If We Only Knew

“Can you use a Roomba on wood floors?” That’s one deeply important topic I considered Googling tonight.

In the story “A Visit from the Buddha” by Theophane the Monk, the Buddha comes to visit a monastery and while the monks are sleeping he scrawls, “Trivia” all over the walls. When the monk narrating the story first sees the graffiti, he’s offended, but then he realizes it’s true.

This existence is difficult. We will all experience loss and mental, emotional, and physical suffering. The degree will differ, but no one is exempt from these realities. Yet when these times pass, we tend to return to Roombas, to the trivial.

There’s nothing wrong with robotic vacuum cleaners. We all need clean floors and great cat videos, both effective antidotes to suffering. But the daily details and decisions, important as they are, will never lead us to the depths of our lives where God waits, hoping to meet us, hoping to open up the fullness of our being.

“If people only knew the love and joy they hold in their hands,” a friend said to me this week, speaking about the often unrealized potential of relationships.

“To be is to be in relationship,” Fr. Cyprian Consiglio once said in a talk. Unless we recognize and live into our interconnectedness by loving one another, we are denying our very existence.

God is relationship, multiple spiritual teachers have said in various ways. For us to encounter the reality of ourselves, we must enter into relationship—with other people, with other beings, with the Earth.

May we choose, as the monk in the story finally does, the heart of Jesus, a path of radical self-giving with the power to transform the world. If we only knew the love and joy we hold in our hands.


Solidly Connected

Flying home from Colorado to California last week, I had a window seat over the wing, the perfect spot for observing the man who held the two red, plastic signaling devices aloft and walked backward, giving the pilots directions to back the plane up. It was cold in Denver—the wings needed de-icing—and it occurred to me that this man was willing to stand outside in below freezing temperatures so that I could go “up in the sky,” as the mom in front of me told her daughter.

I thought about all the people it took to make that flight happen: the engineers who designed the plane, the factory workers who assembled it, the mechanics who kept it running, the pilot, the flight attendants, the air traffic controllers, everyone who made the airport run, from the TSA agents to the baggage handlers to the custodians. All of them are willing to do what they do for me.

Granted, they don’t wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “Oh, Rachel’s going to be on this flight. I’m so excited to help her out.” They may or may not think about the people they’re serving at all, but consciously or not, they scan boarding passes and mop floors for me. That’s astonishing.

People kill chickens, wrap them in plastic, and ship them across the country for me. They test toothpaste formulations in laboratories and design packaging for me.

I have a tendency to get abstract about this concept that we are all connected, but it’s as solid as it gets. We do nothing on our own. Every moment of our lives is supported by countless other humans, animals, and plants, all of whose existence relies on the Earth and the sun.

And we’re connected through time, too. If those two brothers in Kitty Hawk hadn’t been fascinated with flight, if this planet had formed farther from this star, if our universe had expanded any faster or slower.

Generosity pervades our lives to a degree our minds cannot hold. All we can do is recognize it and bow.

Feel the Worth

Standing in front of the mirror one evening, wondering whether I’d added any value to the world that day, I heard these words internally, unconnected to any of my previous thoughts: “and the soul felt its worth.”

The phrase comes from the Christmas carol “O Holy Night,” and the context is “He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” If you can get past the difficulty of humming Christmas carols in May, that’s quite a statement.

Ronald Rolheiser quotes Ruth Burroughs as saying that mysticism is experiencing God beyond seeing, touching, feeling, thinking, or imagining. If we are to follow Christ, then we must aim toward that which Christ’s presence in our life brings—a deep knowing of our own divinity and interconnectedness, “our invincible preciousness,” as Jim Finley would put it, the incalculable worth of our souls.

I forget this approximately all the time. I think I am here to do things, get it right, be good, contribute, but if I am here to follow Christ, to contribute to the evolution of Christ consciousness in the cosmos, then I am here to feel—or to know beyond feeling—the worth of my soul.

When we experience that and stick with it, the rest will follow. It’s impossible to truly feel our own preciousness and not at the same moment be aware of the preciousness of the rest of creation. Meister Eckhart says that God’s ground and our ground are one. When our feet are planted on that ground, we can’t separate ourselves from God or our worth from that of the person next to us, the cat on the windowsill, or the jacaranda just beginning to flower.

If we move from that place, our actions will be true. If we move from that place, we’ll know there’s nothing to add to the world because it’s all already here.

Last week at work we had a Big Event that I had been helping prepare for, a rather all-consuming task. The hour came, the people spoke, the balloons fell—lots of clapping—and then it was over. That’s what events do—they come and go. They end.

It occurred to me that our lives are something like that. We put a lot of energy into trying to make them go a certain way, and then they, too, end.

All I wanted for this event was for that one hour in front of the crowd to go well, and it did. But it wasn’t the whole story. Without a lot of people doing good work in the weeks before, that hour didn’t stand much of a chance.

Though it seemed as if everything was over when the theater crew was cleaning up the streamers, it’s not really. The philanthropic gift we celebrated will affect students for years to come. Attendees carry the memory of that day with them. Those of us working together forged relationships that may or may not grow but certainly affect who we are. A giant Erlenmeyer flask sits on my office chair waiting for a home.

Everything is part of a continuum. Our lives, though Big Events for us, result from billions of years of cosmic preparation and form the groundwork for the next billion years. We are both inconsequential and really important, like that hour on the stage last week.

Perhaps we need to redefine our lives as more than the time that passes between our birth and death. Our lives belong to the entirety of creation, that which exists now, existed before, and will exist after we are gone. We are formed of stardust and breathing the air Aristotle breathed. That connectedness defines us as much as our individuality and will continue after our particular form is gone.

If our lives are primarily part of a larger coming into being, we also need to redefine our selves. Cynthia Bourgeault says “Love your neighbor as yourself” does not mean “as much as yourself” but rather that “your neighbor is you….There are simply two cells of the one great Life.” How differently we might live if we thought of ourselves as one cell instead of the whole organism, one moment instead of the whole event.

Birthing Love

This year I actually wanted to send Christmas cards (not to be confused with the actual sending of them). Every year, as people go their various ways for Christmas vacation, I find myself wanting to connect with all my friends before they leave, whether they’re close and I saw them last week or far and I haven’t seen or talked with them in months.

I’ve been wondering why the need to be together is so strong right now and why waiting until January feels like missing a critical moment. After all it’s only a couple of weeks. No other two-week period has that sense of urgency for me.

I think it’s because the Christmas spirit, which people of any or no religion can enjoy, comes alive when we notice love being born into the world. Love is always being born into the world, but we are impatient and easily distracted beings and often miss it. Luckily, we are also ritualistic beings, and so we build into our lives times to stop and pay attention. When an entire culture pauses and takes the time to celebrate that love, you can feel it.

And when you do, you might want to send Christmas cards or drop five bucks in the Salvation Army bucket or let someone go in front of you in line. Because we are the ones who birth love into the world. As with children or art or any other act of creation, it comes both from us and through us—we participate in its coming into being but are not its only source.

We tend and grow this love in our many relationships, and so of course, when love is in the air, there is an urge to reconnect. To all of you who will probably not, despite my best intentions, receive cards from me: I love you.

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. Wishing you all a merry Christmas and joyful new beginnings at the solstice and the turn of the year.

Skimming the Surface

A friend of mine once pointed out that humans, as a species, are weird. Her evidence: our interest in observing other species that we don’t intend to eat.

During my recent trip to Greece it occurred to me that tourism is kind of odd in this same way. I used to think that visiting other countries ought to profoundly affect me, but recently I’ve decided that in Europe, at least, you mostly look at old, beautiful stuff and eat good food (and hear people say “mama mia”).

I’m not talking about living abroad for an extended period of time, getting to know a people and a culture, letting their values influence your own. I’m talking about the kind of travel most of us do most of the time—there and back, a week or two, a variety of locations.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful I got to see the Parthenon, which definitely fits into the old and beautiful category, and eat genuine moussaka and baklava, which fit into the seriously yummy category.

Perhaps it is the lack of connection that seemed odd to me. Tourism is largely an experience of surfaces.

I learned a guidebook page’s worth of information about the sights we saw. Just at the point I’d start to find a point of reference in a town, we’d move on to the next. The Greek people were kind, welcoming, and friendly, but I’ll probably never see any of them again.

Of course there is always the possibility that one of these things will hit some deeper chord and lead to a new interest, a new direction in life.

Or maybe I’m over thinking this. After all, who doesn’t want to look at beautiful stuff and eat good food? One day we followed the GPS to a tiny seaside town we picked more or less at random off the map. It turned out to be one of the most picturesque places we visited, and the sole taverna in town served platters of small, perfectly deep-fried fish whose English name I never learned.

Perhaps, as with so many things, both are true: it does feel like taking the shortcut through someone else’s backyard in order to have these experiences, but it’s also a lot of fun.

Help Matters

Sometimes crappy things just happen. I did not come up with this idea. Someone has made millions of dollars marketing products espousing various forms of that sentiment.

I recently watched a Zulu language film called Yesterday about a woman in a tribal village in South Africa who contracts AIDS. Though not based on any one person’s true story, I’m sure it’s a true story many times over.

The main character, Yesterday, is patient and wonderful and gets this disease that entails more suffering than those of us with access to hospitals and morphine will ever guess at. It’s hard not to wonder why the world is not more justly constructed after watching this story.

As the priest Anne Lamott quotes in one of her essays says, why is not a useful question, though I still want to know the answer. Seeing as I am not likely to get it, I decided to review what I think I know.

Here are some things I don’t believe:

  • God tests us.
  • God gives us trials to strengthen us.
  • Bad things happen so that good things can come from them.
  • We attract—through our attitudes, beliefs, or ways of living—everything that happens to us. Some things, sure, but not everything.

Here are some things I do believe:

  • Grace happens.
  • There are things that help.
  • These things are extremely important even though they appear small.

It helps to cry or yell or beat the pillow. It helps to lay all the crappiness before God and say, “What the hell? Would you do something about this please?” It helps to eat a hot fudge sundae with a friend or go for a hike.

Help doesn’t mean that the situation changes, that a miraculous healing occurs, that the next day a job offer arrives out of the blue. Those things may happen, but a lot of the time they don’t. More often, we feel less alone and more able to keep going.

That seems insufficient in the face of the AIDS epidemic in Africa or any number of other global disasters, but an epidemic is composed of individuals. In the movie, one person stands by Yesterday. When they are together the awfulness lifts a little. Bring on the hot fudge.

Roses Are More Than Red

When I need to escape at work, I go to the rose garden. It sits on the edge of an area where beautiful spots congregate. It seems a bit unfair that the spots don’t spread out, especially since they surround the College of Business, as if to show that money really can buy happiness.

Last time I was there, I saw a man with a hoe inspecting the flowers and thanked him for his work. Turns out he has been tending that part of campus for thirty years and created not only the rose garden but also the cactus garden across the lawn, not to mention a sheltered dirt path that always feels as if you’ve found a secret place none of the other 20,000 people on campus know about.

So did I ask this person who created one of my favorite spots what kind of connection he’d forged with the piece of earth he’d tended for thirty years? What it feels like to know a location so intimately? Why he decided to plant a rose garden? What his favorite flower is?

No. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it resembled “Sure is warm today, isn’t it?”

I used to hate small talk. My answer to the weather question was “Yes.” This approach did not help me at parties. Then I realized that small talk isn’t evil and vacuous; it’s useful and vacuous. It puts many people at ease, and in a world where so many of us spend so much time wondering what we’re doing wrong, providing a little mind balm is not necessarily a bad idea.

But it’s a shame to make such a habit of it that when you meet the man responsible for a particularly beautiful corner of earth, you can’t get beyond thank you. I hope I get to see him again and get another chance to learn something real about this place and the person who cares for it. In the meantime, I am going to assume that his favorite rose is the same as mine, the orange and yellow one that somehow manages to bloom in at least three shades at once.

Reach Out and Touch

Yesterday I understood for the first time that mechanical engineers build things. I may be a bit behind the curve on this one.

I was talking with a mechanical engineer who said he was looking for a company who wanted to build things. He put such passion into those last two words. This conversation was the latest in a series of reminders about the way we connect with objects that we don’t with pixels on a screen.

At a baby shower last week, the mom-to-be removed tissue paper from bags to reveal ever cuter items, and I thought, I am so screwed; I brought the dud gift of the shower. When she got to mine, she took one of the children’s books out of the bag and began reading it to the gathered adults. They all got quiet and listened. For a writer, it was a magical moment.

I am not opposed to e-books, and I understand more and more publishing will go that way, though no one knows quite what that way is yet. But no one of any generation will react to a download the way this future mom reacted to the physical object, the hard cover and paper pages.

That same week two real letters arrived, the kind that come in the mailbox not the inbox. Some of the delight of letters must be caught up in the ripping of the envelope, the holding of the pages. I would not have reacted in the same way to receiving the same words in an email.

I think whatever it is that makes mechanical engineers want to build things also attracts us to printed books, to gathering in groups in person not just online, to eating together. Look at the countless handmade goods on Etsy or the way people enjoy moving things around with their fingers on an iPad. It’s the closest computing gets to the physical (at least for most of us—some people are blurring the edges).

It’s easy for me to forget that my thoughts do not encompass reality or even the most important parts of it, and staring at a screen all day can reinforce that amnesia. But physical connection, with something other than my smartphone, reminds me that our senses are designed for more than reading type on a screen or watching youtube videos—and can offer a lot more joy besides.