Tangerine Skies

Tangerine Skies

In the late fall of 2012, my daughter was 8 months old and didn’t care for the practice of sleeping. She wouldn’t take a bottle, and I was her only source of food and often times, comfort. The daylight hours were getting shorter, and the news headlines were getting more unsettling. Work days were tiring even without the extra challenge of never sleeping more than three hours at a time. There was plenty of anxiety, despair and disappointment to be found in all sorts of places if I wanted to find those things. I needed something to remind me of the good that underlays the challenges of life. So I started forcing myself to acknowledge the little slices of joy, even in the midst of struggle.   I dusted off an old journal and began writing down those little slices.

Looking back at the entries now, some days sounded pretty routine: “Witnessing the baby notice the world around her.”   Some days included events that will probably never be duplicated: “Watching a black bear cub ramble by my home office door and scramble up a dead tree and across the ravine in the back.” Some days were more challenging: “The contrast provided by people who see the world differently.” Most days celebrated the way a body can move: “Yoga. The way the combination of movement and breath brings focus.” And all days were punctuated by the vibrancy of the natural world: “Tangerine skies and evening shadows hinting at possibilities yet to come.” Continue reading “Tangerine Skies”

Beauty Is Meaning

Beauty Is Meaning

Anne Lamott writes, in Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair:

One rarely knows where to begin the search for meaning, though by necessity, we can only start where we are… It somehow has to do with sticking together as we try to make sense of chaos, and that seems a way to begin.

We try to help where we can, and try to survive our own trials and stresses, illnesses and elections. We work really hard at not being driven crazy by noise and speed and extremely annoying people, whose names we are too polite to mention. We try not to be tripped up by major global sadness, difficulties in our families or the death of old pets…

We work hard, we enjoy life as we can, we endure. We try to help ourselves and one another. We try to be more present and less petty. Some days go better than others. We look for solace in nature and art and maybe, if we are lucky, the quiet satisfaction of our homes.

We work hard, we try to enjoy life, we endure.  Life so many times is harder than we want it to be.  “It’s just the human condition”, they say.  Maybe they are right.  Maybe we humans are inevitably drawn into chaos, turmoil and bleak moods just because it’s the human condition.  We seem to destroy our habitat and each other and ourselves more every day.  We let money dictate our choices, we give into selfish interests and we focus on what’s wrong and on what needs fixing.  We let systems keep us captive, we give in to convenience, and we let fatigue overshadow our values.  We don’t know the answers and we forget to look at the sky.  We can’t find meaning in our day to day actions and we are stuck in the past or worrying about the future.  The world churns on and we get lost in the global maladies of our time.

Lamott goes on to say,

It’s a terrible system. But the good news is that then there is new life. Wildflowers bloom again… They’re both such surprises. Wildflowers stop you in your hiking tracks. You want to savor the colors and scents, let them breathe you in, let yourself be amazed. And bulbs that grow in the cold rocky dirt remind us that no one is lost.

Continue reading “Beauty Is Meaning”

Waiting for the Sacred

Waiting for the Sacred

It is three weeks into the month of December and across much of the continental United States it feels like winter has arrived in full. The solstice – the official turn of the season – was yesterday: the end and the beginning.  Those of a Christian faith continue to wait in hopeful expectation for the promise of light to arrive on Christmas as another season of advent progresses.  The sun continues to rise and set in an ancient rhythm. Undertones of anger and injustice remain alive and well in too many places.  Living creatures die at the hands of other living creatures, for reasons that are as wide ranging as the stars even as they mirror patterns that have repeated for generations.  Traffic moves across the globe, we continue to consume, and our footprints seem to go deeper by the day.  Yet I hold onto expectations and hope that something better will reveal itself in a way that can be recognized.

Professor Debra Dean Murphy writes,

“Waiting” works if you live in a world where you know that a little more patience generally would do you good. “Hopeful expectation” has a pleasant enough sound if your life is going reasonably well at the moment. 

[….]

What does “hopeful expectation” sound like, look like in places where justice has long been delayed, meaning, of course, that justice has been denied? 

Hope is not wishful thinking; it is risk and action and the courage to undertake both.

But ……  it is also vulnerability and a willingness to walk alongside those whose hopes have been crushed.

Continue reading “Waiting for the Sacred”

Shocked By The Possible

Shocked By The Possible

The first real snowfall of a newly cold season is always a little shocking.  Especially when it seems to come out of nowhere on the tails of an Alaskan typhoon. One day the ground is brown and dry, the sun is out and the corn is still waiting to be harvested…..and then next everything is blindingly white, the horizon is grey with snow-filled clouds and the memory of dry ground grows more distant with each glance out the window.  Piles and drifts of snow now cover every inch of the ground, buildings, trees and roads.

This morning as it was still coming down, I went out into the garden and woods behind the house on snowshoes.  It was eerily quiet, all sounds muted by the layer of new snow.  Even though we live out-of-town, cars can still usually be heard going by on the busier roads, planes occasionally fly overhead and people are out and about.  Not so today-it was silent, except for the thud from piles of snow that sometimes fell to the ground from the trees, or a bird calling from an unseen perch.  The only sounds I could hear were from the earth herself, relishing in the respite from human frenzy, enjoying the deep stillness, if even for just a short while.  The silence was eventually broken by a tow truck that slipped off the road and into the ditch, its lights flashing in the white expanse, but even the harsh sounds of metal clanging were overshadowed by the sense of calm.

Perhaps this sense of stillness and peace is the earth’s way of telling us to stop.  To rest.  To slow the constant push to move on to the next thing.  There are so many who may never stop to take in what is actually happening in the world.  To rest.  To be with what is happening “right now” in their lives.  I suppose that is their choice, and one that I have to accept.   I’ve been that person, too, and will probably be again.   Even on my best days, I’ve never been able to impact someone else’s free will.   And sometimes I  forget that I have my own to do with what I wish.  That’s ok as long as I remember more than I forget.   Those ‘other’ people?  They are ok, too, and they can exist how they need to.  So can I.  I can choose to acknowledge the way of stillness and peace, even in the midst of those who do not.   Even in the midst of my own inner typhoons when they start to swirl –  every storm has an eye, after all, one that provides space to remember and grab onto that peace to ride out the next wave.

So I can embrace the stillness that lives inside and give thanks for it when it is visible outside.  I can make peace with what is, what has been and what will be.  And above all, as Rumi celebrates, I can Come out from the circle of time and into the circle of love.  I can be shocked by what’s possible when I live that way.

Allow yourself to be shocked by what’s possible.

Cultivating Gentleness

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It’s not just schools that often lack gentleness. Workplaces can rub us raw too, as can public transit, shopping malls, restaurants, and daycare. The levels of noise, advertising, and stressed-out people dealing with other stressed-out people can leave us feeling bombarded and drained.

Creating more spaces of refuge, like public parks, is one option. But another option is to integrate gentleness into all our spaces and daily interactions. It could be something as small as turning down the music in cafés. Or as radical as a mother making the commitment to care for herself with as much tenderness as she does her family.

[and at the end of the day]…

It is me saying to myself: “I’m so in awe of you, I must treat you as if I truly understood what noble means.” It is me saying to others: “I get it. We’re wounded and taking a thousand risks simply by showing up. And I see that. I honor you.”  ~Andréana E. Lefton

 

Ms. Lefton writes about gentleness and how essential it is to a healthy human life.  She acknowledges that sometimes creating the physical or circumstantial changes that will allow for a calm and gentle flow to our days just isn’t possible in the short term.  But she reminds us that we can invite that  gentle energy in by taking opportunities to look for ways to create space – space that gives gentleness room to seep into the fabric of our days and inform our choices.  And she reminds us that we can honor ourselves and our experiences by being vulnerable and accepting support – and that we can honor everyone we encounter by showing up, listening/seeing with compassion and offering encouragement over criticism. 

 

Gentleness forms the under-song of survival — the hidden face of evolution, wars, famine — and the partner of resilience. It is the loving touch that reminds us we are not alone, and there is hope. There is healing.  Gentleness exists between people. And it dwells within each of us.

 

How do you cultivate gentleness within yourself?  When encountering others?

 

Sabbath

Sabbath

Yesterday afternoon I didn’t do anything.  And by “anything” I mean I didn’t do anything that I would typically count as “productive.”  I wasn’t at work, and my two year old was napping.  I didn’t cook dinner, I didn’t do the laundry, I didn’t work on any projects, I didn’t practice yoga, I didn’t plan the upcoming weekend.  I didn’t do any of the things that I usually do when I have an hour or two of time on my hands.  Instead I sat at the kitchen table with a glass of wine and looked out the window.   The lake was glassy and starting to reflect the late afternoon sunset as dusk claimed ownership of the day’s light.  The wind of earlier in the day was starting to settle, and the newly fallen leaves lay still, a carpet of yellow and orange and red on the ground.  At one point a seagull called out and circled the lake, a spot of bright white against the muted, hazy tones of the landscape.  Everything was quiet.

At first I felt that familiar sense of guilt for not using my time to address the next item on the never ending task list – in the fall, it’s even longer than usual with the seasonal tasks of gathering firewood, putting up the last of the garden produce, getting the garden ready for winter, raking leaves, winterizing motors, and all the other things that need to happen for a rural household to welcome the winter elements in Minnesota.   And there are of course the tasks of daily life always waiting in the wings: Food to prepare, dishes to wash, floors to clean, errands to run.  It is all too easy to fall prey to the energy of guilt, self condemnation and plain old worry.

“What if I’m not ready for what comes next?”

“What if I fail to do what my loved ones expect/need me to do?”

“What if we never finish the list?”

Well.  These questions, much like the dreaded “list” could go on for pages.  For all the questions that I could come up with, the answer – if I’m really being truthful with myself – is, “So what?” As I was sitting there, looking over the lake and taking in the stillness of the moments as they passed, I was somehow able to see over the what ifs into the present.  I could see that my taking an hour to just sit still and be wasn’t going to lead to the demise of ……….. well, anything.  Perhaps it will take one more day to get all the apples turned into sauce.   Perhaps the leaves will pile up and mat down the grass for more days in a row than would be ideal.  Perhaps while I sip my wine,  a detail will slide by into oblivion, never to be attended to.   Perhaps the world will go on.

I wouldn’t want to have day after day of sitting at the kitchen table drinking wine.  Things will still need to get accomplished,  and I will still be happier when the dishes are clean, I’ve practiced yoga and the laundry is folded instead of in a heap on the bed.   But taking time to just sit and be with the quiet of an afternoon is necessary, too.  Most of us need to feel like things are getting done to be content – but we also need to observe time for rest so we can work another day.  After all, isn’t that what we are working for?  To be in the world in a way that invites contentment and peace for all living things?  Maybe we need to remember to observe what we are working toward in the first place.

How can you build a Sabbath into your week?

Sabbath observance invites us to stop. It invites us to rest. It asks us to notice that while we rest, the world continues without our help. It invites us to delight in the world’s beauty and abundance.  Wendell Berry

Mindfulness In A Culture That Invites Distraction

Mindfulness In A Culture That Invites Distraction

In wellness and life coaching, a fair amount of time is spent thinking and talking about “mindfulness,” or a state of active, open attention on the present, which includes observing thoughts and feelings from a distance without passing judgment. In our first world, corporate-driven culture, it’s something that is perhaps easy to talk and think about and harder to put into practice – after all, who has time to be mindful on a regular basis in the midst of to do lists, meetings, and the myriad of other items that punctuate our work days? Isn’t multitasking the only way to get everything done on time?  We need to make a profit!  Meet the bottom line!  Make that person happy!  And that one! And it all has to be efficient and productive!  Plus, if we don’t judge what’s going on during the day, how will we convey what we think is right?

Well, we might argue that when we practice being present and mindful in the moments as they pass, we do our jobs better and leave our work feeling grounded, instead of frazzled. We can have confidence that we didn’t miss something important due to trying to do everything at once, even if we didn’t get to the entire list. We can put our energy into the thing that’s right in front of us, and we can let things go when letting them go is going to serve best. We can stand witness to the events of the day that we can’t control, and we can take comfort in the fact that we did our very best to impact the world around us in a positive way.  Even if we have to let a few dollars go in the process.

I few months ago I sent a message to a client-one who’s been active and engaged in her process, and thus ready to put some energy into thinking about the questions posed to her about being more mindful. This was her response when I inquired about how her mindfulness practice was coming along:

Mindfulness has put me in better touch with my feelings. It’s making me more aware of my surroundings, especially regarding the senses (smell, touch, sound, etc.). I identify many more blessings and have taken the time to appreciate them. I enjoy journaling my observances. The journal was a great suggestion you gave me.

I am realizing that multi-tasking is not the way to go in most instances. I feel less stressed when I focus on one task at a time. When I reflect on what I completed, I feel I am accomplishing more each day. It feels great to pause and acknowledge what I’ve done instead of just moving on to the next thing for a continuous chain of to-dos’s which leaves me feeling depleted.

Mindfulness is definitely a new habit that I need more practice at in order to break through the old ways of thinking and doing things. It’s been like a new aerobics class or yoga position that is challenging to keep up with or to do at all until I gain conditioning, but it feels great to learn a new way that is so beneficial for me mentally and emotionally.

So as you go about your work days in the months to come, remember to allow yourself to stay present in what’s happening right now. Because after all, right now is the only moment that we can ever truly grasp.

The Blue of Desire

The Blue of Desire

Rebecca Solnit writes in A Field Guide to Getting Lost:

We [tend to] treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire- though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms – since isn’t it as inherent to the human condition as the color blue is to distance? What if we could look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you could own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond.

When I read that, I am transported to a dusty red four-speed Toyota, and I’m driving west across South Dakota.  After miles of corn fields give way to miles of grassy pasture; after the Missouri river valley gives way to rolling tall grass prairie; after you cross through the barren beauty of Badland spires reaching toward the sky, after the signs for Wall Drug say, “wait, you missed it!”……after all of that you finally come to the place where the Black Hills loom in the distance, and you marvel at the sudden change in the horizon.  You are astonished at the majestic expanse that commands your sightlines and the welcoming darkness of what lays ahead.  And then at some point as you continue on your westward journey, it’s gone.  Once you reach the point where identifying individual hills and trees is possible, the black has vanished and only the landscape remains.  They are just hills, now – beautiful and sacred as they always were, but the mystery that came with the space that was once between you and the place you sought is as gone as the distance that was closed to nothing.   And when you look up and out past the place where the hills give way to grasslands again, you can see hints of the next place that you seek, and the color that tints that desire to arrive.

What do you think it would look like to just be with desire — to bear witness to it, inhabit it fully, approach it with what John Keats memorably termed “negative capability?” There is something profound in truly feeling what we feel without trying to change it.  And perhaps when we sit with a feeling, be it longing, or melancholy or sadness, and let it do its work in us, it will – and then it will move on.  Maybe we would feel less stuck all the time.  Maybe we could then remember the beauty in the blackness of distant hills and let it carry us into whatever horizon might invite us in next.

Would it make a difference in how we progress toward the goals we have for our lives?  Toward the vision that we seek to live up to?   What would it mean to “own our longing?” in the same way that we acknowledge beauty and goodness and truth?

Gifts of the Ordinary

Gifts of the Ordinary

Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them.” There is not a day that goes by that I do not have the opportunity to dwell on 30 seconds of disappointment, or 2 minutes of worry, or a half hour of wishing I was somewhere else. There is ample challenge, heartache and disappointment to be found in all sorts of places if I want to find those things. The world can be a place of fear and grief, of anguish and loss, or of longing and dashed hopes. When we dwell on what’s not right in the world, when we shut out the beauty that persists despite the hardships that pepper our experience, and when we don’t open the gift that ordinary offers, the world aches.

I can remember glancing out the front window during a lull halfway through my work day this past September and seeing my husband swing our one and a half year old daughter up onto his shoulders as they made their way to the garage. The sun was filtering through the newly yellowed leaves on the maple tree, and a gentle breeze was ruffling them, hinting at the coming of autumn. Nick walked slowly up the stone path. Eva rode tall on his shoulders, happily smelling the tiny green blanket that goes with her everywhere and occasionally hooting like an owl. They rounded the corner and were out of my sight lines in about 30 seconds.

It was only 30 seconds, but it was 30 seconds of pure joy.

One tiny slice of joy, added to the other tiny slices that infuse themselves into my consciousness over the course of a day eventually bind together into contentment. Sometimes it takes a while, but at the end of the day, contentment somehow settles into my veins. Those little slices of joy force me to acknowledge that when I look for gifts in the ordinary, when I notice what’s right in the world, and when I see the beauty that punctuates every moment, the world gets better. When I choose joy, the world weeps in gratitude, and the ache subsides.

The world wants to get better, and it does when we remember to see beauty where yesterday we saw nothing in the ordinary events that took place. Little bits of the world start to heal when we remember that we are the universe, and the universe is us. The world’s ache transmutes into peace when we remember that there is no light without darkness and when we accept the oneness that wants to flow through us.

The world is better when we acknowledge 30 seconds of pure joy on a Monday in September and when we replace worry and longing with the gifts of the ordinary.

“The world is filled, and filled with wonder. To see this is to be made free. There is transformation in the beauty of the ordinary. The grace, the light of a brief encounter, of the greening weeping willow, of coffee brewing. There could have been nothing, but there is something, and that something is very good. We forget that, in the drudgery of life. We forget to look around with the amazement of a child. We forget to be kind to each other and make apple pie and plant trees. I want to remember.” -Ellie Roscher [adapted]

The Task of Presence

The Task of Presence

Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” When I read those words, my thinking, practical mind is apt to frame it in a way that puts the actual tasks on the day’s list at the center. The emails I send. The sitting I do at a desk. The way the computer dictates the work flow. When I look at it through that lens, how I’m spending my days is not how I want to spend my life. I want to be roaming a woodland glade, or diving into a pool of cool water, or watching the sunlight dapple my daughter’s cheeks as she laughs. It’s quite easy to let myself become dissatisfied with the day to day things that punctuate life.

And yet. If I look at Annie Dillard’s words through a lens that looks deeper into how I am showing up to my daily task list, the picture changes.   What energy went into that email, or that message, that got sent? Who was on the receiving end? Did I rush through the process, trying to do three other tasks at the same time, or did I put the whole of my focus on the words going out into the universe? How am I sitting in my chair? Do I slouch forward, or do I stay mindful of how the chair feels against my back? What am I allowing my computer to take hold of? Am I scrolling through acres of needless information, or am I being intentional about using technology as a tool to help me live my values?

A wise colleague of mine recently said, “It’s the results of those daily tasks” – the people we speak to, the question that pierces what matters, the way listening without judgment shines light down another path – “those are the moments that show what we do with our days.”  And consequently, our lives.

So when I can remember that presence is, above all, the most rewarding part of my daily practice- whatever the task list-I am able to find satisfaction in how I am spending my life. I may still prefer roaming woodland glades to tapping a keyboard and will do my best to make that part of my days, but I can find solace in the good that comes from recognizing that life is more than what we see – or perhaps even what we do- on the surface. It is how we are being that matters at the end of the day, regardless the tasks on the list. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Indeed.