A Plum Lesson

There is a large, stately plum tree right in front of my office building. It flowers in a profusive offering of beauty every year, usually in February, and a group of us practice a Japanese tradition called hanami, or flower viewing, by eating lunch under the tree.

As beautiful as the tree is to look at, sitting under it provides an entirely different experience. It’s like going through a secret door into a peaceful oasis in the middle of campus.

At the beginning of this month, I looked at the plum’s bare branches and thought hanami would be late this year, sometime in March. Then it got hot—in the eighties—and almost overnight the tree filled with buds and this week is almost at the height of its bloom.

In his book The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton says that the desert fathers and mothers went into the desert not to get something but to give themselves away. This plum tree is doing just that, giving itself away.

The tree’s gift brings it life, attracts insects to pollinate it, produces the fruit that contains the seeds that will become new trees. For the tree, the prayer of St. Francis is literally true: “It is in giving of ourselves that we receive.” (For the record, St. Francis didn’t actually write this, but I think he could have.)

It is literally true for us as well, though it’s often more difficult to see. I am not talking about those times when we feel that too much is being demanded of us or that others are siphoning off our vitality. I’m talking about the kind of giving during which we blossom and in which we are both fed and become food for others. This is a giving as inherent to each of us as flowers are to a plum tree—we just don’t have as clear a grasp on our true nature as trees do.

It might help to remember that the plum tree doesn’t blossom all year long and that it takes a nice long rest in winter to gather energy for the next show.

Foolish Offerings

Almost every story is about more than one thing. Some stories are about the same thing for years, and then all of a sudden, they’re about something different. That’s how I felt about the story of the loaves and the fishes this year. (If anyone knows why this is the only time we say “fishes” instead of “fish,” please let me know.)

The plot is familiar to most. Thousands and thousands of people to feed, boy offers five loaves and two fish to Jesus, presto chango, full bellies and twelve baskets of scraps left over—hopefully bread scraps. Fish scraps would either smell nasty or require a lot of salt and a serious and immediate group preservation effort.

There are a lot of ways to think about this story, and most of the ones that I’ve considered over the years focus on the multiplication of the food. But this year it occurred to me—or maybe someone else said it and I am stealing her idea—that before any multiplying occurred, the young boy had to offer the loaves and fishes, and he had to do so foolishly.

Why even bother to offer such a paltry amount of food when there are thousands who need to be fed? Why open a soup kitchen when there is chronic homelessness? Why offer a blanket to a refugee who’s just left her entire life behind? Why send a card when someone’s beloved partner or parent has died?

None of these offerings will fix what’s wrong. None of them are sufficient, yet they are what we have and so it is imperative that we offer them. Without the boy’s gift, Jesus is looking at one unhappy crowd. Without you and I sharing our gifts, we’re looking at an empty world.

The multiplying is not up to us. We need only to find the courage to show up in the face of the impossible and say, here, take what I have. That’s when the miracles start.

Given to You

When you are at a religious education conference and someone at your hotel asks you to bring her a copy of the Lord’s Prayer, you really can’t refuse.

Last weekend, I attended the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress,  a wonderful celebration of everything that is alive and blossoming in the Catholic church. As our group was leaving the hotel one morning, a young woman in the room next to us opened the door and, catching sight of my name tag, asked if we were going to the conference. When I replied in the affirmative—you also really can’t lie—she asked me to bring her a copy of the Lord’s Prayer. She said she was Jewish and had never had a copy.

The whole conversation made me uncomfortable. I’m not big on converting people, and I don’t know many practicing Jews who are searching for the Lord’s Prayer. I hesitated, but she insisted.

So I said I would and proceeded to spend two hours walking around the exhibit hall searching for a printed version of said prayer. Lest you fear that the rise of Catholicism will bring about the demise of capitalism, let the exhibit hall at the largest religious education conference in the country put your mind at rest. Hundreds of booths offer everything from the kitschy to the sublime. I wandered past cards, candles, crosses of the metal, glass and wooden varieties, rosaries, priest’s vestments (one of my favorites because they are simply gorgeous, almost tapestries), countless spiritual books and Christian music recordings in English and Spanish, not to mention representatives from charities, universities, and every flavor of religious order.

In all this abundance, I found exactly one copy of the Lord’s Prayer with a horrible picture of a white, shiny Jesus on the back. I bought it for seventy-five cents. I left this and a Psalm 23 bookmark that a sympathetic Capuchin monk had given me in a bag on the woman’s door handle and went to my afternoon session, a music workshop.

In the music workshops you always receive a printed copy of the songs so you can sing along. On the last page of the handout was, of course, a new arrangement of the Lord’s Prayer.

When I knocked on the woman’s door that night, there was no answer, and so I still have the musical version of the prayer, along with a new understanding: If we are asked to give somebody the Lord’s Prayer—or anything else—it will be given to us.

Choosing Gratitude

One of my many talents is the ability to be dissatisfied in the midst of astonishing abundance. Case in point: last weekend’s retreat at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur.

In years past, you called the hermitage for a reservation, and they assigned you a room. Now, with their new online reservation system, you choose your own room. That’s where the trouble began.

One of the first things I noticed on arriving was a tree partially blocking my view of the ocean. I started to picture how superior the views farther down the line must be and to wish I had chosen differently.

Allow me to clarify exactly how ridiculous this reaction was. The hermitage overlooks the Big Sur coastline, some of the most dramatic in the world. Every room opens onto a vista—in reality, you could see a tree when you looked at the ocean; it would have taken a forest to block the view.

Luckily, I heard myself being ridiculous and did not spend the weekend resenting that beautiful place. I did, however, begin to understand why monastics willingly give up many of their choices. When the rooms were assigned, I had never compared or judged them but had considered each one a great gift.

We often get caught up in evaluating our choices to ensure that we have the best rather than realizing that what we have is incredible. In another room, I wouldn’t have seen the quail rustling the rosemary bushes in the evening or the blazing red flowers of the New Zealand tea tree. I wouldn’t have heard the drone of bees—the loudest I can remember—coming from the giant pollen gathering festival taking place nearby.

I’m not suggesting we forfeit our choices. There are too many places in the world where people literally have no choice, and the resulting suffering can be immense.

I’m simply proposing that whichever road we choose, we remember it is strewn with gifts that are not better or worse, only different.

Falling into Place

I bribed my family to forego skiing in Colorado and come to California for Christmas. The winning offer: Dungeness crab at $6.99/lb.

We’ve never before gathered in California, and the four of us haven’t been together in quite a few years. When reflecting on what made the week so much fun, it appeared to me that we’re all at a point where we want to be with each other or are at least capable of enjoying the company. With the possible exception of the cat, who made it clear he objected to the disruption of his usual routine.

It’s not always easy to remember that things happen in stages. My sister is six years younger than I, and for years I didn’t want her around. In my late teens and early twenties, I didn’t want any of my family members around. By the time I returned to the fold, my sister had had about enough of all of us. The two of us have been close for years now, but it took some time.

The cycle turned again this year, and it felt as if things I didn’t even know were missing fell into place a little.

That’s not to say we’re perfect. My sister and I had to stop speaking about a photograph because we disagreed so strongly about its contents. My parents are divorced, and though they did us the gigantic favor of not hating each other, they are not those people you see in the movies who remain close friends.

Yet we all seem to have come to a place where, most of the time, we don’t need each other to be any more or less than who we are. The other side of the coin, I think, is that we all have some acceptance of our own failings. We can, mostly, listen to stories about ourselves and say, wow, did I really do that? A gentler reaction than, I did not do that!

The future undoubtedly holds anger and frustration along with the joy and love, but this Christmas felt like a healing, as if something was sewn together that will make our relationships stronger in the future. And that is a remarkable gift.

Going It Together

The problem with the seven deadly sins is they are so easy to commit. Avarice, for example.

A couple of weeks ago, I was admiring a basket of goodies someone had put together in that Martha-Stewart-has-nothing-on-me style that no gift I give will ever resemble. It’s highly unlikely I’ll even think of using a basket.

I said to whoever was there, “That is not a skill I have,” and someone replied, “Don’t be greedy, Rachel. You are very talented.”

I used to believe I had to be good at everything, even though I clearly wasn’t. I should have had the moral fortitude, for example, to be happy as a bus driver. Never mind that driving large vehicles terrifies me; clearly, this psychological weakness needed to be overcome. Luckily, I only beat myself up about not overcoming it rather than calling one of those “We’re hiring drivers” numbers on the back of a big rig.

This hyper-self-sufficiency is very American but not very helpful. We can get so focused on pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps that we fail to recognize that others are doing much of the heavy lifting (as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in Outliers).

Releasing the need to be good at everything has allowed me to appreciate people who excel in the areas that confound me. I can more easily see the beauty of others’ work when not putting energy into feeling insufficient instead. Becoming a little less greedy has also freed me to realize that my talents truly are talents, not just something all those doctors and lawyers could do if they chose to stop doing their more impressive work.

The best part of recognizing and accepting this diversity of gifts is being able to celebrate the reality that we actually need each other, that this whole life thing is way too big to be undertaken alone.