Archive for January, 2012

“The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”

— Thomas Merton

Compassion, “feeling with,” is a rare commodity in our world.  It recognizes the oneness and equality of all and wraps itself around each of our fellow creatures, acknowledging our dependence on them and their dependence on us.  Too often we confuse compassion with pity, a lesser emotion that elevates the status of one party over another and stoops low to the level of the one in need.  Pity sees us as imbalanced and in a sort of parasite/host relationship with the rest of creation.  Rather than restoring balance, pity has us leaning sideways and balancing on one leg in order to pretend that we are aligned with others, when the truth is that we enjoy feeling superior.  Pity is like the sort of cold charity that is given out of duty.  It allows us to feel involved in the pain of another without becoming truly invested; and it rarely does more than scratch the surface of need.

Compassion springs from the heart.  It raises up another being whose balance needs to be restored.  It doesn’t stop until the giver and the receiver are on an equal plane where each can see clearly how much we depend on one another for survival, and more importantly, for our humanity.  We know that our bodies are made up of different sorts of cells that work together to create the beauty of life.  In the same way, we must remember that all living beings who share our planet are cells in a huge organism called Creation.  We must care for all living beings in order to insure the survival of each individual.

Let’s open our hearts and let the love flow to all creatures who share our world.  Let us open our understanding to the idea that no individual being — not even me — is more important or more necessary than another.  Let us care for all the cells in the organism that is much bigger than any one of its components.  Let us feel with all and know that we are all connected by the wisdom that called us to exist.  Listen to the voice of Creation, it calls us to compassion.

“We are the music-makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams, Wandering by lone sea-breakers, And sitting by desolate streams; World-losers and world-forsakers, On whom the pale moon gleams:  Yet we are the movers and shakers Of the world for ever it seems.”

—  Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy

What kind of music do you hear when the world becomes quiet and you sit all alone?

On an early Monday morning, before the rest of the household awakens, I sit alone and let O’Shaughnessy’s words play through my mind.  First, I hear the sounds of nature:  the gentle whispering of the wind, the rippling and tinkling sound of the stream dancing over stones and tumbling downhill through the meadow, the crescendo of bird-song as the sun peeks over the horizon and turns up the volume with each new ray of light, the gentle lullaby of the crickets as they sing the song of darkness bathed only in the glow of the moon.  Soon the music calls forth my own melody, and I find myself singing the words that try to call the images to life and spill them into waking.

If you listen closely, you can hear it — the music of your dreams.  The question is, will you dare today to sing your song for the world to hear?  Will you take the time to listen to your soul and sing its beauty as you live your life?  Will you trust its beauty enough to sing that song right out loud?

The world needs listeners who can hear the music of their dreams.  The world needs singers who are unashamed to share their soul’s song with others and spread its love.  The world needs us to discover the harmonic tones that play when our song merges with that of another singer and increases the beauty of both musical strains.  Only when we liberate our dreams in the light of day can we truly move the world and bring about the change that keeps us all growing in wisdom and love and unity.

As your week begins, take a moment to listen to the music of your dreams.  When the melody is clear and strong, open your mouth and sing.  Bring to the world all the beauty that you carry deep inside your soul.  Sing with me!  Let’s rock our world with joy!

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life.  It goes on.”

— Robert Frost

Life goes on.  I love those three little words.  Yesterday, when I wrote about standing and waiting, I omitted the part about how actively we must stand and wait.  In spite of the demand to wait quietly that comes from things that are beyond our control, there will always be new events that keep us in motion, even as we stand and wait.

As a member of the club sandwich generation —  one with elderly parents, a marriage, young adult children, and even a grandchild I am raising — I am often called on to multi-task across generational lines.  When one generation calls on me to stand and wait and another demands immediate action, it is easy to become confused about just where I should place my energy on a busy day.

Yesterday, as my mom and dad rode a roller coaster of medical crisis more than a thousand miles away, I knew that all I could do was to keep my feet planted on the ground and speak the words of reassurance that would allow their stomachs to settle each time their car came to a halt in the station.  I am not the ride operator; and this time, there is no seat for me in the coaster.  I think of times in my childhood when my parents would wait at the end of an amusement park ride, holding my possessions and waiting to smooth my wind-blown hair before we moved on to the next adventure.  Now it is my turn to be the one who waits.

I suppose I am more fortunate that many people my age, because while the coaster flies over the rails so far away, there is an adventure unfolding right where I am.  While others in my generation who stand and wait might need to remind themselves not to confuse waiting with grinding to a halt, I have plenty of reasons to keep on living while I wait to hear whether I’m needed somewhere else.

As thoughts of life — it’s ups and downs, its beginnings and endings — sit in the front of my mind, I see a collage of events from impending birth of a new baby, to small children learning to navigate the world, to teenagers flexing their independence as they move toward adulthood, to young parents taking over the responsibility of shaping the next generation, to my elderly parents waiting to see whether their time will soon end.  Here I sit in the middle of it all, with memories of all the places I have been and memories of the old folks in those younger scenes.  There is comfort in those three words, “it goes on.”  Long after I have lived out my days on Earth, there will be others who marvel at the never-ending dance.

Whatever challenges life may bring today; we need to remember that in spite of the outcome, life will go on.

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”

— John Milton

There is a great sort of strength in waiting.

There are times in our lives when we are called upon to work; and when those times stretch on for days and weeks and months, we might find ourselves complaining about all the things we have to do.  Then, when an event takes place that stops our doing and calls us to simply wait for an outcome, we might wish there were something we could do.

Last night I had a late-night phone call from my father.  When his number appeared on my caller id, I knew that something out of the ordinary was going on.  My elderly parents are always in bed by 8:00 PM, and sometimes even earlier.  Dad’s voice was calm, which told me that something serious was unfolding.  Mom has been feeling out of sorts lately, and yesterday she failed her EKG.  The doctor had decided it was time to send her to the hospital for evaluation and treatment; and the timing was not the best, considering my folks’ sleep schedule.

My dad has struggled for some time with a feeling of helplessness that sometimes borders on uselessness as he tends to the needs of my mom.  She has suffered from dementia for six years now, and her need for support has become greater and greater as her condition progresses.  Dad just turned 90.  Every day he thinks for two, selects wardrobe for two, even puts toothpaste on toothbrushes for two.  There are a thousand little details that Dad manages, day in and day out, that are invisible to the untrained eye.  To the rest of the world, it appears that Mom and Dad move somewhat effortlessly through their days in Assisted Living.

Dad is tired.  No, Dad is exhausted.  During his days of sports competition, Dad was a runner.  His longest race was the 440 — he was a sprinter.  This life he has been dealt is no sprint.  My sprinter Dad, at the end of his physical energy, has been called upon to run a marathon.  And he runs.

I thought of John Milton’s quote this morning as I walked quietly along my sunrise path.  It is one of Dad’s favorites.  It is made of the words he uses to encourage himself when he has a difficult day and wishes for a simpler life.  Last night, Dad heeded the nurse’s good advice and put himself to bed while my sisters and the hospital staff tended to mom.  If there is one thing a marathon runner learns, it is to conserve his energy and keep a steady pace.  The impatient sprinter has learned the wisdom of the long-distance runner — sometimes they also serve who only stand and wait.

Today will be a day of waiting.  It doesn’t appear that Mom’s current problems are immediately life-threatening; but they remind us that life is fragile and our parents are coming up on the finish line.  The trees along my walking path today were hiding places for many birds.  With all the foliage gone for the winter, one would think that their locations would be obvious to a walker like me who longs to see them.  Except for my friends, the crows, not one showed its tiny face.  I heard the sparrows, the chickadees, and even a noisy woodpecker; but not one of them caught my eye.  This is what it feels like to stand and wait.  The outcome lies hidden.  We can hear the still, small voice of faith, singing deep in the branches where we cannot see it; but still our soul can hear that all will be well in the end.  And so we stand and wait.

“Most people ask for happiness on condition.  Happiness can only be felt if you don’t set any condition.”

— Arthur Rubinstein

It is only human to formulate definitions for ourselves about what will bring us happiness.  We fantasize about a time in the future when some good dream will come true and fill us with the happiness we seek.  We decide what it is that will make us happy and then pursue that goal or object in order to assure that happiness will be ours.  It is good to know what we want out of life, and it is good to embrace the things that bring us joy; but to be truly happy, we must be ready to embrace the surprises of the unknown as well as those we have tracked down with a purpose.

When we become too focused on the pursuit of a distant and elusive dream, we risk missing out on the happy surprises that come our way each day.  It is easy to confuse being focused with wearing blinders.  I’ve heard it said that life is what happens while we are making other plans.  I think of the great happiness that has entered my own life in peculiar and unexpected ways; and I realize that without some of the sad events that altered my path, I might have missed the greater joy that I found on the side road.  We must break free of the idea that we must choose one or the other — either we must pursue our dream of happiness and miss the surprise, or we must live passively and wait for good things to come our way.  We can do both.  Pursue your dreams, but look around you as you walk.  There may be some happiness that will make your walk more enjoyable and lighten your step.  Plant the gardens of your dreams, but don’t forget to love the wildflowers that grow around the fence.  When we remove the need to choose, when we remove the conditions from our lives, happiness will surely find its way into our hearts.

“An intense anticipation itself transforms possibility into reality; our desires being often but precursors of the things which we are capable of performing.”

— Samuel Smiles

Maybe it is because I spend a good portion of my waking life dreaming, but I rarely remember my dreams.  I know that I have them, because there are so many times when I will awaken in the morning with a solution to a problem in my mind.  I can only assume that my mind is working while I sleep and using that time which is free of distractions to put the pieces together. Last night I had a very restless night.  I don’t remember dreaming in the few hours that I actually slept, and I didn’t wake up with any profound answers today.  Instead, I spent the night in a state of anticipation; and the excitement kept me awake.

For the past month, I have been focused on a project.  Today just may be the day that I wrap it up and complete the process of transforming possibility into reality; and there was no room in my mind for anything but the excitement and anticipation of what today would bring.  If I were a child, I would say that it felt like Christmas Eve, when I would awaken at 3:00 AM with the realization that morning was still hours away.  I would lie in the darkness and will the clock to tick faster, knowing that the sand in my hourglass had turned to molasses that clung to each second and tried not to pass.

Anticipation, as part of the creative process, is like the labor that precedes the birth of a child.  It takes place at the end of a long season of gestation, a lot of planning, and a sharp focus that keeps us ever looking toward the outcome.  By the time we reach the onset of labor, we should be tired; but something kicks in that sends adrenaline coursing through us and prepares us for the moment of birth.

As I awoke from my last hour of restless sleep today, I was filled with anticipation.  To a degree, I feel this every morning; but today it was so palpable that the air around me seemed to hum with the energy of being truly alive.  Great things lie ahead today, I can feel it.  May you know the wild energy of anticipation today.  May your possibilities become realities.  May your dreams come true.

“Let mystery have its place in you; do not be always turning up your whole soil with the ploughshare of self-examination, but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seed the winds may bring…””
—  Henri Frederic Amiel

Every now and then I run across a word whose sound carries more for me than a finite meaning.  One of those words is “fallow.”  It is often used in explanations of crop rotation to describe a plot of land that is plowed but not planted and then allowed to rest for a time in order for its fertility to increase or return.  It rests so that its potential to nurture and grow and create will expand.  When applied to agricultural science, the meaning is very specific.  When the melodious sound of “fallow” touches my ear, its meaning expands.

I see my mind as a field.  It has been plowed and is ready for planting.  I have chosen carefully from my past experiences and decided which seeds to sow in orderly rows.  They will produce the crops that interest me — ideas and stories and songs and poems.  The soil is rich and filled with all the good nutrients needed for these plants to grow and flourish.  It requires a bit of self-discipline, but I stop planting before the whole field is filled.  I leave a part of the soil to wait and to rebuild and to grow future crops, the ones I have not yet chosen.  It lies fallow.  Fallow means empty of crops.  Fallow means full of potential.  The fallow mind is the place where nothing is known and anything is possible.

We must keep a part of us fallow so that when the winds of mystery blow they might carry an unknown seed to the waiting soil.  If it is rested and restored and fertile, there is no telling what might grow there.  We have no need to plant in the fallow field.  It is a quiet place that rests instead of working, that listens instead of speaking, that opens itself to more than the plans we make and the ideas that already have taken root in our lives.  Walk softly today to your fallow field.  Feel the breeze that blows mystery all around; and if you are lucky enough to discover something beautiful growing there, pay attention.  Water it, nurture it, and see what wonder can enter your life if only you remember to leave the space for something unknown.

“Love built on beauty, soon as beauty, dies.”

— John Donne

It happened again yesterday, as it does from time to time.  I walked past a full-length mirror and caught a glimpse of myself at the start of my seventh decade.  ‘How did that happen?’ I thought as I surveyed the lumps and bumps and sags and bulges that now adorn my body,’ ‘and where is that porcelain complexion that I took for granted fifty years ago?’  I suppose it’s the curse that comes along with not seeing people based on their external appearance.  I suppose it would be to my benefit to face the mirror a bit more often and make a bit of an effort not to offend the eyes of others who must gaze on my beauty.

I look back to the days when I lived in a body that was untouched by all those years of living.  My muscles were taut, my skin fit them perfectly, my hair flowed blonde and shining in the sunlight.  My clothes were much smaller back then; and I must say that I was confident that I met the standards of acceptable appearance.  It never occurred to me at the time that such things might get in the way of finding lasting love; but I can see now that great outer beauty might present such a distraction that it would be difficult to allow our true beauty to outshine it.

We live in a culture where the emphasis is always on youth and beauty.  Women my age who bear the sags and wrinkles of having lived many years, are encouraged to cover their appearance with makeup and plastic surgery.  We are told to remake ourselves in a youthful image so that we can continue to be accepted as worthwhile members of society.

I face the mirror once again.  I see the apron of skin that sags below my waistline and find myself filled with memories of the babies who inhabited my womb and stretched my skin to accommodate their growth before they burst into the world.  I see the not so perky breasts that fed those babies and no longer are full as they were in those days.  I see the lines in my face, indelibly etched by laughter and smiles and then carved deeper by tears of loss.

I have lived a beautiful life; and now that I am unburdened of wearing my beauty only on the surface, I spend most of my days exploring its depths and boring tunnels to bring it to the surface.  When the deep beauty of the soul no longer is masked by the transient beauty of the body, its light shines with such a radiance that there is no need to mourn the loss of our youth.

Let your beauty shine.  Shed the skin that hides it and release your burden.  Build your love on that which cannot die.

“Memories are the treasures that we keep locked deep within the storehouse of our souls, to keep our hearts warm when we are lonely.”

— Becky Aligada

Today is a day of remembering.  One-hundred-twenty-six years ago today, a tiny baby was born.  She was tiny because it was not yet time for her to arrive.  Nobody expected her to live.  She was born in the winter of 1886, in the plains of Illinois, and her parents lined a small shoebox with a blanket and set her by the fire to keep her warm.  The doctor stopped by the next morning, death certificate in hand, prepared to enter the time she had died on his paperwork.

I suppose you have guessed by now that the baby made it through the night.  Actually, she made it through nearly ninety-four years of days and nights until she died on my birthday in 1979.  She was my great-aunt, Ethel Matthews, known to us as Essie.

There are people who come and go in our lives and touch our hearts in special ways.  Essie came and then departed from my world, and she left her mark indelibly etched on my soul.  We connected in ways that transcend age.  Our personal music seemed to resonate in harmony through our shared love for all things in nature, for words, and for puzzles.  We shared a family, a home, and even a bedroom for a time; and I carry her with me still.

Each January 23, when the cold of winter blows all around, I think of the baby so tiny that her father’s wedding band could slide over her elbow and fit on her arm.  I think of the way that this baby who was given no chance to survive the night outlived her whole family and built a life and a home for the people she loved.  I think of all the warm memories she created out of her love and grace and faith in the goodness of simply being alive.

Happy Birthday, Essie!  I pull a sweater around my shoulders, close my eyes, and carry a little stool over to your fire.  Ahhh!  The memories are nice and warm and fill me up with joy.

“As knowledge increases, wonder deepens.”

— Charles Morgan

Do you remember when you first started school?  Do you remember the feeling that the whole world of knowledge lay inside the walls of that place of learning?  Do you remember thinking that once you had learned everything you would be ready for life in the adult world?  I remember well the day I welcomed my eldest son home from his first day of kindergarten.  “How was school?”  I asked him.  “Well,” he replied, “it was fine; but I still didn’t learn how to read and write.”
I suppose the first lesson we learned when we began our formal education was that learning would take time.  Then, as time passed, we learned that the real function of a good education was to teach us how to frame new questions that would lead us to learn about things we never considered might exist.  Kindergarten was not enough to satisfy our curiosity, so we moved on to elementary school.  Elementary school provided us with the building blocks, the basics of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, that allowed us to express our questions in meaningful and understandable ways.  Secondary school let us flex our mental muscles and participate in a review of the standard questions and the ways people had found some answers.  If we were very lucky, we learned that there are many ways to approach a problem and many paths to the solution.  This learning marked the first step on the path from knowledge to wisdom.
Our basic schooling behind us, we then could choose to move on to more focused study, whether in college or simply in the world of living as adults.  If our education was a good one, we learned that we would never be finished learning.  We learned that each new piece of knowledge would lead to another question, and we learned that our awakened minds would forever fill with curiosity.  As soon as the answer to one question seemed clear, another would fill us with wonder and lead us on to the next adventure.
If learning is the path to knowledge, then I think that knowledge is the path to wonder and wonder is the path to wisdom.  Never ever allow your sense of wonder to die.  Forever add pieces to the puzzle that when assembled leads you closer to Truth.  At the end of each new day, ask yourself, “How was school today?”  May your answer always be, “It was fine, but I still have a lot to learn.”