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Years ago, I participated in two retreats led by Parker Palmer. A writer and teacher of deep faith, abiding curiosity and gentle engagement, he is one of my inspirational guides.

After Leonard Cohen died last month, Parker posted a tribute to him which is excerpted below.

In LC’s spoken intro to “Anthem,” he talks about a world “plunged in darkness and chaos,” referring to the global economic meltdown of 2007-2008. Those words apply to our moment in history as much as they did back then, as does the now-famous chorus of “Anthem”:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

I think LC is saying, “Whatever you’re concerned about right now, don’t go looking for the very best thing to do, then give up when you can’t find it. Offer the world whatever gifts you possess — no matter how imperfect — gifts that might move us a little bit closer to love, truth, and justice. That’s how the light gets in, through our cracked imperfections.”

I’d add only this: it’s in our brokenness, not our illusions of “perfection,” that we connect most deeply with one another. So at this historical moment, when so many are feeling broken, we have a chance to renew our civic community – if we’re willing to forget our “perfect offering” and “ring the bells that still can ring.”

Ring them, listen for them, gather around them, and summon up an America where everyone belongs.

I invite you to set aside a few minutes to view the video of Cohen introducing and singing Anthem as he performed it live in London in 2008. And enjoy the accompanying photography.

 

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I always thought equanimity meant finding a balance – somewhat analogous to the way the body achieves homeostasis. My parents frequently cited a saw from their parents’ generation they felt was a key to equanimity, “everything in moderation.”

Another word that comes to mind is calm. For Christians, “the peace of God that passes all understanding” describes an inner tranquility from a divine source that exists as the eye in life’s storms.

For Buddhists, the sources of suffering stem from our attachments and our aversions. Until now I understood the balancing act to involve distancing ourselves from those things that elicit in us too much desire or revulsion. However, this week I found another meaning while reading David Whyte’s book, The Three Marriages.

In the Buddhist tradition the ability to be happy is often translated into English as “equanimity,” roughly meaning to be equal to things, to be large enough for the drama in which we find ourselves. (p. 32)

This opened me to a new appreciation for what it means to face into those things that most trouble us.

The election has revealed the extent to which our national body is out of balance. One step in regaining equilibrium might be for each of us to sit with these questions and open ourselves to the answers that surface:

Can we summon the better angels in us to let go of some outcomes to which we are attached and open ourselves to greet new possibilities in our current drama?

How can we be large enough to turn our individual and collective bodies toward healing and homeostasis?

What does it require of each of us to be equal to these things?

 

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What is the difficult conversation you are avoiding and with whom – partner? friend? boss? self? No doubt, it wouldn’t be difficult if it didn’t matter, and you are postponing it because you want to get it right.

A recent trip to the dentist yielded a lot more than a new crown. He and I frequently converse before and after he attends to my teeth. In our most recent exchange we shared our mutual aversion with the current polarization in our country. As I left, he handed me a summary of a model based on the book Crucial Conversations.  

Crucial conversations are those where stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong. The key to handling them is to achieve and maintain dialogue. The hand out he gave me captured several key principles for guiding dialogue, but the following seem most applicable for the length of this post.

  • Be honest and clear about what you really want as a result of the conversation.
  • Help create and maintain a safe container for discourse. One tool in assessing safety is to be mindful of forms of silence (e.g. withdrawing or withholding meaning by understating or selectively sharing true opinions) and forms of violence (e.g. coercing the other to adopt your perspective and stereotyping something to dismiss it).
  • Listen actively to each other’s “stories” and explore with genuine curiosity each narrative without blame or judgment. (e.g. “I wonder what that is all about?”). Revise the narratives as appropriate.
  • Create a path of action forward based on mutually beneficial outcomes with specific benchmarks for accountability.

While there is a lot more to respectful dialogue than space here allows (click here for an outline of the book), we need not use that as an excuse for delaying important conversations.

 

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Sitting on a remote New England hillside relishing the color of the season’s splendor, I am mindful of my privilege. I choose to live here, and I have the resources to live my choices.

I am grateful for all that surrounds me, beginning with the people and relationships that are most dear. At the same time, something inside nudges me toward a deeper awakening. Unlike the proverbial fish, presumably unconscious of the water it swims in, I seek greater awareness of my privilege, to what extent I “earned” it and what I owe for its exercise.

Responding to that nudge, I have taken a modest step and joined other leaders in our state in guided conversations about our privilege. Our focus is to better understand our advantages as white people and how those dynamics intersect with the realities of people of color.

The vexing dynamics of race will only amplify in the coming decades, as our country becomes a “minority” majority. There is no escaping this tide, even in a rural state like NH.

Each of us has choices in the face of difficult times. One of my morning readings provides me with grounding in the face of overwhelming challenges. May it center you as well for the choices you are making in your own life.

Empower me to be a bold participant, rather than a timid saint in waiting, in the difficult ordinariness of now; to exercise the authority of honesty, rather than to defer to power, or deceive to get it; to influence someone for justice, rather than impress anyone for gain; and, by grace, to find treasures of joy, or friendship, of peace hidden in the fields of the daily you give me to plow.  – Ted Loder

 

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Feeling the fissures in our nation’s economic, cultural and political life, I was reminded this week of a word I learned in seminary. Most often associated with religion, the word also applies to our secular life. It calls me back to basics. Maybe it will for you too.

The word is liturgy. Most often associated with rituals of worship, it refers to the ceremonies a community uses to convey the content of its faith and express its gratitude. Using words, music, movement and symbols, liturgy dramatizes core beliefs and behavior.

The Greek roots of the word liturgy literally mean – the work of the people – which extends beyond religion to society as a whole. In a democracy “the work” involves several tasks.

First, there is being true to one’s individual values and beliefs. Humility involves an accurate self-assessment of both strengths and weaknesses and the courage to show up with personal integrity.

Then, there is the recognition that we belong to a larger whole that includes people who are different from us. Our lives are inextricably linked. One piece of our work is to understand our differences and seek to find common ground.

Finally, in a diverse society our discourse and commerce require us to treat each other with respect and fairness. One place that each of us can begin to make a difference is to treat each other more kindly. When we do, rather than appeal to our worst instincts, we elicit the best in each other, even if and as we may disagree.

Few sources convey the work of the people more simply and powerfully than the prophet Micah.

…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (6:8)

 

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I have just returned from a week in Colorado where I attended the annual gathering of a community of healers that I have been part of for several years. They partner with horses to coach clients. When they reconnect, their smiles, laughter and sharing wash over the arena like a tsunami of the heart.

 

While together they challenge each other and share best practices. They stretch themselves with renewed intentions that move them toward their respective horizons. It is not all easy. There are shadows and trolls en route for each of us. However, if you were a stranger who wandered into their space, you would be struck by the light of their smiles as a lingering impression.

 

Meanwhile, back on the east coast a friend enters hospice for his final chapter on this plane. As I hold him in prayer, I see his face and the twinkle in his eye that accompanies his smile.

 

Is it serendipitous that my meditation reading this morning framed the energy of the healers, my friend and each of us in terms of our legacy? We may find it modest and but one of many aspects of our lives, but we should never underestimate its impact.

 

Those who are beautiful – who can keep them as they are?

Unceasingly in their faces the life in them arises and goes forth.

Like dew from morning grass, like steam from a plate of food,

what is ours goes out from us.

 

Where does a smile go, or the upward glance, the sudden warm movement of the heart?

Yet that is what we are. Does the universe we dissolve into taste of us a little?

From Rilke’s Second Duino Elegy

 

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One of the blessings of this week was a phone call with an old friend, a colleague from years ago. We caught up on each other’s lives, acknowledged the work we had done together and recognized that our connections of the heart cultivated long ago persist.

Each of us travels through life with cohorts. Circumstance brings us together but it is our choices and actions within those situations (or afterward) that create and sustain friendships.

Last weekend Peggy and I visited a college classmate and his partner. They surprised us with tickets to a Paul Stookey concert. Still writing songs at 78 and protesting the ascendance of our human failings, Stookey’s humor, insight and compassion seen in his days with Peter, Paul and Mary, triggered a chain of reflections that landed on this blog with a song from the same era.

Simon and Garfunkel’s Old Friends captures the wistfulness of this stage of life for me. Sung in their youth the lyrics anticipated a poignant marker: “Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be seventy.”

Old friends come in two categories that sometimes coincide: the length of time we have known each other and the experiences shared; or the depth of the connection, like old souls who journeyed together in past lives.

Take a moment to enjoy the song and bring to mind your own friends. If you haven’t talked with them lately, it may be time to reach out.

Old friends. Memory brushes the same years

Silently sharing the same fear.

Time it was, and what a time it was.

It was a time of innocence, a time of confidences.

Long ago it must be, I have a photograph…

Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.

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In an article this week, Why American Leadership Fails, David Brooks differentiates between a career and a vocation. While the main thrust of his commentary is to illustrate current political dynamics, the distinction applies to each of us on our own life’s path.

A career is something you choose; a vocation is something you are called to. A person choosing a career asks, how can I get the best job…? A person summoned by a vocation asks, how can my existing abilities be put in service of the greatest common good?

 A career is a job you do as long as the benefits outweigh the costs; a vocation involves falling in love with something, having a conviction about it and making it part of your personal identity.

 A vocation involves promises to some ideal, it reveals itself in a sense of enjoyment as you undertake its tasks and it can’t be easily quit when setbacks and humiliations occur.  As others have noted, it involves a double negative – you can’t not do this thing.

As one who coaches others to live their lives fully, I find the double negative compelling. The question becomes, how do we discover the thing we can’t not do?

One answer is to clarify what we value most and the things we do best. What pursuits yield our greatest joy? What activities bring us the greatest fulfilment? Who are the people and what are the situations that most attract us?

Students and grads of the equine coaching program with whom Peggy and I work have found their calling and are developing it. You are blessed if you can you say the same about your own path. If not yet, then is it not time to take your next step?

 

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What is it that you long for? A relationship nurtured in love? A purpose that brings fullfilment? A work of creation you cannot ignore? A community that is just and compassionate? A planet that sustains the variety and interdependence of its living members?

Whatever our longings, they are bells of the spirit that we ignore at our peril. Krista Tippet’s interview with Joanna Macy brought this home to me last week. A scholar of Buddhism and systems thinking, Macy is a respected voice in movements for peace, justice and ecology. She is also a translator of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

During the interview Macy shared one of Rilke’s poems (Book of Hours, I 59) that captures the link between our longing and why we are here. It challenges us to explore if and how we may be limiting ourselves, and it encourages us to press forward with our longings beyond what we might have thought possible.

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,

then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

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When the world of humans saps our sensibilities and we seek to escape the media’s gravitational pull, Peggy and I often turn to nature. This past week we sought a favorite cove on the Maine coast to reconnect with family and friends and to replenish our spirits.

A long open porch offers an expansive view of the bay in front of us. Throughout the day it beckons, hosting individual moments of solitude, quiet sharing with another, spirited ripostes when our numbers swell and of course the repartee and laughter of our meals.

Less than a hundred yards from the porch a sun bleached branch of a long dead tree looms over the cove, offering the perfect hunting perch for the local ospreys. The porch provides a protected but open view from which we track their coming and going, welcome their distinctive cry and marvel at their tutelage of their young. While we have seen it many times, their dive for the mackerel below followed by a telltale splash remains a basic thrill to witness.

This year the routines of the ospreys are disrupted by the arrival of two bald eagles who quickly establish their dominance over the perch and the fishing grounds below. While the ospreys percuss they reluctantly yield to their more powerful cousins.

The proximity of the eagles strikes a deeper chord of wonder, mystery and admiration. It’s easy to see how humans adopt them as symbols, hoping to appropriate even in small measure the strength and independence of these magnificent birds.

The eagles pay us little heed. And why should they? The question arises, who is the visitor here? My struggle for answers brings me full circle to the impulse that brought us back to the cove. Who is the visitor here?