Holding Reality

My water heater went out this week—in the middle of the day on a Sunday when I was home. It couldn’t have picked a better time. I was without hot water for less than 48 hours.

Sometime during that stretch, I listened to a news report on Venezuela, where it must feel as if the street might disintegrate between one step and the next as the country’s systems and infrastructure stop working.

I read a powerful poem, “Will You?” by Carrie Fountain, this week about the edges of our lives when the daily moments are just a little too beautiful or a little too difficult. One stunning line says,

…My children
are so young they cannot imagine a world
like the one they live in.

Boys taken as child soldiers in Somalia cannot imagine the world of making valentines described in the poem.

We cannot choose one of these realities over the other. The suffering, the cruelty, the misery are no more nor less real than the safety, the love, the connection.

We cannot put all of our attention on one side of the coin. To enter the depths of our lives, we must hold within ourselves the suffering of the world and the joy of existence. To love we must be present to what is.

The poem is not about a perfect moment. The mother gets impatient, she relents, she is overcome by the beauty of her children.

In one line she asks her daughter, “How can there be three Henrys in one class?” and the daughter responds “Because there are.”

How can there be such pain in the world? Because there is. How can there be such love and beauty in the world? Because there are. How can we be present to all that at once? Inconsistently, in fits and starts, with as much failure as success. And because we must.

Where Jesus Came

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of Christmas creches, and I suspect they’re not quite accurate.

Mary looks as if she’s just come from hair and makeup. Jesus is not crying, not nursing, but sleeping, the most unusual activity for a baby, as any new parents will tell you. And the innkeeper who wouldn’t give them a room apparently felt some last minute remorse and had the stables mucked out moments before because they’re gleaming.

The whole scene misses the point of incarnation; it confuses Christianity with perfectionism.

Jesus did not come into the world to put barns on the Good Housekeeping tour. He came to show that the stables shine just the way they are because there, as everywhere, the divine presence is found.

We have such a hard time with this. My family came for Christmas, and when they left, I felt unexpectedly sad. I enjoy the good fortune of having a wonderful family, but usually some sense of relief comes with having a quiet house again. Not this year.

I kept reminding myself to stick with the sadness, welcome it instead of fearing it and trying to push it away, and for one moment, I got it. I was making dinner, chopping up a pepper, and that pepper was suddenly breathtakingly beautiful, essence of pepper shining in the red and orange flesh.

Cutting vegetables in the comfort of one’s own kitchen is a far cry from going through the then dangerous ordeal of giving birth while lying on the ground, miles from home, without the community that would normally offer support. But that’s the thing about God’s love—it’s present during the smallest and largest difficulties, not taking them away as we often wish but rather inhabiting them and letting us know that no amount of muck can separate us from the sacred nature of ourselves, of others, of life.

Meeting Thursday

Thursday means multiple things in my life—playing soccer, blogging, receiving freshly baked bread from my mom (Yum!). This Thursday arrived particularly well-dressed, with the still-full moon hanging over the ocean in the morning while first light painted the sky in pastels.

In a conversation later in the day, one person noted gratefully that it was almost Friday, and within moments, another said that the week had gone by quickly. The rapid passing of our limited time on this Earth becomes more apparent as we age, yet we sometimes hurry it along all the more.

We complete one task while already focused on the next. We get through the day so we can go home. We wish for the week to end as we look forward to the weekend’s activities. We are surprised by how quickly time passes yet rarely inhabit the moment we’re in.

This week, Thursday knocked loudly enough to get through my preoccupations and say, hey, it’s me, Thursday, and I’m pretty cool. Let’s hang out. (Yes, Thursday is apparently a California surfer—who knew?)

Each moment contains multiple levels of living. What we are doing at any particular moment is certainly part of that, even if we’re doing “nothing.” But if we stay only on that level, we’ll never meet Thursday, and we’ll never meet ourselves.

These encounters require a different kind of attention, an awareness—or an openness to being aware—of eternity, the infinite depth of connection present between each tick of the clock. We are part of eternity now. We are already endlessly connected. We can dwell in eternity when we’re in the office, at the grocery store, or on the couch at home.

Eternity is waiting within and around us every day of the week. We need only pay attention to meet it.

Letting Love Define Us

They say we learn from our mistakes. This happens occasionally, but more often I observe myself procrastinating or making snap judgements about people again and again.

I think twelve-step programs call this powerlessness. The likelihood of willing ourselves to change is low. I recently read an interview with an efficiency expert who basically said that willpower is not really a thing.

As I understand them, the next few of the twelve steps prescribe looking clearly at what one is doing. This process has multiple levels. It means admitting to ourselves that we are the cause of the outcomes we’re experiencing, but it also means seeing past or through our mistakes, seeing them for what they are.

Our failures don’t define us. Only love has the power to name who we are, as Jim Finley says. If we aren’t seeing our limitations clearly—and clarity comes not with the harsh light of judgement but with the gentle illumination of mercy—we might mistake them for our true nature.

We are limited beings, but none of us is a whole unto ourselves, nor are we intended to be. The astonishing variety in this world reflects the infinite nature of God’s one Love in which we belong as an integral part. Concentrating on our faults leads us to create separation rather than living the wholeness that is.

It’s hard in this culture in the midst of failure to see oneself as part of a blessed whole. We can no more will ourselves to see this reality than to make any other change, but we can live as if it is true, we can have faith. We can embrace ourselves with the love and respect due a manifestation of God and one day, as Richard Rohr says, we’ll live ourselves into a new way of thinking.

Welcoming Autumn

Autumn is always hard for me. From the end of strawberry season to getting up in the dark, nothing about this time of transition flows smoothly.

Toward the end of August I start to feel summer’s fullness slipping away. During the longest days of the year, I could sink into the world’s ripening with trust. Autumn, on the other hand, brings a death, and we never know what waits on the other side of dying, whether the small deaths scattered throughout life or the one that ends our existence.

A friend recently sent me a Rilke poem about this emptying time of year. At first glance, it’s not encouraging:

Summer was like your house: you knew
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

We may be tempted to run from the loneliness, but let’s not miss that this season invites us into the vastness of our hearts, a place we might not hang out very often. That vastness can scare us as it opens up the mystery of our selves, an uncharted territory whose exploration demands some solitude, some loneliness.

Perhaps all endings open up unforeseen space. They enlarge us in ways we could not have predicted; they tumble us into our surprisingly spacious hearts because suddenly nowhere else has anything relevant to say.

Rilke gives instructions for how to navigate autumn: “Be earth now, and evensong.” Though he warns that it won’t be pleasant—“The days go numb, the wind/ sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.”—I love the idea of being earth, that nurturing home that accepts everything back into itself regardless of what form a life took. Whether it was kind or harsh, generative or walled in, earth waits to receive it without judgment or exception.

Summer offers us a dwelling place, but in autumn, we must become the home for all that we have been the previous year, all that is passing away within us. We must stand on that vast plain and welcome our failures and endings and missed opportunities into the soil of our hearts. It is big enough to hold them and deep enough to transform them because there, as Rilke concludes, “he who began it all/ can feel you when he reaches for you.”

Visiting Reality

The present is a nice place. I would give it five stars on TripAdvisor. I visited there recently and hope to return soon.

The casual observer of the inside of my brain might conclude I own a time machine. A quick tour would reveal imagined futures that often affect my life as if they were real: fear about how current projects will turn out, conversations that will never happen, infinite lists of unfinished tasks. And of course a small corner reserved for the chocolate radar.

Driving to work one day, all of that fell away through no particular effort of my own, and for a mile or two, I inhabited the space and time called now. The reality of the same pine trees, the same ocean, the same freeway I see every day suddenly broke through the usual fog I hang over my mind and senses.

My version of the present is narrow, but the actual present is spacious. I tend to see now as a place I’m passing through on the way to somewhere better or somewhere I’m supposed to be, but it is all that is. It is the only thing that’s real.

The future of my own creating is a shadowland. Right now is a force, a power, a beauty that we miss going about our everyday lives trying to get to what comes next.

Of course we have to plan and work toward things. All animals do this. But we tend to focus on the destination to the exclusion of where we are, and the destination we imagine does not exist and never will.

May the present break through for all of us and may we dwell in the spaciousness of the real.

It’s Not Easy

With apologies to Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy being human.

First of all, we’re incredibly complex biological organisms in which many things can go wrong and often do. Then there’s sexuality, glorious mixture of chemistry and culture that it is, which generally complicates things a lot.

We have thoughts and feelings, most of which we don’t know what to do with, and many of which do not promote our well-being. Not to mention that a large chunk of what motivates us is unavailable to our conscious minds.

And that’s just the internal world. Add other people into the mix and suddenly we’re dealing with differing pasts, conflicting cultural values, the vagaries of language. Our infinite personality variations mean no two people experience the same event in the same way, yet we long to be understood. It’s a wonder civilization formed at all much less continues.

So perhaps we could cut ourselves some slack and remember that we’re still evolving. According to the economist Max Roser, every day for the last 25 years, 137,000 fewer people lived in extreme poverty than the day before. A company is building a machine to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This doesn’t mean all is well—climate change comes to mind—but it is reason for hope.

The most profound hope comes from the reality that Divinity permeates this beautiful messiness—that we are, that creation is—in a way that we cannot comprehend with our rational minds. The Holy connects us all. No part of our lives or our being is separate from God or from the rest of existence.

To steal a line from William Stafford’s poem “A Message from the Wanderer,” “That’s the way everything in the world is waiting.” The divinity of everything is waiting for us to approach and recognize it with our divinity. That’s not easy, but it’s what we’re here for.