Small, Still Voice

“Centering down” refers to the process of quieting the body and mind in order to attend to the small, still voice that resides within us. That voice is our conscience, our moral compass, that of God within us, Spirit expressed through us. Whatever identity we assign it, that voice is the conduit through which the divine is expressed in our common lives. I think of it as the voice of my true self. In Quaker meeting, centering down requires getting comfortable enough sitting quietly that the internal chatter of our daily lives is replaced by “expectant waiting” for expression of the Spirit. Truth be told, I find it really hard to center down through silence and stillness.

I can, however, find my small, still voice when I am in motion. I figured this out in high school while running long miles to “clear my head” on the weekends. After about 30 minutes of trotting down the road, I would pass a threshhold that I always thought of as the cotton candy line. With my mind enmeshed in soft, fluffy sweetness, my self-conscious deliberations of daily life dissolved and left open space for clearer and more creative exploration of problems and their solutions. In this open space, while still running, I could finish my homework, solve social problems and reflect on potential from a place that had clearly originated beyond my conscious thought. I always assumed this was a result of some hormonal or chemical response that opened neural pathways that would remain closed in the absence of focused exertion. I now realize that it was just my way of centering down. Since high school, I have channeled that compulsion for motion into running, walking, hiking, trailwork and gardening. I have conceived many written pages, designed and led youth programs and built my strongest and deepest relationships while moving. The motion has provided both the catalyst and the foundation for my life’s best work.

In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s daily constitutional is described as meditation in motion, a pathway for accessing the wisdom of the spirit that comes through the wisdom of the body. I think of this as a wisdom of the heart, and it sustains and informs me well beyond the exercise itself. If I jump right into the obligations of a day without taking time for my physically engaged version of centering down, I spend the day reacting to situations and information around me. I am anxious rather than accepting when I notice we will be late for an appointment. I feel anger and sadness when I hear accounts of hate and bigotry rather than feeling the potential for compassion that is the response more likely to actually transform the negative thoughts and energy. These days it feels ever more important to make sure that I am able to speak and act from the place of peace and compassion that can only come from within. My teenage boys are growing ever more engaged in the world outside of the bubble of our family and friends. They consume media reports of world events with the same zeal that they consume large quantities of food. They work to reconcile news headlines with their beliefs about the world and the people of the world. The violent and mean-spirited words and actions at play on the world stage are inconsistent with the acceptance, tolerance and awareness that they have practiced in their short lives. As I try to buffer their absorption of this ugliness in the world, my thoughts get tangled in disbelief and resentment. I shouldn’t have to try to explain intolerance, hatred, racism and bigotry. Further, these irrational behaviors and beliefs don’t hold up well to attempts at rational explanation. My mind can not make any meaning from this madness. I must rely on sharing the wisdom of my heart instead.

I have always ascribed more value to the wisdom of the heart than the efforts of the mind anyway. Lately, I start most days with a walk or a yoga practice in order to open the pathways to the thoughts and feelings that come from deep within. Beginning the day in motion, I have a chance to sink deeply into my own body, listening for the small still voice within me and setting my intentions for the day. From this place, I have the best chance of holding onto my authentic motivations as the external demands and inputs of contemporary life pull me into reflexive responses. Tapped into my own internal energy rather than swept into the frenetic energy of the world around me, I am more likely to be the person that I wish to be for my children and for the wider world. My still, small voice advocates clearly for love, compassion and acceptance. It doesn’t leave room for anything else. Still, I need to refresh my connection to it throughout the day — and that is done best outside. A few minutes walking along the trail, working in the garden, chopping wood, or shoveling snow clarifies my voice. Reconnecting, even briefly, with the rhythms of my body and the rhythms of the natural world refreshes my capacity to hear and abide by the rhythms and wisdom of my heart. The words and actions that come from that heart wisdom are amplified when I have spent even a few minutes in motion under a wide and welcoming sky or a protective canopy of trees.

The more wild the outdoor space and the more time I can spend there, the more profound the positive impact. It is joyful, inspiring and expanding to live and travel with the barest human essentials amidst the bounty and beauty of the earth. A trip deep into a natural place offers a depth of rejuvenation that clarifies and sustains our capacity to hear and act upon our heart’s wisdom. As John Muir invites, “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” At Renewal in the Wilderness, Genevieve recently described the strength that she draws from travelling in wild landscapes:: “When I’m in the real Wilderness (with trees and rivers or the vast landscapes of deserts), my heart quiets and my mind stops. I have space to listen. The proverbial Wilderness of the world doesn’t disappear, but somehow becomes more manageable.”

What makes the wilderness of the world more manageable for you? Where do you find space to listen? How do you best hear your small, still voice, that voice that speaks clearly and loudly on behalf of your heart’s wisdom?

Dry? Freeze? Jam? Give Thanks

The gifts of summer have filled my senses to overflowing.

The air is warm but not hot and constantly refreshed by a gentle breeze that keeps the bugs at bay.  Recently, the wind has carried either the thick, fecund smell of cow manure or a floral smell with origins we can’t identify. This morning, I woke to the drumming of a gentle steady rain. Other mornings, it is the call of birds that pulls me from sleep, declaring territory or announcing food rather than calling for mates as they were a few months ago. The flowers and butterflies are a kaleidoscope of colors, changing from one day to the next as they blossom, mature and decline. The garden is overflowing with fragrant herbs and this short growing season’s crops are at their peak. What am I to do with this abundance?

I began the day trying to reign in the bounty. I cut handfuls of herbs, attempting to save their fresh flavor for the long winter ahead. We built a new drying rack this year and strung a line inside. I am excited to be able to preserve some of the fragrance and flavor for later days. But I’m not fooled, I know the dried herbs will be more subdued than the fresh ones that we put in our salad last night. While it will be nice to have the herbs from our garden in a winter soup as a reminder of summer, they will not bring back the sensory extravagance of the season.

And what about the 10 pounds of local blueberries that I ordered? We have eaten our fill and shared with friends. I need to preserve what’s left before they begin to rot. We can freeze some for winter smoothies and baked goods. But the freezer’s full of the strawberries that we picked in July. It will have to be jam — and blueberry muffins and blueberry pancakes, and…Wait!

Over the course of the morning, I went from fully enjoying the season’s bounty, to attempting to preserve it for future enjoyment, and now struggling for ways to use it lest there be waste. I want to be a good steward of the earth’s resources, but I don’t mean to be clinging to this bounty. I am painfully aware of inequity in the world and always carry the heavy burden of responsibility along with the awareness of my good fortune at being able to maintain the health, safety and happiness of my family. But somehow the preservation of the season’s excess started to feel greedy. Yuck! That’s not right at all. I am holding on too tight. 

The better response to the season’s joys is gratitude. Weeks ago I realized that I could not harness the indulgence of the lazy mornings or giggly late nights of my teenage boys enjoying the freedoms of an unencumbered summer together. I wait patiently for them to greet the day and join me on an adventure in the late morning. I still expect them to do their own laundry, but I love to cook their favorite dinners and appreciate that they are here to eat them. I listen to their late night antics with a smile, even when it is keeping me awake. These could be some of the last carefree summer days of their childhood. Future summers may have work obligations, academic goals or other distractions… Or maybe they won’t. Either way, the time and relationship that is in bloom now will shift and mature. I am simply grateful to observe and appreciate it.

The same is true in the garden and in the kitchen. I will preserve the excess fruits of the summer season, but I cannot retain summer. And I don’t really want to. I want to harvest today’s abundance and store enough to meet tomorrow’s needs without holding too tight. I want to celebrate the smells, tastes, sounds and sights of this day. Preservation for the future is important, but gratitude for the present nourishes even more deeply. Summer’s abundance will soon be gone, but autumn will be full of gifts too. We can welcome each season with joy and preserve its abundance with a gentle hand and light heart. As these long days of summer begin to wane, I will dry, jam, freeze and share the season’s fruits and vegetables. Most importantly, I will give thanks.

It will all pass, and it will all live on

I am surprised that Father’s Day has taken me by surprise. To the day, it has been 6 months since my Dad died. When he died, there were not any flowers in the field or leaves on the trees. I meditated for hours each day on the eastern tree line as he was dying. The clear and sharp silhouettes of the de-foliated trees against the bright blue sky will forever be a marker of his season for me now. Yet when I looked out to our field this evening, the bright green grass and deep purple lupine in bloom reminded me of the Father’s Day 3 years ago when we moved our picnic table into the shade for a Father’s Day barbecue lunch with my family, my brother’s family and my Dad. We were all laughing, enjoying each other’s company, and working hard to make the best of a tough situation.

I miss my Dad every day and think of the gifts, space and teachings that he offered me and our family during his life and his death. Any longing that I have for his presence usually yields quickly to an appreciation and celebration of his life well-lived and shared. Yet, with Father’s Day looming, the vacancy caused by his absence seems harder to fill today. Maybe it is simply the cumulative weight of losing my grandfather in the last 6 months too. My usually fond memories of time with each of them are made bittersweet by the sharp awareness that none of them can be re-lived.

Yet I am also acutely aware that no moment can be re-lived. That is in fact part of the beauty to be enjoyed in each moment. They are all special and unique, not to be repeated or held too tightly, but they make their mark on us and in us.

They will all pass, and they will all live on.

That not so subtle irony is at the root of many Buddhist teachings. I cannot even begin to embrace the meaning of these concepts, but there is something quite delightful in trying to hold both of these slippery concepts in my mind at the same time. They are liberating, messy and giggly if you try to hold them at the same time — like trying to catch minnows with your bare hands.

The reminder of what will live on allows me to also embrace lightly the joy of the fathers who remain with us, making new imprints today. Our boys have five wonderful uncles. Thomas’s Dad, Jim, is a steady, calm, loving, and principled father, grandfather and father-in-law. Thomas is a passionate, devoted and engaged father for our boys. He and I have observed the best in parenting and nudge each other to offer it to our boys every day. I love co-parenting with him!

Our boys are growing up, getting closer to young men every day.  Today, I realized that fatherhood could be nearer in the future for them than infancy is in the past. Yipes! Gratefully, I also noticed that I am completely confident that that they will be ready. For all of the things that they may not have received from us, there is everything that they have received.

It will all pass, and it will all live on.

I wish you a Happy Father’s Day, with ample time and space to celebrate and appreciate the fathers who are in your past, those who are in your present, and those who will be in your future. What do they teach you?

Independence and Interdependence

May is the month of graduations and Mother’s Day.  As my son prepares to graduate from middle school, I find myself noticing his maturity and expanding capacity for observation and thoughtful participation in the wider world. I am a proud mother, happy to see his wings unfolding to test the wind as he grows. I am also aware of my tendency to confuse maturity with independence and notice my growing skepticism of how we define independence. Our totems of independence often seem solitary, stoic and hard-fought. Rarely do we recognize and embrace that independence emerges alongside ongoing reliance on others and the need to remain receptive to accepting and even seeking input, help, and guidance from others. But we could…Imagine the shift for our growing children if we congratulated them on their accomplishments, noted their independence and celebrated their ongoing need to be supported. They might take their next steps more fully aware and accepting of the reality that they will both give and receive for the rest of their lives. Imagine the shift for all of us, our families, and our communities if we celebrated our interdependence.

Our cultural appreciation of independence is subtle and pervasive. At a college graduation, we congratulate young people on their achievements and wish them well in the world. There is no denying that each individual’s tenacity, desire and hard work were the critical guides through their school process, but rarely is education — or life — a solitary experience. Graduation speeches always acknowledge the families, friends, mentors and faculty who supported students in meeting their goals. Most speeches encourage and embolden graduates to have a positive impact on the world as they move along their life’s path. In our messages of “congratulations” and “good luck”, we imply somehow that the pathways ahead will be individual. We remind them that they will work hard and face setbacks as well as rewards. We imply that, done right, the life ahead will include financial independence, setting and meeting goals and some degree of personal satisfaction. There’s usually mention of a “good job” and of the myriad ways in which graduates will make contributions to community and family.

After I graduated from college, I recall taking great pride in being able to pay my own rent and buy my own groceries. My budget was meager, but it was mine. I did not have a clear sense of what I wanted to offer the world and was not particularly driven to find a “good job.” I was content to have a job that paid my bills and a chance to take a breath and focus inward. I had been in school for most of my life and, for the first time ever, I could set and meet my own goals. I trained for and ran a marathon. I had the time and inclination and I wanted to test my capacity to set and meet a goal that had not been delivered to me by a teacher, parent or friend. It seemed novel. I dove into a self-satisfying, perhaps even selfish, independence. I felt the need to test my capacities and explore curiosities. This independence could have been completely solitary if it were not for a few strong friendships that enriched and nourished my sense of self. It only took a year or two before I moved back into community with care and attention to what I had to offer, but it took almost 10 years to recognize the supports and strengths that I gather from my family and community on an ongoing basis. I now notice and embrace the strength and value that exists in openness and vulnerability as well as in independence and decisiveness.

When Thomas and I led trail crews for SCA almost two decades ago, we spent a lot of time and attention on the development of a cooperative, collaborative crew. Leading a group of 6 high school students in complex manual labor while living in the wilderness required attention to individual dispositions while also developing a strong group ethos. Each individual need to work hard, advocate for him or herself and be willing to put personal wishes aside in deference to group needs from time to time.  Living in bear country, we all had an obligation to be aware of our surroundings and the whereabouts of our crew-mates at all times. We shared in all responsibilities of work and camp life and students and leaders alike took turns teaching, learning, guiding, planning, cooking and cleaning. This heightened awareness and cooperation was a matter of safety and comfort. It also made our relationships stronger, our work highly effective, and our lifestyle deeply meaningful. Each summer, Thomas and I learned at least as much as our students did.

More recently, when my family stepped in to support my Dad as he was declining with dementia, we were very worried about imposing on his independence by inserting our opinions and “help” in his life. If he said he was fine, who were we to argue? After all, it was his life and he had the right to live as he wanted. But he was becoming anxious, depressed and nervous. Worse, he was losing weight and suffering from skin and digestive problems. It became crystal clear to us that he was not fine when on top of all of these changes, he was clearly no longer able to safely navigate a day in his home and neighborhood. We finally stepped in and pushed him into a move to a graduated care facility. There he began to flourish. He became more and more of himself again — kind, generous, gentle, careful and thoughtful. Over the next three years, he moved twice as his needs advanced. In each move, he blossomed out into the space created by the new, closer boundaries. For my Dad, living in a community of people became a new pathway toward self-actualization. We had been so steeped in the mythology that independence was some sort of optimal mode of living, that we had not even considered the possibility that some select dependencies would re-open pathways to a fulfilling life. Once Dad’s basic needs were met, he felt safe again and returned to the work that had been meaningful to  him throughout his life, caring for others.

Maslow’s hierarchy explains why both Dad and our trail crews flourished in highly structured community living. I had seen this social theory before, but had not embraced the reality that basic and psychological needs are sometimes best met by communal effort. The increased risks imposed by dementia in one case and by wilderness on the other were alleviated by increased management and responsibility distributed amongst a number of community members. In a trail crew or in assisted living, one person can start cooking dinner while another breaks into song. Both individuals are contributing to the health and sense of safety of their community, meeting the basic needs of others while, utilizing their talents, they are moving towards self-actualization.

Many schools have given a lot of lip service to collaboration and cooperation in recent years, touting these dispositions as valuable traits for the workplace and helping students to practice them in carefully constructed projects and lessons. But the give and take of community is important, not just in discrete projects or in our work, but in all of the relationships and activities of our our lives. At the Putney School, students gain awareness and respect for their role in community as they participate in the work that sustains the school while maintaining their academic studies. A student’s afternoon may require balancing algebra homework, lacrosse practice, washing dishes in the cafeteria, and cleaning the common room of his dorm. It is an unusual model for a school, but it mirrors “real life”. In a community, we always have responsibility to others, and are always being served by others as well.

In Maine, a small group of dedicated volunteers is building a new senior living facility that is designed and sustained by the ties that connect people to one another. Inn Along the Way is a “collaborative community offering older adults, and those seeking temporary relief from the responsibilities of caregiving, an environment of support, purpose, and sustainability in a multigenerational and mutually interdependent setting.” Maybe it’s a sign of my middle age, but mutual interdependence sounds much more comforting and more rewarding than independence. The vision of Inn Along the Way seems like one worthy of striving towards integrating into our lives regardless of our age and stage.

In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande juxtaposes the 3 and 4 generation homes that persists in his ancestral home, India, against the one and two generation homes that are more common in the U.S. He describes the advantages and challenges of each. Yes, it’s messy either way, but something sounds more natural in the homes and lives of his relatives in rural India. Being surrounded by family members keeps safety nets close and expands rather than contracts each individual’s reach in the world. Gawande’s description is a good reminder that the interdependence that is central to the mission and practices at places like Putney and Inn Along the Way is not new for people, but it has become less common in some cultures over the last two generations.

A healthy ecosystem depends on many interconnected parts, logically, a healthy human system would as well. Perhaps a close look at changing habitats will offer some clues into the potential pitfalls and successes of our changing patterns of lifestyle and relationship and how we might wish to shape them. I’ll leave that exploration for another time. For now, I am content to reconsider the ways in which I practice and honor mutuality in my life.

We all live in reciprocity, constantly both giving and receiving despite the cultural myth that celebrates independence as a sign of optimal functioning. The risks we take by being vulnerable and open to the service of others are nothing compared to the risks we take by honoring individual independence above our community. We rely on family, friends, neighbors and strangers every day — and they are relying on us.  What would it take to rebuild our human connectivity? We can start one relationship and one family at a time. There’s no need for isolation. We are in this together.

Sunrise

I have been watching sunrises this week.

I start my daily yoga practice as the night sky is just beginning to lighten. After building up the fire in the wood stove, I roll out my mat and begin. This moment, before the sun has risen and before the day has built its own momentum, is quiet, solitary and full of potential.  But this potential is not a beckoning toward the future, it is a fullness of the present.

I take a few deep breaths and feel my feet settle on the earth.  I am grateful to be awake, in my body and fully receptive to this nascent moment.  As I move through the sequence of sun salutations that begins the ashtanga practice, the sky lightens further. 

By the time I am halfway through the standing sequence, strokes of color begin to travel across the sky.  Oranges, pinks and reds dance across the clouds and sky in a constantly changing splash of color.  I pause for a deep breath and a longer look.

With a grateful sigh, a smile and a light heart, I always return to the yoga practice after a minute or two.  After all, I am supposed to be exercising.

As I move through the poses, I feel my physical and mental energy growing stronger and more flexible.  The growth builds throughout the practice each day, and each day’s effort rests upon the work of the days, weeks and months that came before. Yet each day’s practice is also solely its own, complete with its own particular distractions, surprises and sunrises.

Eventually, a rogue thought breaks my concentration and my gaze moves to the window again.  Inevitably, a pang of surprise and disappointment sweeps through my body. The sun has risen above the horizon and the brilliant display that had filled the sky just moments before is gone.

But of course it’s gone. Nothing lasts forever. Change is our constant companion, usually accompanied by awareness, appreciation and apprehension. This truth takes me by surprise each and every time it presents itself.

The display of beauty cast by the interactions between sun, clouds and earth was not only vibrant and awesome, but also fragile and fleeting.  This time, as I turn back to the mat, I sigh a little deeper.  Of course the sunrise was temporary, but each time I witness this passing moment, I feel surprised by a feeling of loss. The peak color display of the sunrise actually lasts for 10-15 minutes.  That’s long enough to watch subtle changes and variations over time.  That’s long enough to feel connected to and protected by the largess of the universe. After the sun has risen, it is just me and my yoga mat again. For a moment, I regret that the sunrise is no longer with me. Its departure is a not so subtle reminder of the other losses and blessings that have graced my life.

But that moment passes too. A new moment has arrived and it requires my attention. By this time, I am nearing the end of the sequence.  In the final poses, I sink in with deep intention. Body, mind and heart come together with strength, clarity and integrity. As I move, I hold lightly to the beauty and the loss of the sunrise and countless other tender moments from past and future. Each pose holds only my body, my breath and the universe’s infinite possibility.

When I reach the end of the sequence, that feeling of loss arises again. My hour for yoga, my quiet sunrise time, has passed. For a brief moment, I notice the sadness of letting it go before smiling to greet the new moment that is arising. The sleeping house is beginning to stir and there are more tender surprises ahead in each moment of this new day.  But first, it’s time to brew the coffee.

Dying Days

December 2016

Dad’s last four days were heavy with emotion.  My brothers came and we settled in to keep Dad company.  We were there to bear witness to his dying, hoping to ensure that he felt surrounded by love as he left life and providing living proof that his life had been worthwhile.  All 4 of his children were there. His work was done. He had raised us to be conscientious, responsible adults and we were now raising our children in that same effort.  Our presence reflected the same values that we had seen paramount in Dad’s life: family, hard work, patience, persistence, honesty, goodness and kindness. The chaplain read the Last Rites while my brothers and I laid hands on his pale, still body willing our love to transfer directly to his heart and spirit.

For 3 days his breathing became slower and shallower.  It seems that the hospice and residence staff told us “it won’t be long now” every 12 hours.  For a whole afternoon, we counted 5 shallow breaths in a row and waited 10, then 20 then 30 seconds before another series of breaths would continue.  The medication nurses came in every four hours, then every two and finally every hour to provide him with pain medication that kept him from gasping for air and wincing with the struggle.  The residential staff would come twice a day to bathe him and change the  bed clothes. They tended to his body with the same loving care with which my brothers and I hoped to tend to his heart. 

The days and nights that the 5 of us spent in that room merged together.  We alternated between talking and silence. We talked about our kids, our jobs, our spouses.  We reminisced about other family members and meaningful moments of compassion and grace that our Dad had shown.  We took turns holding Dad’s hands or rubbing his back.  We told him over and over again how much we loved him, and thanked him for the life and value in life that he had given us.  The staff began to encourage us to get out for a while and we tried to balance the desire to provide support for Dad with the desire to give him space.  It turns out that many parents won’t die in front of their children, protecting them even as they are dying.  That seemed likely for Dad. He had always carried his burdens stoically, alone and out of sight.  We created opportunities to leave the room and said good-bye for the last time each time that we left.  We lingered over lunch and dinner.  We took long walks and drives.  Finally, two of my brothers said truly final goodbyes and went home to their families with tears in their eyes.  My husband arrived and sat with Dad for a few minutes, assuring him that he would take care of me and thanking him for the guidance, love and encouragement that he had given us as a couple and as individuals.  We went to dinner as the staff came in to clean Dad up for the night.  As we walked past the window outside, we could see the two young caregivers shaving his thin chin.

As my brother and I got back from dinner that night, Dad was breathing steadily. I realized that I had been clinging to his dying just as I had previously clung to his living. I had given time, energy, care and support in our caregiving relationship and as he moved towards dying, I continued to be right there. But I was still hanging on to that. And as he lay dying, I saw my place firmly among the living earth and realized that I needed to release myself from the tether that our relationship had become. I suddenly worried that somehow I had made it harder for him to die because I was still holding on to our relationship so tightly.  Life is all that we know, letting go of it was clearly hard work for him, but maybe it was for me too.  For the last few years, Dad’s life had been only the present moment. Aspiration, regret, fear, longing and relationship were my projections, not his realities. As I said good night that night, I said good-bye for real and assured him I was really ready. I was. And so was he.

As the evening wore on, we heard his breathing getting quieter, shallower and slower as we were falling asleep. Dad died with the same gentle strength that he had lived with, slowly and quietly.  He slipped away early that Saturday morning while we were sleeping just a few feet away.  It was very like him to wait until we were not paying attention and exit quietly.

Dad’s body was washed and dressed one final time. We lingered, waiting for the funeral home to come to pick up his body, wanting to be sure we ushered him all the way through the process. But a snow storm was approaching and we realized that there was nothing left to do. In the hallway, we could hear caregivers and residents beginning to prepare for the day. It was time for us to leave.

When we stepped into the still dark morning, fresh snow falling, I took a deep breath. The fresh air felt good and the world appeared familiar. That was reassuring because within that world, I had felt an earthquake. My perceptions had shifted dramatically and irreversibly. I did not immediately understand how or why, but I knew that my heart, mind and body had experienced something wholly new, all mine and completely universal.