Reflections on what lies ahead are natural for any stage of life. What possibilities will the future bring? What will my life be like? Will I be fully engaged or merely a visitor? What decisions can and will I make to affect the outcome?

These musings are especially true for those of us in our senior years. How do we continue to show up? How and where do we offer our gifts, knowing that diminishing capacities may have dulled their shine?

In 1992 Mary Oliver opined on the subject, inspiring us all with the map of her chosen route.  It was a path filled with curiosity, wonder and amazement.

…when death comes/ like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything / as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common / as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth / tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something / precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

 

Over dinner this past week the joyous birthday celebration of a friend turned somber for a few moments to process the pain that a local tragedy recently inflicted on all those involved. Our conversation covered a range of feelings and judgments, as no doubt occurs in many social gatherings these days, whether the conundrums being discussed are local, national or global.

The next day, while reflecting on the previous night’s exchange, I was led to a recent column by David Brooks in which he linked each of us to these larger challenges.

We all create a shared moral ecology through the daily decisions of our lives. When we stereotype, abuse, impugn motives and lie about each other, we’ve ripped the social fabric and encouraged more ugliness. When we love across boundaries, listen patiently, see deeply and make someone feel known, we’ve woven it and reinforced generosity.

In addition to writing, Brooks is working with the Aspen Institute to promote Weave: The Social Fabric Project, an initiative that encourages each of us to do our part locally.

Social fragmentation is the core challenge of our day. We long to be together, but we are apart. We are isolated by distrust, polarization, trauma and incivility. We live in a hyper-individualistic culture that pays lip service to community but which actually values success above relationship, ego above care, the market above society and tribal divisions over common humanity.

The question for each of us is: What can I do today and tomorrow to replace loneliness, division and distrust with relationship, community and purpose?

How do we answer that question? What threads can each of us weave into the moral ecology of our day? “Listen patiently?”  “Make someone feel known?” “Love across boundaries?” What other gifts of presence or purpose come to mind?

 

I remember a rhyme painted on a pottery pitcher in my parents’ kitchen. “Little duties still put off will end in never done. By and by is soon enough has ruined many a one.”  Beyond the judgment on procrastination this potentially guilt-trolling little ditty may offer another insight.

Without knowing it a friend challenged me recently. She went looking for my latest blog and found that it was six months old! Fortunately, it offered a boon to her spirit, a fact she shared with others and me.

Reflecting on the hiatus in my writing led me to realize that I sometimes balk on the brim of forward movement. Does that happen to you too? Do you also find an excuse to postpone taking what you know are the first steps down the path to a fuller expression of your heart’s truths? I know from coaching that there are many who block themselves at the brink.

What if the “little duties still put off” were owed to self and led the way to the potential that beckons from the other side? What if, as David Whyte says, the step is simpler than we had thought? My step today is to begin writing once again. What is yours?

It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that it is closer than we ever could imagine, that in fact, we already know what it is, and that the step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: which is why we so often prefer the story to be more elaborate, our identities clouded by fear, the horizon safely in the distance, the essay longer than it needs to be and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility.

From “Beginning” in Consolations

 

Most of us have experienced dark times in our lives. The source may be the actions of others or a random turn of events. Our wounds may be self-inflicted. Regardless of the cause, the pain is real. What we do with the ashes of adversity shapes whether and how we move forward.

Looking back over the difficult times from the vantage of having gone through them, we can see that most of them were stepping stones to new awareness and understanding. However, while we’re in the throes of our challenges, it is often difficult to take our leave from the drama.

Perhaps, the leaving is tied to a relationship or a chapter of one’s history that was filled with significance. While this sort of leaving may certainly be accompanied by the anguish of what was and will no longer be, the free fall of letting go sets the stage for what is to come.

David Whyte reminds us that often the ashes of our vexing conundrums or old hurts point the way to the next chapter of liberating possibilities – arriving to begin again.

The Journey

Above the mountains the geese turn into the light again

painting their black silhouettes on an open sky.

Sometimes everything has to be inscribed across the heavens

so you can find the one line already written inside you.

Sometimes it takes a great sky to find that first, bright

and indescribable wedge of freedom in your own heart.

Sometimes with the bones of the black sticks left when the fire has gone out

someone has written something new in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving. Even as the light fades quickly now, you are arriving.

Reflecting on the fear that fuels our tribal allegiances and separates us from one another, I came across the inspirational post of indigenous elder, Steven Charleston. His messages are brief and insightful and appear a few times each week on Facebook.

The gentle but firm spirit of his commentaries appeals to our better angels and serves as a needed antidote to the accelerating volume of conflict and division.

It seems that increasingly we consign ourselves to competing clans, intent upon raising ourselves up by putting others down. We think in zero sum terms; for some of us to win, others must lose. In doing so we neglect the life-giving and sustaining cords that connect us as living beings. These bonds are the basis of compassion, love in action. They stem from what Bishop Charleston calls kinship.

Here is a simple but profound piece of wisdom from the tradition of America’s indigenous people: kinship is the spiritual cornerstone for community. Kinship is the sense of relatedness, the acknowledgement that all of life is interconnected and mutually dependent. Kinship bonds humanity to creation and unifies diversity into a matrix of compassion. It says we need one another and must care for one another, no matter how different we may seem. Kinship is the basis for an ethical society. Power builds on fear, kinship builds on trust.

Centuries ago the prophet Micah also called people to strengthen the bonds of kinship: to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly. May our hearts hear and summon the courage to turn toward each other rather than away.

 

Are you asking who you are meant to be and what you are meant to do in this chapter of your life? Recent observations of a tree may offer some help.

Two years ago, porcupines ravaged one of our locust trees, stripping bark and leaves from almost every branch. Based on the lack of life last year, I thought the tree was dead. This year, observing its lifeless branches as its neighbors leafed out, I concluded it would join our wood pile this fall…that is, until this past week, when the cream colored flowers appeared. While sparser than two years ago, the blooms are unmistakable signs of life.

In addition to how little I know about locust trees, three other lessons surfaced that may help you with the arrival of your own blooms of this season of your life.

Like the tree in question we humans carry within us unique gifts and truths. Locusts grow quickly, even horizontally in outreach to the sun. Their wood is durable and difficult to cut and split. It takes a long time to dry and burns quite hot. What are your special gifts?

The locust’s vitality reminds me of the genius of resilience. Able to withstand the porcupines’ assault the tree persevered for a new day. What persists in your life’s calling?

Each gift of vocation manifests in its due season. I knew that ash trees leaf out later than most others. I now know that locusts leaf out even later than ash trees. No amount of my worrying or coaxing could change their inherent timing.

Maybe these simple lessons from nature’s way can reassure us that our unique gifts will emerge in their due season. Patience, mindfulness and receptivity will also help.

 

The most recent wind storm left behind fallen trees and broken limbs. The top of a tall pine blew off its moorings, landing like a beached ship near the driveway.

We are now experiencing the upside of the cleanse. It is as though the storm blew away the remnants of a tenacious winter. Daffodils and crocuses bravely reappear. Forsythia reaches its yellow arms to receive the embrace of the warming sun. The grass grows again into its richest greens of the year. Lower morning and evening temperatures temporarily cool the fervor of the black flies.

I am reminded of the life force that animates all living beings. The lyrics of a song from a favorite musical, The Secret Garden, captures the hidden but powerful “streak of green” in plants. “Wick” is the living essence cultivated by warmth, light and attention. The message is metaphor for us humans as well.

When a thing is wick, it has a life about it.
Now, maybe not a life like you and me.
But somewhere there’s a single streak of green inside it.
Come, and let me show you what I mean…

You clear away the dead parts,
So the tender buds can form,
Loosen up the earth and
Let the roots get warm…

You give a living thing 
A little chance to grow…

So, grow to greet the morning,
Leave the ground below…

And all through the darkest nighttime,
It’s waiting for the right time.
When a thing is wick, it will grow!

As spring returns most of us cannot help but feel the life force within us regaining strength. It is unique to each of us – our soul, our passion, our life’s energy. What are you doing to honor and cultivate yours?

 

Our men’s group met last week. We span four decades, and it was the arc of our chronology that dominated our dialogue. Whatever our respective ages, we face the unknowns that accompany walking into that landscape for the first time.

Three of us are in the “sandwich” years, directly caring both for children and parents. Two are exploring what it means to retire and when. Two have done so. Each of us dances with our partners in ever-evolving relationships. None of us has ever been here before.

Always the task beckons: how do we define ourselves within the unknowns of each stage of life? What insights and perspectives do we bring forward from the past to guide us? What baggage do we leave behind? What are the treasures of this time to embrace and the trolls to beware of?

As each member of our group has chosen to live where we do in a small town near lakes and hills and remote forests, the words of Wendell Berry resonate, reminding us of the adventures to which life calls us.

Always in big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. What you are doing is exploring. You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of our essential loneliness; for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.

 

Whom do we blame and for what? – two critical questions, whether they apply to our view of others or ourselves.

A high school classmate and I have an ongoing dialogue about which of our human capacities dominates – cognition or emotion. He would say that our rational mind can and should prevail. While I often wish that were the case, I proffer that despite the power of our executive function, many times our emotions take over, especially when dealing with our fears.

In and of itself, finding fault, which is one definition of “blame,” can be a neutral dynamic. It is a way that our “head” identifies the source of events or circumstances. Knowing the cause of a situation often mitigates its threat. Replacing the unknown with knowledge provides us a way of managing if not controlling what confronts us.

At the same time embedded in “blame” is judgment, and judgment is one way our “heart” seeks to protect us from potential threats. We see too many examples of the emotional blame game in play every day in relationships, politics, religion and culture, where our tribal roots tilt the teeter-totter of fake versus fact.

Perhaps more pernicious is the blame game we play with ourselves when we judge ourselves as inadequate or unworthy. Who is to blame – our upbringing, our workplace, our partner? While those may indeed be the source of fault, we are the sole agents of changing the game going forward.

Harnessing the wisdom of both head and heart, we have the capacity, indeed, the response-ability, to create a new future for ourselves individually and collectively. We do control the two ingredients that can do most to lift us out of blaming others and ourselves – our attitude and our effort.

 

This past week I received an email from a friend with whom I spent three years in seminary. Until a fiftieth reunion last year, we hadn’t seen each other since graduation. I was reminded how often back then he and I shared frequencies regarding life’s conundrums and possibilities.

Arriving last week, my friend’s message was a brief but powerful outcry over our brokenness as a species. Examples he cited from this year’s forty days of Lent epitomize our capacity for treating each other inhumanely, a morbid prelude to the crucifixion of “Good” Friday.

Efforts to rationalize all that is going on in our country and around the world seem futile, especially if one is attached to outcomes. Believing an Easter experience is the Christian response to a Good Friday, my friend re-framed the quandary by suggesting we turn to another realm of truth-seeking – the wisdom embedded in our place among the mysteries of the earth and its cycles. He shared two poems by Mary Oliver, one of which is below.

Here in rural New Hampshire it is lambing season for some farmers. Is the timing with Passover and Easter this year just coincidence?

Mysteries, Yes

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous / to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing / in the mouths of lambs.

How rivers and stones are forever / in allegiance with gravity

while we ourselves dream of rising.

How two hands touch and the bonds will / never be broken.

How people come, from delight or the

Scars of damage / to the comfort of a poem.

 

Let me keep my distance, always, from those

who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say

“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,

and bow their heads.

Mary Oliver