Allowing Mystery

Richard Rohr, among others, says we live our lives three steps forward and two steps back. One of my big do-si-dos is forward to allowing and back to control. As you may have guessed, the last week or two have not been forward steps.

Among other really clever and subtle methods of control—such as interrupting people to show them I’ve already figured out what they’re going to say—I returned to confusing my to-do list with my life, or perhaps more accurately my self. Because everyone knows that if you can figure out, keep track of, and do everything that needs to be done—and do it well of course—then you are a good, worthy, and fulfilled person. You might even be qualified to run the universe.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, recommends aimlessness instead of striving. “There is nothing to do, nothing to realize, no program, no agenda….Your purpose is to be yourself.” It reminds me of the Tao Te Ching’s “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”

I don’t think either of them is encouraging my reluctance to wash the dishes. Rather, they’re suggesting letting life unfold according to its plan rather than ours. My to-do list is my plan, and while it’s certainly useful, when I forget that it’s a tool and assign it self-worth-measuring-meaning-of-life status, things go downhill fast.

The more life-giving not-plan is to allow ourselves to be brought into existence, to allow the divine to express what it has in its heart as it continually loves us into being. When I focus all my energy on getting stuff done, it’s as if I’m hoping these things I do will create me, but there’s no room to become anything wider or deeper than I already am, no room for mystery.

Mystery is both what we are and what we are living, what we come from and what we are becoming. We need a good deal of aimlessness to stay in touch with that.

Not Quite Barn Raising

After a mere seven years, my house is now officially painted. OK, with the exception of the downstairs closet and one bathroom door that needs to be replaced anyway, but I’m calling it done.

The final two stages were completed in large part thanks to my mom and three cheerful and generous friends, two of whom, miraculously, actually like painting. Discovering this fact was a little like discovering that some people enjoy being accountants. Who knew such marvels existed?

It’s important to note that this wasn’t only rolling and brushing. In my usual impressively foresightful manner, I had prepped exactly one of three rooms, which means some people washed walls and others taped, definitely the least fun parts of the painting process, yet they did it, as previously noted, cheerfully.

Perhaps the reason communities used to have barn raisings is not only that it made it a lot easier to get your barn built but also that it made the process a lot more fun. I have a pretty clear vision of what painting by myself would have looked like, and it involves a good deal of self-pity, like in the comics when a character walks around with a rain cloud over her head all the time.

But this was enjoyable—maybe not as enjoyable as if we’d all gone out to dinner or the movies but maybe more so. We had a chance to catch up, chat about life possibilities, eat really good watermelon, listen to the Beatles, admire each others’ handiwork, and laugh over our mistakes.

It might not matter so much what we do as who we do it with. Thank you, painting crew, for your help, your good humor, and the reminder that so many things in life are better shared.

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 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.

Moving Grasshoppers

Well, this week wasn’t an “I’m here” kind of week. It was an “Oh *!%*#” kind of week, a week of being stuck on a level of relating to the world that is pretty useless.

Someone at work told me about a wasp that kills grasshoppers and then takes them back to a tunnel it built in the ground. Before it takes the grasshopper into the tunnel, it flies through the tunnel to make sure no one has invaded it. If you move the grasshopper away from the tunnel entrance, the wasp will move it back and then go sweep the tunnel again, no matter how far you move the grasshopper, no matter how recently it swept the tunnel.

The tunnel I’ve been running through with great zeal this week is the “I’m not good at my job” tunnel. And because I am really clever, I’ve been moving my own grasshopper by repeatedly trying to assess how bad of a person I am for having missed some deadlines. Don’t try this at home—it’s for advanced monkey minds only.

The problem is, as Cynthia Bourgeault would say, that I’m running the wrong operating system. Whether building myself up or tearing myself down, I’m still basing my identity on job performance.

It’s interesting that over identifying with job performance does not improve it, at least for me. Quite the opposite. If my sense of self is based on whether or not the magazine comes out on time and there’s no way the magazine is going to come out on time, I’m pretty screwed. My personal reaction to this situation is paralysis, which is generally not conducive to getting work done.

Jim Finley says we need to find our identity and security in God alone. That sounds pretty good. I think I’ll start judging myself on how close I’m getting to that standard instead. Excuse me, there’s a grasshopper I need to attend to. Bzzzzzz.

I’m Here

There are some things you just can’t ignore. Last week I was driving to Vespers at the Monastery of the Risen Christ, and I was late, a typical state of being for me. You might think we late types stroll along with great aplomb, but usually, I worry and try to mentally hurl myself through time and space to somehow arrive earlier. Surprisingly, this approach has not actually worked yet, despite trying so hard I feel an internal pushing force.

As I neared the monastery, a group of vultures caught my attention and drew my eye to the meadow, at which point I had to stop the car in the middle of the empty road: a bald eagle flew low above the grass, quite close by, with prey in his talons.

In thirteen years, I’ve never seen a bald eagle on the Central Coast of California, and had I been on time, I’d have missed it. I know just enough about Native American spirituality to know that if you have the good fortune to receive a message from Eagle, the Divine really wants to get your attention. This message was unmistakable: I’m here.

I’m here when you’re running late and when you’re on time, when you’re messing up and when you’re succeeding. You can’t actually screw this up because I’m here regardless, and you can’t fix it for the same reason—I’m here so there’s nothing to fix.

There is perhaps no message I’ve resisted more strongly until now. How, you may ask, as I have, can this be true for the victim of a drive-by shooting or children caught in a war zone? I have no answer for that, and at the same time, this experience gave me a deep certainty that this here-ness is true.

It keeps popping up this week, or maybe more accurately breaking through. As I try to finish this presentation at work and everything else slips farther and farther behind: I’m here. As I fail again and again to live from my heart: I’m here. As I notice the flowers on the trees: I’m here. I’m here with you and inside you and with and inside everything else. I’m here.

Seeing Each Other Through

Friendship is a curious and wonderful thing. I spent last weekend with college friends whom I’ve now known for more than half my life, twenty-three years to be exact.

I find our friendship remarkable because we remained connected through a span of time in which human beings—at least in the western world—behave in ways that are designed to alienate people. I don’t mean that we were bad people, just that we were in our twenties, a period when we struggle so hard to establish an identity that we can feel threatened by others’ attempts to do the same. Now we can joke about our differences, but there was a time when we—or at least I—took those aspects of our personalities so seriously that we could have allowed them to pull us apart.

And that would have been a great loss because I can confess the important things to these friends, from jealousy toward women who can wear cute, flat, bad-for-your-feet sandals to my deepest heartbreaks. These are generous, funny, smart women, and we can laugh or be silent together, drink good wine or eat onion rings with equal giddiness.

These two know me at so many levels. They know I didn’t learn how to clean a toilet until my junior year of college. They know I will always be the last one ready to go. They have listened with great love and patience to my self-doubts and my fears that the world was falling apart. They have held the preciousness of my self when I couldn’t and reflected it back to me until I could find it again. They have done this not once but many times.

One of my favorite hymns, The Servant Song, says, “I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.” I’m not sure that we can offer one another anything more essential than sharing our joys and sorrows. I know that Heidi and Molly will do exactly that for me and that we will be together until the end of our journeys, and that is a tremendous gift. I love you both. Thank you.