A Gathering

This is not what I planned to write this week. I planned to write it sometime in the very safe future when everything was prepared and under control. You know that future, the one where hot fudge sundaes are good for you and lemon drops grow on trees.

When I went to my Living School intensive in Albuquerque in June, I learned, among other things, that my writing can be a help in the world. This is probably not a news flash to anyone except me. I know and am grateful that some people find this blog useful, but I never thought of it as service, not like working in a soup kitchen or a prison.

So I decided to gather some of these posts into a book and put it out into the world in some as yet undecided format. I need to give a shout out to Delores, who has been telling me to do this for years and without whose encouragement I might never have considered it, and Bardwell, who suggested it more recently.

It’s interestingly terrifying to tell you I plan to write this book for two reasons: First, you might ask how it’s going at a time when it’s not going at all. Second, there is something revelatory—that is, self-revealing—about claiming to be the one who best knows my form of service in the world and that I know it’s this deep part of me. As David Whyte says in his poem “Revelation Must Be Terrible,”

…revelation must be terrible
knowing you can
never hide your voice again.

A teacher of mine once said that completely different intentions can look the same externally. I used to write to prove myself. Now I’m beginning to see that I can choose to write to be myself, and being our true selves—not our small, accomplishment-driven selves—is not only all that’s asked of us but also all that’s needed.

I would love to have your help in the collection process. If there’s a post you particularly like or a topic you think is important to include, leave a comment or email me at rachelrhenry@gmail.com. There’s a schnazzy new search box in the upper right to help with this endeavor.

Thank you for reading, for your support over the years, for knowing me better than I know myself, and for any suggestions you may have.

Thank You

When I logged on last night, WordPress informed me that on that very date four years ago I started writing these reflections every week-ish. This is the kind of fact I wouldn’t have believed if a computer didn’t say it because four years is a long time.

Or it used to be. College was four years, and college lasted a long time, as I recall. As previously noted, this whole age thing alters either the space-time continuum or our perception of it. I know the latter is more likely, but I’m not ruling out the former.

Another reason it doesn’t feel as if it’s been a long time is you. Every time I wanted to spend the evening streaming an entire season of Arrested Development or scrolling through Facebook, I remembered that, miraculously, there are people on the other end of the ether who find this blog helpful.

Knowing that is humbling, in the truest sense of the word, that is, it reminds me that what happens here doesn’t so much come from me as through me but that I need to keep showing up. It keeps me honest, which means you keep me honest. You move me to look inside, beyond complaint, beyond self criticism (OK, usually) to say something I hope is useful. I have to give up my perfectionist streak and hit publish even on the days when I think, this is really not my best one. Almost every time, those posts receive the most likes and comments.

I saw a quote recently that said, “No one can do it for you, and you can’t get there alone.” That is absolutely true of this blog. Thank you.

When I Was Your Age

Seen on a book flap this week: “Hailed as the most prominent lyrical poet of his time, [Dylan Thomas] made four trips to the United States and died in New York in 1953 at the age of 39.”

New Yorker cartoon recounted to me by a friend: An obituary page with captions under the pictures that said, “A little older than you,” “A little younger than you,” and then in the middle “Your age exactly.” Thirty-nine is my age exactly.

 I generally hate hypothetical questions because they pit things against each other needlessly, but this book flap made me wonder whether I’d rather be a really successful writer, as Thomas was a poet, or likely to be alive at 40. I would rather, of course, be both, but unlike choosing between your parents being run over by a mac truck or your sister being eaten by sharks, this decision was easy—I’d rather be alive. Because there’s a lot more to life than writing.

Which I’m not sure I could have said without feeling guilty ten years ago. Not that I didn’t value the other parts of my life, but in my head, I earned my existence through my accomplishments.

I’m more and more certain that existence isn’t available to be earned—it’s a gift. People don’t bring you more gifts on your seventh birthday than your sixth because you learned multiplication in second grade and that’s a bigger accomplishment than addition and subtraction. We can receive or reject gifts but can’t do anything about the giving of them. (OK, you can invite more people to your birthday party, but you can’t control whether they give you the stupid brush and comb set or the cool Batman action figure.)

Entering mid-life reduced the urgency of accomplishment for me. I still sometimes think that just means I’ve failed—a possible explanation but not a good one. A better one may be that aging allows us to recognize the wonder of existence, pay attention to it, and enjoy it.

Stumble Upon

Here is what you can do with a paper thesaurus that you can’t do at thesaurus.com: You look up the word “happening” and somehow work your way around to “existence,” which you discover is the first entry in the thesaurus, a location delightfully fraught with meaning. Along the way you somehow manage to pass by the word “yeshiva.” (Yes, this really happened to me, though I cannot now reconstruct how “yeshiva” got in there.)

I worry sometimes that this running into what we weren’t looking for gets lost online, that when all our content is algorithmically processed to appeal to who we already are, we can no longer stumble across those things that will shape us into who we will become. E-books can’t fall off the shelf at you. Google can’t tell what’s in your soul from your geographic location and the list of Ted talks you’ve downloaded recently.

I think of chance encounters as the universe’s way of trying to get through to us, of circumventing our too-busy minds with well-targeted wake up calls. So I suppose it’s a little egotistic to think that the universe can’t handle this electronic device we’ve invented, as if we’re clever enough to disrupt cosmic communications by snagging them in our World Wide Web.

Here’s how synchronicity might happen online: You Google “couples snuggies,” and one of the links sends you to a scary website that puts a nasty virus on your computer. You take your computer to the computer store, where the person who helps you uses the word “yeshiva,” which happens to be just the word you needed to finish that poem you’ve been stuck on for weeks. (No, this didn’t really happen to me, well not exactly, but don’t Google couples snuggies and don’t ask why I did.)

I will still take the paper thesaurus down from the shelf sometimes just because it’s so much fun to wander around in the relatedness of words, but I’ll also keep in mind that the bigger relatedness out there can use any of the tools at its disposal.

There Is Enough

Here’s something to add to your list of things not to do: spend a week talking about God and art, fly home, go directly to the outlet mall. Not sanity inducing.

I spent last week at the Glen West Workshop in Santa Fe. I feel as if it reversed the spin of my subatomic particles—in a good way.

While searching for what might have shifted my perceptions, I realized that I spent so little time last week wanting things: wanting people to be different from who they are, wanting my life—or at least my income source and the state of my bathroom floor—to be different from what it is, wanting more dessert (OK, so there were eight flavors of self-serve ice cream, two of them chocolate, which was pretty magical).

We talked so little about discontent. We talked about poetry and writing habits and how to construct a play and where we were from and whether the worship service had gotten us to a prayerful place. And when we discussed difficult things, we focused on our experiences and what we might do next rather than assigning blame.

I do not think this happened because we were a gathering of saints who never speak ill of others in our daily lives. I think it happened because the Glen somehow managed to create an environment that says, there is enough: enough time, enough opportunity, enough talent, enough people who care, enough love. An environment that is the opposite of the one I found at the outlet malls.

Granted, it is easier to believe this when someone else is cooking your food and doing the dishes to boot, but I’m convinced that our everyday existence could be filled with so much more enoughness than it tends to be.

I don’t know how yet, but I intend to find out.

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.

Entering Triple Digits

This is post 101, which means it’s time to pause for some reader appreciation. Without you, Being Finite would never have reached a milestone worthy of a Disney movie title.

A friend said we’re never so happy as when we’re accomplishing something that’s meaningful to us, even if the something is standing still and enjoying a tree whose leaves are bursting forth after a long winter.

It’s often hard for me to remember this at the beginning, though, whether I’m staring at the blank page or trying to convince myself to roll out of bed to exercise in the morning. Even if I will likely enjoy the activity—or the results of the activity—my mental inertia wins. I feel confident I could place in the top five if anyone ever held a mental inertia contest.

Most of the time, other people help with this. If I’m meeting a friend to run, my odds of actually putting on my shoes increase a hundred fold—if that’s a number odds can increase by.

And many Tuesday nights, I sit down in front of the computer, lock the cat out of the room, and ignore his destruction of the door because by some miracle, you all have been kind enough to let me know that these musings are helpful to you. You’ve given me an astonishing gift.

I know some of you but not others. Some of us are alike, and some of us couldn’t be more different; yet we share enough of being human that a few words about life’s ups and downs can connect us. Miracle indeed. Thank you for reading, for liking, for commenting, for expecting me to show up, and for sticking with me.

This particular entry was finished early Wednesday morning, and a tree full of songbirds greeted me as I opened my laptop. They were surely singing for you.

Word Play

Reading a lot of poetry reminds me how much fun language is.

Words get a bad rap sometimes: unable to express the ineffable, “apple” never quite getting at the crispness and juiciness of the real thing, inconsistent and illogical spellings—at least in English.

On the other hand, just consider how entertaining a thesaurus can be. I recently looked up the adjective “visionary,” and the synonyms ranged from “astral” to “noble.” I got a kick out of inserting some of the synonyms into my sentence: “His astral leadership moved the university in a completely new direction.” I bet it did.

I love how some words can’t be translated, like “douce” in French, which means soft, but also sweet and gentle at the same time. It means both the light after sunset on a perfect day and the way it feels at that moment, and we don’t have a word for that in English.

I love that the structure of a language reflects the way a culture thinks. You really can’t say, “When the rain began falling, Jane had been planning to go to the grocery store” in Chinese because the Chinese don’t see the point of obsessing about time in quite the same way Americans do.

I love that, aside from using it to tell jokes, language can be the joke: A mushroom walks into a bar. The bartender says, “We don’t serve mushrooms here.” The mushroom says, “Why not? I’m a fungi.”

And I love that words can be hung together so beautifully, with such poise and precision, that they can make us weep.

Like most things human, language won’t get us all the way to wherever we’re going, but it’s a wonderful companion along the way.

In keeping with the National Poetry Month theme, here’s one I’m sure the poet enjoyed writing. It is a little less straightforward than the others I’ve posted this month, but just skip the parts you don’t understand and dance with cummings through the rest of it.


i thank You God for most this amazing…
by e.e. cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)


Warning: There are a couple of poems I’d like to share that I didn’t get posted, so National Poetry Month may extend slightly into May.

Words to Live By

It’s National Poetry Month! Some of you may object to that exclamation mark and think that National Poetry Month is not far removed from National Root Canal Month, but I beg a couple paragraphs’ worth of your indulgence to convince you otherwise.

National Poetry Month April 2018, poets.orgSometime before we were taught that only English teachers can understand poetry, I believe that everyone loved poetry. “Humpty Dumpty,” after all, is a poem.

In grade school, poetry is often taught first as if it were mainly a question of counting syllables and later as if it were written in a different language. Shakespeare and Chaucer wrote some amazing verses, but here are the first two lines of the prologue to The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote.

In the midst of your years of teenage angst, unless you were a future Middle English scholar, that might not have spoken to your soul. Imagine how different your relationship to poetry might be if, instead, you’d gotten a few lines of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Poetry is as close as we get to saying the unsayable. It’s the language to use when you most desperately need to be understood, when your heart is broken seven different ways and in the middle you find either unending despair or astonishing hope, when the beauty of a rain drop on a blade of grass has taken your breath away or reminded you of your own mortality or both.

If you like music, you like poetry. If you like the psalms, you like poetry. If you like Paul Simon, you like hard poetry. Here are a few lines from “Obvious Child” whose meaning is far from obvious (punctuation is mine):

I’m accustomed to a smooth ride,
Or maybe I’m a dog who’s lost its bite.
I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more.
I don’t expect to sleep through the night.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, give me a month. I’ll post a beautiful and accessible poem every few days in addition to the regular Tuesday night entries. Here’s one of my favorites to start:

The Magical Eraser
By Shel Silverstein

She wouldn’t believe
This pencil has
A magical eraser.
She said I was a silly moo,
She said I was a liar too,
She dared me prove that it was true,
And so what could I do—
I erased her!

Losing the Edge

The edges of my life are fraying. I like edges. They look clean and crisp and clearly mark where one thing ends and the next begins. I never was a color outside the lines kid and didn’t appreciate it when others played fast and loose with the boundaries in my coloring book.

But life apparently prefers watercolors and things are bleeding into each other at an alarming rate. By things I mean work and life because clearly work isn’t life; it’s some alternate universe we enter at eight and leave at five. Through the door in the toadstool after eating the mysterious cake.

The idea that a little less than 5/7 of my time doesn’t count as my life is a little absurd to begin with. It’s even stranger if you consider that people from work become good friends and are invited into the other realm. And of course no membrane prevents work experiences from infiltrating the way I think about the world or vice versa. To switch metaphors, the peas got mixed up with the mashed potatoes long before now.

Yet I’ve always considered work as other, probably because then it can be contained in a neat, little package and dropped at the side of the road when my real life comes along. If work doesn’t count, then I haven’t, for example, irrevocably not published a book because I’m not truly committed to anything else.

Maintaining this level of self-delusion requires serious talent. Let’s examine some evidence. If the amount of time I spend thinking about work while cooking dinner or taking a shower is any indication, I do value my work, thank goodness. Who wants to spend all that time doing something that feels like a waste? And believing that holding work as unimportant will help me accomplish other goals is like training for a marathon by not swimming.

It’s scary, though. If I give work official life status, what’s to keep it from smearing purple crayon all over the coloring book? This concern is probably as relevant to my life as the fear that I may become a couch potato, which, when discussed with a friend, elicited the response, “As if.”