Archive for June, 2012

“The workings of the human heart are the profoundest mystery of the universe.  One moment they make us despair of our kind, and the next we see in them the reflection of the divine image.”

— Charles W. Chesnutt

At seventy beats per minute, the average heart beats 100,800 times per day.  It moves our blood, which carries oxygen to sustain life.  It accelerates for action when fight or flight is required.  We take for granted the constant contraction and release of this amazing muscle and hardly give a thought to the work it does unless something goes terribly wrong.

The human heart is an amazing machine, for sure; but it also is credited with the ability to collect, store, and release other sorts of energy that go beyond the boundaries of flesh and bone and skin.  Perhaps we talk about the ways we send things beyond our own limits in terms of heart energy because we are aware at some level that there is a similar exchange taking place between us and our world all the time.

The heart pumps out oxygen, collects carbon dioxide, sends our blood for a cleanup and revitalization and then begins the process again and again throughout the course of our lives.  If our heart should grow sluggish and leave impurities to feed parts of our body, it soon will begin to die.  It is vital that the heart does its job of collecting, renewing, and sending out the things that sustain life.

My heart — the emotional and energetic one — is not so different from the mechanical muscle that supports my body.  I travel through life each day and collect things that fill my heart.  Some are pure and loving and kind.  Some are hurtful and harmful and mean.  My heart takes them all in.  It allows me to feel the unkind acts that make me want to despair over being human at all, and it lifts me up to the lightest heights of goodness and beauty that allow me to marvel at the amazing race of beings that make up the family of man.

What we store in our hearts is a choice we make each time we go out into the world.  Like the marvelous muscle that sends out only oxygenated blood and nourishment to our cells, we like to be careful to send out the pieces of being human that sustain the greatest good we can possibly hope to create as human beings.  Our energetic heart can filter the sorrow, heal the wounds, and patch the hurt with bandages crafted from all the good things that we care to take in and hold in reserve for the moments when they are needed.

The busy young cashier who waits patiently while the ancient man counts his pennies out loud as he places them in her hand at the register — she smiles at his proud exuberance of finding the exact change and understands that debit cards are not a part of his world.  The child on the playground who sees another little one fall and runs to help him to his feet — he invites the other boy to come and play, and the skinned knee is soon forgotten.  The warm-hearted grandmother who scoops a tired little one into her lap and wills her to feel the love as it flows from her elderly heart into the young one and lets her fall asleep knowing that she is safe and all is well.

We must be careful what we collect and store in our hearts.  What we have on hand and ready to share will determine whether we send the world a message of despair or one of hope.  100,800 times each day our heart sends out the nourishment our body needs to stay alive.  Can we do any less as we send out our heart song to the world?

“If you always put a limit on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life.  There are no limits.  There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”

— Bruce Lee

“I think I’m as good as I’m going to get.”

My granddaughter spoke these words yesterday.  For three months now she has been playing basketball in a very focused program that has stretched her limits and made her rethink her own view of her abilities.  She has conditioned her body.  She has re-trained her mind to include new possibilities and then practiced patterns of movement that have taught mind and body to work together.  Things she used to think were impossible for her to do now are routine.  Things that once were routine in a basic way now seem effortless as she sprints from one end of the court to another, again and again, without needing to take a break.  She jumps higher.  She moves more quickly.  Her agility has improved.  All of this has happened in three-months’ time.  And now she worries that she has reached her peak, when the truth is that she is only sitting on a plateau. The peak is high above her, obscured by the low-hanging clouds that seem to love a mountain top.

How can we know that the mountain exists when it lies invisible behind the cloud cover?  Faith.

“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”
— Blaise Pascal

Three months ago, the clouds hung so low that we probably would have called them fog.  She breathed it in and gasped as its thickness seemed to clog her lungs and made them ache.  She breathed them out; and as her strength grew greater and  her endurance developed, each exhale pushed the clouds farther away.  Soon there was light beneath the fog, and it became easier to see that the path to her goals did indeed exist beneath her feet.  In the beginning, all she had to light her way was blind faith and the encouragement of others to keep on running even when it didn’t seem clear that there would be solid ground to carry her. Soon the path began to wind uphill; and with each twist and turn, it led her farther up the mountain than she dreamed she was able to climb.

But life does have clouds; and the higher we climb, the more likely we are to find ourselves once again surrounded by fog.  The difference, when we reach a plateau, is that we have had the experience of discovering that there is light above the most dense cloud cover — knowing this helps us to muster our courage and hold onto our faith.  The more we stretch beyond our limits, the higher we find we can climb.

There is nothing wrong with taking a break to catch our breath when we reach a plateau.  It is likely that plateaus exist just for that reason.  They are places to pause and look down the slope to where we began.  They are places to think of how impossible the climb seemed when we took our first steps.  They are places to realize that we have defied the limits placed on us by ourselves and others and found our way to new heights.

Most importantly, plateaus are flat and solid ground.  They are great places to regroup and begin to climb again.

Look up.  Take time to study the clouds above you.  Take time to think of where you have been and where you might be going if you remember that there is light on the other side.  Take a deep breath, fill your lungs with courage, and begin to walk the upward trail.  The sky is the limit!

“Be good, be kind, be humane and charitable; love your fellows; console the afflicted; pardon those who have done you wrong.”

— Maxim Gorky

How quickly the weeks fly by these days!  Once again I find myself at Monday, my favorite day of the week.  Some would say it should be Sunday; but as much as I love the day of rest and contemplation, I am a Monday person, because that’s when all the great thoughts of Sunday become actions.

It is one thing to think of being kind and loving and humane.  It is another thing entirely to step outside of our bubbles and actually be those things.  It is one thing to harbor good and compassionate feelings for others, and it is another thing entirely to risk extending those feelings in a way that connects us with our fellow travelers.

This morning, as I walked the naughty dog through the park, I saw a woman carrying water to a ring of flowers at the base of a tree.  The tree was planted years ago to honor the memory of a young man who died in a tragic accident.  ‘It must be his mother,’ I thought as I walked.  Memories flooded back of the time when I was the mother whose son did not come home one day.  Memories of my son’s life flashed as I walked and made me smile as I visited the part of my life that few other people remember.

We reached the place where the flowers bloomed just as their tender loaded the watering can into her car.

“Was he your son?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered.

“I wondered how the flowers stayed so fresh,” I told her, “it’s a beautiful memorial.”

“Thanks.”

“I also lost a son to an accident,” I told her.

She nodded.

“It’s a beautiful thing you have done to honor your son.”

We smiled a smile that only we could understand.  She seemed a little taller as she walked toward her car; and I have to say that I felt a couple of inches lighter myself.

That’s what is so special about Mondays.  When we break from the pause of Sunday and turn our thoughts to action, things happen.  Make something happen today!  After all, it is Monday.

“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he’s wrong.”

— Charles Wadsworth

Today was Father’s Day.  It began early here since my sweetheart’s youngest son, our Daniel, came for breakfast with his girls.  Yesterday, Dan and his brother David sneaked into the house while we were away and did some demo and spackling in the bathroom as a surprise Father’s Day gift for Mark.  It’s really great to see how these young men who once were the source of many parenting challenges for the dad now value all that he had to teach.  You wouldn’t have known it at the time; but I suppose our fathers all felt that way about their errant offspring before we became somewhat rational adults.

In only two months, Daniel will greet his first son, and the whole cycle will begin again.  It will be interesting to see what lessons Mark’s son will pass on to his own, just as it is interesting now to compare notes with the wise father who still is celebrated by Mark — even though he, himself, is a grandfather.  It is with age and experience that fathers come to know that leaving a legacy to their sons has little to do with dollars and cents and everything to do with honor, truth, compassion, and love.

We spent the early afternoon at the park where Mark often took Dan to play when he was a little boy.  This time, it was Dan who pulled the wagonload of kids behind him.  It was Dan who showed his girls how to look under the flat rocks in the creek and find the tiny crayfish that hide there.

From his spot on the stump, Grandpa stood guard over the historical re-enactment, enjoying the satisfaction of seeing his lessons in fatherhood played out by his son.  It is a fine Father’s Day gift to see your son acting just like the father who once knew so little and now holds a place of wisdom in his son’s eyes.

We will have to remember to get a picture of all four generations this August.

Happy Father’s Day!

“Cheerfulness in most cheerful people, is the rich and satisfying result of strenuous discipline.”

— Edwin P. Whipple

It may be hard to imagine, especially at times when we are overcome with sorrow or unhappiness, but cheerfulness is not an accident.  We choose whether or not we will be happy by being determined to see the reasons we should celebrate being alive.  Yesterday I wrote about the way that seeing beauty in something or someone is the result of loving them.  Being cheerful is a very similar phenomenon.

There is an old parody of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If,” that says, “if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…it’s possible that you don’t grasp the situation.”  These are the words of someone who has chosen to be upset and miserable; and there is little anyone can hope to do about changing the view of a pessimist.  Being upset is a choice; and in spite of the great amount of energy it takes to fuel misery, choosing to embrace pessimism often is the path of least resistance.  All we need to do is throw up our hands, assume the position that life is unkind to us, and wait for other people to prove us wrong.

Kipling ends the real poem with these words:  “If you can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty second’s worth of distance run, Yours is the world and everything that’s in it; And what is more, you’ll be a man, my son.”

It takes self-discipline and a great deal of love to find a reason to be cheerful when life’s circumstances are difficult.  But it can be done.  No situation is without hope.  No problem exists that does not have an opportunity for learning, for growth, and for overcoming defeat.  It is through discovering the joy of being alive in the midst of the difficulty of the moment that we have the potential to remain cheerful and optimistic as we live our days.  It is a choice.  It is a matter of taking ourselves in hand, remembering that love finds a way, and deciding that we will keep on walking until the path becomes clear once again.

“All things are perceived in the light of charity, and hence under the aspect of beauty; for beauty is simply reality seen with the eyes of love.”

— Evelyn Underhill

In 1965, before such things were common on television, I remember watching the Rogers and Hammerstein version of Cinderella for the first time.  Lesley Ann Warren was the winsome Cinderella who escaped her life of drudgery with the help of a little magic and found herself dancing at the ball with her prince.  In one of the romantic scenes, the prince poses the musical question, “Do I love you because you’re beautiful; or are you beautiful because I love you?”  My sisters and I would dance and spin with imaginary princes and sing that song again and again.

Nearly fifty years later and no longer searching for my prince, the question still applies; but I find myself singing the tune to the most unlikely things.  Last week it was a gorgeous piece of red jasper that popped up out of nowhere in the middle of the creek and begged me to take it home.  Yesterday it was the tiny, purple flowers of a thistle that grew along the road where I was walking.  The dandelions call out to me all the time, reminding me that labels like “weed” can block us from discovering the beauty of their creation.

What about people?  What sorts of “weed” labels keep us from loving the wonderful things about others?  What excuses for not loving rob us of experiencing the beauty that is inherent to anything that was worthy of being created?  Do I love because things are beautiful, or does the act of loving release the beauty that lies hidden to the more critical and judgmental eye?  Am I short, or do I have a beautiful stature because I am courageous?  Am I a little too plump, or do I have a big heart that wraps love around the people I meet?

It is only through the eyes of loving that we become able to truly see another.  It is only the seeing eyes of our souls that can go beneath the surface of someone or something and see the beauty that is hidden by the superficial and judgmental world.  If you want to live in a world of beauty, then love your world.  Fall in love with your prince once again; but this time, let your prince be the whole world around you.  Before long, you just may find yourself twirling as you sing.

Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful

“The only way to be sure of catching a train is to miss the one before it.”

— G.K. Chesterton

There is a saying we used in my family of origin when someone seemed to be in a bigger hurry than the rest of the group.  “Do you have a train to catch?”  I have carried this question into my own family and often have used it on one of my children when the rest of us were happy to take our time and one lone person would pace and tell us to hurry up.

There is something unique about the energy we use when we are operating on a deadline.  We are focused, we are prepared for the trip, we take only what we need so we won’t be weighed down, and we move with speed and precision.  I never ask my question when there actually is a timetable involved or a train to catch.  It is one that is reserved for times when the train is visible only to one person and the rest of us are baffled by all the scurrying to reach the empty tracks.

What is it that makes a particular train so inviting?  Anyone who can read a schedule will tell you that trains run periodically and if you miss one, there will be another before too long.  As a punctual person, I always feel a bit distressed if I miss a connection and have to settle for the next one; but I often wonder when the unplanned adventure unfolds how my life might have been different if I had come to the station on time.  Often it takes a break from the routine to awaken our sense of adventure and make us more alert and aware of our surroundings as we navigate through territory by a different route or at a different time.

When I am the one with a train to catch, it usually grows out of a passion for whatever I hope to find at the end of my ride.  Sometimes reaching a goal means traveling solo and leaving the crowd behind staring at the empty tracks where I know my train is waiting.  But I can’t help but consider what Chesterton has to say — that for every train we make we must miss the one before it.  Robert Frost took the road less traveled, but he probably would have written about the other path if it had been his choice that day.  We close one door as we open another.  We plan to travel on the 10:15, and we leave the adventure of the 9:45 for someone else.

Sometimes we take the train that is part of the group plan, and sometimes we yield to the restlessness and passion and creative energy that calls us to take one that leaves a bit earlier.  What matters is not the time or even the destination.  What matters is our passion for travel.  What matters is choosing to get on board.

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”

— Martin Buber

I have made many trips to the Yahoo! maps website this week.  With four out-of-town trips scheduled for the basketball team, I figure it’s always a good thing to plot a course.  How long will it take to get there?  What is a good place to stay?  Where will we find food or do a load of laundry along the way?  Planning a trip takes away some of the stress about arriving on time and being able to be frugal rather than solving every dilemma with money.  I am a planner by nature.  It may be in my genes, although I like to believe that I am more relaxed about such things than my parents were.  Still, there is a checklist to be applied to every trip:  Directions, check.  Hotel reservation, check.  List of restaurants, check.  Cooler with snacks, check!  Smell the roses, check!

That last entry is the one that makes me feel as though I have evolved from the very planned vacations of my childhood.  Some of the most wonderful and surprising sights on any trips I have taken have been the ones with no travel ads, no brochures at the rest stop, and no admission price.  Every time we embark on a journey, we have the potential to discover destinations that were never on our GPS.  All we need to do is open our eyes, open our ears, and open our hearts to the unexpected.  There was the man in the airport, traveling light to pick up his grandson and bring him back for a visit — I discovered his passion for his family and the deep love he held in his heart for every one of them.  There was the tiny flower that grew outside a gym door — it was almost buried in asphalt, but still its roots had found the soil below and left it standing tall and proud under the worst possible conditions.  I learned its lesson of perseverance and pride in the face of adversity.  There were the many-colored rocks that showed their beauty in the stream this morning after yesterday’s rains made the water deep enough to wash away their ordinariness and reveal their true colors.  There was the tiny bird who came to play in the puddle that reflected the trees overhead.  Do you suppose he was looking for a drink, or trying to find his way to a nest that seemed to be in the water.

Wherever you may travel, remember that the best parts of the trip often are unplanned.  Life can be that way, too.  We think we have it all laid out; but just when we feel as though we hold it all in our hands, something tender and sweet lands lightly on our shoulder and makes us stop and hold our breath for fear that it will disappear.  Did you see the butterfly just then?  Was it perched on your shoulder and quietly screaming for you to pay attention?  Live well.  Make a map, plan your trip, and don’t forget to smell the roses.  Check!

“There are two freedoms:  The false, where man is free to do what he likes; the true, where man is free to do what he ought.”

— Charles Kingsley

I have a sixteen-year-old.  School just ended yesterday, and summer freedom is all she can think about.  I must admit that I have similar feelings as the season of learning, studying, and cramming for final exams comes to an end.  They were not even my exams, but the vicarious relief I feel is my own.  It has been hard to watch my dyslexic student grind away at organizing half a year’s material, knowing that her test-taking skills predict success that is limited at best.  There are no tearful goodbyes at the end of her year.  There is only the sweet smell of freedom.

She will play basketball, she will sleep until ten, and her plan is to begin an endless sleepover that will last until Labor Day.  She finally will be free to play without worrying that she will cut her study time too short.  Fun and sun and sports and friends = freedom.  It’s great to be sixteen!

As I celebrate freedom, I think of not having to face my night owl at 6:00 AM.  I dream of the hobbies I will be free to pursue now that I don’t sit on the question side of flash cards.  I will catch up on my paperwork and get it filed where it belongs.  I will work on some rewrites that have sat in a folder for at least two months.  I will get outside and pull some weeds and enjoy the illusion that I am in command of my own destiny once again.

As summer freedom appears on our horizon, I think of how differently we view that release.  I try to remember when it was that freedom meant nothing more to me than being free — free from responsibility, free from schedules, free from being anything but an unencumbered kid.  Part of me wants to have that chat — the one that begins with, “okay…it’s time that you took a little more responsibility for your time and lived up to the maturity you demand that we acknowledge when you want to go on an adventure.  Another part of me wants to scream, “Run! Go now as fast as you can, because adulthood is catching up with you and this may be your last chance to be truly free.”

Today is the first day of summer.  We will sit down and look at the calendar which already is more full than either of us realizes.  We will talk about goals and aspirations and dreams.  We will schedule time to read the books that are on her summer reading list for September.  We will look at SAT practice tests and see whether she can become more skilled at showing the things she knows in a way that can be quantified.  I suppose a bit of adulthood will creep in as we talk about responsibility for pursuing our dreams; but my hope is to have more blank spaces on the calendar than filled ones.  This may be her very last chance.

“If we were logical, the future would be bleak, indeed.  But we are more than logical.  We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work.”

— Jacques Cousteau

Today is the last day of school where I live.  For another year, my high school student has been taught to reason, to think, to learn in a logical manner.  It is good for her to understand the abstract thought process; because in two more years, she will be leaving the nest and navigating a world of decision-making and trial-and-error on her own.  Now she rides with training wheels.  Now her high wire has a net beneath it that will catch her if she falls.  It is our hope as parents that by the time she leaves our world of safety, she will be confident enough and competent enough to hook her own tether line to whatever perilous paths she may choose. It is good to understand how to think logically and reason systematically so that we can understand the world we live in, but we are so much more than that.

While the school is busy teaching her logic, I hope that my teenager is also learning the lessons that have little to do with reasoning her way from Point A to Point B.  I hope that she is learning to trust in something much bigger than her intellect, more passionate than her ability to reason, and worthy of her energy to create a new sort of outcome for the logical process.  Without the faith, the hope, and the passion to effect change, logic does not serve us well at all.

It is far too easy to run a problem through our logical thinking and decide that there is nothing we can do about the future.  It is far too easy to feel powerless in the face of logic and simply sit still and wait for the inevitable to happen.  Logic serves us well, but it should be the starting point and not the end as we navigate our lives.  If logic tells us that the outcome of life as we are leading it will be grim, then we must change the way we live.  Logic only predicts what will happen under a specific set of circumstances.  It has nothing to say about what could happen when we mix in our faith, our hope, and our ability to work.  Logic is only a tool used by humans.  It should not define what it means to be human.

To be human is to think, but it is also to dream, to believe, and to understand that not all truths can be computed mathematically.  We are the catalysts in every reaction.  We are not the dots, but the undefined factor that connects those dots and creates something beautiful on the framework of logic.  Let’s not throw away logic — it is good to know the way things truly are; but let’s also remember to dream, to love, and to create.  These are the things that make us human and these are the things that call miracles to life and show us possibility.