Hold It Lightly

The happenings that remind us of the uncertainty of life are usually big and often unwelcome. I had the good fortune to experience a simple one over the past couple of weeks—being on call for jury duty for a court that was three hours away.

I had to check in one day to see whether I needed to serve the next, but if I was called, I would be sleeping in a hotel that night and possibly for the rest of the week. All the activities on my calendar would be cancelled, and no work would get done.

My approach the first week was to not plan or prepare. I didn’t buy groceries because I might not be home to eat them. I neither made new plans with friends nor cancelled existing ones.

The second week I made tiny plans, such as if I’m called, I’ll try to get together with friends in L.A.; if not, I’ll cook a pot of beans. And then for perhaps the first time in my life, I held the outcome lightly. I didn’t expect either the visit or the beans to happen, didn’t develop a preference for staying home or traveling to L.A.

A friend often recommends holding whatever we’re aiming toward lightly, but until last week I had no understanding of how to put that idea into practice. In losing my ability to pretend I knew what the next day would hold, I could see that my knowing was an illusion to begin with.

Every day our lives could be profoundly different when we wake up in the morning, but we live as if we know exactly what we’re going to do the next day. To some extent, this is necessary. We need to buy groceries after all, but there’s an openness that comes with remaining conscious of the uncertain nature of our existence.

It reminds me of how one would hold a small, injured bird—gently, with an open hand so as not to hurt or scare it. You might take the bird home and put it in a box. Perhaps it will recover, perhaps it will die. Or, as you’re carrying it, it might shake itself and fly right out of your hand, surprising you both.

Holding Reality

My water heater went out this week—in the middle of the day on a Sunday when I was home. It couldn’t have picked a better time. I was without hot water for less than 48 hours.

Sometime during that stretch, I listened to a news report on Venezuela, where it must feel as if the street might disintegrate between one step and the next as the country’s systems and infrastructure stop working.

I read a powerful poem, “Will You?” by Carrie Fountain, this week about the edges of our lives when the daily moments are just a little too beautiful or a little too difficult. One stunning line says,

…My children
are so young they cannot imagine a world
like the one they live in.

Boys taken as child soldiers in Somalia cannot imagine the world of making valentines described in the poem.

We cannot choose one of these realities over the other. The suffering, the cruelty, the misery are no more nor less real than the safety, the love, the connection.

We cannot put all of our attention on one side of the coin. To enter the depths of our lives, we must hold within ourselves the suffering of the world and the joy of existence. To love we must be present to what is.

The poem is not about a perfect moment. The mother gets impatient, she relents, she is overcome by the beauty of her children.

In one line she asks her daughter, “How can there be three Henrys in one class?” and the daughter responds “Because there are.”

How can there be such pain in the world? Because there is. How can there be such love and beauty in the world? Because there are. How can we be present to all that at once? Inconsistently, in fits and starts, with as much failure as success. And because we must.

Here I Am

I was wondering about divinity this week, as can happen when eating homemade pizza in a quiet room (thanks, Mom!). It took two slices, but somewhere along the line divinity presented itself as completely other than our usual ideas about it.

We tend to think of divinity as better than wherever or whoever we are at the moment. We’ll get there—or at least get closer—when we stop falling short of perfection, when we’re more peaceful, more loving, more whole.

But this cannot be true because then we will never be good enough, and God sees us with the eyes of love, which do not see the beloved as flawed but as an absolute wonder. Not to mention that repeated proclamation that all creation is good.

I buy eggs from someone in a different office at work. Her coworkers have gotten used to me coming in and walking out with several dozen eggs. I don’t know their names, but we recognize each other and exchange greetings and smiles.

As I left this week, I felt a strong surge of gratitude for these friendly greetings. Divinity is no farther away nor more complicated than these exchanges, no farther away nor more complicated than pizza, than joy, than heartbreak.

We don’t attain divinity; we live in and into it. We come to recognize its presence within and around us at every moment.

When God calls to Moses from the burning bush, Moses answers exactly as Abraham did, “Here I am.” What an astonishing thing to say to a voice coming from a bush that happens to be on fire in the middle of nowhere.

We come to know the divinity that is always present to us not by becoming perfect but by becoming present to what already is, by saying “Here I am” no matter the circumstances.

Here I am, waiting to be found. Here I am, willing to love and be loved. Here I am, already part of the Divinity in which we live and move and have our being.

Where Jesus Came

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of Christmas creches, and I suspect they’re not quite accurate.

Mary looks as if she’s just come from hair and makeup. Jesus is not crying, not nursing, but sleeping, the most unusual activity for a baby, as any new parents will tell you. And the innkeeper who wouldn’t give them a room apparently felt some last minute remorse and had the stables mucked out moments before because they’re gleaming.

The whole scene misses the point of incarnation; it confuses Christianity with perfectionism.

Jesus did not come into the world to put barns on the Good Housekeeping tour. He came to show that the stables shine just the way they are because there, as everywhere, the divine presence is found.

We have such a hard time with this. My family came for Christmas, and when they left, I felt unexpectedly sad. I enjoy the good fortune of having a wonderful family, but usually some sense of relief comes with having a quiet house again. Not this year.

I kept reminding myself to stick with the sadness, welcome it instead of fearing it and trying to push it away, and for one moment, I got it. I was making dinner, chopping up a pepper, and that pepper was suddenly breathtakingly beautiful, essence of pepper shining in the red and orange flesh.

Cutting vegetables in the comfort of one’s own kitchen is a far cry from going through the then dangerous ordeal of giving birth while lying on the ground, miles from home, without the community that would normally offer support. But that’s the thing about God’s love—it’s present during the smallest and largest difficulties, not taking them away as we often wish but rather inhabiting them and letting us know that no amount of muck can separate us from the sacred nature of ourselves, of others, of life.

The Joy of Presence

Instead of a license plate holder that says, “I’d rather be golfing” or “I’d rather be hiking.” I want one that says, “I’d rather be present.”

All the great spiritual traditions recommend dwelling in the here and now (or at least, as in the old Trident commercial, four out of five do). I tend to view being present as an accomplishment to attain, but maybe it’s simply a joyful place to be.

When we’re present, we can see that creation is one big current of love. Trees are manifesting love in tree form, grass in grass form.

Even we humans, confused as we are, walk around as electric charges of love. It seems improbable amidst all the horrors that we inflict on each other and on the Earth, but if it’s true of the hollyhock and the quail, it must be true of us. What else could we be when we are manifestations of God, of Infinite Love?

It’s easy to mythologize being present, seeing it as a state of perfection in which our mind is quiet and focused and our emotions are tranquil. While I’ll certainly take that when it comes, maybe presence is simpler than we think. Maybe all it requires is holding to a vision of life as it is, which is love.

Love does not make everything OK in the way we are accustomed to think of it. It doesn’t erase suffering or loss or insulate us from them, but as Jim Finley says, it offers “freedom from suffering in the midst of suffering.” It shows us the beauty of the bigger picture, the unchangeable nature of our and reality’s true identity regardless of the current circumstances.

Being present—being love to ourselves and others and recognizing love as the nature of all creation—is available to each of us every moment of every day, and it’s the most joyful choice we can make.

Still Life with Jello

I often ask my cat, Tux, questions he must be completely uninterested in, such as, what did I do with my keys? Others he may be tired of hearing, particularly, do you think I’ll ever get there?

“There” of course doesn’t mean to his food bowl; it means to that mythical place where I’ll have everything spiritually figured out. These days I ask it less often as I’m more and more aware that there doesn’t exist, but still, wouldn’t it be nice…

That question and I entered a new phase of our relationship this week. Intellectually I’ve understood for a little while that it’s not a useful question because “there’s no there there,” but in practice, I had just substituted “here” for “there.” Why not? Only one small letter apart.

I’ve been telling myself, if I could get really present, I would experience everything I associate with there—an uninterrupted state of peace, infinite reserves of compassion, an end to resistance, a better attitude toward the existence of jello. So being present came to mean being those ways. It became another there.

But that’s not it at all. There’s nowhere to go, period, and it doesn’t matter whether we get there, not even a tiny bit. On first blush, this sounds like a reason to eat a lot of jello, lime jello. Throw in the mini marshmallows and the pineapple bits. If it’s not getting any better than this, why not?

Considered in another way, though, it means that this moment is sacred, this one, right here, the one in which I am beating myself up or feeling annoyed or have just acted in a way that can’t quite be described as charitable. When the bathroom is dirty, when work isn’t going well, when failure or separation or despair threaten to engulf us.

That’s the miracle and mystery of it all. We are no further from God and God’s love at those times than when we are standing on the podium of life at our most shining and impressive. That’s the reason to be present—because our Life is here, right here.

Tuning into the Divine Frequency

Life would be so much easier if fulfillment could be found in exterior things. The world’s most amazing piece of chocolate cake exists somewhere, so find it and bam! you’re done. Mission accomplished. Life well lived. Carefree from here on out.

But nothing outside of our selves—space intended—will ever satisfy us, a reality that can cause a lot of joy or a lot of suffering.

So many things seem as if they describe or comprise our selves but don’t: our accomplishments, our responsible-ness, our moral conduct, others’ opinions of us. Sometimes, though, we really mess up all of these things—I mean really, or at least I do—and so they can’t be who we are.

What’s left when everything our society teaches us to value or work toward is not us? In a recent meditation, Richard Rohr writes, “Gospel holiness…is almost entirely about receiving God’s free gift of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.” Or to put it another way in another tradition, “We don’t need to look outside of the present moment to find inner peace and contentment; when experienced with awareness, everything becomes a source of joy,” according to Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

This sounds great but can be frustrating because there’s nothing we can do to make ourselves happy or become who we want to be once and for all. We are more than anything else receptors, and the best we can do is attune ourselves to the divine frequency, a station that only plays in the present moment.

“I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through,” says the Sufi poet Hafiz. When we allow that music to flow through us, our actions become notes in the divine song—natural expressions of our true selves. I suspect this receiving and giving is better than chocolate cake.