Heart Cleaning

My dad and sister are coming to visit for Christmas, and there is this small matter of getting the house ready. There’s also a larger matter of getting my heart ready.

Readying the house requires making room for their physical presence—clearing the papers off the table so they have a place to eat, putting hangers in the closet for their clothes. We welcome guests by making space for them, by setting a place at the table.

One day I caught myself wishing that my dad and sister were arriving a few days later to give me more time to prepare. In other words, the whole reason for these preparations was to welcome them, and here I was wishing they’d stay away. That’s when the whole heart thing came up.

I think heart preparation is similar to home preparation. We need to clear some space in our hearts to welcome others into it. We have to let go of the preoccupations of how we want our lives to be—sometimes even when we think those preoccupations are in the service of others, like cleaning the house for their arrival.

We also have to let go of who we want them to be. I don’t mean that we should tolerate cruelty, but to truly love someone or something means loving her as she is—both the perfect and the imperfect bits. I think this is hard, especially with family members because so much of who we think we are is wrapped up in our relationships with them.

But what better time to practice than Christmas when we celebrate, to paraphrase Meister Eckhart, the birth of Christ in the essence and ground of our souls? When we make room for others in our hearts—relatives, friends, those who are struggling—we make room for this birth, and vice versa.

According to Eckhart, it’s worth the effort: “If you just wait for this birth to take place in you, you will find all that is good, all consolation, all bliss, all being and all truth.”

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. May whatever holy days you celebrate at this time of year bring you light, life, and love.

Hanging in the Balance

It is RAINING on the Central Coast of California, and I have been thinking about water and how it brings both rejuvenation and destruction but not necessarily balance. You know, the lighter side of life.

I am wildly grateful for the rain; the state profoundly needs it and more. I love the sound of it falling on the roof. The hills will finally be green, and yet there are mudslides, flooding, power outages.

A good rainstorm doesn’t restore balance. It seems to me that, though nature always gets back to balance—overpopulated species run out of food and die off, for example—it doesn’t exist in what we would think of as balance all the time. We don’t get the perfect amount of rain every year. We have a drought, we have a storm, there is flooding.

There have always been droughts, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, locusts. There have always been times of plenty and times of not much. And since we were created into this world, it must be the world we’re asked to live in, a world with valleys and peaks, with easier times and harder ones. So the balance, apparently, is up to us.

I tend to approach my life with the assumption that if I could do everything perfectly, I could somehow avoid valleys and peaks, but that’s impossible. The rain will fall or it won’t; the question is how to exist in tune with what’s happening in times of plenty and times of less, whether that’s less rain, less financial stability or less emotional ease.

I’m afraid we’re back to the “a word”—acceptance. To live in balance, we have to live in tune with what’s happening right now, not what we wish were happening. And we have to recognize that what’s happening right now won’t always be happening.

I think this is really hard to do—to be truly present and truly hopeful—but I suspect that if we can get those two, being truly joyful comes along with them.

What Age Does

I have a number of wonderful student assistants at work. One of them was wishing the other day that we could do everything perfectly the first time—write bug-free code or a literary masterpiece in one pass—because life would be better that way.

I replied that it would be better if better meant getting more things done. He was surprised that I might think it meant something else. I said I used to agree with him but had recently begun to change my mind. He asked why, and I told him I thought getting older had done it.

He said, “Wow, age does that to people?”

It appears to have done it to me, but I wish it had done more complete job. I don’t believe accomplishment is the be all and end all, but I still measure my life and myself as if it were.

My unit of measurement is almost always tasks accomplished. I did a good job of the day if I got a lot done.

This produces a problem with benchmarking: what is a lot? What is enough? I know people who are far more efficient task completers than I am, so who do I reasonably include in the group to whom I compare myself?

Or maybe getting things done isn’t really my strong point; maybe I should measure myself on how loving or patient I was. So what is the rubric for loving? How do I score five out of five on that test?

Measurement is good for making cookies, but it’s not so great for making spiritual health—at least not at this time in my life. I end up in exactly the same state of mind whether I’m judging myself on the getting-stuff-done criteria or the loving criteria.

And I don’t want to be in a state of mind; I want to be in a state of heart. I’m not sure what that means yet, but it must include some fundamentally more spacious approach to self and others than judgment. It probably means no longer asking myself, “How do I do that?” because it probably has nothing to do with doing.

Thanks for This and That

Whoever decided we should set aside time every year to pause and indulge in a little gratitude was really, really smart. Here is my annual list of a few of this year’s gifts.

I am grateful for how easy my life is and for knowing that life is so much more than ease.

I am grateful that practically the entire wealth of human knowledge is at our fingertips for the price of an Internet connection and that all the knowledge in the world is not worth as much as the smile of a child or an old friend.

I am grateful for moments of exquisite beauty and for the strange truth that, if we pay attention, the welling up of creation can be found even in those places we might usually consider least beautiful.

I am grateful for meals at fancy restaurants and for scrambled eggs on nights when I haven’t gone shopping.

I am grateful for all the ways to stay in touch with friends and family who are distant and for the times we gather in person.

I am grateful for times of high excitement and great good cheer and for times of quiet and rest.

I am grateful for old friends and those I’ve just met.

I am grateful that things pass away, that the seasons turn, that new life comes into being and that we are all, somehow, always both letting go and becoming new.

And of course I am grateful for chocolate.

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation next week. Happy Thanksgiving!

Impossible Happenings

The fall of the Berlin Wall was one of my first historically conscious moments, the first time I was aware that what I was watching on TV would be in the history books. And that’s because it wasn’t supposed to happen.

The Cold War was a fact of life, an eternal not a bounded period. For people of my parents’ generation who had crawled underneath their desks for bomb drills, the end of the Cold War must have been even more surprising. In my childhood world, no one was actually going to use a nuclear weapon, but just as certainly, the Soviet Union would always be our enemy.

I’m imagining someone in their early twenties reading the paragraphs above, and I feel as if I’m trying to explain a time before cell phones. For them, the Berlin Wall has never existed. So perhaps for their children, there will always have been peace in the Middle East.

It sounds like a ridiculous and naïve suggestion, but if someone had said, in 1984, “In five years, there will be no Berlin Wall,” that person would have easily been shouted down by a world full of people with all the evidence on their side.

Which is why I wonder if the wall fell because of things that are usually not considered to effect such solid substances as concrete. I wonder if it fell because of small kindnesses, because of prayer, because of hope.

Richard Rohr says that as we grow we learn to have “aimless hope.” I don’t think I have it yet, but from his description, it is an underlying certainty that, as Julian of Norwich wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” It is not believing in a specific impossible event—I will finish this newsletter on time despite not even having started one of the articles yet—but rather believing that, in ways our minds are too limited to grasp, things will be all right.

I have a knee-jerk reaction to this idea as being unreasonable and fantastical, not based in reality. And then I look at those pictures of pieces of the Berlin Wall scattered around the world, turned into memorials or pieces of art, and I remember that feeling of watching the impossible happen and think, well, maybe so.

Election Heroes

I confess that election season makes me somewhat world weary, but every November—or every other as the case may be—there is a bright, shining star in the firmament: the writing in the Official Voter Information Guide. I want to pause and applaud the men and women in the Secretary of State’s Office who consistently produce something truly remarkable.

First remarkable quality: this is a truly unbiased document. Few things in this world are free from judgment, especially the inside of my brain. Not only do I have opinions about each ballot proposition, I have opinions about each piece of each proposition, about every person who walks past me on any given day, about the cookie I ate this afternoon (stale, in case you were wondering).

But not these folks, not while they’re writing this guide at least. They say only what a bill means—often not an easy task in and of itself—and what its effects will or might be. The known effects, not the ones they make up in their heads.

Second remarkable quality: some of them must read the actual legislation. I tried that with one proposition this year and made it to the second paragraph.

Third remarkable quality: they explain terms I probably should know without being condescending. They always know which terms voters are not going to know. Without fail, if I think, “What’s a wobbler?” the next sentence will say, “Some crimes can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. These crimes are known as ‘wobblers.’” They don’t preface it with, “For those of you who haven’t been paying attention”; they just tell you.

You might say, well, that’s their job; but it’s a hard job and they do it well and I am grateful. I wonder if it might be useful to live the way these people write, with no expectation of what people should know, looking at the world not with the intention of figuring out whether it is good or bad, right or wrong but just to see it clearly.

So to you anonymous explainers of propositions, thank you.

Poem for a Cold

I’m recovering from a cold this week, so my fuzzy brain and I think it would be wise to give you a poem rather than try to formulate anything particular coherent on our own. This is one of my favorites.

A Message from the Wanderer
by William Stafford

Today outside your prison I stand
and rattle my walking stick: Prisoners, listen;
you have relatives outside. And there are
thousands of ways to escape.

Years ago I bent my skill to keep my
cell locked, had chains smuggled to me in pies,
and shouted my plans to jailers;
but always new plans occurred to me,
or the new heavy locks bent hinges off,
or some stupid jailer would forget
and leave the keys.

Inside, I dreamed of constellations—
those feeding creatures outlined by stars,
their skeletons a darkness between jewels,
heroes that exist only where they are not.

Thus freedom always came nibbling my thought,
just as—often, in light, on the open hills—
you can pass an antelope and not know
and look back, and then—even before you see—
there is something wrong about the grass.
And then you see.

That’s the way everything in the world is waiting.

Now—these few more words, and then I’m
gone: Tell everyone just to remember
their names, and remind others, later, when we
find each other. Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way—
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.

There will be that form in the grass.

You can listen to Stafford read the poem on the Poetry Foundation’s website.