Archive for August, 2012

“Those who find beauty in all of nature will find themselves at one with the secrets of life itself.”

— L. Wolfe Gilbert

The first week of school has ended, the many trips for school supplies are done, and my pocketbook is feeling thin.  Most of us, in one form or another, are feeling the pressures of difficult economic times.  Everywhere we look, and everywhere our children look, we are bombarded by flashy ads that encourage us to buy things we really don’t need, but are told that we want.  Getting children outfitted for another year of learning always has had its price; but when budgets are tight, the collection of notebooks, folders, pencils and pens can really put a dent in the family funds.  I think I’ll design a new t-shirt — one that says, “It’s Labor Day weekend…and all I got were these stinkin’ pencils.”  There will be no spontaneous trip for one last bit of summer vacation.  We will staycation at home and grill something tasty instead.

It is so easy, especially when we are pressed for time and undergoing changes, to believe that we really need all the things that the ads showcase — we don’t just need a backpack, but a designer backpack, we need the latest sneakers in this year’s color.  We reach the point where we confuse what we want with what we need, and the result is that we feel deprived.  In my experience, the best remedy for this is to step out of the manufactured  world and into nature.

A walk in the woods is the best cure I know for the consumer blues.  First of all, the last thing I would choose to wear on an outdoor hike is anything with a designer label.  The oldest shoes I have are the best ones for such a walk, and their familiar fit is reassuring when I tie them around the feet they have adapted to over time.  I grab my old stand-by hoodie — the one whose sleeves have been knotted around my waist often enough that I no longer fuss about stretching them out of shape.  It doesn’t matter anyway, because the chances are good that those sleeves will be tied most of the time and only slip over my arms when I am too immersed in the day to worry about appearances.

If I pause right now and close my eyes, I can take myself to that place outdoors.  The sun shines with warmth and light, and there is no bill to pay for its services.  The flowers bloom; and even when today’s petals fall, there will be others to take their place.  The leaves rustle overhead and a few are beginning to show tinges of color that remind me that Autumn lurks right around the corner.  Whether I plan for its arrival or not, I will soon be treated to the magnificent display, and again it will cost not a penny.

When we spend some time embracing the beauty of nature, we learn the valuable lesson that things we want may come and go, but what we truly need is with us always.  Take a break this holiday weekend.  Breathe in the fresh, cool air of the evening.  Let the morning sun light up your being as it touches your face.  Let your eyes take in the wondrous array of colors that paint the world outside your want, and let your deepest needs be met.  That is the secret of life itself.

“To be happy is only to have freed one’s soul from the unrest of unhappiness.”

— Maurice Maeterlinck

Everyone around me seems to be coughing these days.  There is some sort of flu bug making the rounds; and in spite of being exposed to it again and again, I have remained healthy.  I can remember suffering from such illness in the past, and my best guess is that my body is familiar with the offending germ and has set up a defense that keeps it from taking up residence.  We develop immunity to illnesses that have infected us one time so that our body is able to reject another attack.  I suppose you could say that our body uses past experience to decide what to let in and what to resist in its environment.  Germs will always be a part of our world, but our bodies are able to discriminate and develop defenses against repeated infections.  Our bodies know how to be healthy, and they can learn how not to be sick.

Happiness is similar to good health.  We know how to be happy, and we know what it feels like to be unhappy.  What we need to do is to learn from past bouts of unhappiness and build our own ability to defend against the things that rob us of our bliss.  Just as germs will always exist in our body’s world, unhappiness will always be a part of our soul’s experience in the physical plane.  What we need to learn is how to discriminate.  We need to learn to choose well what we allow to inhabit our being — what to pick up and what to put down, what to hold onto and what to release.

Just as germs can infect our bodies, negativity can infect our psyches and take up residence in our lives.  We must be careful what we hold onto and learn to release those things that make our souls suffer.  Just as a cough can be contagious, the happiness we choose to hold onto can infect our world.  The choices will forever lie all around us.  What we allow and what we don’t is our decision to make.  Lay down the unhappiness and spread your arms wide for all the good things they now are able to hold.

“There is something in humility which strangely exalts the heart.”

— Saint Augustine

Humility, according to the dictionary, humility is having a modest opinion of one’s own importance.  I suppose this could be said to be the absence of arrogance or egocentric thinking.  It does not mean thinking less of oneself than what is true; but it does mean maintaining perspective about the fact that none of us is the most important cog in the machine of the universe.  Each of us plays a role — an important role — that we are designed to perform; but unless we develop humility, we never will truly understand our own importance.

Often, when we see someone who has discovered the true importance of the humble contribution she brings to the world, when we see the selfless acts that this knowing creates, we say, “she must be out of her mind!”

Perhaps this is true.  Perhaps learning humility does more than simply show us how small our contribution might be.  Perhaps it is through going out of our mind and leaving our ego’s need for special recognition behind that we truly understand the exaltation of knowing that our work, however small, is of great importance.

Humility is sometimes seen as weakness.  It is often confused with self-effacing behavior, with submissiveness to another person’s ego-based agenda, with allowing ourselves to be less than we really are.  The truth is that humility is the key that opens the door to a deeper sort of awareness — the kind that exalts the heart.  When we know and understand both our insignificance and our importance in the big picture we call Creation, then we can find fulfillment and exaltation simply in knowing that our tiny pixel in the infinite picture will be filled with all we can be.  It is humility that allows us to rise far enough above the trivial to discover the beauty we contribute simply by being who we are meant to be.  And that, my friend, exalts the heart.

“We can do no great things; only small things with great love.”

— Mother Teresa

Today I wrote a letter.  It was long overdue, but there is no statute of limitations on gratitude.  It was a thank-you note of sorts, sent to someone’s superior to compliment a job done well.  Those of you who know me are aware that most of my summer was spent on the road with a rag-tag bunch of teenage girls who want to be basketball players.  We road-tripped from motel to motel, fast food to buffet, and tournament to tournament for the better part of two months.  The adults who traveled, under the guidance of the coach, did our best to show our girls more that just basketball courts.  We wanted them to see colleges, cities, and people who were far removed from their experience.  We wanted to broaden their view of what the world had to offer so they could better imagine what they might offer back to the world.

On one such leg of our trip, we found ourselves in Springfield, Massachusetts.  It had been a long day — first a basketball game and then a trip to the Basketball Hall of Fame.  Dinner was over, and this old grandma was more than ready to slip away to the motel room for a shower and about 100 winks.  “Let’s go to UMass!” the coach proclaimed.  ‘What?’ I thought.  ‘Are you crazy?  It’s practically bedtime.’  But off we went, loading as many girls into our minivan as space would allow.  By the time we reached the campus in Amherst, the sun was already beginning to set.  At 7:45 PM we walked into the incredible Recreation Center.  The girls’ eyes grew wide as they took it all in.  It was an athlete’s dream — weight rooms, cardio equipment, mirrored areas for dance and exercise classes, an indoor track, and a huge gym with a sparkling floor and the college logo in the center.  The coach approached the desk and asked whether we could tour the building.  The students on duty told him they were closing at 8:00 and already had begun to check out the students who had been there.  There would be no tour that day.

Then a man named Roger emerged from his office.  He would stay, he told us, and show us the center — his center.  For more than half an hour, we walked and he talked.  The pride in what he did just glowed from his face.  Every square inch of that building was dear to him, as was the campus beyond.  He spoke to the girls about campus life and their environmental initiatives.  He told them of exercise classes that were so popular that students stood in line early in the morning to sign up.  He told about interscholastic sports and about club teams for students who did not play at the varsity level.  And always he shared his enthusiasm for the job he obviously loved.

To him, I’m sure this seemed a small thing.  To us, it was an incredible gift.  How many of our athletes could see themselves playing basketball in that shiny new gym?  How many might have seen themselves on just such a campus, preparing for their lives while enjoying their sports?  How many might have pictured themselves as instructors or trainers, or even as Roger — the administrator of a facility where people could come to play and relax and stay fit.

It was a small thing, I suppose, for Roger to give a half-hour tour; but because he did it out of love, it had more impact than he ever could imagine.

Whatever it is that you might bring to the world, deliver it with love.  You never know who might be watching.

“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.”

— Guillaume Apollinaire

Last night we made a happy trip to a city not so far away.  The occasion was the marriage of Matt and Shelley.  Marriage?  How can this be?  They are only children!  And then I pause to realize that by the time I was their age, my second child had already arrived.  I suppose they really are grownups; but every time one of my children’s friends takes the plunge, I experience a moment of clarity about youth and love and marriage and life.

They are so grown up!  How did this happen?

For years, Shelley and our daughter Emily have been best friends.  Emily, the dancer whose knee surgeries had her benched and Shelley, the cheerleader whose knees could handle anything — it might seem that they had little in common during their high school days, but what they have always shared is a fierce sense of love, loyalty, and commitment to the people they choose to love.  What a nice bond to have with a friend!  It is no wonder that the last year, as cheerleader has become bride-to-be and dancer has become maid of honor, has been one of planning and preparing and pursuing happiness with a deep fierceness that their love for each other requires.  They planned the big event and executed all the minute details so that the moment when Shelley spoke her vows would be nothing short of perfect.  And nothing less would have been acceptable, because it represents the love, the loyalty and the commitment that forges every bond in the life of this young bride.

Who could possibly be worthy of my daughter-by-proxy?

When I first met Matt, I have to say that I was skeptical.  I suppose that is always the way a mother or mother-figure feels about the male interlopers who circle the girls they love and protect.  When Shelley first started to date her groom-to-be, he was a teenage boy.  He was a bit rough around the edges and trying to assert himself as a man.  Already, he was the man of the house, having lost his dad some years earlier in an accident.  Maybe, I thought, this is why he works so hard at being male.  Sometimes his attempts were a bit clumsy, and sometimes we wondered why Shelley stuck with him.  But she saw something that we didn’t — and I suppose that is the definition of love.  The fine, well-spoken, kind, loving young man who spoke his vows yesterday was hiding under the surface all the time.  And I think it is love that called him out of his hiding place and showed us what Shelley had seen all along.  I just know his Dad would be proud.

They have worked at pursuing happiness.  They have found their way through years of loving each other and adjusting and learning to agree, and they bring such strength to the beginning of their marriage that when they spoke the word, “forever,” I really believed them.

Matt and Shelley, thank you for including us in your celebration.  The work is done.  Happiness has been pursued and captured.  Now all you need to do is be happy.  How cool is that?

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”

— Truman Capote

Everyone strives for success.  It is only human to want to rise to the highest height we are able to reach.  After all, the view from the top of the mountain sure beats the one from the bottom of the trail.  I have never been afflicted with perfection, so it is hard for me to imagine that having things just fall into place, again and again, would take something away from savoring the result.  On the other hand, I have climbed enough mountains to know that the view from the top always includes a retrospective look at the places on the trail where I tripped and fell and needed to solve a problem before moving on.

Perhaps my view is colored by the fact that I am one who stumbles.  Perhaps the skinned knees that heal along the way leave just enough scar at the end of the climb to take me back to the moment of failure that required me to stretch beyond my limitations and grow toward new achievements that once seemed beyond my reach.  Perhaps the memory of the pain along the way makes the arrival seem even sweeter than it would have been if I had taken the paved road to the same destination.

Fries love ketchup.  Hot dogs love mustard.  Salad loves dressing.  Success loves failure — or better still, success loves overcoming failure.  It is not the skinned knee that makes the trip to the summit worthwhile.  It is the healing of the skinned knee and the overcoming of the limits we place on our own success.

I have never been afflicted with perfection, and my life is filled with mountains waiting to be climbed.  There will be snags and there will be scrapes on my knees from time to time; but I know that when I reach the top of the trail, my scars will show me again and again that falling down is not the end.  It is the getting up that makes the summit such a sweet place to be.

“Time is the substance from which I am made.  Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.”

— Jorge Luis Borges

Today I will stroke my long gray beard —  you know the one — and see whether I can stop time long enough to give it some consideration.

Monday will be the first day of school.  Everywhere I go, I see children performing the age-old ritual of fitting one last bit of every summer memory into the few days that remain before they return to the classroom.  Children embrace time, all at once wishing for longer days and dancing through their lives, mindless of its passing.  Childhood is the age of eternity when we know for certain that our tomorrows are limitless and that we are the masters of our own destinies.  Time is our playmate, and we sit on his shoulders as he whisks us along, all the time squealing with delight as the world unfolds before our eyes.  On Monday, the children will return to school and suddenly realize that they have move ’round the sun for another year and magically become a whole year older.  They marvel and they celebrate at the way time carries them along.

As childhood passes and hands over the reins to adulthood, we find that we want to pull back a bit against the momentum and try to slow things down.  There are things to do and things to see that seem to elude our grasp as we fly along the trail, riding a wild horse who is not quite comfortable with his bridle.  We know that we must hold on tight, because any attempt to dismount would leave us battered and bruised, or worse.  The best we can do is to learn the rhythm as time forges ahead, marches on, waits for no man.  We learn to match our own rhythm to that of our mount, and soon we discover that we have become one.  Hair flying, arms reaching to embrace what comes our way, we become our own time masters, aware that becoming the very ride itself means we have a hand in our journey toward the end of time.

Now that my beard has grown long and gray, the horse that is time — that is me — has slowed his gait.  We trot and walk and notice that time lies all around us.  We stop by the stream where the children play and time drinks in the cool, sweet water of youth.  We take a moment here and there to marvel at the accomplishments of adults that bear testimony to the ways they have spent their minutes and hours and days.  We feel the splendor of the setting sun as it warms our faces and draws us along to a distant horizon, and we cherish the cool rays of the next sunrise that reminds us not to miss a minute of each of the precious days that remain for us to travel.  Like the children of summer, we pack each day as full as we can.  We retrieve the memories of all we have done and try them on once again to see whether they still fit as well as they did in days gone by.  We call the children to us and show them what we have brought on our ride and speak the magical words, “once upon a time,” and tell them of our own days playing beside the stream.

For twenty-five minutes, I have paused to stroke by long gray beard.  Now I climb aboard my trusted steed and stroke his long gray mane.  “Come on, old fellow,” I say.  “We still have some ground to cover before nightfall.”  I breathe in the sun and the sweetness of dew, will him to walk, and begin my day.

“You see, when weaving a blanket, a (Native American) woman leaves a flaw in the weaving of that blanket to let the soul out.”

— Martha Graham

The consummate weavers have been popping up all over the place lately.  Hey, spiders, are you trying to get my attention?  First there was the nighttime web in my back yard last week, still inhabited by its impressive owner.  Today there was a smaller and uninhabited web clinging to the corners of a piece of playground equipment at the park.

Perhaps this web had begun as a perfect, symmetrical example of exquisite spider artwork; but in the morning light, it was not nearly so regular as the ones I would draw as a child, carefully making sure that each piece was the same size as the last and that the result would be as carefully executed as any fabulous work of stained glass.  Maybe a bit of life had happened to this web, but I found myself staring again and again at the irregular but wonderful patterns it displayed.  The oval in the center might have been a self-portrait, with many legs reaching out toward the larger rounds of weaving.  Beyond its reach, the symmetrical rounds begin, and they are beautifully executed; but it is not the symmetry that draws my eye again and again.  It is the differences.  We might call them flaws, but the diamonds and peaks and triangles and tears are so uniquely beautiful that they make my heart dance.

The web hangs on to the corner of the chin-up bar.  Like the dream-catcher in my window, it opens a portal in the center and allows only some things to pass through without being caught.  Like the tapestry that represents my life, this perfectly imperfect web shows its vulnerabilities, shows its differences, and opens itself wide enough to allow this viewer to glimpse the soul of the weaver.

We must be careful, as we weave, not to be too caught up in perfection.  You need a hole or two in your weaving to make it interesting and uniquely yours.  You need some flaws so that your soul can escape and give life to your work.

“Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit.  Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.”

— St. Francis de Sales

This is great advice, but how easy is it to maintain inner peace when the outer world seems to swirl and draw you into its vortex?

It is hard, when life makes too many demands on us, it sometimes seems that what lies outside us finds its way to our center and we let it tear away our calmness and replace it with chaos.  How do we manage, on the most chaotic days, to hold onto serenity?

Yesterday, I was reading a book.  One character portrayed in the story was a sniper — a sharpshooter whose very job title defined him as someone who had to perform calmly while enduring the worst sort of stress.  When another character asked him how he could shoot so accurately under such conditions, he answered that he had to relax, exhale completely, and wait for the space between two heartbeats so that his hands would be completely steady.  When I read his advice, I nearly laughed out loud.  He had just described the same technique I had developed for taking photos that required me to zoom in and focus intently on a subject.  I had tried many other strategies — holding my breath, supporting my elbow by leaning on a tree — but ultimately, I discovered that the only way to be perfectly still was to breathe  out completely and pause.

Think about it.  When do we breathe in and when do we breathe out?  A startled gasp — inhale.  The distressed state when we have been underwater and desperately need oxygen — inhale.  A sigh of relief — exhale.  Again, as so often before, we return to the practice of breathing, which is as natural as simply being alive.  What is important is to be mindful of our breath.  We can breathe in some of the chaos, but we must remember to send it back to the universe when we exhale.

I am sure St. Francis de Sales led a meditative life; and we can do that, too.  Holding our peace does not require that we shut ourselves away from the chaos of our world.  It simply means that we should pay attention to what we are taking in and what we should release when our breath flows out into the space around us.  Hold onto your peace.  Breathe deeply, pause in the space between two heartbeats and discover the calm center of your being.  Then exhale all that stands in the way of your sense of well-being.  Let the winds swirl — there is no way you can stop them — but remember they cannot blow you away, so long as you are anchored by peace.

“All life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other.”

— H.P. Lovecraft

Have you ever gone traveling with other people and then come together to share your stories of the trip?  Have you noticed how the scenes and events that stand out in one person’s memory can be so different from those of another that a listener might wonder whether you really shared the same experience?  When my daughter and I walk together with the puppy, she sees different things in the park than the ones that catch my eye.  I might focus on the way the sunrise plays with the clouds, and she might notice the crisp sound of the breeze kissing the leaves of the oak tree.  We all live in the same tangible world, but the images we store that define the lives we live are as different as we are.

Although we can assume that the world outside us is presented to each of us in the same way it is shown to others, we can also see clearly that our memories of being alive in that world vary greatly.  It is not only the world we move through that creates our existence.  It is the way we see that world, filtered first through our eyes, then through our experience, then through our emotions, and ultimately through our imagination, that gives us a story that defines our universe.

In an age where Science is valued highly, we may want to believe that the world we experience is the same one that all other human beings experience.  The thought that our imagination might somehow alter our universe goes beyond Science and begs us to see that the stage on which we act out our lives is set by our attitudes, our beliefs, our hopes, and our dreams.  Who is to say that our logic is more valuable than our ability to dream?  Who is to say that we are at the mercy of reality, when it is possible that our reality is the one we invent as we dance the endless dance of our interior world and the world outside us?

What is real?  Let your mind roam today through your hopes and dreams and see whether you can find the answer.