Reality Wants You

I woke up early one day this week to do Important Things, e.g., pack a lunch, before leaving for work. Instead I spent a good amount of time patting Tux, my cat.

I said to him, “Looks like it’s going to be a Tux kind of day.” That simple statement opened up in me a sense that the day had a direction of its own independent of my plans. I saw the possibility of tuning into that movement rather than trying to lock each hour tightly into a pre-imagined form, like when you hold something squishy in your hands and it inevitably manages to squeeze through the spaces between your fingers.

Then a little tendril of terror crept in. To trust the universe to reveal itself and our place in it sounds noble in theory, but in practice it involves getting up close and personal with our lack of control.

Right before the terror, though, a feeling of aliveness prevailed. I believe it came from experiencing the reality of the newness of each moment. All creation really is coming into being each nanosecond, including us. “The sky gathered again/ And the sun grew round that very day,” as Dylan Thomas writes in “Fern Hill.”

This could be cause for great celebration, for dancing in the streets and on the rooftops.

I’m not saying that whatever we’re struggling with will be magically erased, but what could be more exciting than to consciously participate in the unfolding of existence? An unfolding that is now, as it was in the beginning, good. An unfolding that is bigger than our plans and moves in time beyond our understanding.

The world will surely be a different place when we go to bed than when we woke up. We may only recognize the wonder of its evolution if we step into the current that is already flowing toward Love.

When We Are

The only time we can love the world is right now because that is the only time we exist. It’s strange to forget that we’re alive right now, but we do forget—a lot.

My mind rehashes past events with great frequency as if I could change the way life unfolded. Learning from our mistakes is difficult but useful. Trying to tweak our past actions to edit outcomes we didn’t enjoy—or ones that could have been just a little better—is living an illusion.

Perhaps our pasts are more redeemable than we believe, but they can only be redeemed in the present not undone or changed. There are no redos, but there is grace. There is moving forward with respect for what has shaped us, compassion for ourselves and others, and humility in the face of our tremendous limitations and equally incredible gifts.

I also attempt to spend a good amount of time in the future with, as yet, no success. I mentally pre-live everything from writing emails to attending dinner parties. Practice improves our abilities and capacity, but I’m not making that complicated dessert before serving it. I’m planning out conversations when the circumstances in which people will gather don’t exist yet. Who knows in what frame of mind we’ll walk through the door or whether we will arrive at all.

We can honor our pasts and live into our futures with wisdom by remaining conscious in the one place where everything comes together—now. If Love is the ongoing creative force in the universe, the present moment is the where and when of infinite potential. We cannot know where we’re going, but we can participate in where we are, in the creative force loving us all into existence.

A number of things could be the thing we’re here to learn—love, interconnection, how to cook the fudgiest possible brownies. Another meaning-of-life candidate that I’ve noticed recently is cultivating the ability to wait in openness and trust rather than defending a certain outcome.

I’ve seen myself tensing up mentally before someone has even spoken, putting on full body armor when for all I know they’re about to invite me to go pick flowers. As with so many habits of mind, for most of my life I was unaware of this battle preparation. I thought it was just common sense or being ahead of the game or making sure things came out the way they were supposed to.

What does it mean to trust in this world of ours? It can’t mean believing everything will come out the way we want it to or expecting that we’ll move through life pain free. That’s closer to denial. But any situation can go in multiple directions, most of which we can’t anticipate.

Can we consider that what we have during the most difficult times is enough? Maybe not in the perfect way we see in our head. Maybe we’ll still experience a great deal of messiness, failure, and pain, yet in the midst of all that life is moving toward an unknown destination. As Jim Finley says, God protects us from nothing but sustains us in all things.

Can we allow life to go spectacularly well in a way that we couldn’t have imagined? It’s possible, though not guaranteed, that when we approach life with openness it will take an entirely different turn than it would have otherwise. Our very waiting creates possibilities that didn’t exist when we approached the situation defending our preferred future from attack.

We are taught that we need to make things happen. If instead we can participate in what’s happening, life will become unpredictable in the most wonderful way.

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.

There Will Be an End

The reality of being finite entered me this week in a much more intimate way than it usually does.

A friend’s daughter has been in the hospital for more than two weeks and is not improving. A woman who works where I do stopped to help the victim of a traffic accident and was killed when another car hit the debris from the accident and spun out of control. The same day we learned about the death, paramedics’ questions echoed down the hall from me called 911 because he wasn’t feeling well (He turned out to be OK).

We read about more tragic events than these every day, but proximity affects how we are able to respond. I had seen the woman who was killed around campus, and I’m sure she thought she would get up and go to work the next morning exactly as I do each day. But we never know.

There’s a true heartbreak in this uncertainty. No amount of preparedness guarantees that we will get up in the morning. We will lose everyone we love, whether we leave first or they do, and it may happen unexpectedly. As much as we imagine and operate as if it were otherwise, life is largely out of our control.

Letting this reality break our hearts opens us to the beauty of what is. Living in an illusion of control separates us from life’s fullness.

We must learn to treasure the temporary. This doesn’t mean continually thinking we might die tomorrow, but rather heightening our awareness of the sweetness of breathing, of loving and being loved, of sensing the world around us in various ways.

What life will hold is unknown and unknowable. This is our heartbreak. This is our joy. This is our call to savor with gratitude the miracle of each moment, to live consciously in the presence of this unfolding existence during our brief and precious sojourn here.

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.