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.

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.

Of Bees, Hummingbirds, and Us

Every day, the little hummingbird with the nest in the tree outside my house is sitting on her eggs when I pass by.

This week, a friend showed a few of us the bee hives he’s been keeping for three years without the bees making enough honey to harvest.

In both cases, I am amazed at the patience in these simple acts. My friend checks his hives once a week, each time suiting up, smoking the bees to confuse and settle them, and gently shifting and checking each rack. That’s 156 weeks so far, give or take.

Wildflowers, on the other hand, spring up with the first good dose of sunshine and warmth in a rainy year. Patience doesn’t seem to be their thing, yet this year’s crop must have lain dormant as seeds for years during the drought—the same drought that caused low honey production.

Inside each pound of honey is the nectar of two million wildflowers. I don’t know whether you can call the life of a worker bee a patient one as she gathers the nectar or whether she’s only doing what she knows how to do.

Maybe we know how to move through the world without rushing, to wait and give that which is coming into being our full attention, to allow ripeness to come in its own time. Maybe all we have to do is tune into that knowing.

There are times to do nothing but sit on the eggs and times to spring up and push through the earth, seasons to gather nectar and seasons to hang out in the hive eating honey. Nothing we do can hurry those along. Nothing can change periods best suited to waiting into moments that require action or vice versa.

The fullness of life comes in its own time. To participate in its coming and enjoy its fruits we need most of all to pay attention.

Dwelling In-Between

Sometimes in our lives we are entering, and sometimes we’re exiting. We pass through periods of growth and periods of disintegration. And then there are the in-between times, which can be more unsettling than when everything falls apart.

At least when the familiar unravels, we can see what’s causing our sadness or distress. In between is a wintery place, a subterranean season. Any life or growth happens underground, out of sight, beyond our conscious reach.

In those parts of the world gathering their first layers of snow right now, people know that winter will not bend to their wills. It can be endured, dealt with—even enjoyed—but no one plants crops in winter. No amount of snow removal equipment makes it safe to drive quickly.

I noticed the arrival of an in-between time recently because of the absences that came with it—absence of ambition, absence of plans or planning, even a lack of concern about those missing attitudes. This isn’t the first in-between time in my life, but it’s the first time I’m not gnawing at it like an animal with its leg caught in a trap. This acceptance is all at once unnerving and unexpectedly peaceful.

Winter can be that way, too. Nothing quiets the soul like a gentle snowfall, but sliding through an intersection on black ice brings an immediate sense of panic.

Perhaps both feelings are responses to recognizing a lack of control. Recognizing and trusting gets me a dose of peace; recognizing and thinking I need to change something lands me squarely on the black ice.

Our culture does not teach us to “trust in the slow work of God,” as the theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin recommends. It teaches us to make things happen, to pursue what we want.

But winter is not a time for forcing change. The Earth is taking care of the bulbs and roots that will become green shoots and clenched buds impatient to open. And so in our in-between times, the Ground of our Being is tending the new life we as yet know nothing about. All we have to do is wait and enjoy the snowfall.

Free Redemption, With or Without Coupon

I tend to think redemption requires a lot of effort on my part, but maybe it’s always already present, just waiting to be recognized.

When a sprained ankle ended my backpacking plans, I decided to take the vacation days anyway and hang out at home—my first ever staycation. To ensure the vacation aspect, I told myself no judgment was allowed on the basis of things done or not done. (Note that I didn’t eschew judgment altogether, God forbid.)

The gap between theory and practice was, not surprisingly, rather large. I chose to loop an internal video of returning to work and people asking, “So what did you do?” while I frantically attempted to create answers. After all, they didn’t get the “Terms of Judgment” memo, and clearly these people who genuinely like me will concentrate on finding fault above all else.

Then one day, I took a long drive up the Big Sur coastline with my friend Susan for no other purpose than beauty and joy taking form in nature, friendship, and food. It was a sun-tipped, ocean-clad drive along the cliffs, which put on their most dramatic show in that part of the world. We shared wonderful conversation, and though we had a destination—a restaurant—we relaxed into not having anywhere to be at any particular time.

During the trip I didn’t once think about tasks or the reporting of accomplishments, and when I got home, the whole scenario had lost its power to agitate me.

Redemption is as easy and accessible as enjoying a beautiful day. Redemption is not about suffering; it is about the transformation of suffering into joy. It is not earned; it is available. It is not coming; it is already taken care of.

I don’t know why sometimes we enter into it without effort and sometimes it appears elusive. Perhaps we can only recognize it when we stop trying to make it happen and accept it as gift.

Worm Watching

I watched an earthworm work its way across the sidewalk in the rain one evening this week. He drew his body together, ring by muscular ring, until much of it was bunched in one, fat bulge with a bit of a tail sticking out. Then all that gathered energy propelled the front of him forward, the back following along almost as an afterthought.

It was raining. I was walking to my car. I was supposed to meet someone, but instead I stood there in the middle of campus, holding my umbrella, staring at the sidewalk, paying attention to each ring of his body as it contracted and expanded. I wondered whether he would make it, given the history of worms, rain, and sidewalks.

I heard someone coming and looked up, but the thought that she might step on the worm didn’t connect to speech quickly enough, and she did, never knowing it.

After she passed, I squatted down to take a look. The worm was mostly OK, with only a small, flattened segment at the back. The front started moving again, dragging the injured part.

He eventually made it into the dirt on the other side, and I stood for a few moments wondering what that had been all about. Though I had taken no action, had not changed the course of events in any discernible way, it felt as if I needed to be there.

Perhaps everything inherently needs to be admired and wondered at. Maybe we humans came into being so that dancers could exalt in the movement of the body, so entomologists could give their fascination to insects, so farmers and botanists could love plants.

We share this existence with so many other manifestations of God. We are as surely connected to the earthworms as we are to each other. Every part of creation, including the human ones, needs us to see its brilliance and beauty today. All of creation is luminous.

Being Cosmic

One morning, watching the sun’s rays light up a tree and considering a new day, I realized I was literally looking at new light. The photons hitting the leaves had never been seen on Earth before, had not existed before forming in the sun’s core. The two hydrogen atoms that fused into helium to create the packet of energy that travelled almost 93 million miles had been around since a few minutes after the Big Bang, and after 14 billion years suddenly found themselves transformed.

This is cause for hope. We are an intimate part of this cosmic becoming.

We tend to hope for small things—that a presentation will go well, that people will like us. Sometimes we hope for larger things, such as a loved one’s recovery from illness or greater justice in the world. And at times we lose hope because none of these things come about.

Perhaps the times we live in call us to a wider vision of hope. That is not to say that the stuff of our daily lives is unimportant but rather that it is inextricably connected to something unimaginably larger than we are. We can learn about ourselves by observing how the universe works because we are part of the universe. What the universe is capable of—constantly being made new—we also are capable of; what is happening in the universe—unending change and evolution—is our natural state, too.

Our lives—our collective life—is sustained by these brand new packets of energy arriving in Earth’s atmosphere. If the very stuff that fuels our existence is ancient stuff in endlessly new forms, why would the pattern of our lives be other than that?

We will experience joy and heartbreak, our internal supernovas and black holes. Though we’re learning how galaxies form, it’s harder to observe how our own lives contribute to Creation’s unfolding, but they surely do. “Behold, I make all things new,” the Creator says. That is what’s happening through us, with us, and in us.


Note: Though I have no direct citations, this post undoubtedly results from reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Beatrice Bruteau, Ilia Delio, and Cynthia Bourgeault, most recently in meditations by or quoting Delio and Bourgeault from the Center for Action and Contemplation.