poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Living with Loss

When recent storms on the coast caused waves of 25 to 50 feet, I drove north to Maverick’s to see them. The size of small mountains, water rose from the shoreline waving its wild, terrifying and gloriously beautiful arms into the sky. A few people sat on surfboards waiting for a wave with good form they could ride. The majority of us, though, were spectators who walked the cliffs above the shore or who traversed the shoreline, gazing in awe at nature’s wonder. The world’s wild beauty is a can fills us with awe, though sometimes it also carries us to the edge of danger and the possibility of loss.

When looking carefully, you can notice loss lives beside us just beneath the surface of experience. Sometimes its absence is a mountainous weight hovering nearby like a cresting wave, waiting to tumble down at the sound of wind, a child’s cry, or the distressed look from a stranger on the street. So many seemingly insignificant things could serve as the trumpet’s blow resounding from walls that previously keep a person feeling safe. The loss of family members or someone we love, loss of work we used to do, people we used to know, a change in health—these can become waves of enormous change in our lives, and the way the world once worked, along with the things that held it together can come tumbling down. This is hard ground to walk on, difficult territory to reside in. How do we keep going? How do we begin again?

The experience of loss has been with us since the beginning of the human story as we fled the safety of the Garden of innocence and inexperience, with the awareness that we needed to begin the difficult journey toward understanding who we are and how to restore our relationships. This is a difficult task as our understanding is always incomplete. When things fall apart or we experience significant change, we like to know how we’re going to get to new ground and when we will arrive at a new place in our lives. But the timing of how this will all come about usually isn’t readily apparent. The process is less like a line and more like a spiral, and the pilgrimage to that desired place of being extends over varied and challenging terrain.

A couple of months back, I read Mari Mazziotti Gillan’s book, The Silence in an Empty House, a beautiful book of poems describing experiences in her relationship with her life partner who had a terminal illness. While experiencing the territory of loss, the writing takes the reader into the heart of relationship and the many small moments and memories that build and connect one life to another in intricate interweaving. In her poem, “Watching the Bridge Collapse,” Gillan describes how life can change in ways never expected. 

We loved each other. Our children were
smart and healthy and beautiful. How could we lose?
then one day you, who could swim a hundred laps
in the town pool, who ran even in a mid-winter
snowstorm, began to move slower and slower,
your hands no longer functioning the way
they always had, your legs unwilling to obey
your brain’s command. And now, your head bent
sideways, so it nearly touches your shoulder,
your legs so weak they cannot hold you up,
your voice thin as a thread. 

The situation Gillan describes is excruciatingly difficult. We acknowledge age brings diminishment, but to witness the vitality of one you love slowly decline in so painful a manner is a loss no one hopes for. Nevertheless, the poems show Gillan confronting the loss and suffering day after day although there is no possibility for expectation that her husband’s condition will improve. This is a struggle any of us could find ourselves in. As Gillan later points out in her poem, “What is Lost,” we do not know what our future will hold. “We all believe that if we just do what we’re supposed to/ the world will remain firm beneath our feet,” she writes. But this isn’t how it is for many people, and one of the things I especially appreciate about Gillan’s poems in this volume is how she describes her losses so directly. In the poem, “My Daughter Comes Home to Take Care of Her Sick Father,” Gillan’s speaks openly about the difficulty of her situation. “I do not understand,” she writes, “how love could become so complicated./ I am ashamed that some part of me wants this to end, to just/ stop.” Her honesty about her struggle in coming to terms with what she has been given is powerful and moving because the story she tells is bigger than simply her own personal story. It’s the story of all who struggle against things that seem unbearable. She speaks the words that are nearly impossible to find when the burden of loss is so enormous it lies beyond the ability to name.

When someone we love difficult finds themselves struggling under difficult circumstances, it’s natural to want to offer help and solutions. Yet sometimes there are no solutions. When her husband tells her of his fear of being blind in the poem, “Because You Keep Turning to Me,” Gillan writes, “I offer what comfort I can, and when I hang up, I cry/in my hotel bed because you keep turning to me/ and all I have to offer is my hands, useless and empty, and too far away to even stroke your head.” I read her words, and recognize my own emptiness in trying to meet the loss I sense in others around me who are suffering. Gillan extends her expression of the depth of our incompleteness in such circumstances in her poem, “There is No Way To Begin.” 

“There is no way to begin this poem, to say how I who have
always believed that whatever happens, things always
work out for the best, have finally been brought
to my knees, not to pray as I did in Blessed Sacrament
Church on Sixth Avenue when I was a girl, but in defeat,
unable to find the thread of joy that has always
waited for me just beyond tears.”

When we realize things aren’t going to get better for others or for ourselves where do we go? Thich Nhat Hahn in the 14 precepts of engaged Buddhism, recommends that we “Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images, and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.” Suffering being with those who suffer is necessary to the growth of our capacity for compassion and for understanding of how our lives are connected to those around us, as Maria’s poem so effectively gives voice to. What we come to realize when in the presence of suffering, is that solutions for how to cope with suffering aren’t going to be external. Like a tree that grows around a fence pole standing in its way of growth, we somehow must enlarge ourselves to be able to include or surround the loss.

When we look at others’ suffering we suffer too. The brain’s mirror neurons tell us this. One of Gillan’s poems, “Watching the Pelicans Die,” speaks directly to our interconnectedness, demonstrating so effectively how human suffering is reflected in the natural world as well. The drowning pelicans’ bodies caught in the BP oil spill are a echo of her husband’s painful effort to rise above the weight of the disease that wants to drown him. Oil covering its body, the bird in Gillan’s poem screams without sound, “a picture of torment and despair,” the silent despair Gillan recognizes her husband and family daily bear as they try to survive the calamity the disease has created–the suffering from which there seems no end. 

…On the Gulf, the earth and sea
are being destroyed, just as you were by the disease that finally
defeated you after you struggled against it for all those years.

Some things are bigger than all of us. We cannot defeat
them. If there is enough carelessness and greed in the world
even the ocean can be destroyed…

Our life is intertwined with the life and suffering of the planet. Suffering continues, and so does the brave effort to meet it. “You never gave up;” Gillan writes in her poem of the same title, “you kept doing whatever you could do,/ fell each day because you’d try to walk even though/ you no longer could.” Spelling out an alphabet of loss as time passes, moments of sudden memories of beauty, but also the months and years of loneliness and long process of letting go, letting things be what they are. “The world is too full of grief,” she writes in her poem “Planting Flowers in Iraq,” a poem about a groundskeeper planting flowers when the very same week two hundred people were killed by car bombs, and Gillan recalls a mother’s face overcome with grief as she lifted her dead child in her arms. “The world is too full of grief,” Gillan writes.

It’s true. The pulse of loss throbs inside the silence. Everywhere one looks, tears and sorrow wait beneath the surface of things. I think of the 9/11 memorial designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker where once the Twin Towers stood in New York City. An immense sense of loss envelops you as you approach the memorial, then stand to look as water pours its delicate and silvery life over the square’s edges into the firm earth, then falls again endlessly and forever into a bottomless space that cannot be fathomed, seen or known. The grief feels utterly palpable and weighted with presence, moving beyond words into a space where grief lives and doesn’t end. This is grief embodied.

How do we get to the other side of grief? How do we live beyond, into or with loss that feels too immense to bear? How do we find a way to name the grief, to hold it and still keep living? In her poem, “What if?” Gillan writes,

And what if, this moment, wrapped in the gauze shawl
of stillness, is the secret after all, to learn to look
more closely at the varied world, the veins of a leaf,
a stone, the stippled pattern of bark, and to find,
even in the shape of our hands, the curve of our nails
the ability to lift a cup and drink, the secret of loving
the transfigured world?

An answer is to learn to look, and where Gillan turns her gaze is to nature. Nature, too, has experienced enormous and unspeakable losses, especially in the past few centuries, but life is still present, available to us as a renewing source when we look deeply. Tree and stone, our own hands lifting a cup to drink. From the transfigured world we can drink and draw new life. As Gillan points out, it is when we allow ourselves to be wrapped in the “gauze shawl of stillness” that we enable ourselves to connect to the commonplace of the world in its transfigured form. This in turn allows us to see our experience as part of a greater whole. 

We heal from the inside out. Physical wounds begin healing from the inside. It could be the same with wounds of spirit and losses of the heart. We let ourselves be present with the wounds and losses, holding them in the arms of our thoughts, speaking to them tenderly, dearly, gently. More than our direct pursuit to find an external solution for what will meet our deep need, perhaps what we seek finds us as we allow ourselves to be available to what is working within us. Or perhaps it is a bit of both. 

During these winter months we inhabit the season Christian tradition names as Advent: light’s entry into the dark—into the places of our lives where we cannot see. It is a metaphor reminding us that there are times in life when we don’t know where the next step leads. Things move in complex worlds beneath the surface of what we can see or comprehend. All people experience this state of being. We don’t know when the light we feel we need will appear or how we are going to find it. It’s not a direct path. As this song written by Stephen Foster describes, our souls long for “Hard Times to Come Again No More.” Notice how in this version by Tommy Fleming, the entire audience knows the words and sings together with him. We are not alone. The whole world knows struggle. We walk together. Our inner work is to keep mind and heart open, to walk as we can, trusting that as we move, we journey toward wholeness.

Like blossoms, we wait in our own time for light to open us.

 

poetry, spirtuality

Standing Under Stones of Suffering and Wonder

Sentence

The body of a starving horse cannot forget the size it was born to.

Jane Hirshfield

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A few weeks ago, I listened to the rain come down all night and thought about the grief people live with, the suffering that doesn’t go away. In our neighborhood lives a peacock that calls out through day and night. It’s mating season for peacocks, a season that goes on for four months. During this time, the peacock cries out for a mate. There is no peahen in our neighborhood, however, so the peacock’s cries echo down the valley day and night. His calls will never be answered. I hear his calls, and consider how many across the world whose needs for housing, food, clothing, clean water, clean air, or health care are never met. Suffering abounds. To live in this world is to participate in its suffering. How do we meet the suffering in the world and in our own lives? How do we cultivate the strength of spirit to be able to endure the suffering that will inevitably come to us all as we eventually approach our own deaths?

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As Hirshfield’s describes in her short poem above, it feels a kind of punishment or sentence to remember what you once had or could do but are no longer able to because of physical limitations caused by accident, disease, declining health or age. But our lives don’t continue on in the same state over time. Living things change and age. We need to be able to look our own mortality in the face, yet this is very hard to do. We don’t gain inner strength to deal with these changes over night. We need to prepare for it through our lifetime. 

Perhaps we have such difficulty with suffering because little in our culture prepares us to live with it, to understand or to transcend it. We don’t see suffering as as a part of life and don’t know how to learn from it. Most of us want to avoid suffering and reject pain. People prefer to be powerful and strong, not weak and suffering.

When we suffer, we tend to feel reduced and limited. The world shrinks. William Stafford’s poem, “How To Regain Your Soul,” describes a way to respond to suffering that enlarges and renews.

Come down Canyon Creek trail on a summer afternoon
that one place where the valley floor opens out. You will see
the white butterflies. Because of the way shadows
come off those vertical rocks in the west, there are
shafts of sunlight hitting the river and a deep
long purple gorge straight ahead. Put down your pack.

Above, air sighs the pines. It was this way
when Rome was clanging, when Troy was being built,
when campfires lighted caves. The white butterflies dance
by the thousands in the still sunshine. Suddenly, anything
could happen to you. Your soul pulls toward the canyon
and then shines back through the white wings to be you again.

One way to deal with suffering or difficulty the poem suggests, is to wander out into nature because in doing so you enable yourself to view your ills from a broader perspective. As Stafford suggests, in nature we can find a place where the world opens again, and as the poem describes, the shadows you see coming off the hard, sheer places in your life leading toward nightfall and the west are now the very thing enabling you also to see light on the river leading through the canyon walls. This is a place to observe deeply. It’s worth spending time to understand, and the stanza closes by saying, “Put down your pack.” When we suffer, it takes time to absorb the reality that your suffering could also bring you a new life source that will lead you through the rock-walled gorge of your experience. It’s worth spending time being present with this understanding–simply taking it in.

The poem’s second stanza begins with air stirring the pines. Lightness enters in. Breath. When we take time to rest in the awareness of this new state were in, we make space for something new to enter our awareness. Stafford recognizes that world we inhabit may be weighted with heavy gravity. He relates the ancient struggles of Rome and Troy, to the beginnings of human civilization living in caves. The very words Rome and Troy echo with sounds of war. We know struggle and work are part of civilizations’ foundation and history. But these descriptions of civilization’s efforts are held together in the poem’s stanza on either side by air breathing through the pines and light lifting and illuminating the wings of butterflies. Stafford reminds us this is what it is to be human. Heaviness and struggle are required for existence, yes. But present alongside the weight and effort is the magnificence of the larger world–the stunning ephemeral qualities of existence itself–the butterflies dancing in the still sun by the thousands–those resplendent moments where beauty captures and leads us into a place toward the sublime, moments where time seems to stand still, and for an instance we taste what it is to step inside eternity. Caught in an experience of what Abraham Joshua would name as “radical wonder,” the world opens. “Suddenly, anything/ could happen to you,” writes Stafford. We see now how we can inhabit our bodies as our “soul pulls toward the canyon,” the difficult and narrow places. We are are body, and we are spirit–light shining through wings.

We get used to the way things are or have been going along in our lives, and tend to think that is the way it always has been or will be. The earth and everything in it, however, is in a state of transition. At Pinnacles National Park  in California, you can walk past gargantuan boulders and through caves made as a result of volcanic explosions, landslides, the slipping of tectonic plates on the San Andreas Fault, and erosion–both natural and chemical. The result today, millions of years later, is an amazing place of incredible beauty and biodiversity. We want to understand why we suffer and how to be released from suffering. When examining the earth we walk on, however, we can realize that it, too, has endured great change and many other life forms on earth have endured pain as result.

The great Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said,  “We may doubt anything, except that we are struck with amazement. When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question. Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased. There is no answer in the world to [our] radical wonder. Under the running sea of our theories and scientific explanations lies the aboriginal abyss of radical amazement.” (Man Is Not Alone, p. 13) The result of the fissures, volcanos and erosion is, in the end, great beauty. Maybe instead of seeking an answer to our suffering we want to seek ways to stand under the light breaking through the cracks in our life’s hard and heavy rocks where we can experience wonder.

 

Uncategorized

Being Brought Low

IMG_8865Living in India for nine years, you see difficult things—sights and experiences there are few words to adequately describe, that must be experienced to be grasped, and even then, can barely be comprehended. When you see the multitudes of families who’ve lived on the streets for their entire lives, breathing in street fumes and traffic, you understand how it is that India has the highest rate of death from respiratory illnesses of anywhere in the world, and why it is children who lack food, education and opportunity beg at street corners. People maim themselves in order to make more money begging. One quarter of India’s population has no access to water. In developed countries, toilets require water. In India, the majority have no toilet. According to Bloomberg’s website, 638 million people defecate in the open, a habit that creates serious health concerns and adds to the continued grime and stench people live in. Most of us prefer to live in a world where we feel safe and have at least a modicum of control over what happens to us. In India, millions don’t often have that choice. How can such disparity continue decade after decade? The German poet, Rilke, writes,

You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.

Those standing in the circle of wealth fence in the world with safety and warmth. We use our wealth and opportunity to make plans, create dreams, and carry them out. Perhaps you’ve read stories like Elie Weisel’s Night, depicting the experiences of those who suffered in concentration camps in WWII. If you’re like most people, you don’t want to suffer. Myths, stories, sacred texts, and the seasons themselves tell us that loss comes before renewal. Nevertheless, at some point—through illness, loss, through confrontation with old age or death, we’ll all be brought low.

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Before moving to India, though I recognized I had a lot to learn, I thought of myself as a basically good person. I aimed to live conscientiously—to be kind and fair. I tried to avoid wasting resources, and aimed to follow the Golden Rule. The quantity of India’s need is overwhelming, however. Living there, I realized that all my “goodness” was not enough to meet India’s Everest of needs. Responding to the need I saw everywhere around me was beyond bearing. I continuously looked at that mountain’s heavy weight, and it made me think about God’s depth, God’s mercy. I did my work—teaching young students how to read and write, how to examine the world and wonder and describe how it might be different, hoping by some miraculous trickle down method, the students would someday, as adults, find professions that would enable them to address and meet the poor’s needs who lived in places like Delhi. While working in India, I did a few things beyond the classroom to address the needs of others around me. I led some teacher training workshops at the Tibetan Children’s Village School, for example. India’s poor continued to struggle, however, my efforts a tiny seed in the Sahara of need.

Physical poverty isn’t the only kind of poverty, however. Edward Hirsch’s poem, “Lay Back the Darkness,” describes suffering just as difficult to bear—that of a son observing his elderly father who has lost his mental faculties. The father shuffles between rooms, lost. Once, the father “could charm everything.” Now he stands amongst the shadows “on an obscure mission through the hallway,” unable to “remember what he meant to say.” The son, in anguish, cries out, “Help me, spirits, to penetrate his dream/ and ease his restless passage.” This is not loss brought on by economic disparity or government corruption. Physical decline is a common, natural experience as life changes form when a person ages and moves toward death. The son in the poem loves his father, and remembers who his father once was, though that presence no longer inhabits his father’s body. Existence is ever evolving energy, shifting from one form to another. If, however, we’re more than our positions in society, our accomplishments and personality, our bodies, what are we? What is the soul? What is it we do when we love and give ourselves to a relationship? Dylan Thomas wrote, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age.” I was raised to believe in God, to be able to give certain answers about who or what God is—the maker of heaven and earth, for example, and the God inside the Biblical stories. Maybe the force Thomas speaks of is God. Maybe to connect to God is to learn, as did the prophets, to attune ourselves to the energy that moves through not only ourselves, but through all that is.

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Maybe, however, God is wider than that description. Riding down a freeway, gazing at the ever-flowing streams of cars, or sitting in a room conversing with friends I’ve not seen in years, I sense the marvel of human existence, and wonder at its meaning.

What God really is, is mystery. Hirsch’s poem is a prayer, to “lay back the darkness,” to bring illumination. At the end of the poem, Hirsch describes his father, who in his final days has become

but a boy standing on the edge of a forest
listening to the distant cry of wolves,
to wild dogs,
to primitive wingbeats shuddering in the treetops.

Prayer doesn’t need words. Prayer is standing humbly in silence before the vastness of all that is, and listening. This the father does. Genesis describes God creating all that is out of the void’s chaos. Hirsch depicts the father entering, again, the place of chaos, moving back to the void from which all things arose, a child, once more at the beginning of a journey. Life emerges from emptiness.

Confrontation with questions we have no answers for—with illness, suffering, or needs greater than can ever be met, is to stand at the edge of a forest listening to the distant cry of wolves—is to step into mystery. We need to put ourselves alongside such suffering. It is a necessary darkness. Rilke ends his poem about darkness, I earlier quoted from by saying, “I have faith in nights.” Suffering helps us learn to live. When we experience separation from others, from ourselves, or can’t find what we need in life to be whole, we suffer. We long for wholeness, as did Adam and Eve after they ate from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We long to be changed, even though we don’t know how or by what means. Rumi speaks of this in his poem, “Love Dogs,”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union,

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

My mother had Alzheimer’s, my father dementia. If I don’t end up wandering the halls in old age, I will still be brought low. All die. I don’t have answers for many things, but I can hear the love dogs moaning in my soul. What can I do, but open my arms and say, “Here I am.”

Uncategorized

Drawing Up From Great Roots

imageLet everything happen to you.
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final
–Rainer Maria Rilke

In a short time from now, I’ll be moving from India. After nearly a decade in this country, I won’t live here any more.  Though I don’t exactly know yet where I’m going once I leave, I will miss many things about living here. Through sound, smoke and heat, India literally seeps in through the windows and doors, announcing its presence, influencing the whole of what happens.

imageWe don’t have adequate answers for life’s most perplexing questions. We are incomplete. India constantly asks difficult questions I will never have answers for–which is perhaps one of the reasons I’ve stayed here so long. Everywhere in India, it’s easy to see people suffer. As I travel through Delhi, I try to open myself to see and notice the suffering around me so I can learn from it. Looking into the faces of people suffering–noticing their difficulty–is not the same as doing something about meeting people’s needs. If I don’t have the ability to change people’s lives around me, however, then I can at least see them as fellow humans in need of compassion, just as I, too, feel the need for compassion.

Like the poor around me, I will never be all I want to be. As a result of living in India, I recognize in people’s faces and bodies a mirror of my own incompleteness and need. The more I can befriend the reality of my own incompleteness and accept limitations with compassion, the more I will be able to act compassionately toward others. Maybe I can also become more whole. India’s poverty is too enormous for any one person to resolve. In humility we have to accept we can’t necessarily be or give to others what we plainly see that they physically need. To solve huge problems requires large numbers of people working together toward change and solutions over extended periods of time. Many things aren’t in our control, or ability, though we do and give what we can to make a difference.

imageBecause it is a kind of death, moving stimulates reflection. Often these days, I find myself wondering what existence is. It’s all so mysterious and amazing. Embodied minds and feelings walk around on planet Earth with other physical bodies in a universe containing other galaxies that hold solar systems in a space vast beyond comprehension. So much happens in the universe beyond fathoming. Over the years of living here in India, I’ve learned to understand more of the cultural patterns–which are a kind of universe of their own. When I leave, once again I’ll be moving into a different world, learning new ways of being and understanding. I’ll be transformed into another reality very unlike the current one. Even if living in my native country, my world will be widened. Parts of me will diminish, others expand, and I’ll be reborn into a different existence. I will remake myself.

imageThe baby kite in the nest across the yard outside my kitchen window, stands up, occasionally, and perches on the nest edge to look around. Soon, like notes of music, the fledgling will fly away, though, and like the kite I, too, will leave this nest. I don’t think the change will necessarily be easy, though parts of it will be. Transformation. Transcendence. Births are noted fore being painful, but out of chaos, the world was (and is continuously) formed.

This period of transition is a liminal space of uncertainty through which to view two worlds, and to notice the myriad possibilities of creativity change brings. As a friend writes–through the dissolving curtain of now the new world awaits.

Maybe our real life work isn’t to remain whole. As Robert Bly writes, perhaps we came here to
“…lose our leaves
Like the trees, and be born again,
Drawing up from the great roots.”

In some ways, every day can be seen as a liminal space, not just the great moments of passage and change. What could I become if I were able to live more like that–like trees who let go their leaves time after time, reborn repeatedly, because they are always “drawing up for the great roots.” Let me live like that.

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Out of Smoke and Silence

Last night the smoke in Delhi was thick. The acrid smell climbed in to all the crevices and cracks in doors and window frames and asserted itself with caustic breath. The air quality index nearby at RK Puram rated the particulate matter in the air as 534, which is rated as hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency. AQI greater than 300, according to the Air Now air quality guide, “would trigger a health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.” We have three large air purifiers in our apartment, but last night breathing was still painful. The lungs ached.

Several years back, the World Health Organization stated that air pollution is the greatest threat to health, and in Delhi in particular. (See more here.) It’s worse on the roadsides, according to Time, in an article “New Delhi, the World’s Most Polluted City is Even More Polluted Than We Realized” writer Rishi Iyengar explains that “average pollution levels were up to eight times higher on city roads, the Associated Press reports.” With the number of diesel cars on the road, old cars, and the growing number of cars on the road, things are bad, and they are especially bad in winter when people burn whatever they can find in open fires in order to stay warm. The suffering continues. The problem continues.

Suffering, however, is a world wide phenomena, and comes in so many forms. Only a few weeks ago, you may recall, Boko Haram in Nigeria opened attack on villagers, burned people in their houses and left what CNN says was nearly 2,000 people dead. 30,000 people were displaced. This kind of suffering doesn’t end by people moving to a new location.

Coming to terms with the horror of such experiences make indelible marks on people’s lives that continues on for decades. You may recall genocide in other locations and eras as well. Between April and June of 1994, for example, the BBC  says, somewhere around 800,000 Rwandans were killed within the span of 100 days. That is a statistic that holds underneath it a grief too staggering to comprehend. Last week by accident, I came across the Isaha iteragera Misingi choir, from Kigali Rwandan choir on the Net. (Take a listen.) Since a friend of ours had lived there for several years, I wanted to hear them. Though I didn’t know the meaning of the words the choir sings, a spirit of joy and love comes through their bodies’ expression and their faces. It’s palpable, and I it made me wonder what it is that allows people who have known such deep suffering to express the sense of joy and open heartedness in their music.

We might be going along thinking we’re managing things okay from day to day. We may be able to do this for years, but then something happens that makes us realize we are standing on different ground: a loved one suddenly dies, becomes ill, has an operation or an accident. We lose our job, our house. What then? How do we manage? How might the way the Rwandans are dealing with their suffering suggest how others might deal with their suffering? What strikes me as particularly interesting is that in Rwanda, healing is taking place as a community and through community effort. As Henri Nouwen points out, “Suffering invites us to place our hurts in larger hands.” We go to the community for help and a growing number of Rwandans today are coming together to deal with the problems of the deep wound left behind from the catastrophic experience by using “community based sociotherapy.”

“The effectiveness of the sociotherapy in Byumba relies on the following principles which are considered as the backbone of the approach: Interest in people, Equality, Democracy, Here and Now, Responsibility, Participation, and Learning by Doing,” says Jean de Dieu Basabose in his article, “Community Based Sociotherapy” on the Insight on Conflict website connected with Peace Direct. Victims and offenders alike meet face to face, recognizing that they are in need of support and restoration. In learning to forgive, people are released from their suffering. (See the movie trailer, As We Forgive about this.) To add to this story, however, something worth noting is that in Rwanda, the offenders are also rebuilding the country. In recognizing the wrongs they committed, offenders work to take an active part in their communities in setting things right. Words and action together are making the change.

There are some principles here that are useful. We aren’t alone when we suffer. We rely on the resources within the community to move toward the needed changes. We work to build community and mutual respect for each other within the community. We nurture our spirits and skills so we can give to our communities what is needed. We do what we can in the sphere we are part of to helps create community.

Will that effort be enough? Will it end the air pollution problem within my life time? Will it end genocide? That depends on what we do with what we’re given. If we build community, we will have the support of those around us to carry us through the difficulties, and that is no mean comfort. In the midst of our suffering, it is good to know, as William Stafford says in his poem, “Assurance”

You will never be alone, you hear so deep
a sound when autumn comes. Yellow
pulls across the hills and thrums,
or the silence after lightening before it says
its names- and then the clouds’ wide-mouthed
apologies.

__

In the silence and the smoke, the loss, we can speak together for a better, more humane world. Though we will always be incomplete and fall short. We are human. But together we can hold each other up and become more than we are.

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Climbing the Mountain of Uncertainty

I’ve done a number of challenging things over the years, at least they were challenging for me. One summer I biked up the west coast of Ireland with my husband, nephew, and two other friends. The most difficult day was biking from Galway to the ferry take off point for the Aran Islands. When we started out, it was raining hard. We crouched behind a bus stop wall as we left the city, watching the rain blow horizontally, hoping it would let up. When we could tell that it wasn’t going to, we pushed out into the wind, riding against it the whole way, making it to the ferry five minutes before it took off. After another fourteen miles of riding once we landed on the islands, we arrived at our bed and breakfast. There, I opened up the bicycle guidebook to read that the ride we had just done should the easiest day of riding up the coast, as it was flat. Obviously, this statement didn’t account for riding into a fierce oncoming wind and driving rain the entire way. What seems like it should be easy can actually be quite difficult.

Several years back my husband and I climbed Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia at 4,095.2m or 13,435.7ft. The climb up takes hours–most of the day, as I recall, and you pass through several ecosystems as you rise in altitude. Then you stay the night in bunks at the guest house, and rest up a bit before getting up at 3:00am to climb the rest of the way to the top so that you can be there soon after the sun rises, and before the mists engulf the peak. Because you are climbing in altitude, it can be slow and difficult walking once you are at about 10,00 ft. We made it to the top, and the views were truly stunning as the mists rolled into the sun and over the pointed granite peaks and saddles. We began the descent as the mists thickened into cloud, and the clouds began to rain. The walk up to the peak the second morning, and then back down the mountain again took nine hours, and was the most physically difficult thing I ever did. The trail up and down the mountain is made of steps of varying height, and we were walking down them in what eventually became torrential rain. For hours I didn’t know if I would be able to carry on putting one foot in front of the other. There were no rest stop areas, however. What could we do but continue on? So we did. It amazed me how when it had to, the body could move beyond what I thought was its absolute limit.

But challenging as these things were, these physical experiences were, they weren’t the most difficult thing to bear. The most difficult thing I’ve done was sitting by my father’s side day after day the month that he lay dying—knowing he was dying, and just sitting with him, being with him as he climbed the highest mountain, and continued on through the rain and wind, to cross over to the other side.

In California, it has finally begun to rain after months of winter filled with drought. In Montana it is truly winter. Today as I bicycle through our New Delhi neighborhood, the sky has a hint of blue after months of pollution and fog. I glide past smoke from burning heaps of garbage, and women crouched over blankets spread out on the sidewalk, sorting grain, and children playing cricket in the streets. I think of the estimated 100,000 who live on the streets in Delhi.

When someone we know is dying, or suffering, and we don’t know what the end of it will be, we feel open, raw, and especially aware of how frail our strengths really are—how fragile the line between life and death. All we have and are could change so easily, and it has made me realize how every day our very breathing is a kind of sacrament. Our life is and becomes day by day what we are paying attention to. It is what we open our hearts to, how we are listening to the people around us, to their spirit, and what is being said underneath the words.

Or not. Many people from developed countries are removed enough from the suffering in the world to remain comfortable while others in many other places suffer. Ilya Kaminsky in his poem “We Lived Happily During the War” talks about how those who are well off in the world hear the suffering around us, or see it, and feel badly about it—enough to protest, yet still we are able to sit outside on the porch in the sun.

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

In this life there is suffering. We might be from the great country of money, but everyone suffers. We might be comfortable now, but in actually, we don’t know what the future will bring. We spend so much effort trying to make ourselves comfortable, aiming to fend off suffering. Suffering comes to all. How will respond when it does?

Recently, a friend of ours who seemed perfectly healthy began to have prolonged unexplained fevers. In the hospital, he learned a rare bacterial infection nearly claimed his life. We don’t know what is in our future. I want the people I ride by on my bicycle, and the people I meet to be well. I want those I love and know to be well, to be whole. There is so much suffering in this city, so many needy, and as I think about and see those who are suffering, I feel each time I’m being asked how am I responding to the needs of the world? Even the planet suffers. What is the suffering telling us? Can we hear what it is telling us about our choices? How can we be whole inside of and in spite of our suffering?

This past week I read these words by Henri Nouwen, “Gentleness is a virtue hard to find in a society that admires toughness and roughness. We are encouraged to get things done and to get them done fast, even when people get hurt in the process. Success, accomplishment, and productivity count. But the cost is high. There is no place for gentleness in such a milieu…Gentle is the one who is attentive to the strengths and weaknesses of the other and enjoys being together more than accomplishing something.” As Nouwen suggests, ours is a society that admires toughness and roughness, values getting things done over being present with another, over listening. Do we counteract suffering by taking action, making change? Maybe the place to start is by being gentle, keeping an open heart, deep listening, presence—these are not easy qualities to cultivate, yet in our deepest selves, we long to know that we truly matter. So much suffering begins, continues on, and expands even into violence because people do not feel that they truly matter, do not feel that their life rests in the heart of someone else who holds them precious. Again, as Nouwen says, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” Do we have the courage to be gentle? Can we hold it above productivity and success, above accomplishment? Can we learn to be humble?  We don’t necessarily have to have answers, we can simply sit with another in shared awareness of  helplessness. That can be powerful, even life changing.

How do we know what path to follow in the days we have remaining on earth to live, so that when we come to the end of our days, we will be able to climb the mountain, or find our selves able to keep peddling into the wind and the rain though we feel our legs are leaden, so that we can find the boat that will carry us onward? How easily we get thrown off track of what is important, pulled in to world of worrying about the uncertainties. Thomas Merton in his book, Thoughts on Solitude, suggests that we don’t have to have all the answers. In his prayer, he says, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” We don’t have certainty. Even Jesus’s own disciples asked who Jesus was. And they walked and lived with him. All of us are incomplete. The path we walk isn’t about achievement or accomplishment. It is about walking the path—the journey. It is in our reaching out in the intention to love, to be, and to be made whole that matters in spite of our questions and uncertainty, our incompleteness.

I noticed the trees were filled with leaves today as I rode down the streets, biking not necessarily to anywhere, just weaving back and forth along the pavement, practicing what it is to move, to be alive in this moment just as it is. Breathing in, I said to myself, “peace,” as I lifted my leg on the pedal. Breathing out I thought, “blessings.” Blessings on those around me who suffer. Blessings on the world that suffers because we don’t know how to be gentle. Blessings to all of us traveling from uncertainty to uncertainty.