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.

Evolving into Love

Some friends and I went camping in Yosemite valley recently. It’s one of those places the words “grandeur” and “majestic” were invented to describe.

The Yosemites of the world can remind us to attend to the world’s beauty wherever we are, whether in the form of an oak tree, a kind word, or an architectural feat. Yet we humans often destroy beauty in all its forms in intentional and unintentional ways, sometimes even as it fills our souls with wonder. We drove to Yosemite after all.

Half dome and the valleyse

Beauty evokes love, and love allows us to see the beauty in others and in the world. I believe that Love is the creative force in the universe. Yet sometimes we are exceptional lovers, and sometimes we miss the boat entirely. (Yes, that would make it the Love Boat. Sorry, couldn’t resist.) How can it be that we act contrary to the very fiber of our existence?

Perhaps we misunderstand the totality that love is. The nature of this universe is not to spring full-form into being but to develop, and we are creatures of this universe. Perhaps love is learning to be love, which is messy.

Learning involves being in tension between who we are and who we are becoming. It means making mistakes. It also makes possible the most beautiful transformation and the most profound change.

We might think that we must force ourselves to evolve the ability to better love one another, the animals, the Earth. It may be tempting to despair, to look at the devastation in the world and think it’s already too late. But if love is the nature of being, it will continue to evolve us. We cannot escape the direction in which we’re heading, and that direction is good.

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.

Seeing Clearly

I got my first pair of glasses about a week ago. So far, it’s not a love affair.

Perhaps it’s the anti-glare coating, but I’m always aware that there’s a layer between me and what I’m seeing. This is so often the case when I relate to other people as well. I automatically and instantaneously put the lens of my idea of who they are between us. This prescription does not improve my sight.

We’re invited into a very different gaze when viewing an icon. In that practice, as I understand it, the viewer looks at the icon until she somehow passes through it, until she is no longer looking solely at the painting but also at the spiritual reality that it represents, or perhaps more exactly embodies.

I looked up icon, and its root means “likeness, image.” So we are icons of God, made in God’s image and likeness. The reality that we embody is God. Which means this is true for our fellow human beings as well, even the ones we consider difficult.

My glasses are mild progressives, and I keep trying to figure out which part of the lens to look through for what distance. My boss told me that my eyes will find the right place automatically if I stop thinking about it.

Meditating on an icon is not a matter of thought. It must be a matter of connection, of recognition—God within us recognizing the divine that is present in every creation, whether God’s Creation or our works of art, our feats of engineering, our scientific discoveries.

If we could look at ourselves and each other the way we look at a sculpture that blows us away or a flowering jacaranda tree whose purple flowers stop us in our tracks, if we could pause and let that whatever-it-is within each of us connect, we might be astonished at our own beauty.

Being Resilient

A resilient ecosystem, I learned in a podcast this week, will remain productive despite a disturbance, such as a big storm or a heat wave. It will either decline and then bounce back or simply not change during the disturbance. (Full disclosure: the podcast is an interview with a professor in the college for which I do marketing, and she has no idea I’m taking an idea from her work off in this unscientific direction.)

I wonder about the resilience of our internal and collective spiritual and social ecosystems.

In the interview, the scientists talk about ecosystems “maintaining their function.” Our function is to be a conduit of divine love, to take part in the evolution of matter and spirit—perhaps to be the evolution—to become conscious of our interdependence and unity. How do we maintain our ability to do that?

A teacher I know said that a resilient human system requires that people have free time and free attention. Free time is pretty great because we can do things like

  • Skip
  • Sing or play music
  • Play
  • Be silly
  • Create
  • Wonder at the beauty of the world around us or a piece of art

And these actions free our attention, help us step off the hamster wheel spinning in our brains and be present.

When we begin to slow down and look around, we see the goodness in and around us. In The Homing Spirit, John Dunne says that “Violence comes of spirit against spirit…, when the human spirit is moved against its own inclination.” By this definition, I do violence to myself quite a lot of the time. Our spirits incline toward God, toward love, toward “the eternal in us,” as Dunne says.

Most of us were taught something very different about the natural direction of our souls (as brilliantly demonstrated in this hilarious video about the first day of Catholic school). We need to learn our own divinity so we can stop producing storms in our internal ecosystems. Then we can play our role in cosmic evolution, in that larger ecosystem we all belong to.

Douse yourself with beauty. Do what brings you joy. Not to deny disturbances or hide from them—and there are plenty right now—but to remain resilient, to maintain our natural inclination toward love.

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.