Archive for January, 2011

It snowed again last night.  We awoke to a world that was a study in white.  Today is the sort of snow day that gets me excited about living in the North.  The snow stopped falling just as the sun began to rise, as though the universe could only muster enough power to run one at a time — the snow machine or the sun.  The first rays of light glistened and shone as they lit up the crystals of snow, fine as sand, that lay five inches deep wherever we looked.

For the first time this winter, there was enough snow to warrant starting the snowblower.  I like to shovel snow.  There’s something enticing about doing a job that shows results so quickly and that remains finished when I am done.  Unlike laundry that seems to crawl out of dresser drawers, roll in dirt, and magically appear in the basket just as I finish folding the final dryer load, shoveled snow stays shoveled and allows me to admire my work before moving on.  I’ll tell you a secret.  Although, to the naked eye, I might appear to be a sixty-something woman whose days of incredible physical prowess have dwindled from running to walking and lifting mulch to tending my garden, in my heart of hearts I am a trucker.  There is something about power tools and equipment like lawnmowers and snowblowers that just gets my juices flowing.  Put me behind the wheel of our fifteen-passenger van, and I feel invincible.

So, as my sweetheart grabbed the scraper and set about cleaning the snow from our cars, I powered up the blower and began to walk it around the block.  More accurately, it walked me around the block.  All I had to do was set the direction of the blower output, engage the clutch, and keep up.  The sun had made some progress in its climb by now, and I was surrounded by blown snow crystals that swirled and danced in front of me as I cleared my path.  I couldn’t have paid for a finer facial than the one provided by the misty snow as it cooled the heat of my exertion and made me feel refreshed and alive.

Have you ever had moments when you become acutely aware that you are healthy and strong and physically capable?  As I walked behind the machine that truly did the work for me, I found my gratitude overflowing — gratitude for my snowblower, gratitude for the sunlight gleaming on the crystalline snow, and most of all gratitude for two strong arms and two strong legs that allow me to feel in command of removing the snow.  Unable to leave the moment, I thought of my neighbor who is in physical therapy for a back injury.  Vroom!  Just enough gas to clear her walks and driveway.  Oh, wait.  There’s Mr. B., now 89 years old.  He shouldn’t be shoveling snow!  Zip-Zap!!!  Done.  Sadly, I realized that I had run out of walks to clear.  “Home!” I commanded my mechanical assistant, and we followed the path back to his home in the garden shed.

As I eat my oatmeal, I am thankful for the awareness of well-exercised muscles, for the beautiful snow that made the morning possible, and for the neighbors who indulge me and appreciate their nicely cleared sidewalks.  There is nothing like a good snowfall to make a sixty-something closet trucker feel healthy and strong.

“If there were dreams to sell, what would you buy?

— Thomas Lovell Beddoes

Would you buy a dream if there were a shop that sold them?  At first reading, I enjoyed the sentiment.  As I sat with it, I began to feel as though buying prefabricated dreams might be some sort of holdover from childhood.  As a parent, I know that I would watch my children grow and change.  When new talents popped up, I would conjure dreams of what my kids might be one day when their abilities matured.  They have used their abilities, but I could not have predicted the dreams they would make come true.

I remember being a child — one who had many options to explore as I decided who I would be as I grew.  I remember meetings with my guidance counselor.  She thought that someone with my Math ability should go to MIT and pursue a career with NASA.  I would sit in her office and wonder whether I might be invisible.  The only thing she saw was my highest test score, and she had no interest in hearing that there were other talents I wanted to develop.  It was then that I became certain that the only person who could dream my dream was me.

If there were a store with dreams to sell, I hope that you would window-shop and then go home to create a homemade dream — one that comes from your heart, one that feeds  your soul.  Cherish your homemade dreams, for they are the spark that creates you and makes you so very real.  Others can encourage us, but only we can dream our dreams.  Open your eyes!  Wake up!  Keep dreaming!

“Right now a moment of time is passing by!  We must become that moment.”

— Paul Cezanne

Cezanne’s words caught my attention and encouraged me to issue a challenge.  Just for today, let’s all try to live every moment that makes up our day.  Just for today, let’s not spend our new moments mired down in yesterday’s troubles.  That time has come and gone, and we cannot reclaim it.  Just for today, let’s not try to live tomorrow before it arrives.  Just for today, let’s do our best to be present to whatever life may offer.

There is nothing wrong with remembering the past.  As I pass the array of photos on my refrigerator, I experience a similar array of memories and feelings that are connected to the times depicted in them.  There is nothing wrong with dreaming of the future and the way our intentions will unfold.  Without dreams, we would lose sight of our purpose for being alive.

Just for today, let’s cultivate our awareness that each present moment is the only place where past and future touch.  It is only in each moment that we can take our past experience and our dreams for the future and live them both in a way that gives our lives meaning.  Just for today, let’s not waste the moments we are given by longing for times that have gone by or for living in a fantasy of days to come.  Let’s use our moments, one after another, to connect our wisdom from past experiences to our dreams for a better world.  Just for today.  And maybe, again, tomorrow.

“If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.”

— Charles de Montesquieu

From “the grass is always greener” to “no one knows what goes on behind closed doors,” I must say that Montesquieu hits the nail right on the head.  Why is it that we need to look outside of ourselves for comparison in order to feel happy?  True happiness is not something that is dependent on external happenings.  It is not something we possess or don’t possess due to comparison with the success or happiness of others.  True happiness is something that we cultivate within our own hearts and bring to the happenings that compose our life.

The question that arises is this:  When we allow our happiness to be dependent on other people or events, are we really talking about happiness at all?  Needing to be happier than other people in order to consider ourselves happy sounds more like greed than happiness.  When we see the grass as always greener on our neighbor’s side of the fence, we fall victim to envy — funny that it should be called the green-eyed monster.  When we look for happiness outside of ourselves, we are at the mercy of the color palette of others.  We allow them to decide how we will see ourselves — in full color, or in shades of green.  When our happiness dwells within us, we bring color to the world.  It is only when we are content within ourselves that we are able to share the happiness of another person’s good fortune.

The way to cultivate happiness is to cultivate gratitude.  Being thankful for the small things that make us comfortable and content unlocks and reveals our true happiness.  When it is present and we see the happiness of another person, the shared feeling grows and becomes love that colors the world around us in a beautiful way.  It should be our intention to cultivate true and abiding happiness.  What sort of color do you want to bring to the world around you?  There is no need to complicate happiness.  When we open our hearts to gratitude, the seeds of happiness will take root and grow.  It is then that our happiness will overflow and bring beauty to our world.

“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I lay in bed last night, trying to fall asleep — something that for me is usually not a problem, my right foot kept finding a wrinkle in the sheet.  That wrinkle might as well have been a sharp stick or a sheet of sandpaper.  Its presence underneath my foot became all I could think of and it filled my mind with discomfort and kept me awake.  Part of me wanted to lie there and just hope that it would go away.  After all, it was a chilly night, and my body already had warmed the cold sheets.  The thought of starting over was not an attractive idea.  I lay there fantasizing about freshly-washed, crisp sheets that fit the mattress so tightly that there was not a flaw in the sleeping surface.  I tried to erase the wrinkle with my foot; and I found myself becoming more and more frustrated that it would not simply disappear.  Finally, I threw back the covers, stood up from my bed, and pulled the lower corner tight.  I ran my fingers over the resulting smoothness.  Satisfied that the obstacle had been removed, I returned to my nest.  In only a minute it was warm again and I drifted off to sleep.

The solution was simple; yet in the moments that I lay there focusing on the wrinkle, all sorts of thoughts went through my mind.  I could change the sheets.  I had hoped to do that earlier in the day but postponed it when things got busy.  Maybe I really should think about a new mattress.  After all,the value of a comfortable night’s sleep is not something we should underestimate.  The problem grew bigger and bigger in my mind until I just might have considered one of those expensive Sleep Number beds as a solution.  I’ll bet the sheets never wrinkle on those beds!  In those frustrating minutes when the wrinkle seemed so big, the solution seemed to become more and more complicated.  I nearly gave up on finding a way to be comfortable; and I might have stayed right where I was, feeling angry and frustrated at the way things were.

What does all of this have to do with “Being Peace?”  Well, I guess it’s just as simple as a wrinkle in the sheet.  We become accustomed to living in our own little ways in our own little world.  When a wrinkle appears, we become unsettled.  What will we do about this change in our comfort?  Why should we lie awake at night and stew over something that has no business intruding on our peaceful existence?  Wrinkles happen.  Suppose that wrinkle appeared because my sweetheart, who lies on the other side of the bed, had pushed aside a wrinkle of his own and sent it rippling to the place at my feet.  Whose peace and comfort is more important, his or mine?  We share the world with many other people.  Each of us makes wrinkles from time to time that might disturb the smooth existence of another.  Each of us has the opportunity to choose how we will deal with the wrinkles.

Lying in bed and stewing over the wrinkles can lead us to magnify the problem to the extent that we might need to replace the whole bed in order to get a good night’s sleep, when the truth is that all we need to do is take our hand and gently smooth away a small wrinkle.  Being Peace is like that.  We dream of an outcome that seems complicated and far beyond our reach.  We may not think that peace on earth is any more within our reach than that expensive bed that we dream about on a sleepless night.  What we need to remember is to value each small effort to smooth away a wrinkle.  When we gently touch the problem and are careful not to create a new wrinkle for the others who share our world, we contribute to the growth of peace in our lives.  Our world may never seem wrinkle-free to all who live here, but we certainly can lend our hands to the process of creating a smooth and peaceful place where all are valued.  We may not be able to solve all the problems of the world single-handedly, but we can be peace as we go through life and lend a hand that smooths out the wrinkles.

“One way to get high blood pressure is to go mountain climbing over molehills.”

— Earl Wilson

I’m stopping by today to remind you of the two great rules of life:  “Don’t pet the sweaty things, and don’t sweat the petty things.”

We’ll leave the sweaty things in the category marked, “Obviously,” spray a little Lysol, and send them to the shower.  What I am thinking of today is the petty things and the way we let them accumulate until we find ourselves buried under a mountain of debris comprised of molehills.  How often do we have a small annoyance come our way and give it so much importance that it grows to a size that far exceeds its original form?  How can we choose to step over the molehills and save the ropes and crampons and carabiners for the mountains that require their use?

I know it’s been my theme lately, but I think it is all a matter of choices.  We can choose to see the molehill as a mountain, or we can see it for what it is and step over it with ease.  Perhaps we can even take our foot and step right on it and leave it flattened and unnoticed.  Why is it that we choose to let a molehill become the Rocky Mountains?  Several possible reasons occur to me.  Fear of the unknown can make it seem more powerful and more frightening than it really is.  Suppose I step on that molehill find that a huge sinkhole lurks just below its surface?  Suppose I step over it and my foot lands in quicksand?  There is always a chance that the unknown will lead us to a place we would rather not be, but there also is a chance that we will find ourselves in the middle of a new location that brings us growth and shows us joy.  We must choose.

How do we choose to step into the unknown?  The only word that comes to mind is Faith.  We must somehow find the formless place at the center of our wisdom that says, “it will be all right.”  Then, remembering our Faith, we must use our fearful thoughts as the catalyst for creating the courage to take a step.  When courage and faith combine, we know that whether we land in a sinkhole, in quicksand, or in an exciting new world, everything will be all right.  But we must choose.

When we are reluctant or unable to make the choice to move forward, each new molehill combines with the others we have avoided facing until we really do have mountains to climb — mountains of fear, mountains of uncertainty, mountains of distrust.  It seems so ridiculous, when we see it from an objective perspective, to allow small things to become mountainous; yet we do it all the time, because in the moment we fear the unknown.  Yesterday I read the words of Martin Luther King who said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”  This would be much more difficult to do the first time we experience a staircase; but I think that with practice and with the experience of reliable staircases we would find it easier to extend our foot in faith.  We must make it a practice to choose so that we will become more adept at choosing.  Whether we make the right choice or not only matters for a short time; and courage will see us through whatever we find on the other side.  When we fail to choose, we will find ourselves strapping on the crampons to climb molehills.  We will find our blood pressure soaring over very small things.

Let us decide today that we will choose.  Let us choose to move and grow and trust that the rough spots we might encounter will only leave us wiser and more capable for the next molehill that lies in the road.  Then, if we ever really do face a mountain, we will have the courage to climb it.  Faith tells us not to worry, it will be all right; or, as a friend of mine likes to say, “don’t worry; it will be amazing!”

“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

I know we won’t celebrate it with a day off from work until Monday, but today is Martin Luther King’s birthday.  Only after his life ended tragically and far too soon that we decided he would always be born on a Monday.  I know Martin Luther King’s real birthday, because it also is mine.  I like the fact that we share a birthday, because it reminds me to live a life of purpose and try to bring change to the world that will make it just a little bit better.

I’m thinking that Martin Luther King would have considered it a bit strange for us to celebrate his birthday with a day off.  It really would be more fitting for us to spend his birthday taking action — ushering in change through speaking out for something worth supporting.  My much younger friend, Eric Wilden, has been sending announcements about an event in Philadelphia, sponsored by the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement.  It will be a chance to honor the memory of Dr. King by engaging in dialog among many faiths.  Unity was one of MLK’s messages.  I will participate in another event, one that combines community, caring, and fun.  Supporting those who work for the healing of the world was another of Dr. King’s initiatives.  When the Lehigh Valley Drum Circle gathers on Monday, we will be raising funds to support the work of St. Luke’s Hospice.  I like to think that my birthday brother would approve of his day being celebrated in these ways, and I suggest that you find something similar that you might participate in to honor the memory of a man who spoke out for unity and healing and equality and peace.

Those who oppose his ideals will always find excuses for building walls that divide us rather than bridges that connect.  As I read Dr. King’s words in the quotation above, I was reminded once again that it is far easier to understand and forgive the attack of an enemy than the indifference of a friend.  An enemy’s attack hurts for a moment, but a friend’s indifference wounds deeply.  I heard my sweetheart ask our granddaughter the other day, “do you know the opposite of love?”  “Hate,” she responded.  “Many people think that,” he said, “but at least when someone hates it means they are investing in showing an emotion.  I think the opposite of love is indifference.”  When someone brings nothing, we are left with a void that can make us feel insignificant and our work seem futile.  When we face opposition, it often becomes the opening through which our words can pass and touch another with dialog that can bring us closer together.

As we remember Martin Luther King on his birthday — the real one or the Monday holiday — let us build bridges that extend to those we might not agree with.  Let us tear down the walls that separate us in our indifference.  Let us do something, however small it might be, and honor his memory by tipping the scales toward unity.  We may not think our small voices might fall on many ears; but if we choose indifference,our silence will be deafening.

” To educate yourself for the feeling of gratitude means to take nothing for granted, but to always seek out and value the kindness that stands behind the action. Nothing that is done for you is a matter of course. Everything originates in a will for the good, which is directed at you. Train yourself never to put off the word or action for the expression of gratitude.”

— Albert Schweitzer

As I sit and eat my daily oatmeal — my routine breakfast since taking control of my diet and keeping diabetes at bay — I think about gratitude.  I remember fondly a lifetime of french toast and waffles and pancakes and other syrupy treats that delighted my palate and started the day with something sweet.  Now I have oatmeal.  Without sugar.  For sweetness I add some berries or peaches, frozen last summer at the peak of their freshness, and they make the oatmeal a bit more exciting than it would be without their addition.  I suppose I could spend the rest of my life longing for the good old days of mega-breakfast.  After all, it was my favorite meal of the day.  Instead, I have made a choice to embrace the oatmeal that nourishes my body and keeps it healthy.  I am grateful for oatmeal, every single day, because it is a key to maintaining my health.  I am grateful for the sense of gratitude I’ve learned to bring to my limited daily menu, because it extends far beyond the meal of the day and expresses my gratitude for being alive.  Alive and healthy is a good combination; and so I am grateful for oatmeal.

I suppose I could be angry and feel entitled to maple syrup and carbohydrate-laden breakfast pastries.  Entitlement is the opposite of gratitude.  I could spend my days whining about all the things I don’t have and miss the enjoyment of the ones that are mine.  When we think that the world owes us everything, how can we ever be satisfied that we are given something?  It is seeking out the kindness that motivates the arrival of good things in our lives that nourishes our gratitude and lets it grow until it overflows.

When we expect nothing and something good comes our way, we call it a surprise.  People who suffer from entitlement never experience the joy of surprises; because, in the end, they feel that they were owed the good thing that came their way.  Where is the joy in that?  Yesterday the UPS man came to my door with a box.  I couldn’t remember ordering anything that would require delivery, so I was surprised to find him at my house.  The box was addressed to me, and the return address was one of an online friend.  Now I was becoming curious!  When I opened the box, I was met with a colorful bag that proclaimed, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”  It arrived two days early, so I really was taken off-guard.  What poured out of the bag, amid glitter and confetti, was an array of thoughtful gifts from a group of online sisters I’ve never met except through our sharing and correspondence.  My eyes welled with happy tears as my gratitude overflowed.  I had no idea that such a surprise would be part of my birthday celebration this year.  I will enjoy the gifts for what they are; but more than that, I will enjoy the warm feeling of the kindness and love that motivated my friends to remember me and send something tangible as an expression of their love.  Gratitude is a wonderful thing.  When it is the choice we make for greeting the surprises in our lives, we never feel disappointed over what we do not receive.  Instead, we feel blessed by the good things that do come our way.  I didn’t expect this wonderful surprise, but the kindness behind it convinced me that I was deserving of its arrival.  And I am grateful.

If we cultivate kindness toward others and a sense of gratitude in ourselves, for the little things as well as the big ones, our joy can be constant.  I am grateful for my morning oatmeal which has taught me some things about gratitude; and I am grateful for surprises that cause it to overflow.

“See how nature — trees, flowers, grass — grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…we need silence to be able to touch souls.”

— Mother Teresa

After writing about the allure of my morning walks being partially due to the chance for silence, I began thinking about how noisy life really can be.  When was the last time you remember enjoying more than a moment of silence?  I take a deep breath, and I can hear the air move through my nose and mouth as it fills my lungs.  I breathe out, and I can hear the escape of my exhaled air as it returns to the atmosphere outside of my body.  For an instant, between the inhale and the exhale, there is silence.  Try it.  Can you hear what I am saying?  My mind then goes to one of my favorite poets, Kabir, who says, “Tell me, student, what is God?  He is the breath inside the breath.”  And I think again of silence.  Mother Teresa’s words come to me.  She speaks of the silence of nature, and I could substitute “wisdom” for “silence” in her statement.  All the time we spend making noise only serves to obscure the silent wisdom that continues to support our very existence.

Maybe I am more aware of this than usual because I’ve just returned from a school meeting for one of my kids.  There we sat, five of us, limited to an hour’s time to discuss and decide upon a program that will last for a whole year of her education.  If we need silence in order to collect our thoughts and reflect on them — if we need silence in order to notice and incorporate the wisdom that underlies the noise — then I would venture to say that there was not much wisdom at work in the meeting where everyone talked more than we listened.  Wisdom will have to show itself in the quiet moments we spend reflecting on our discussions; and I am certain that we will need another time to sort out the data and pull it together.  I wonder how different our meeting might have been if we had taken a couple of minutes now and then to silently consider each person’s contributions.

It should come as no surprise that I am a huge fan of nature.  In the silent times I spend away from the noise and clutter of manufactured life, I learn things about the world that also teach me about myself.  Our bodies grow in silence.  Our blood flows in silence.  Our hair and skin and nails all grow and fall away silently.  Silence resides within each cell of our body and is an intrinsic part of what we are; yet we tend to use noise and distraction to define who we are.  Perhaps if we take the time to quiet our minds and quiet our restlessness we will discover the silent wisdom that we already possess.  Perhaps when we find it, we will discover that who we are is something wonderful and surprising and much bigger than we ever could have imagined.  Perhaps when we learn to hear silence, we will know at last the secrets of being alive.

“Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard.”

— Standing Bear

Winter has had me feeling grumpy this year.  Maybe my old bones just don’t stand as well against the cold as they did when they were younger.  I’ve found myself reaching for sweaters and fleece jackets, even when I’m inside the house; and that is where I’ve been spending most of my time — inside the house.  I can hear the cold wind running its fingers around the edges of my ancient doors and windows, looking for a pry spot where it can insinuate itself and send a wintry draft to blow past my feet and send me running for wool socks.  “Bah!  Humbug!” I would Scrooge, “I hate winter.”  Gradually, my heart had grown as cold as the brittle wind and as hard as ice.

Then the snow began to fall.  Late last night, as I sat all cozy and warm on the couch, I noticed that the sounds of the street had begun to change.  The cars all wore cotton tires and tiptoed silently down the road as if their usual rushing whoosh no longer belonged under the starless winter sky.  I looked toward the changing voice of the street and saw it — tiny snowflakes, as tiny as grains of salt, falling by the millions and sparkling white in the glow of the streetlights.  “Hush,” they whispered to the world below, “Sleep, peace, dream.”

For a while I stood at the door and watched.  There is nothing like the serenity of a fresh, new blanket of snowflakes lying spread on the ground and covering all the imperfection with its pristine white.  I could smell freshly-laundered sheets and picture Mother Nature spreading them and inviting me to come and rest.  I wrapped a sweater around my shoulders and stepped outside and into the magic of the snowy night.  Even before I left the porch and stepped into the snow, I found myself walking lightly as though I didn’t want to disturb the sleeping land.  I turned my face toward the sky and watched the tiny crystals swirl and dance as they fell to the earth below.  I let them touch my face and leave their mark on my clothing before they succumbed to my body heat and disappeared.  I closed my eyes and let the crystal beauty wash away the cares of the day.  It was then that I realized that right in the middle of the falling snow my heart had warmed to the beauty of winter.  I turned toward the warmth of my cozy house and carried with me the warmth of the silent winter snowflakes that touched my face and warmed my heart.  For a long time I stood at the door and watched the blanket grow ever thicker and heard the streets grow ever more silent.  When all was still, I found my own bed; and, like the sleeping earth beneath the snow of night, curled in and let my dreams swirl like snow and carry me away to the land of rest.