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.

Hold, Carry, and Don’t Kill Anybody

silk floss tree

A silk floss tree in bloom. Photo by Daniel Orth; used under Creative Commons attribution license.

Some days it’s possible to maintain an awareness that we’re really here to connect with that divine spark inside our fellow human beings and all of creation, to notice the miracle in the profoundly pink blossoms of a silk floss tree, to be kind, be kind, be kind. Some days, I might even see the value in loving my enemies. And other days, it’s all I can do to keep from throttling my friends.

I used to think the friend-almost-throttling days were a failure, but maybe not; maybe, for that day, they’re a tremendous success. After all, no strangulation occurred. Maybe grinding my teeth and doing nothing on the less enlightened days is as much a step toward loving my enemies as being kind is on the easier days.

Ronald Rolheiser said the first thing that ever made sense to me about Jesus on the cross, which is that he demonstrated how to hold, carry and transform whatever hurtful energy is directed at us. We are a mirroring species. If someone glances up to see a passing bird, we glance up, too. If someone likes us, we tend to like them, and if they dislike us, we usually return the favor.

So to really change anything rather than just reflect back what we get, we have to hold, carry and transform that energy. I don’t know why, but I think our capacity to do that is not the same every day. My conception of my best used to be that every day I would be the most efficient, disciplined and intelligent achiever of things that I could imagine. Now, I’m pretty sure that I’ll never reach what I can imagine, and I’m convinced that some days will be impressive and some will be of the not throttling variety.

But not throttling still contains an iota of holding, carrying and transforming, and it’s a lot better than the alternative.

Holy Expletives and Everything Else

Thursday surprised me. There are a lot of ways to be surprised by a day, I suppose. The one I experience most often is “Holy expletive, Thursday is over and I still have so much to do.” (Isn’t it nice that expletives can be holy? They remind me of Robin: “Holy Priceless Collection of Etruscan Snoods, Batman!”)

You could be surprised by the beauty of a day or the quietness of it or by something that happens during it, like a friend bringing you a giant hot fudge sundae for no reason at all. (This has not happened to me…yet; I like nuts on my sundaes if you ever get the inclination.) But I was surprised by the 6:13 p.m., October 9, 2014-ness of it.

I was driving past the In ‘n Out near my vanpool’s park and ride when an awareness arrived that this moment in time existed and I existed as part of it. It seems odd to be surprised that we exist, but I spend very little time in the here and now, which, as a lot of people have said before me, is the only place and time in which we do exist.

So when the here and now reached out and got in touch with me, it was different. It was also immediately and obviously the place I’d prefer to spend all my time because it was alive and beautiful and nothing was missing. For lack of a better word, I’d call it holy, no expletive necessary.

Perhaps the surprise came only after I lost contact with the present moment, which was approximately a nanosecond after it arrived. I started thinking, ooh, this would make a good blog post, thus catapulting myself several hours into an imagined future. But I remember that feeling of awareness, and I’m looking forward to our next meeting.

Note: This idea of presence is old and can be found in a lot of places. I want to give credit to my most recent encounter of it in someone else’s writing, which was a mention of John Duns Scotus’s term “thisness” in Richard Rohr’s daily meditation.

Letting Things Slide

There are things that you know you shouldn’t do, that you pretend to resist doing, but that you know you’re going to do anyway. Like opening a bag of chocolate chips with no intention of baking. On a day when you’ve already eaten frozen yogurt and an almond croissant.

Or sliding oh so casually from semi-upright to horizontal on the couch instead of going upstairs and brushing your teeth when it’s very near bedtime. Or clicking on Facebook in the middle of writing a blog post. Not this blog post, no, surely not.

Our resistance, though futile, is well-intentioned. We might not enjoy the results of these things. Our pants might be a little tighter or our work a little sloppier for lack of sleep, but sometimes, I think, it’s OK. In fact, a little celebration may be in order.

We have an unending litany of things to get right in this culture—health, career, appearance, family, house, garden, etc.—and we need to take it easy on ourselves once in a while. Letting something mostly harmless shift from not OK to OK now and then could help us realize that life might actually be OK much more of the time than we think.

I don’t mean eat the entire bag of chocolate chips—unless it’s the day you really need to—or give up on flossing all together. I think this is another area where David Roche’s Church of 80% Sincerity has the right idea. Being human, we can only strive for self improvement about eighty percent of the time. For the other twenty, pass the chocolate chips.