Dear Reader: This is a post that started in the summer and finished as leaves cling to the branches left behind, holding out until the winter wind finally gets her way.
This morning I was treated to a slightly bigger view of the prairie sky, thanks to a wind storm that rushed our yard last night, stripping away huge branches from several trees.
Trees are a premium out here. Every little stick that has the courage to rise from the earth is treated like the Mother Vine, coaxed and nurtured until it can officially be deemed a seedling.
The thing about the random storm is it that I had some dear friends coming to my house Sunday morning – and I wanted everything to be perfect. I had spent a few hours setting out lawn furniture, working in the flower beds, cleaning up the yard, getting it just right. Ten hours later I watched the deck furniture crash to the ground, rocking chairs blow away and most painful of all, our old faithful redbud tree split into three pieces.
I know in the scheme of life, this is a very small thing. But it brought to mind how attached our human brains are to how we think things should be – we cling to our ideas of normal, what we think we deserve (both good and bad) and subscribe to some grand idea of how our lives will unfold .. . only to be dismayed to learn, as Judith Lasater so aptly puts it, we do not get to be the “general contractor for the Universe. ”
It begs the question; when we are all about the ending, are we oblivious to the good stuff served up in the middle? How many times do we not even try because we are afraid it won’t turn out how we want?
On my office bulletin board, I have a cut out of a sparkling celestial creature with the words “Breath, Believe and Receive, everything is unfolding as it should” written across her heart. I think those are the very words our heart speaks to us – sometimes it’s just hard to hear over the din of a world spinning slightly out of control.
We expect our lives to play out to a soundtrack of a familiar song– only to be surprised to learn the rhythm is more like an experimental jazz piece led by a maestro with a slightly warped sense of irony.
Should we aspire to bring great things to the world, have goals and dreams? Absolutely. What is life without intention? The bone jarring pothole is the attachment to the outcome, the judgment we place on this very moment left tenderly in a basket on the front porch of our soul.
Oh, how we would write the book if only someone would hand us the sacred pen.
Even though it is uncomfortable at best and painful at worst, there is clarity hiding in the chaos and truth found in being cracked open - maybe not so much enlightenment hiding in a well-manicured lawn with the bird feeders hung just right.
A Wisdom much greater than we can imagine decided we don’t just get to receive what we deem to be the “good” stuff. . .maybe because our human brains can’t truly comprehend the unlimited supply of good stuff waiting unexpected in the wings.
Instead, we are given the Holy opportunity to breathe it all in – letting the unfolding unfold us, letting the falling branches make us whole.
Maybe someday we can found our way to rejoice in the fact there are no guaranteed happy endings, only happy nows.
My beautiful friend Barbara – whom I consider to be an Okie goddess ruling over innate wisdom, 360-degree perception and stealth-like courage and humor – told me she didn’t know if she could stand it if it wasn’t Easter. She had just returned from Haiti less than 12 hours earlier.
I knew immediately what she meant. It wasn’t about her at all – it was a statement about finding hope, and believing it might be able to pull this heavy, thrashing world in its wake.
When I look out the window today, I can’t imagine a more hopeful sign than the sight of a (and I’m guessing here) 60-year-old blooming redbud tree against that crazy-green wheat field. You can feel, hear and see the world vibrating back to life. A promise fulfilled.
I’m not talking about fleeting optimism here. I’m talking about hope that roots and rises, that sticks by us when the news is not so good and gathers us up when marching on is required. I’m talking Maya Angelou kind of hope that’s not afraid to rock your world. Deep, strong hope that expands you from the inside out.
I had the honor of lunching recently with Molly Biven, a very lovely British transplant to Oklahoma who has kept both her English civility (as evidenced when she reminded us that “talking about politics at lunch is quite a bore”) and accent intact. She and her husband have carved the most beautiful six-acres of gardens at the edge of the Tallgrass Prairie in northern Oklahoma. She told me they no longer cut their plants back before winter. They found they have better luck letting the old growth stay on, protecting the new plants through the cold, and then removing it in the spring when the buds can stand on their own.
Maybe real hope lies more in the used up overgrowth, sticking it out through the winter, preparing the way for its own replacement.
On this Easter day, may the deep current of hope pick you up and carry you gently in its wake.
She began to sing a tale: "There was once a hardworking man
who used to worry so much because he could
not feed and clothe his children and
wife the way he wanted.
There was a beautiful little chapel in the village
where the man lived and one day while
he was praying, an angel
The angel said, ‘Follow me.’ And he did out into an ancient forest.
‘Now dig here,’ the angel said. And the man felt strength in
his limbs he had not known since youth and with just
his bare hands he dug deep and found a lost treasure,
and his relationship with the world changed.”
Finding our soul's beauty does that - gives us
tremendous freedom from worry.
"Dig here," the angel said -
"In your soul, in your soul."
There are so many things I love about this poem. Like the way it paints a portrait of the soul as a playful, song-filled nymph waiting patiently for us to give her the time of day as she pelts us with questions like an unrelenting toddler. I have to admit, freedom from worry seems like a slightly unromantic reward for the mystical act of revealing our soul’s beauty. We worry about such mundane things - jobs, money, what others think of us, wrinkles and calories. Maybe the author chose it because when we truly open ourselves up, we realize there is nothing to fear. We carry all we need with us, like some kind of celestial fanny pack. Maybe the mundane is closer to magical than we know; and when we see the sacred in all things, our relationship with the world truly does change.
Author, psychotherapist and soul expert Thomas Moore writes, “’Soul’ is not a thing, but a quality or dimension of experiencing life and ourselves. It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart and personal substance.” He also says that cultivating the soul is less about creating a problem-free life, and more about “giving ordinary life the depth and value that comes with soulfulness.” So part of digging around in your soul is finding those things that light you from the inside out – from the perfect cup of coffee to inspiring work, art, music and people who make you smile.
Certainly no offense to St. John, but there are some details missing from his provocative prose. Lifetimes are lived between receiving an angelic instruction to dig and arriving at the point where you see beauty in what you find. It takes courage and perseverance to hike into the ancient forest of our soul and root around with our bare hands.
As yoga teacher and author Cyndi Lee reminds us, “A lot of bravery is required to open to the many varieties of richness that life offers."
If we are honest, the reason we aren’t so eager to explore deep into our soul is probably because we fear what we might find lurking under the forest floor. Soul treasures seldom come wrapped in neat, shiny packages. Often they are messy, uncomfortable things that require sanding, polishing and squinting before we see their inherent value. The roots of our pain, our self-imposed inadequacies and our fears run deep. In other words, there are bogymen hiding in that ancient forest.
Yoga practice invites us to sit with what we find, meeting sensations and emotions as they arise without labeling or allowing them to hijack us. What if - instead of running like hell – we invite the so-called demons we rile as we dig, to sit with us, have a cup of tea (soothing herbal of course) and get to know them in the warm light of day. After all, they do belong to us. I know this to be true - if you give them a chance, they will explain themselves. You can trace their DNA to a life event that went awry, a thought pattern that took a wild tangent, or maybe they were dropped upon you by someone else. Sometimes we are relay runners who get handed a defective baton without realizing we have the power to drop it (or better yet, transform it) before we pass it on. Searching for the truth, not judging, just being with what you find – these are keys to clear seeing. We may discover those demons we run from are really maligned gurus who can lead us to freedom.
Pema Chodron calls the process of truly being with ourselves “making friends with yourself.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it is often the most the most difficult friendship we will ever forge.
For our hero in St. John’s poem, it took praying in a beautiful village chapel to tune in to the angel’s voice. In our culture, being busy is a badge of honor. It’s hard to hear an angel’s voice over the din of our overscheduled, over-stimulated lives. Spending time in nature, in quiet or simply being alone is critical to summon the angelic archeologist who invites us on the dig of our lives. But don’t be lulled into thinking the invitation has to be cordial. Life events, habits, addictions, toxic relationships, restlessness and misadventures of the ego can transform that sweet angel into some kind of sadistic apparition from a Quentin Tarantino film, holding a gun to our head until we dig out of sheer necessity and self preservation to find the truth our life demands.
Under the vast, sparkling shell of the Great Salt Plains in northwest Oklahoma, you can dig for Selenite Crystals. These tea-colored pieces of glass have no monetary value, and aren’t particularly shiny or sparkling. But people come here to dig because it is the only place on earth you will find these gems. And once you start digging, you become enthralled with finding more – washing them off, holding them up to the light and cherishing each one for its uniqueness. So it is with the intangible treasures we uncover in our souls. If we let them, they become the starting point for shining our light into the world.
Renowned yoga teacher Rodney Yee asks if you could hold your heart in your hands, how would you hold it? I would imagine you would cradle it with unimaginable tenderness and awe.
That same question could apply to the way you would hold the riches you uncover groping around in your soul. They are every bit as precious.
(The photo in this post is my niece digging on the Great Salt Plains.)
I have a little statue in my flowerbed that is titled “Buddha Birdfeeder.” It wasn’t uncovered during a mystical trip to Tibet or given to me by a great spiritual teacher. Instead, it spoke to me from the clearance shelf at Pier One. I couldn’t leave the store without it. Oh, I tried. I did that responsible thing where you wait a couple of days and then go back if you really need it. Obviously, I really needed it.
I loved the image of the young boy; head bowed with his outreached hands holding a small cup (that's what puts it in the birdfeeder classification I am guessing). You can’t tell if he’s making an offering or waiting for his cup to be filled.
Sometimes I feel like that little Buddha crouching in a garden offering his gifts to the world, and other days I am asking for something, anything, to fall into my empty cup. Most times, I swing from giving to receiving on a moment to moment basis.
Meditation, the very essence of yoga and spiritual growth, is not something that comes easy for me. Luckily, many years ago a friend gave me a magical book and guide to meditating called Words to Live By, Inspiration for Every Day by Eknath Easwaran. Mr. Easwaran, who is so overflowing with loving kindness I am sure he could inspire a spider monkey to meditate, recommends reflecting on the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi daily. He explains that driving the words deep into your consciousness means they will become an integral part of your personality and expression. In other words, you become the meditation. That gentle and mindful prayer has become a mantra for me. I often fall short of the suggestions, but it is a spiritual muse encouraging me to create a life based on what the moment asks of me, not necessarily doling out what I think it deserves.
The concrete teacher in my garden embodies this prayer for me, especially the words, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in the giving that we receive; it is in the pardoning that we are pardoned.”
I don’t believe there is a cosmic scorecard tracking how many times you are on the giving or receiving end in this life. The offering up and the soaking in may be more closely related than we think. Givers need receivers as much as receivers need givers.
I would bet my beloved Buddha birdfeeder that the most gracious givers in the world are so because they have spent some time in the receiving line. Maybe our lives are more fluid like a river; sometimes overtaking the banks with generosity and other times retreating to a trickle until we are replenished by a bighearted spring rain.
The times spent lifting our cup and those spent gathering, refining and offering our gifts both require us to pay a visit to our authentic Self, and that’s no walk in the park. Both actions require humbleness, wisdom and moderation.
Giving too much is as fraught with danger as asking for too much. D.H. Lawrence wrote, “Give and it shall be given unto you is still the truth. But giving life is not so easy. It doesn’t mean handing it out to some mean fool or letting the living dead eat you up … It means kindling the life force where it was not, even if it’s only in the whiteness of a washed pocket-handkerchief.” I’m sure there have been volumes of literary papers written on what Lawrence meant by the handkerchief reference. For me, it means true giving has fire in its belly, offering up beauty where there wasn’t, truth where it is needed and simplicity always.
Love happens every minute – flowing, pouring, sloshing and spilling among the outstretched hands of all of us. No measuring cups, funnels or lids required.
I look at the little birdfeeder statue every day when I leave my house and when I come home. It’s a split second of meditation, a place to take a breath of gratitude for my place in this crazy, heartbreakingly beautiful, mixed up garden.
I read something recently that struck a chord with me.
“Honesty involves taking responsibility. Judgment has to do with placing blame,” Judith Lasater, yoga teacher and author.
There is a subtle but big distinction here. Acknowledging our responsibility for a mistake puts us on a path of healing and positive action. Shouldering blame pulls us underground, unable to breathe or raise our head. Unfortunately, most of us are all too familiar with the emotional and physical injury suffered in the blame game.
I liken it to a few hours I spent underground once in far northwestern Oklahoma.
This corner of the state holds a special sacredness for me – the perfect mashup of light dancing off canyon walls and mesas, bodacious sky and mind-blowing openness. With the boundless horizon on the surface, it's hard to imagine the labyrinth of canyons and caves hiding below.
A few years ago, our family decided to try real-live spelunking and take on the wild caves at Alabaster Caverns State Park near the tiny town of Freedom. After officially checking in at the park office and being outfitted in the necessary gear picked up at Wal-Mart, I began to think our big adventure seemed a little domesticated.
Less than an hour later however, I found myself bringing up the end of a six-person-chain belly crawling through a mud-filled corridor where I couldn’t lift my head higher than my shoulders. We had come to a complete standstill and the words “lost” “and “who's got the map” drifted back from the front of the line. I knew I couldn’t back out, I couldn’t go forward and I couldn’t catch my breath. I felt stuck and trapped just a few feet under my beloved landscape.
That’s the same well-worn tunnel blame takes us down.
I’m not sure if it’s due to nature or nurture, but we humans crave justice. Why then are we so stingy in dishing out fairness to ourselves? A well-lived life will be no stranger to mistakes and regrets – there’s no getting around it.
In his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz writes: “True justice is paying only once for each mistake. True injustice is paying more than once for each mistake. How many times do we pay for one mistake? The answer is thousands of times for the same mistake. The human is the only animal on earth that pays a thousand times for the same mistake.”
Nothing, nothing, nothing good comes out of blame. Whether we heap it on ourselves, become the dumping ground for others, or take our turn pouring it on someone else, eventually it all leads us to the same dark place.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn't own our mistakes and take responsibility – but let it end there.
My friend, teacher and mentor Sara Alavi often leads her students in the affirmation, “I forgive myself for my contribution to my problem.” And forgive means really forgive – not make excuses, not come back and revisit it later, not invent ways to continue to punish ourselves through unhealthy choices, addictions or avoiding life.
So, here’s what I’m trying for awhile: Living above ground. Breathing in, accepting responsibility in a loving way; breathing out, without taking one step toward blame. I’ll let you know how it goes.
(Oh, by the way. We made it out of the cave – happy and muddy. Of course I was the only one who hit 10 on the freak out scale. Everyone else was ready to go again. It remains one of our favorite family memories.)
The image in this post is from a photograph taken by Oklahoma photographer Mike Klemme. It is the bluffs along the Cimarron River south of Freedom, OK.
I have probably told you this story before, but I just wanted to remind you of it again as you turn 20 today. It is one of my most precious memories – although it only lasted a split second.
You were around three years old, maybe a little bit older. You had just taken your clothes off to get in the bath. I wasn’t in the bathroom to help you yet, so you came in the living room and just started running around, laughing and screaming at the top of your lungs.
In that moment I looked at you, I saw pure light. You didn’t have a care in the world and every part of your being was luminosity and joy. It was as if you left a ribbon of radiance behind you as you ran, like a comet or shooting star. It was so beautiful it made me cry.
I have been blessed with a few precious glimpses of that light over the years – and every time it takes my breath away. My wish for you on this special birthday is that you see it too.
That inner beauty and warmth is the essence of you. It’s a place you can always return to when you have forgotten who you are or why you are here. The business of life will try and make you forget it is there, but I am a witness to your ability to light yourself and shine out into the world.
So my beautiful girl - shine, shine, shine. The world is waiting for (and in need of) your light.
So Lucky and I have been spending a lot of time lately talking about the stuff of life.
You see, my beautiful friend received a pretty grim diagnosis recently – bone cancer. Upon hearing the news, of course we went straight to the Internet for answers and hope only to learn this relentless disease attacks 65% of all Golden Retrievers, and that just happens to be Lucky’s demographic.
Of course Lucky took the news with his usual optimistic acceptance, comforting me with his kind glances and gentling sniffing at my tears. We munched on steak and chocolate chip cookies and marveled at how life brought us together.
Ten years ago, Lucky came to us as a very rambunctious one-year-old. Our family had just moved into an old farmhouse on five acres outside of the city, perfect for a growing four-legged boy. Lucky had one slightly disconcerting habit – instead of offering a friendly, tail-wagging hello appropriate for most social situations, he moved right in for what I like to call “the affection hump.” So much that we would steel ourselves when we walked through the front gate and warn visitors of the impending, uh, hug.
Fortunately, a few sessions with a militaristic obedience trainer (think Patton in cowboy boots and Carhartt) cleared the problem right up. After Lucky “greeted” all the other class participants, she quickly saw the failing was not with Lucky but me, the classic enabler. She showed me how to turn my knee into the oncoming embrace and then barked, “you are the dominate pack leader, not a playful litter mate.” Funny how this mantra has served me more in the human world than among my canine friends.
Our morning ritual of sitting on the front porch stairs, Lucky’s hindquarters on the first step, his front legs on the next one while leaning his body into mine, has taken a more philosophical tone as of late. We remember the things we love, like sitting on these steps on winter mornings and hearing geese in the distance sounding a fog horn to warn of the impending flyover. Then, there is that exact moment when they are so close overhead we can hear the sound of wings against the wind and almost feel their draft on our upturned smiling faces, happy to be invited to march in Nature’s cosmic parade. Or lying in the pasture, my head on Lucky’s belly, breathing in the sky, just a girl and her dog.
Of course we have had our disagreements over the years. Most of them involved rabbits and birds that didn’t survive the chase and were delivered to our front step like a damaged FedEX package we didn’t order. And there was Gus the Guinea who floundered ever so briefly on the ice. I rescued him from Lucky’s jaws, still alive but the poor old bird never recovered from the shock. Lucky and I agreed that sometimes our instincts get the best of all of us, but they don’t get to define us. That’s the promise of pure grace – we start every moment with a clean slate.
Lucky mastered one trick and that was shaking hands. We didn’t teach it to him and are not sure where he picked it up. Sometimes I think he adopted it because it just seemed like the right thing to do before you lay your head in someone’s lap.
But Lucky's greatest gift is that he loves the world as he finds it. Every body of water no matter the depth is celebrated, every person is worthy of a sniff and an all-over body wagging salute, every wretched foul–smelling thing found lying unidentifiable in the middle of the road deserves a roll, every stretch of warm sidewalk holds the promise of an afternoon nap and every hand that reaches out to him brings the possibility of love. There is no barrier to the world for Lucky – it is part of him, he softens to it, inhales it and pronounces it all good.
And I guess he loves us as he finds us too - sometimes impatient, cranky and flawed -his tender glance never wavers.
It’s often said that dogs are so happy because they live in the moment. I agree that’s true most of the time. But any dog owner will attest that theory flies out the window every time you open the fridge or car door or grab the leash, dogs are all about what’s happening next. Maybe the truth of the matter is animals bring us - their human students- into the moment, give us a little shake and remind us there is a life going on here, come in and play.
So my beautiful boy and gentle teacher, wherever your sweet spirit carries you next, I hope you hear me whispering in your ear, “I was the lucky one.”
(Dear reader - Lucky continued on his journey, leaving our world the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, 2009 - with his trademark grace and tenderness intact.)