Archives for category: Personal Growth

This is a week of arrivals and departures, when many of us will be traveling to see family and friends. For some our gatherings bring joy. For others duty dictates that we manage aversive dynamics. Often it is a mixture of both, compounded by delays from traffic or weather en route.

For those of us whose destinations are filled with fun, friendly repartee and abundant food, arrival is a boon and parting a drag. For those who must navigate contentious currents the exit can’t come soon enough.

Either way, if we pay attention to our energy accompanying our arrivals and our leave-taking, occasions like the coming holiday hold lessons for us about being present. Focusing on the jewels of insight in each moment, even when difficult, becomes more and more precious.

Yesterday’s entry from A Year with Rilke titled “Spectators” struck a chord.

And we: always and everywhere spectators, turned not toward the Open but to the stuff of our lives. It drowns us. We set it in order. It falls apart. We order it again and fall apart ourselves.

Who has turned us around like this? Whatever we do, we are in the posture of one who is about to depart. Like a person lingering for a moment on the last hill where he can see his whole valley – that is how we live, forever taking our leave.

How much of our lives do we spend watching ourselves come and go, overlooking what beckons before us? Do we linger over parting, or are we quick to say goodbye? After all, it is the “stuff of our lives” even when it seems burdensome.

My wish is to focus more and more on gratitude each day before the final leaving taking arrives.

 

They catch her eye. Wild or cultivated, it doesn’t matter, although this season they are the last blooms from our land. What she sees is the gift of their beauty, which, of course, unbeknownst to her awareness, is a mirror of her own.

Then there is the joy of arranging them, discovering what combination of colors, textures and heights call her to place them together in a sublime embrace. It is as much the dance of playfulness as artistic endeavor that leads her on. At some point she stops, content with what has emerged, mindful that the essence is both their individual contribution to the whole and the whole itself.

The attraction to flowers is a legacy from her mother, who found in her gardens a serenity otherwise inaccessible from the challenges of her life. Her mother-in-law loved flowers as well, further composting the soil of her interest. It is a legacy being passed to her daughters, who in their own ways arrange the blossoms of their lives.

Beyond honoring the beauty of nature’s gifts and expressing her joy in the playful act of arranging there are other intentions. The arrangements gently remind us of our gratitude for the abundance of our lives. Perhaps most of all the bouquets beckon our company with quiet hues of welcome. Placed in the guest rooms, they are simple sentinels of hospitality that she carefully deploys to watch over their stay.

Wild and cultivated, her bouquets are peaceful beacons of love and expressions of the blessings of her own bountiful spirit.

Reunions are a time when past and present converge. The resulting emotional kaleidoscope requires interpretation. How do we (re) present ourselves to ourselves and those we claim as cousins of distant circumstance?

Living in the decade of the “fiftieths,” I have attended my high school and college reunions. Last week it was my seminary class. Wading into the waters of each gathering I have felt the tugging undertow of questions. What was the reality? What might have been otherwise? What is now the routine? What still may be possible?

Reunions require us to tell a story about how we define ourselves. An insightful lyric from Stephen Stills offers a warning: “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now.” Certainly, our experiences have shaped who we are today, but our creativity guides who we become tomorrow. Reunions can re-enkindle the imagination of possibilities.

One spark from last week was the inspiring examples of two women bishops whom our Episcopal seminary honored for their leadership under very difficult circumstances. Women were not ordained as priests or bishops when I was a seminarian.

The second ember to be fanned was a re-ignition of two friendships for whom a fifty-year hiatus was but an interruption. We will likely become part of each other’s narratives in the years ahead.

What is the tale you tell yourself? What do you present to others? Rilke’s words encourage all of us to articulate the truth and promise in our story today.

Here is the time for telling. Here is its home.

Speak and make known: More and more

The things we could experience

Are lost to us, banished by our failure

To imagine them.

Old definitions, which once set limits to our living,

Break apart like dried crusts.

Ninth Duino Elegy

 

A beeping smoke alarm recently signaled the need for a battery change. Reaching for the container of replacements, I was greeted by my mother’s handwriting on a box she had addressed to us decades ago. Each time I open it I welcome with a smile the waves of memory her signature summons.

My mom has been gone for more than twenty years. Her writing is more precious with the knowledge that it came from the years before degenerating eyesight deterred her from writing at all. In my mind’s eye the squiggly lines of her script morph quickly into moments with her that have become increasingly prized for their truths and their absence.

Our signature is a unique witness to who we are and what we stand for. Legal contracts require it as a testament to our half of the obligation. It conveys to our friends and loved ones the special connections of our relationships and our commitment to them. The way we sign off tells who we are. It is as true of our lives as our letters.

I read recently that some schools no longer teach cursive, apparently yielding to the dominance of the digital age. If so, the speed and short hand of texting and emojis comes at a price. I once devoted time to practicing calligraphy, searching for a distinctive presence on the page. It forced me to think about who I was and what I wanted my signature to convey. Then literally I had to put it in writing.

Perhaps that is the core message: what our words and deeds say about us to ourselves and others become our life’s signature and the legacy we leave for our friends and loved ones

Have you ever gotten caught up in the drama of the day – maybe yours or your partner’s? Or a media story? Perhaps one of your least favored characters momentarily escaped the guardians of your sub-conscious to wreak havoc on your playing field.

Whatever their source, dramas happen to each of us. Life-threatening catastrophes are certainly in a category all their own. However, too often we rise to the bait of more mundane melodramatic triggers.

When that happens, having a talisman to ground us is important. I found one of these touchstones this week in some centering words of John O’Donohue that arrived with my subscription to Panhala.

The words provide a perspective that may refocus each of us on our essence in life and mitigate the unnecessary dramas we either create or participate in. Let us focus on the quiet miracle that we exist at all.

For Presence

Awaken to the mystery of being here and enter the quiet immensity of your own presence.

Have joy and peace in the temple of your senses.

Receive encouragement when new frontiers beckon.

Respond to the call of your gift and the courage to follow its path.

Let the flame of anger free you of all falsity.

May warmth of heart keep your presence aflame.

May anxiety never linger about you.

May your outer dignity mirror an inner dignity of soul.

Take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention.

Be consoled in the secret symmetry of your soul.

May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.

~ John O’Donohue ~ (To Bless the Space Between Us)

 

Sometimes, when adversity threatens to overwhelm the spirit, focusing on a simple task can bring us back to center.

There is much to weigh us down in life, from personal challenges to the daily bombardment of media images and commentary. The devastation from recent wildfires and flooding is a case in point.

How do we bring ourselves back to center? One dramatic example occurred in the outpouring of assistance in the wake of Harvey. It was an inspiring glimpse of our better angels transcending the demons that normally divide us.

Most of us regain our footing through the routines of nurturing our families, caring for our animals, volunteering for causes we believe in, pursuing hobbies or practicing yoga. I have found another form of meditation.

We heat with wood, and I split most of it by hand, a little each day. One of the storms last winter brought down some trees in our forest. Before the black flies arrived in May I bucked up the trunks and limbs into stove length rounds. Last week I began retrieving them to split and stack on the woodpile. The tractor access stopped 45 yards short. This meant carrying the rounds and returning the same distance for the next load. Viewed from one lens, it was a highly inefficient process.

Earlier in life impatience would have led me to desist. Last week I slowed my pace and coordinated it with my breathing. I lifted only manageable loads. I used the many return trips to appreciate how much joy I felt walking among the trees. I have the time to do this now. The woods nourish me aesthetically, and they feed my provider persona.

Maybe the reset boils down to this: pay attention and be grateful for the abundance in the moment.

 

As the events linked to Charlottesville continue to unfold, three references come to mind.

The first is a mural in one of the library reading rooms of the college I attended. It is titled An Epic of American Civilization. Painted between 1932-34 by Jose Clemente Orozco, the mural depicts the influence of indigenous people and European colonists on North America and the impact of wars and rapid industrialization on the human spirit. It is a dark picture, indeed, and reminds me of the deeply embedded roots of our human dispositions. Those of you with interest can learn more from a critical article written by Erin Harding in 1999.

The second source is Colin Woodard’s book American Nations in which he describes the motivations and distinctive values of the waves of those who came to populate this country. One of his conclusions is that the dominant values each group brought with them persist today and account for many of our regional differences.

The third source comes from the oft-referenced and aspirational words of Lincoln’s first inaugural (March 4, 1861) at the outbreak of the civil war.

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

As with many today, I wonder whether the better angels of our nature will prevail and how each of us can find the courage to bring forth the best in ourselves to meet the tasks at hand.

Anger abounds these days in relationships, households, our communities and our nation. What if we viewed our anger as a messenger and paused to explore the lessons it may be raising for us?

Anger can signal that our values have been violated, reminding us of what we care most about. To the extent that it is a clip of preset responses that is loaded and ready for firing, it can be destructive. To the extent that it festers inside us without resolution, it undermines our health and happiness.

In the appendix section of The Book of Joy, co-author Douglas Abrams suggests some questions that may be helpful. In applying these, focus on an area in your life where the embers of wrath wait only for an external spark to release them into a conflagration.

Anger often involves some disappointment or frustrated expectation. Ask yourself, “What was my expectation? Can I release it and accept what is or how others are rather than how I think they should be? Can I also acknowledge my part in the conflict? Can I see my part in contributing to the situation I am angry about? If I am angry about what has been said, can I see that these are just words that no longer exist, that, like all things, they are impermanent? Will my anger benefit anyone, including me?”

You could also reflect on how, if not contained, anger can lead to destructive action – from saying hurtful things to outright violence – that we later regret. Contemplate how anger can destroy relationships, alienate others, and rob you of your peace of mind. (p. 318)

Examining the messages delivered by our anger can lead us to different ways of being with ourselves and each other.

In the early days of map making cartographers designated unexplored regions with images of threatening beasts. “Here be dragons.” The image serves us today. How do we face the demons that lie within us?

A first step in confronting our dragons is to see them for what they are. My profession has taught me to pay attention to projection – the unconscious tendency to transfer our personal dynamics on to others whom we then blame (or bless). Becoming aware of our fears begins to defuse them.

A second step is to explore what our demons tell us about ourselves. Why are they there? In one of his letters written to a young poet Rainer Marie Rilke writes:

We have no reason to distrust our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors. If it has an abyss, it is ours… And if we would live with faith in the value of what is challenging, then what now appears to us as most alien will become our truest, most trustworthy friend.  (July 11th, p. 192) 

Lastly, when we befriend our fears by acknowledging their truth, we often find they hold a jewel. Rilke continues:

Let us not forget the ancient myths … about dragons that at the last moment transform into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act just once with beauty and courage. Perhaps every terror is, in its deepest essence, something that needs our recognition or help.

If our demons are powers that call out for our recognition or help, what is one of yours? What is its truth? Who is it calling you to be? What is it calling you to do?

 

Have you found your place in the world? A home for your values? A harbor for treasured relationships? Pursuits that quicken your passions?

A few of us know early in life where we belong. The route of others is more circuitous. Count me among those whose paths have taken longer but who now know and embrace the destination.

This week I began the season’s first mowing of our front field, a sloping acre of rough grasses, ferns, and half buried boulders. Exacerbated by recent rains, much of it is also wet, requiring me to trade the tractor for a weed whacker. These days the chore, once viewed as nuisance, affords time to reflect.

Revisiting the past, I realized that each chapter of life fed only some elements of my being. That is, until the last decade, when, as much as they ever will, all the pieces have come together. Up the drive from the mowing field stands the home of our dreams with views of the surrounding hills. Gardens yield food and flowers, and stacks of drying wood stand ready to fuel the fires of winter.

David Whyte’s poem The House of Belonging connects with me here. The images range far beyond his residence. May the closing lines inspire you to read the whole and celebrate your own awakening to your place in the world.

…This is the bright home in which I live,

this is where I ask my friends to come,

this is where I want to love all the things

it has taken me so long to learn to love.

 

This is the temple of my adult aloneness

and I belong to that aloneness

as I belong to my life.

 

There is no house like the house of belonging.