Come on Down

A couple of weeks ago, my mom and I were in Avila Beach on one of those “death is nowhere in the background” kind of days when the ocean and sky teach you the beauty of the color blue, the sun shines specifically to warm you, and an infusion of sweetness permeates the day in some way you can’t quite put your finger on.

I arrived first and went down to the water. From there, I could see much of the beach and most of the entrances from the embarcadero above. We were texting back and forth, and Mom was trying to figure out which entrance to take and where I was standing. “Just come down and I’ll find you,” I told her. I knew I would see her no matter which route she took, but from where she stood, there was no way to understand the breadth of my view.

I wonder whether God is often saying this to us and we aren’t listening. We are worrying about which way to go or what to do because we think only one way will lead to God or happiness or wherever we are supposed to be. Maybe all we have to do is set out toward the divine and it will come rushing to meet us, like the father in the story of the prodigal son. We don’t have to figure it out because God can see the whole picture, and we can’t.

I told mom to take the stairs closest to her. Many teachers tell us to stick with the spiritual tradition we grew up with, as long as it wasn’t too harmful. Maybe that’s because it’s the closest staircase, the easiest way to head in God’s direction.

Maybe, when we stop trying to figure out where to go, we’ll discover we’re already there.


 

Note: The quotation “death is nowhere in the background” is a slight adaptation of a line in the poem “From Blossoms” by Li Young Lee.

Getting Clingy

I received a number of lovely and kind emails this week, each of which I read and, ten minutes later, read again, not so much to enjoy them as to reassure myself that I am loved and appreciated. Because, you know, the pixels might have rearranged themselves to make different words

I think this is what Buddhists call clinging, something Thich Nhat Hanh does not recommend in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. Instead he suggests getting up close and personal with the appreciation of impermanence. After all, think what would happen if some things were permanent, like mosquitoes. By now Earth would be so full of mosquitoes that we’d have figured out intergalactic travel.

There are other things that most of us do want to be permanent, though—a really chocolatey chocolate ice cream cone (or vanilla if you happen to be one of those people), our health, that feeling we get when someone expresses her love for us. Apparently we don’t get to pick—clearly a universal design flaw.

In looking into the source of my obsessive email re-checking—another of the Buddha’s suggestions relayed by Thich Nhat Hanh—I found a lack of trust in the abundance of the universe. We live in a remarkably abundant place, from the number of mosquitoes to the number of galaxies—there is a whole lot of stuff here. And a lot of love and nice emails. I’m not saying we’ve worked out the distribution system particularly well among us humans, but that may have to do with this clinging, which I think is related to greed.

The reason greed is called a mortal sin is not that we are extra bad people when we are greedy but that it will kill us and others. We harm ourselves by trying to provide what only God can truly give, whether food or fulfillment, and end up feeling empty. Then, because of that feeling, we start hacking into other people’s inboxes and stealing their best emails. Or simply having too much to eat when others have not enough.

Trust doesn’t mean sitting on the couch and expecting the bag of potato chips to fall into our laps; it means recognizing that we are not the source of our existence, which can be difficult because it’s not what we’re taught. Paradoxically, though, when we don’t worry about when the next kindness will arrive, we can enjoy the present one a lot more.

A Good Week

There are small mysteries in this world, such as why no one seems capable of producing a generic band-aid that sticks to your skin for more than an hour.

Then there are larger mysteries, such as why right when you are feeling hopeless about the writing business, you win a contest, as I did this week. I won the Peter K. Hixson Memorial Award—$1800 of services from Writer’s Relief, a company that handles submissions for authors. They will submit excerpts of my novel to seventy-five magazines for me for free. That’s a rather fabulous number of magazines, and I am ever so slightly excited. (Check it out—my name appears on someone else’s website!)

The day before this happened, I said to God, “OK, I know I’m supposed to be trusting you, and I can see that when it comes to getting things done and to writing, I’m not. Nothing else is working, though, so I will.” I guess God enjoys a good spectacle now and then—parting the Red Sea, smiting folks, the Transfiguration, and winning writing contests.

I don’t think you need to be someone who talks to God for this kind of thing to happen to you.  Grace—“that blind benevolent side of even the fiercest world”—happens to everyone (“Grace Abounding,” William Stafford). Sometimes it comes when we are at our lowest and have done nothing to invite its presence except perhaps needing it.

But I think oftentimes, trust creates a crack in our doubt, our routine, our self-sufficiency—whatever it is that needs cracking—for grace to sneak in through. Sometimes trust might feel more like letting go or giving up, not resignation, but relaxing our death grip on having to do it ourselves or needing events to resolve in a certain way.

So keep the faith, whatever your faith happens to be, and may we all learn “that floating, that immensity waiting to receive whatever arrives with trust” (“Afterwards,” Stafford again).

Note: I will be at a writing workshop next week, and so the blog will be on vacation. Yes, I realize there is a certain irony in not writing because I’ll be writing.

Running the Universe

I have an atheist friend who always wants to know what I gave up for Lent. This combination of question and questioner is one of my favorite things in the world.

I don’t enjoy failure, so I don’t choose things like chocolate or sweets. Plus, I don’t really believe in the utility of suffering. Instead I give up an attitude or action.

This year I gave up being worthy, meaning earning God’s love. I think this could translate into non-religious language if you thought about earning being alive. No matter what you do, you can’t make yourself somehow good enough to have deserved coming into being; it’s all gift. I soon realized not being worthy also had to go because it gives me a reason to refuse that gift.

Letting go of worthiness is one step in my ongoing attempt to recognize that perhaps I am not running the universe. It’s risky, though, allowing God to try her hand at this particular task because clearly omniscient and omnipotent have nothing on me.

I confess I haven’t gotten very far. I like being in charge, and it’s easier to maintain the illusion of control if my actions are filling up some imaginary scales that will determine how nice God is to me.

My main practice has been remaining mindful of these few lines in St. Romuald’s Brief Rule for Camaldoli monks, “Remember above all that you are in the presence of God.” The rule goes on to suggest being, “…content with the grace of God,” which takes earning or controlling anything out of the equation. I sometimes translate the first line into, “Remember above all that you are in the presence of infinite love,” which helps me trust God a tiny bit more.

There are two more weeks of Lent, and my odds of achieving enlightenment by Easter are low. I’m not sure I’ve even given up enough control to fill a mustard seed. But occasionally I remember to stop and imagine myself surrounded by God’s presence, and in those moments, the world opens up and out and offers a sense of another way to be.

In case you’ve lost count, God, I think I’m at thirty-seven moments—approximately.