When We Are

The only time we can love the world is right now because that is the only time we exist. It’s strange to forget that we’re alive right now, but we do forget—a lot.

My mind rehashes past events with great frequency as if I could change the way life unfolded. Learning from our mistakes is difficult but useful. Trying to tweak our past actions to edit outcomes we didn’t enjoy—or ones that could have been just a little better—is living an illusion.

Perhaps our pasts are more redeemable than we believe, but they can only be redeemed in the present not undone or changed. There are no redos, but there is grace. There is moving forward with respect for what has shaped us, compassion for ourselves and others, and humility in the face of our tremendous limitations and equally incredible gifts.

I also attempt to spend a good amount of time in the future with, as yet, no success. I mentally pre-live everything from writing emails to attending dinner parties. Practice improves our abilities and capacity, but I’m not making that complicated dessert before serving it. I’m planning out conversations when the circumstances in which people will gather don’t exist yet. Who knows in what frame of mind we’ll walk through the door or whether we will arrive at all.

We can honor our pasts and live into our futures with wisdom by remaining conscious in the one place where everything comes together—now. If Love is the ongoing creative force in the universe, the present moment is the where and when of infinite potential. We cannot know where we’re going, but we can participate in where we are, in the creative force loving us all into existence.

A number of things could be the thing we’re here to learn—love, interconnection, how to cook the fudgiest possible brownies. Another meaning-of-life candidate that I’ve noticed recently is cultivating the ability to wait in openness and trust rather than defending a certain outcome.

I’ve seen myself tensing up mentally before someone has even spoken, putting on full body armor when for all I know they’re about to invite me to go pick flowers. As with so many habits of mind, for most of my life I was unaware of this battle preparation. I thought it was just common sense or being ahead of the game or making sure things came out the way they were supposed to.

What does it mean to trust in this world of ours? It can’t mean believing everything will come out the way we want it to or expecting that we’ll move through life pain free. That’s closer to denial. But any situation can go in multiple directions, most of which we can’t anticipate.

Can we consider that what we have during the most difficult times is enough? Maybe not in the perfect way we see in our head. Maybe we’ll still experience a great deal of messiness, failure, and pain, yet in the midst of all that life is moving toward an unknown destination. As Jim Finley says, God protects us from nothing but sustains us in all things.

Can we allow life to go spectacularly well in a way that we couldn’t have imagined? It’s possible, though not guaranteed, that when we approach life with openness it will take an entirely different turn than it would have otherwise. Our very waiting creates possibilities that didn’t exist when we approached the situation defending our preferred future from attack.

We are taught that we need to make things happen. If instead we can participate in what’s happening, life will become unpredictable in the most wonderful way.

Walking through the World

A friend and I went backpacking recently. As we were pitching our tents on the first night, I was thinking ahead to what would come the next day when a wise cedar tree told me, “Keep your head in your feet.”

Our feet cannot get ahead of where we are. The interior of our heads, on the other hand, can and do travel to the most distant circumstances we can imagine, visiting scenes that will most likely never occur.

Imagination is an incredible gift. Unfortunately we often don’t use it wisely, conjuring up catastrophes or arguing passionately for things we may not really need to convince anyone of. At least I do.

No single day works out as we planned it, but our feet are always present, connected firmly to the Earth in each moment as it unfolds in reality.

In a poetry reading from the On Being Gathering, John Paul Lederach, describes “haiku attitude” as a combination of joy and patience, a way “to prepare yourself to be touched by beauty.” Lederach works in conflict resolution around the world and must have found beauty in some of the most difficult situations. What a life-changing openness that would be.

Our trip did not go exactly according to plan. We didn’t reach the lake we were aiming for. On the way out, we somehow missed the swimming holes we both remembered seeing on the way in.

Yet the trip was full of beauty—the strawberry milkshake smell of the Jeffery pines (thanks, Dad, for teaching me that one), the flow of deep and attentive conversation, a cascade of different colors of light on the granite as the sun set, the sound of the creek that was our constant companion, the full moon shining on a still spot in the water and lighting up the campsite so brightly we could move around without headlamps.

These are the moments we can miss if we’re projecting ourselves mentally through the world instead of walking through it. These and every moment are the ones worth letting ourselves be touched by.

Relating to the Depths

I recently heard the advice to give up understanding anything (apologies for not remembering the original source). After living with this idea for a little while, it occurred to me that understanding is insufficient to being alive.

Comprehension and figuring things out are essential for a certain level of life. It’s remarkably useful that science has identified human beings as the cause of climate change and can calculate the most effective solutions. We don’t want to give that up.

But the depths of life require entering into rather than figuring out; understanding is too shallow an approach for the deep waters. We cannot comprehend death or loss, love or joy, but we experience them. The preciousness of this life sometimes overwhelms us—an incredible sunset, a flock of birds descending, or children at play to use Jim Finley’s examples. These moments open us to existence in ways that have nothing to do with thought.

In a very real way, we cannot understand any other being. We cannot think our way into the experience of a tree, a cat, our siblings, or the person who sits next to us at work five days a week. To see things from another’s point of view is useful but limited and different from being present with that person, from allowing our spirits to recognize one another.

We share life with all of creation. We are in relationship with all that is, and the foundation of that relationship is love. The desire of love is not ultimately to be understood. It is to see and be seen, to know and be known, to experience and be experienced.

The “peace that surpasses all understanding” is exactly what it says it is. May we dwell there.

For a Blessing

Tonight I will attend a Sabbath service with the local Reform Jewish congregation for the first time. A friend of my mom’s who as a teenager survived Bergen-Belsen died last week, and her name will be on the list of those for whom the congregation will say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.

I met Bella and her husband Henry once, and I vividly remember Henry saying, “Who could have imagined all of this,” waving his hand around to indicate the Red Robin where we were eating, his and Bella’s entire life in the U.S., children, a home, “when we were in the camps?”

At a symposium on climate change this week, a communications professor said that if you want people to change their behavior, you need to communicate a sense of concern and also a sense of hope. If only the dire effects of climate change are presented, people will not act. They will feel powerless against what seems to be an inevitable and bleak future.

Hope and uncertainty are intimately related.

I wonder how or whether people maintained hope in the concentration camps, in that place where they didn’t have the ability to make choices that would change their situation, with uncertainty about whether they would wake up in the morning but absolute certainty about what they would wake up to.

The Kaddish makes no mention of those who have died. It is a hymn of praise to God and a request for God’s peace. It must have been spoken thousands of times a day during the Holocaust.

Bella returned to Bergen-Belsen once and gave a public talk while she was there. I cannot imagine the strength either journey demanded—the journey of survival or the journey of return, but the latter must have required a deep sense of possibility.

May Bella’s memory be for a blessing. May our lives be blessed with hope.

There Will Be an End

The reality of being finite entered me this week in a much more intimate way than it usually does.

A friend’s daughter has been in the hospital for more than two weeks and is not improving. A woman who works where I do stopped to help the victim of a traffic accident and was killed when another car hit the debris from the accident and spun out of control. The same day we learned about the death, paramedics’ questions echoed down the hall from me called 911 because he wasn’t feeling well (He turned out to be OK).

We read about more tragic events than these every day, but proximity affects how we are able to respond. I had seen the woman who was killed around campus, and I’m sure she thought she would get up and go to work the next morning exactly as I do each day. But we never know.

There’s a true heartbreak in this uncertainty. No amount of preparedness guarantees that we will get up in the morning. We will lose everyone we love, whether we leave first or they do, and it may happen unexpectedly. As much as we imagine and operate as if it were otherwise, life is largely out of our control.

Letting this reality break our hearts opens us to the beauty of what is. Living in an illusion of control separates us from life’s fullness.

We must learn to treasure the temporary. This doesn’t mean continually thinking we might die tomorrow, but rather heightening our awareness of the sweetness of breathing, of loving and being loved, of sensing the world around us in various ways.

What life will hold is unknown and unknowable. This is our heartbreak. This is our joy. This is our call to savor with gratitude the miracle of each moment, to live consciously in the presence of this unfolding existence during our brief and precious sojourn here.

Reality in Motion

The most solid material reality of our lives—the Earth—is constantly moving and changing.

On a recent trip to Oregon, my mom, sister, and I walked through part of a huge lava flow. Within these miles and miles of black rock that hardened thousands of years ago, we saw undulating lines in the rocks clearly showing that what we experienced as solid had once flowed as easily as it now remained still.

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While we were traveling, two earthquakes shook California. Even those of us who live here and know that the next tremblor is a question of when not if go about our days with the perception that the Earth is still, at least I do. We may have emergency preparedness kits, but we don’t walk around with the awareness that the tectonic plates beneath our feet are shifting. We don’t send our imaginations down beneath the solid soil to the liquid outer core of the Earth that is in constant motion.

It could be life-changing to perceive the Earth as it actually is, to inhabit our lives with an awareness of change as the fundamental nature of existence. The forces that pushed that lava field into its current form were massive, and forces such as those are still at work.

This is true in all aspects of our lives, not just the geological. It’s so easy to think that life ought to be steady and change come only when we plan or predict it, but that’s not what’s going on here.

As with the Earth from which we are quite literally made, we are beings in constant motion. Change is happening in so many ways—in our bodies, in our experiences, and—if we choose to enter into and participate in this powerful flow of life—in our hearts.