Archive for March, 2010

“An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out?”

— Rene Descartes

Descartes taught us all, “I think; therefore I am;” and considering that we were taught to parrot his words, I suppose it didn’t require much thought at all.

On the other hand, what he says about optimism has me thinking; and I’m thinking it may be related to what I was trying to express yesterday about hope.  My mom didn’t need Descartes to help her teach us about optimism.  She put it simply:  The optimist sees the doughnut; the pessimist sees the hole.”  Of course, Dunkin’ Donuts destroyed that adage when they began selling donut holes; and optimists all over America began seeing them as well.

“Is your glass half-full, or half-empty?”  Another lesson in optimism, courtesy of dear old Mom.  As one whose cup usually is overflowing, I sometimes have trouble relating to such deep questions.  Maybe that has something to do with hope.  I can see that there is more to be explored about that four-letter word.

I like what Descartes has to say about optimists and pessimists.   “An optimist may see a light where there is none.”  Well, there’s a delusional person for you — seeing things that don’t exist!  I can tell you, as an optimist, that we do leave ourselves wide open to people who call themselves “pragmatists.”  They want us to see only what is tangible and physical as being real.  Under their rules, the optimist is out of touch with reality and sees a light where there is none.  Descartes goes on to ask, “but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out?”

Oh, I like that!  Here I stand, optimistically admiring a light that does not exist, and someone who tells me it doesn’t exist feels compelled to take the time to blow it out!  Thank you, dear pessimist, for making my light very real!  Your need to extinguish my non-existent light acknowledges its existence just as loudly as my need to see it shine.

Maybe it is  hope that opens the eyes of my soul and allows me to see the light.  Maybe it is the hurt and despair of the pessimist that block his ability to tolerate the light.  My Mom also taught me that “misery loves company,” but I think it would take a lot of pain to make the pessimist miserable enough to go out of his way to extinguish my light.

Descartes also said,  “I am accustomed to sleep and in my dreams to imagine the same things that lunatics imagine when awake.”  I am left to wonder whether he is judgmental of his dreams as being worthless or of the injustice we create when we say it is lunacy to dream.  I know what I think.  I think we must continue to see the light, even when someone blows it out.  As optimists — as hopeful, hope-filled people — we must continue to call attention to the light that others cannot see — that they say does not exist.

I leave you with this dream, and I dare to dream it while awake.  I see the optimist, looking at the light that does not exist.  I see the pessimist, running to blow out the light.  I see myself, fueled by the hope in my spirit, running ahead to cup my hands around the tiny flame and protect it from the wind so that it will continue to burn.  Maybe one day a visionary will come and feed that flame so that our dreams will become our reality.

Yesterday on Facebook, someone posted a question about a four-letter word.

She asked, ” whether or not hope is good idea. Hope for what may come to be is future oriented & may take us out of the present. But how can we work for healing, peace & social justice in the present without hope that change is possible? Where does hope enable you to give your all to the present?”

Hope.  A four-letter word.  When we use it as a verb, we say “hope” to speak about predicting an outcome.  My granddaughter hopes that she will receive an iPod for her birthday.  We hope her team will win the basketball tournament.  As a noun, “hope” can mean several things.  A dying patient might accept experimental treatment because it is her only hope.  Being understood by my friend might be my fondest hope. We use the phrase, “we live in hope,” interchangeably with “leave it up to fate,” in situations where the outcome is unclear but we would like to see a positive result.

Suppose instead of using it to say, “it’s beyond my control,” we use “we live in hope” to express the sense of certainty we have in each moment that the choices we make are worth making and that choosing the path of love and peace and building will make the next moment even better.  We may not see the specific outcome of our choices, but we trust that following the path with a heart is always the thing to do.  Suppose that hope is not the future fulfillment, but the fuel in our soul that feeds our love and compassion?

I think it is more a matter of, “hope lives in us,” than “we live in hope.”  It is hope that encourages us to be love in our world — not hope for our own individual dreams, but hope for the true, created nature of human beings to prevail in all its beauty.  When we live in hope — or hope lives in us — we greet each moment as another opportunity to become who we truly are.  As more and more of us get in touch with the hope that dwells within, the outcome predictably will be one of finding common ground.

Faith is seeing a garden grow one year, planting seeds the next year, and feeling with some certainty that the plants will grow.  Hope is knowing that seeds need planting if they are to grow and putting them in the ground, year after year, whether we see one sprout or not.  It is a kind of knowing that doesn’t depend on external experiences — it simply exists as a part of who we are as members of the universe.

Hope is not an idea or a dream for the future; it is the flame of the spirit’s passion for all things that are beautiful and true.

We live in hope, because hope lives in us.

Fun is in the air this week.  My granddaughter, Lily, is in town for Spring Break, and we plan to spend some relaxed time together enjoying each other and catching up.  Except for summers when she stays with her Dad — our son — for two weeks at a time, we only see Miss Lily Belle a weekend at a time.  We see her growing and changing, but we don’t have time to explore what that means during her shorter visits.

This time will be different.  I already know that after she popped in on Saturday to announce her arrival in town. At Christmastime last December, when the whole gang gathered at our house, I pulled out my brand new djembe and some smaller drums and rhythm instruments, and the kids and I made joyful noise.

For those of you who are saying, “djembe?” here is a picture:

They don’t come decorated like that; but since the key to learning to play something as loud as a drum is to leave inhibitions behind, I’ve allowed my inner child to come to the surface and make the drum her own.  Decorating my djembe with beads and baubles that have some meaning for me makes it more my own.  We are good buddies, my drum and me; so I was delighted when Lily asked if she could play it.  I was pleased that she had enjoyed our other rhythmic venture enough to want more, and I was excited to have some time to show my almost-8 girl some things the younger grandchildren couldn’t understand.

I showed Lily how to hold the drum by tilting it forward slightly and bracing it with her legs.  She had a little trouble managing the adult-size instrument, but the only other choice was a toddler-size djembe that was too small for her hands and wouldn’t make the booming bass sounds of the bigger drum.  I showed her how to play the big bass note and the higher “tone” note, played toward the edge of the drum.  She experimented a little bit and then looked up.  I could tell that she wanted more, so I grabbed the baby drum and did my best to set the rhythms.

I played a pattern of sounds and gestured to Lil that it was her turn.  She played back exactly what I had done.  I played another rhythm — she started to grin and reproduced it exactly.  I could see her settling in and beginning to feel the music.  We did this copycat playing for about five minutes, until I couldn’t think of anything new.  I was amazed that someone so young was so good at producing whatever pattern of sounds she heard — even when the beat was syncopated.  “What else can I do?” she wanted to know, so I taught her an easy Call and Response pattern.  Call and Response is when one drummer plays a series of notes and another responds with a different beat.  It’s like a conversation between two drums, and Lily liked that idea.  We played our chat back and forth several times, and then Lily called her Dad in for a performance.  She had to redo everything we had played, and her confidence grew with each note she produced.

By the time our recital was done, Lily was just overflowing with the music, and her eyes lit up with the excitement of the shared experience and the discovery of her own ability.  She danced across the room, jumped into my lap, and gave me the best hug — not the usual “I love you” kind, but the “WE did it” kind of celebratory hug that comes from deep in the heart of someone who shares your passion.  I have a feeling there will be a lot of drumming in our future!

As I wrap up my story, several things come to mind.  First is to invite you to find a passion that lets you leave your inhibitions behind and play with the child who once was you and who still lives in the place of unbridled excitement that dwells in your spirit.  Second is to share your passion with a child and encourage them to see that being an adult doesn’t mean leaving the joy behind.  Too often, we let our inhibitions dictate and regulate our choices.  Whatever your music may be, make sure that now and then you let it overflow!

There is a path I like to walk around town.  It’s been five months since I’ve taken it, because it goes up and down some hills; and my doctor recommended flat terrain after a knee injury last Fall.  Today I decided it was time to test all the exercise I’ve been doing and go back to the more challenging walk.

I’ve been having such a great time lately learning how to use the zoom on my digital camera; and it has allowed me to get some close-up pictures of my feathered friends that before were impossible.  Today’s walk was an absolute treat!  In case you haven’t noticed, it’s Spring — when a young man’s fancy turns to love.  Well, Birdland is no exception to that rule, and I walked today right through the middle of a singles club for birds.  The singing was magnificent!  The more I pay attention to the warbling, chirping, and tweeting, the better I’m becoming at knowing which bird to expect when I spot him in the trees.  There’s the robin, whose song sounds like the little bird whistle I had as a child — the kind you fill with water so that the result is sort of a bubbly whistle.  There were the skittish finches, flying from tree to tree, with the red-headed male chirping to his less-colorful girlfriend to “keep up.”  Crows called.  Sparrows sang with all their hearts.

Then I heard it.  The “wheat, wheat” of the cardinal.  I’ve been hearing him for weeks, but never finding him long enough to try to capture his image.  I love cardinals, and I think they love me back, because they seem to like nesting in the trees in my backyard.  Last summer, one female would come and sit outside my window as though she was peeking in to see what I was doing inside.  I began to feel as though she was as interested in me as I was in her.  Often she would let me approach, talking softly, and come within four feet of her perch in the kiwi vine before she would fly to the safety of a higher branch.  Her bright-colored mate has been more elusive.  He has me thinking about the way he can be the vivid red center of attention at one moment and completely invisible in the next.  There is something magical about him — and maybe something wise — as he all at once tells me to let my colors show in all their beauty, but to know when to blend in and be silent.  So much for the term, “bird-brained.”  I think he may be wiser than we know.

“In the Spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.”

— Mark Twain

I’m with you, Mr. Twain!  After days of summer weather and shorts and walking in shirt sleeves, this past week has seen rain and wind and dropping temperatures, which the weatherman tells me are more in line with what I should expect in late March.  Well, call me greedy, but I’m always first in line for a warm, sunny day.  I’ve always hated wearing coats.  They are so confining, and they make it really hard to do things like tree-climbing, turning cartwheels, driving a car or holding my camera at just the right angle to snap a picture.  Don’t panic — the first two examples are from my younger days, and they are simply meant to illustrate that this lack of love for jackets is not something symptomatic of middle-aged crankiness.

I could tell this morning that my walk would not be one of the balmy ones of a week ago.  I grabbed my fleece hoodie, zipped it up, and headed for the door.  I stepped outside, and the air that met me took my breath away.  Retreating to the kitchen, I crossed to the window with the thermometer.  Twenty-seven degrees?  Welcome, Spring.  Twenty-seven?  I added another sweatshirt, a stocking cap, and a pair of gloves and walked out across the crunchy, frozen grass.

I looked at all the blooming plants that had been encouraged out of dormancy last week and wondered if their cycle would be disrupted by this literally rude awakening.  I remembered a year not so long ago when the apple blossoms came to life and then were frozen before the fruit could set.  We had very little fruit that Fall.  I huffed out a puff of breath, as though maybe I could warm the fingers of the icy morning; and my breath hung in front of me like a small white cloud.

Even the birds were tucked away in the inner branches of the underbrush.  Only the sentinel crows, a few courting robins, and a red-headed woodpecker had ventured out where they could be seen.  All I could think, as I walked through a Spring morning that was frozen in time, was how very much we needed the sun to rise and warm the day.  As quickly as I thought it, I found myself squinting as the trees were bathed in the light of morning.

At times like these, my thoughts always turn to wondering what life must have been like for the early settlers of our town.  With no weather service to predict the trends, would they have planted crops as the weather warmed, only to have them die with the return of the frost?  With no imported food, what would be the impact of a year when the apple tree yielded only a dozen instead of hundreds of apples?

As I watched the sun light up the cold, black trees and felt my heart warm at its return, I knew for certain that what I felt could only be a fraction of the appreciation my ancestors must have felt as its light replaced the frozen chill of a cold Spring night.  I will try to remember to see it through their grateful eyes.

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.”

— Robert Frost

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Today is the birthday of Robert Lee Frost, one of my favorite poets.   I love so much of his work that it was difficult to choose what to share with you today.  The Road Not Taken speaks to me in so many ways that it had to be my choice.
I remember reading it for the first time when I was in high school.  I was in my Junior year, and it was a time when a world of opportunities and choices lay ahead.  I remember that I could picture myself in Frost’s woods, looking down two possible paths and having to choose which way I would walk.  The thing about paths in the woods is that often there is no map that tells you where they will emerge.  You can stand, as Frost did, and look as far as the eye can see; but ultimately, the path seems to disappear in the undergrowth.
When I was young and read his words, my idealism rose as I imagined the adventuresome spirit that led this man to choose the less-traveled path.  I wanted that kind of excitement for my life, but I couldn’t begin to see myself as prepared for such a decision.  And life intervenes.  We choose our direction and take a step, and another, and another, and we venture on toward our ideals with the destination still unknown.  I look back and see my walk down my chosen path.  There have been so many surprises along the way — beauty and sadness and joy and grief — each a part of who I have become as I’ve journeyed through the years.
As I read Frost’s poem again, through the eyes of the woman I’ve aged into being, what strikes me is its title, The Road Not Taken.  How interesting it is that in my youth I thought only of the road I would choose and the adventure ahead.  It never occurred to me then that it was a middle-aged man who wrote about his choice and now was wondering about the untraveled path.  Maybe he was having a mid-life crisis when he wrote this at age 41.  How many of us have reached this point, where our children are grown and our time once again belongs to us, only to find that we look back wistfully on what might have been?  If only we’d chosen that other road, things might be more interesting or more fulfilling.  We might be more successful.
If I had a long, gray beard, I would stroke it now and say that the years have taught me this:  Whatever road it is that we choose, there is always another place, around the bend and out of view, where two more roads will diverge.  There is no turning back, because who I am today is a part of the path itself.  I can only move on, with gratitude for all that has come my way and made me the person I am.  As I reach the next fork in the road and choose the direction of my next first step, I will draw once again on the excitement and anticipation of my youth.  I will let my life’s experiences fuel my energy and walk ahead with heart wide open into a new day.   Who knows what treasure may lie just around the bend.
♥ ♥ ♥
To read Robert Frost’s wonderful poetry, Click Here.

It was the kind of day that just calls you outside; so I descended Mt. Laundry, pulled on my sneaks, and went walking under the trees.  The grass carpet was still a bit sparse, but the warmth and rain of early Spring were beginning to encourage new green grass to fill the brown patches.  Birds sang here and there, calling out their courtship serenades and hoping for a reply.

I looked down as I stepped around a puddle.  There in the middle of all things new was a tiny maple, just two leaves big:

Around it lay its fallen friends, the helicopter seeds that last Fall delighted the children who threw them into the air again and again, just to see them spin to the ground.  Soon the seeds that failed to take root will be covered by the grass and gradually decay and return to the earth as nourishment for their successful comrade.

By now you must know that I’m always looking for lessons in nature; and once again she is a brilliant teacher.  What I saw lying in the grass were the thoughts and dreams that spin and twirl through our minds each day.  They capture our attention for brief moments and delight us on their trip to the ground.  Now and then, we become captivated by one spinning seed of thought; and something miraculous happens — it takes root and begins to grow, and an idea is born.  There on the ground, as I looked very closely, I saw it — an idea, lying among the unfulfilled thoughts and dreams that nature had let fall and die.

What happens next will depend upon how successfully Mother Nature provides for this fledgling tree.  If it is allowed to grow undisturbed, it might someday be the source of the next seeds that fly through the air and dance to the ground.  Our ideas are no different.  Even when an idea takes root and begins to grow, we need to cultivate it and feed it and water it before it can reach its full potential.  Just as the earth is renewed by the few falling seeds that take root and become trees, our lives are enriched and renewed by the opportunities to embrace the miracle of inspiration and bring our ideas to fulfillment.

Pay attention to your thoughts and dreams.  In time, one of them will take root and offer you a chance to grow.

About twice a year I sleep in.  Today was one of those late starts, which means I actually heard the 5:30 alarm before I was awake.  I think it was the clouds that did it.  After a week of weather that transported us to summer and  several days of heavy rain, we now sit in the middle of a tug-of-war between a warm front and a cold front.  The clouds rumble in the sky like huge gray mountains — maybe it’s more volcanic than that — but in any case they’ve been doing a fine job of obscuring the sun.  I stretched and blinked a couple of times and decided a sweatshirt was in order for my uniform of the day.  My walk was a short one, partly because I was behind schedule, and partly because the wind was biting and my winter coat was still in the house.  Reluctantly, I gave up on any ideas of capturing an early-morning snapshot; and I returned home to pack Ivy’s lunch and get ready for breakfast.  As I turned to open the refrigerator, my attention was grabbed by what I saw outside.  I tossed the cheese back into the fridge, grabbed my camera, and ran coatless to the back of the yard.  Here is what I saw:

In a matter of minutes, the sun had crept up behind the dismal clouds and worked its magic.  Between the heavier mounds of gray glowed a beautiful sort of neon red.

‘Aha!’ I thought, there is a message here for me.  Even on the most dismal morning — the kind when even I lie in bed beyond my usual time — even when the clouds seem the most gray and ominous, the Light is always at work.  We may not see it immediately, but when the world has seemed most gray and most forbidding, the return of the Light to our world and to our hearts shines with the greatest beauty.

The back-lit clouds faded into the morning sky before I could take a second picture.  The wind howled and blew and the dark clouds postured and threatened.  Now, as I finish my story, I look out my window and see blue skies and abundant sunshine that casts the tiny shadows of still-leafless trees, dancing in the breeze.  I close my eyes and remember the darkness, the splendor of the return of the light, and the tranquil Spring day that has grown out of its restless beginning.  And the light in my soul glows just a bit brighter, and today it is neon red.

As I sit down to write, I’m remembering a poster that was popular back in the dark ages when I was a young woman.  There was a furry little kitten holding onto the end of a rope for dear life — its claws hooked into a large knot.  The poster admonished:

“When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.”

Today was a good day for remembering adages.  The downpours have stopped, but the clouds in the sky reminded me that there would be more to come before the sun returns tomorrow.  Dawn was gray and white again; and as I treaded lightly around the puddles, I thought,

“Into every life some rain must fall.”

Unless you live in the desert and are dying of thirst, you probably hear that as a statement of hardship and sadness that is part of being alive and human.  If you’ve ever had one of those rainy times when a car speeds by and splashes you with muddy water, just at the instant when the wind turns your umbrella inside-out, then you will understand what I’m talking about.  There just seem to be times when the endings hit us left and right and it seems that everything we’ve ever done or ever accomplished just grinds to a halt.  Splash!  Whoosh! And there we stand, ankle-deep in mud with nowhere to go but home.

It’s been like that here for the last couple of days, both the weather and the other kind of rain that washes away what appeared to be the predictable future.  Now the horizon is blank and kind of gray-white, like today’s daybreak with the sun hidden.

The soil where I live is sort of a light-brown clay, filled with rocks; and it’s a challenge to be a gardener breaking ground for the first time.  I remember my first summer here — 24 years ago — spending hours picking rocks and clearing enough space for tomato plants to take root.  As I walked through the backyard this morning, preoccupied with worries and endings, I caught sight of my garden.  Mark spent a couple of hours this weekend tilling through the blanket of leaves we laid on top of the soil last Fall.  Here is what I saw:

The leaves of Fall, having ended and decayed, had combined with the soil to produce a beautiful, dark loam.  Just looking at it and smelling its aroma in the early morning made me think of planting.  I realized that each year since we started our garden the same cycle has happened.  The garden grows, the end comes, the fallen leaves spend their winter decaying, and the soil grows rich.  Each year the plants have grown more vital and more productive than the last.  And, once again, I see myself in the cycles of the natural world.

I think of other times when I’ve had endings.  I think of the quiet space where there seems to be no new direction to take.  I think of the miracle that always takes place when I allow the endings to die and decay and feed the soil that will nourish my next beginning.  From each ending that comes our way, we take with us greater strength, more fertile capability for growth, and a renewed desire to create.

Just as the rain, soaking into the ground and combining with the sunlight will call the seeds to germinate and grow, so the rain that falls in our lives, combines with hope and leads us to new beginnings.

When I learned that March 22 was the birthday of the consummate mime, Marcel Marceau, I just knew I had to find out what a mime really had to say.  As it turns out, the man without a voice did have one; and he admonished people to, “Never get a mime talking.  He won’t stop.”

Consider these two statements:

“Music and silence combine strongly because music is done with silence, and silence is full of music.”

“To communicate through silence is a link between the thoughts of man.”

We use words to express our thoughts and feelings in a way that connects with other people.  If that were not true, I would write only for my own clarification and amusement; and this blog would not exist.  Sometimes we forget the other ways we communicate and connect.  Leave it to the mime to remind us.

I think of all the ways we communicate that involve no words at all.  Certainly, music is one way; and a great composition can stir us in ways that require no verbal explanation.  I love the way Marceau says that there is music in silence.  In a few minutes, I will hurry out ahead of the rain and take my morning walk.  In the early morning hours, the music of the natural world is audible and uninterrupted by traffic or the man-made noise that fills the daylight hours.   Even in total silence, there is music.  In those pin-drop times, we can hear the music of our own souls and the songs of our hearts.

“To communicate through silence is a link between the thoughts of man.”  This makes me think of the moments when words are inadequate and unnecessary.  Take a minute or two and let your mind return to a time when you sat in silence with another person and experienced the communication that needs no words.  If you feel so inclined, share one of those moments here when you are done reading.  It takes a special kind of courage to be silent and hear the thoughts of another; but if we can find that courage, we will discover that the space will be filled with the music of two souls — played in harmony.  Listen to the silence!