, as Rilke pointed out in his letters to a young poet, until you someday live into the answer. Living with the uncertainty in this way allows for the answer, when it eventually becomes clear, to be understood from the inside. The work I have now, and the way I give myself to that work is the seed of the work I will be able to do in the future, when I have transformed into a different way of working, living and being.

Though part of me wants to know what the next phase of my life is, I recognize that I don’t need to know the plan. I can just walk step by step toward knowing. I don’t have to become all at once. At our wedding ceremony, Michael and I had a friend read the passage from The Velveteen Rabbit where the rabbit is asking the skin horse about what it means to be real and the horse tells him, “Real isn’t how you are made…It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long, time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” Maybe you need to love your questions, need to live with, walk with and love them, so that when you live into the answers, you can speak them from the heart.The journey is as important as the destination. We have the gift of time to learn. Each day is our gift. I want to see the questions as a gift.

Buddhist priest and author, Thich Nhat Hahn in a conference for educators here in India in September of 2008 spoke about how important it is that headmasters at schools take care of the teacher in order to take care of those they are educating. I am not a headmaster, but I want to discover more of what I can do as an educator in order to take care of myself so that I do not pass on to my students a sense of over-activeness. Deep understanding arises from a calm mind. Feeding the mind, body and spirit the nutrients and qualities it needs in order to nourish our own spirits and those of who we meet–that is the foundation I want to act from.

In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton, quoting Quaker professor and theologian, Douglas V. Steere said:

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

I belong to a culture of activism where doing is important. But perhaps there is too much of life given over to doing. Without pause, without a balance of being, the doing looses impact and meaning, and I want to live a life of meaning–to live with more weight given to being. I can’t learn how to live this by myself. I am not strong enough to pull against the tides of culture. There are others who seek greater balance between doing and being. How can we together walk our way toward a different way of living?

Today it is hot, the air, still, as I look outside my living room. But the monsoon wind and rain is sure to arrive soon.