Just This Minute

Yesterday felt like altogether too much before I even got out of bed, and then a small voice inside said, “Just this minute.” As in, live only this minute that you are actually experiencing right now.

I often worry about whether I’ll have time to do everything in the evening as I’m packing my lunch at 7 a.m. Sometimes, to bring myself back to the present, I focus on why I’m here, but that doesn’t always work that well.

I’m not sure why is a useful question. It puts us directly into figuring-it-out mode, and no matter what answer we come up with, we can then evaluate ourselves on the basis of that answer. But evaluation is too limited to be our main tool in this life. Our existence is much richer than reason will allow.

It’s almost impossible to conclude we are an incredible success or a massive failure in a minute, regardless of what criteria we’ve chosen. Perhaps this is why wisdom traditions recommend staying present—it keeps us from thinking life is about something other than living.

“Being present” could answer the question, how do I live my life? Or how do I life my life most fully?

When making a decision, Jim Finley recommends asking the question, all things considered, what’s the most loving thing I can do right now—for myself, for the person I’m talking with, for anyone who will be affected by my decision? The “right now” part of that advice is important. Not in an ideal world, not if things were different, not if I had my act together, but right now.

Choosing to live in the minute we’re in may be one of the most loving things we can do at any time. It removes so much of what may motivate us other than love and reminds us that, no matter what else may be going on at the moment, we are alive. This is the gift from and through which all other gifts flow, and it is cause for great rejoicing.

Everywhere You Look

Here is what I learned last week: we absolutely must let God love us because it is the only way to help others see that God loves them. Or if you are not into God, we must allow ourselves to experience that the core of our being is divine—essential, complete, creative, unconditional, fully connected—love.

I’m not sure we’re here for much else than to realize that and practice it so that we can help others realize and practice it. I learned this most recently at the Living School for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, though I suspect we spend our lives learning it.

Our group of forty-five was invited to walk around imagining the words “Holy to God” were marked on our foreheads and to read those words on everyone else’s forehead. Then we formed a circle and simply looked each other in the eyes while listening to a song with the lyrics, “Everywhere you turn, you see the face of God.” People were weeping. I think they were weeping because it is true.

Then we left the circle, and I started worrying about who I would eat dinner with and whether I would be left all alone while everyone else went out and had a fabulous time together. A few minutes later, someone who I hadn’t connected with in the circle walked past me and stopped and saw God in me, and on the inside, I ran and hid. At that moment, I wasn’t capable of accepting what she saw.

I’ve always thought all the unworthiness stories I carry around inside contributed to self-improvement, but they are just another form of ego. They prevent us from seeing ourselves, and therefore others, as the love that we are.

Living in and from this love nature is obviously not going to be easy on the day the person in front of you at the grocery store is paying his bill in unrolled pennies and your spouse calls to tell you the washing machine broke and flooded all over your new wood floors—or even on a typical day at work, not to mention in a war zone. I couldn’t even hold onto it while staying at a nice hotel and having all my meals prepared for me. But that’s why we practice.

Encountering Mystery

Mysteries come closer and more often than we think. I used to see a couple in their fifties or sixties walking through my neighborhood every morning as I drove to work. In my memory, they always walk hand in hand. I don’t know if this detail is true or invented, but they had an air of closeness, of having grown together over time.

They are both heavyset, almost square. He walks with a cane. The other day I saw only the man, walking alone. I worried about what had happened to the woman and about how the man would fare without his companion. I also felt negligent because I hadn’t seen them in quite some time but hadn’t been conscious of their absence. Had they been right there and I hadn’t noticed them? Or had one of us changed our routine by a minute or two, enough to no longer be a casual occurrence in the other’s life?

Another couple, slender, faster, maybe younger, maybe not, used to walk their dog farther along my route to work. The woman always wears a knit hat and the man a blue fleece jacket. I would glance at the clock every day when I passed them to figure out whether or not I was late. I have not seen them in a while either.

I wonder who, if anyone, I am to these couples. Am I the woman in the gray car who drives too fast? Do they even see me?

I know nothing of these people, despite their proximity, yet on some level they matter to me. I wonder whether I know my acquaintances at work any better. I assume we have more in common because we share certain experiences, but are they really any less mysterious? And when it comes to that, would my closest friends and family tell their own stories the way I would tell them? Is it possible to conceive of the world from inside someone else’s heart, mind, and soul.

Perhaps that’s why that couple holds hands, even after all these years—they know they are holding onto something precious, a piece of the world unlike any other that can be explored for a lifetime and remain unknowable.

Here’s a poem from the Polish poet Anna Swir that argues the opposite of what I just have. Or, at the end, maybe not.

The Same Inside

Walking to your place for a love feast
I saw at a street corner
an old beggar woman.

I took her hand,
kissed her delicate cheek,
we talked, she was
the same inside as I am,
from the same kind,
I sensed this instantly
as a dog knows by scent
another dog.

I gave her money,
I could not part from her.
After all, one needs
someone who is close.

And then I no longer knew
why I was walking to your place.

-Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

Reprinted in A Book of Luminous Things, ed. by Czeslaw Milosz

Joy Hovers

A hummingbird has been trying to tell me something this week. He hovered outside my window for a few seconds one day, expending probably hundreds of his precious heartbeats to make sure I’d notice, then zoomed away only to return several times during the morning for a repeat performance.

According to a book I once read on Native American understanding of animals, hummingbirds bring joy and the nectar of life. The first day, I went outside to see if something remarkably joyful might bump into me. A tree had opened up the first of its delicate white blossoms, but that didn’t quite seem to be it. I stood under the tree waiting for a long-lost friend to happen along, but nothing happened.

The next day I was still trying to figure it out—I had a blog to write after all—but I wasn’t making much progress. Then he came back and hung out so close to the window it looked as if he could tap his beak on the glass.

I confess I wasn’t doing a great job of practicing joy on these days. Most of my practice consisted of self-imposed stress and feelings of inadequacy. Not everything that happens in this life is joyful. There’s more than enough pain and grief to go around. But I know there are plenty of opportunities for joy that I don’t take, that it’s not regularly my baseline approach to the day.

As I was driving home that second day, it occurred to me that perhaps there’s nothing to figure out. Joy is there waiting for us and all we have to do is open the window.

In Praise of Co-Habitation

All of you who live lovingly with others—roommates, spouses, children, extended family members—astonish me. I asked some people what they think praise means recently, and two of my favorite responses were “to honor and recognize holiness” and to stand in awe of. Today I’d like to take a moment to praise healthy, happy—at least most of the time—co-habitation.

Sometimes after work I sit in my car and play word games on my phone to avoid interacting with my cat quite so soon. Granted, none of my former roommates clawed me if I didn’t play with them when I got home, but I started thinking about all my vanmates who get in their cars and drive directly home to care for or simply be with families and spouses.

A friend and I spent last weekend at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. That’s three days of sitting in your own room with your own little garden, seeing people only at services, and speaking only during our afternoon walks. I always find re-entry rough, but she has to readjust not only to noise and advertisements and Starbucks but also to another human being, her husband.

Living well with others requires a certain selflessness and self-sacrifice, a willingness to give up some of how you would rather things be, an openness to negotiation and renegotiation. In essence, a daily giving of yourself that can’t help but make the world more loving.

Of course not everyone manages to be as kind as they might like to be every day, but on balance, this daily and often not-so-simple caring for one another is a great good. Huzzah to you!

Things Being Various

I got in touch with my inner consumer this week by running the box store gauntlet twice in one day. This stretch of road passes between all the box stores you could possibly want on one side and all the box stores you didn’t know you wanted but now that you’ve seen you can’t live without on the other side.

Simply being surrounded by so much available stuff triggered the “I must need something” center in my brain. I felt the steering wheel pull to the right and had to consciously resist entering the parking lot where, of course, all would be lost. It helped that I was already late to my destination.

A few minutes later, I saw a wounded crow on the side of the road. It kept trying to fly and rolling forward instead. I’m not sure it could even walk. In all likelihood, a hawk ate it by the end of the day.

I’m sure I have no idea how a dying crow views life. I’ve been thinking recently that I don’t know how my cat conceptualizes me, whether he’s capable of understanding, for example, which part of me is my mouth and that he has a body part with a similar function. I spend much less time with crows than my cat spends with me, but the crow seemed to me in need of some comfort; he appeared panicked every time his body didn’t work the way it was supposed to.

So I pictured him being held by a loving force and eventually flying away. It was all I could do, and there’s no way to know whether it had any effect. But this is how I believe the world works—that somehow sending out that thought or energy can make a difference.

It’s so odd that in this same life, on this same stretch of road, there are times to resist the mundane temptation of too much of everything and times for the complete mystery of holding dying crows in our hearts. Stranger yet and more difficult is the attempt not to count one more dear than the other but to consider that because they are both here, they both have a place in this world.

Note: I stole the title of this post from the poem “Snow” by Louis MacNeice.

Where’s There?

Having an obsession and fulfilling that obsession are two very different things. I’ve been getting ready to go on vacation, which generally sends me into an OCD quest of trying to tie up every possible loose end between 10 p.m. and midnight the night before I leave.

Given the lack of tied-up-ness in my daily life and the late hour at which I start, I usually stay up until I am forced to give up. At this point, I feel a surprising amount of peace.

A friend said in the comments last week that when she’s focused on the future, she gets frustrated that she’s not there yet. I only feel that way approximately 99.8% of the time. I think that’s what’s nice about getting ready to leave: it’s a defined, immutable “there.” The plane will leave at 6:27 a.m. whether you’ve watered the plants or not.

It’s interesting that it’s not so much the getting everything done before leaving as the simple existence of a cut-off point that brings that peaceful feeling. I perceive the “there yet” that I torture myself with as having to do with lack of accomplishment, whether tangible or interior, but this experience suggests otherwise.

It suggests that the ever-changing nature of the finish line causes more anxiety than what’s happening in the actual race. If every moment could be its own finish line, I wouldn’t have to worry about this whole journey thing.

Happy to Inherit

Newsflash: your parents were once children. Some of you may have figured this out before I did, but the corollary may surprise you: your aunts and uncles were, too.

Last weekend my dad, a couple of his siblings, their respective spouses, and I gathered for an incomplete but very enjoyable family reunion. It has only recently occurred to me that these people—spouses excepted—have spent all or most of their lives together. They know each other in a variety of contexts: childhood, adolescence, newlyweds. They know the stupid choices, the heartbreaks, the brilliant successes, the unexpected joys.

They hold all these versions of each other within their memories and yet miraculously manage not to hold each other to those versions. Forgiving and forgetting even the small things can be difficult—the broken toy, the gloves thrown in the snowbank (sorry, little sister)—and history between siblings is not always comprised of only small things. This willingness to let go is a big chunk of what it means to be an adult, and it is rare.

I appreciate this group’s ability to laugh—kindly—at the way we are utterly and predictably ourselves. My uncle will always pause mid-conversation to find the source of the unusual airplane motor the rest of us don’t even notice. My dad will always search out mayonnaise packets, oblivious to my other uncle’s impatience to get where we’re going. But by and large, everyone chooses to be entertained rather than annoyed by each other’s idiosyncrasies.

After my grandmother died, the entire family gathered at a beach house with an astonishing collection of food and drink. Toward the end of the week, my dad and his brother and sisters sequestered themselves in one of the bedrooms for a few hours. When they emerged, all my grandma’s assets had been bloodlessly divided up, the only item of contention a CD/tape player that may have been worth $100 at the time. They flipped a coin. No hard feelings. No lawyers. Everyone not only still talking to each other but also still enjoying each other.

And that, perhaps, is the older generation of Henrys greatest legacy to my generation: the lived conviction that enjoying each other is more valuable than whatever else might happen.

Communing with Crabs

Nature often saves me. The trees outside my office building catch infinite shades of light; hummingbirds zip by improbably close; hawks redefine effortless. The non-human-created gets me out of myself in a way nothing else does.

Last weekend I found a new-to-me park with a trail that led past the “Hazard: Unsafe Bluffs” sign down to the collection of rocks that served as a beach. It was one of those glassy ocean days when it looks as if you could skim sunlight off the water’s surface. The sea was receding, leaving tide pools in its wake.

sea anemoneI squatted down to look at one of the pools, little more than a puddle really, and was initially unimpressed: some wavy pink plant, a lot of snail shells, a few closed up anemones. I stayed, though, and after a time previously inanimate objects began to move, first only a few and eventually most of what had been stationary.

Crabs ranging from small to borderline microscopic stood up underneath those supposed snail shells and started scuttling about with them. What I’d thought were pebbles encrusted on the outside of the anemones sprouted tiny legs and joined them. Some sort of mini lizard-fish made short, intermittent darts here and there. A many-legged creepy-crawly that resembled those you don’t enjoy finding in your bathtub appeared and moved in random, short bursts, miraculously never running into the lizard-fish. And finally some creature who resembled nothing more than a few grains of sand stuck together began bobbing about.

The tide pool couldn’t have held more than a few gallons of water, and yet it supported this exquisite and astonishing abundance of life. As I’ve said before, I sometimes worry we’re going to wipe out ourselves and the rest of the world through various forms of stupidity or inattention. I understand the scientific delicacy of ecosystems. But the sheer amount of life in this splash the ocean left behind gave me hope that creation is bigger than our stupidity and inattention and not likely, however improbable it seems, to be overcome by the likes of us.

Mama Told Me There’d Be Days Like This

Sunday was one of those days most sane people prefer to skip. You may know the kind, the ones when some Monster of Gunk deep inside you decides to rise up and disgorge purplish-black sludge all over the otherwise harmless world. Though absolutely no outside circumstance has changed, you know as soon as you open your eyes that the only possible way to survive the day is to never get out of bed.

gunk monsterPerhaps the uber-sane among us find some use in these days. Maybe the Dalai Lama wakes up, spies the gunk monster, and says, “Ah, another opportunity for instruction!” But I like to think he wakes up, bangs the heel of his hand against his forehead, and says, “Oy!” (Because everyone knows the Dalai Lama is secretly Jewish.)

I don’t know of a way to enjoy these days. I’m not particularly sure how to be grateful for them. I am certain they exist, for some more often than for others, and I know it’s important to recognize and share that existence. Otherwise we start to think everyone else’s insides are full of daffodils and butterflies and we alone are capable of spewing such ugliness for so little reason.

These days do end. On Tuesday, I spent the evening joyfully eating steak and drinking very good wine with my aunt and uncle. On Sunday, I could neither feel joy nor quite believe in its possibility. The best I could do was to remember that nothing lasts; this too shall pass, and God, though obviously absent and clearly inept, is in charge. Remembering does not yield great comfort during gunk monster and me bonding time, but it keeps the bottom from falling out of things. Comfort comes only later, when the world has righted itself through no effort of my own and the blue sky and sunshine seem once again to have some relation to me.