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.

Reaching Totality

If you want to get a sense of the interconnectedness of all being, start with a two-hour flight delay on your way to see a total eclipse of the sun. This will cause you to miss your connection, and then you might meet, as my mom and I did, a string of remarkably kind and helpful people.

IMG_4958
My sister, Mom, and I sometime before totality in Payette, Idaho.

The nicest and most interesting ticket agent ever explained that we could not fly anywhere near the eclipse, booked us on the next flight to Reno, and proceeded to tell us all about her niece who works for the Uruguayan national opera and her own passion for photographing whales.

The man behind the hotel desk in Reno in the middle of the night was patient and pleasant, and equally so the next morning when we checked out. The cheerful woman who drove us back to the airport to get our rental car regaled us with stories of the crowds that descend on Reno heading to Burning Man.

And then there were the people of Payette, Idaho, a town I never planned to visit but am grateful to have spent a couple of days in. Not only did the person whose phone number was listed on an online event announcement return my voicemail, she called her connections in town to find out who was offering camping spots.

We ended up with a gorgeous, large, and inexpensive campsite, thanks to the Miracle League of Payette, which offers adaptive baseball for children with disabilities and graciously serves as host when the eclipse comes to town, letting people sleep in the outfield and refilling the toilet paper in the bathrooms that, miraculously, offer running water. To top it all off, at the Dutch Bros. Coffee drive through, they gave us our frozen caffeine-chocolate-sugar sludge for free because we were first timers.

Not all of the kind people were strangers. My sister generously sacrificed spending time in the mountains, which she’d been greatly looking forward to, and met us in Boise. My friend Katie didn’t bat an eye when I told her she’d have three houseguests for a couple of days. She even let us cook her eggs over easy two mornings in a row, though I’m guessing by what was left on her plate that she doesn’t like runny yolks.

Don’t get me wrong, the sun turning black is indescribably cool. I recommend seeing it if you can, but don’t miss all the people along the way who help you get there.

 

Out in It

Before I left for a recent backpacking trip in Colorado, someone asked me what I liked about hiking in the wilderness. The seemingly easy question stumped me. The phrase that came immediately to mind—“It’s great to be out in it”— makes perfect sense to me but is less than understandable to someone who’s never been.

Vista of mountain peaks
The view from the Continental Divide near Williams Lakes in the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado. Photo by Lizzie Henry.

The key lies in the prepositions “out” and “in.” The “in” speaks for itself: in a meadow bursting with purple and yellow wildflowers, in the presence of a bald eagle soaring over the shore of a lake tucked against the flank of a mountain, in the midst of an endless panorama of peaks stretching away in every direction.

It seems the “in” would be enough, but you can get most of that on a day hike. The “out” is equally important: out of daily routines and obligations, out of a habitat created by humans, out of the endless string of decisions we think are so important. Once you’ve packed your bag and hiked a few miles, the number and type of choices you have is dramatically reduced: where to sleep, how to cross a stream, whether to eat freeze-dried lasagna or chicken teriyaki for dinner. The things you do are equally basic: walk, pitch a shelter, cook food, sterilize water.

Columbine and Indian paintbrush
Columbine and Indian paintbrush. Photo by Lizzie Henry.

I feel free when backpacking, unencumbered despite the heavy pack. Perhaps this feeling comes from letting go of some control and focusing for a while not so much on what or how well I am doing as on simply existing.

It would be misleading to say that it was an idyllic trip. We argued. I worried about whether the route I had chosen would work. I packed too much trail mix. I fell in the mud.

But something about the beauty of the place and the simplicity of the way of living made it so much easier to see how small those things were. The important things were clear: the fragile beauty of the columbine, the joy of one of my companions who jumped up and down with her 35 pound pack on when she got her first glimpse of the vista from the atop the Continental Divide.

It’s great to be out in it.

Being Incomplete

A professor working on the effects of sunspots on Earth’s soil said something like this to me this week: “You know the sun is about halfway through its life [I didn’t], so in five billion years….” When I heard “halfway through its life” I thought, this whole end of the solar system thing is closer than I realized. Then came the five billion years.

Also this week a friend sent a prayer written by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the first line of which I’d heard before: “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.” Fourteen billion years-ish so far—slow indeed. I worry about the way weeks and months speed up, seeming to contain less time every year. As they age, the stars say to each other, wow, a million years is just nothing anymore.

Teilhard’s advice is not surprising coming from a paleontologist and priest, nor is the end of the prayer:

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

“A new spirit gradually forming within you”—something that is not there now and has not been there before. That’s remarkable. The sun may apparently stop having sun spots right about now—give or take a few thousand or maybe million years—as this is something that can happen to stars halfway through their lives. Something new after five billion years, something gradually forming.

“Accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.” Whatever this new spirit is, it will never be complete, will never come to a point of stasis. I don’t know whether the sun feels anxious, but its formation—its birth—involved an epic, fifty-million-year struggle between gravity and fusion energy. And now it exists by burning itself up. It will die, but it will never be complete.

We are not somehow separate from this existence we find ourselves in. We are part of a grand becoming that has little or nothing to do with the way we want things to be or think they should work.

Over the next billion years, the sun will heat up and Earth will become inhospitable to life as we know it long before the sun engulfs the planet. “Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you.”