Letting Life Be

When we returned to the vanpool stop, a.k.a. the Walmart parking lot, one evening this week, two baby and two adult birds—a kind I’d never seen before—appeared to be searching for each other with no success even though they were only a few feet from each other.

The babies were tiny, still fluffy, and looking as if they shouldn’t have been out of the nest. They had somehow gotten onto the pavement while the adults were up on the grass in one of those small islands of partially neglected nature that we interestingly dot our parking lots with. The babies were so small they couldn’t get from the pavement to the grass because the curb was taller than they were, maybe three or four inches, no taller than my shoe.

The adults appeared to be calling and looking for the babies but never in the right direction. It’s possible the adults and babies literally couldn’t hear each other because of the noise from the nearby highway. I wanted to show the adults how to search visually for the babies, how to methodically cross and recross a space the way humans do. I wanted to lift the babies up onto the grass that they kept trying to look over the impossibly high curb to see.

But I know just enough about nature to know there was no way to help. Touching the babies would make them smell like human, and their parents might reject them, never mind the perhaps impossible task of catching them. The parents would probably not interpret my attempts to guide their search as anything other than a threat. In reality, I didn’t even know whether they were really lost or this was just part of how these baby birds grow up, a type of being pushed out of the nest.

I think this is so often true, that there’s nothing we can actually do to change the course of things unfolding in this existence, though we’re trained to think we can. I don’t mean that we never affect each other or that one person’s generosity can’t completely change the course of another’s life. Those things happen all the time, but this helplessness is also true, and perhaps at least as often. Maybe the only thing we can do when we find ourselves next to an impossibly high curb or watching a loved one search for something we are powerless to provide is remember that everything we are looking for is only three feet away.

As William Stafford says in the final stanza of the poem “Afterwards,”

Maybe people have to go in and out of shadows
till they learn that floating, that immensity
waiting to receive whatever arrives with trust.
Maybe somebody has to explore what happens
when one of us wanders over near the edge
and falls for awhile. Maybe it was your turn.

Of Dentistry and Dulcimers

Yesterday, I started with a visit to the dentist and wrapped up the evening listening to a concert of Hungarian hammered dulcimer and vocals. I never would have believed beforehand that I’d find the same thing at both events.

My general attitude toward getting my teeth cleaned is resentment. Surprisingly, thinking that I shouldn’t have to waste my time in the dentist’s chair does not prevent plaque and tartar from growing in my mouth. My hygienist is extremely conscientious and always tells me places of concern to brush or floss more thoroughly, which I rarely appreciate because I don’t want to spend any more time on the nightly routine than I already do.

Yesterday I was lying there with my mouth open in my usual resentful way thinking that I would hate to spend the day looking at other people’s mouths when it occurred to me what a tremendous gift my hygienist was giving me. It is utterly amazing that someone is willing to stick her fingers in my mouth and scrape plaque off my teeth. It is remarkably generous that she cares enough about other people’s teeth to remind me over and over again to take my time flossing.

At the recital in the evening, the two musicians did twenty or so pieces, and the dulcimer player looked at his music for only one of them. About halfway through, I was thinking, musicians are incredible—how do they keep all that music in their head at once? I couldn’t do that. Then once again an awareness of the immensity of the gift they were giving us in the audience hit me. These musicians were willing to share their abilities with whoever happened to walk through the door.

Before yesterday, I wouldn’t have equated resentment and admiration, but it turns out they can sometimes both be about me. They prevent me from seeing and appreciating the generosity of those around me, from receiving the gifts they are literally pouring out.

Generosity Trumps Judgment

One morning out running with a friend, we passed an old woman in one of those motorized chairs taking her two small dogs for a walk. She gave us a smile that lit up the world and shouted out a cheer, as if we were finishing a race.

It was an astonishingly generous reaction. She wasn’t moping over her own inability to walk; she was celebrating our ability to still do so.

I saw her again a few days later while driving to work, and if it weren’t for the dogs and the same fleece hat that sat somewhat cockeyed on her head, I wouldn’t have recognized her. Her smile was gone, replaced by that straight ahead stare that I associate with nursing homes.

I am an impressively fast judger. If judging people were an Olympic event, if they could read the speed of our brain waves, I might qualify. If the judges rated contestants on accuracy, on the other hand, my Olympic dreams would be crushed. Until I saw this woman in these two different circumstances, I had passed a goodly number of people in motorized chairs and consistently mistaken their expression for their soul.

Perhaps accuracy is not the thing to aim for any more than speed is; perhaps the thing to aim for is exactly what this woman showed us: generosity and love. Accuracy is concerned with being right, but it might be impossible to be right about a fellow human being—or about a bird or a tree. If all of creation is a manifestation of God, then we are all, at our core, a mystery, and you can’t be right or wrong about a mystery.

That doesn’t mean we need to spend time with people who are harmful in large or small ways. It just means that if we can approach life with a wider lens, if we can greet each other as what we are—deep calling unto deep—we might smile and cheer more.

Grace in Many Forms

Some days, you are wondering what to write for your blog. Then you drop your sweat-soaked underwear in the very public hallway at work after playing soccer at lunch and your young, male student assistant picks them up. And all of a sudden you have something to write about.

This is a moment without pretense. You cannot act as if you meant to do that. You cannot pretend that you’re in a position of authority over this person who, in the daily hierarchy of things, reports to you. Though not particularly graceful, this moment forces you to be quite present to reality.

“Nice,” I said.

“It’s OK,” he said, with astonishing graciousness. I held the bag of exercise clothes open, and he dropped the underwear in. Did I mention that they were bright orange?

The night before I had been listening to Jim Finley talk about his teacher, Thomas Merton’s, writings on solitude in his book Disputed Questions. Finley commented that as we come upon an awareness of our true selves, we are less and less able to give an account of what’s happening either internally or to anyone else.

I spend a lot of time explaining myself. In my head. To people who aren’t there. On topics that no one has asked about and probably never will. Apparently I want to be sure that if anyone ever questions me about anything, I have a reason that it was not my fault.

The underwear moment was a moment without explanation, without excuse. I’m not suggesting I had a deep revelation of my true self in God there in the hallway, but I did have a moment of consciously deciding there was absolutely nothing to do except be OK with what was happening. Maybe it was graceful after all because my student was kind enough to do the same. Perhaps we both took a tiny step toward the solitude Merton says unites us all.

Here is another moment of presence, perhaps gentler, perhaps not, the final poem for National Poetry Month.

After Work
by Richard Jones

Coming up from the subway
into the cool Manhattan evening,
I feel rough hands on my heart—
women in the market yelling
over rows of tomatoes and peppers,
old men sitting on a stoop playing cards,
cabbies cursing each other with fists
while the music of church bells
sails over the street,
and the father, angry and tired
after working all day,
embracing his little girl,
kissing her,
mi vida, mi corazón,
brushing the hair out of her eyes
so she can see.

-From Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor

Not at the Still Point

I’ve spent the week with T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and my own inner resistance to pretty much everything.

Every time I read one of Eliot’s poems, its meaning seems to fall away into some inarticulate depths. Some of it clearly pushes beyond dualities: “Except for the point, the still point/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” But when I try to put that together with “Garlic and sapphires in the mud,” it all goes spinning away.

Likewise, the more effort I’ve put into convincing myself to do any of the have-tos—get up in the morning, take out the trash—the harder it’s been to actually do them. Maybe this effort is exactly the problem in both cases.

Maybe the only way to grasp “Four Quartets” is to stop figuring it out—to let it wash over me and sink in until it settles down into the level it’s intended for, takes root, grows, and blossoms into meaning. Maybe if I stopped putting so much energy into the have-tos, whether by creating or resisting them, a new kind of life could take root and grow in me, perhaps exactly the kind Eliot is talking about. It takes a lot of faith, though, to trust that I’ll get up and go to work in the morning without the have-tos.

In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke has a lovely line about how to make this transition: “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions…. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Here are a couple of poems from Rilke—one for frustrating weeks like this one, one to remind us that it’s all part of the journey, and both easier to understand than Eliot. Neither is titled.

If only for once it were still.
If the not quite right and the why this
could be muted, and the neighbor’s laughter,
and the static my senses make—
if all of it didn’t keep me from coming awake—

Then in one vast thousandfold thought
I could think you up to where thinking ends.

I could possess you,
even for the brevity of a smile,
to offer you
to all that lives,
in gladness.


 

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

-from Rilke’s Book of Hours, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

Who to Trust: God vs. Google

I follow the big G implicitly and without question—the big G being Google of course. I drove up to the Bay Area last weekend. I didn’t know how to get to my specific destination, but after plugging the address into Google maps, away I went, never giving it a second thought.

On the way home, the GPS took me on a rather circuitous route. I was vaguely aware that there was another, shorter route, but I didn’t pull off to see what it was or how to catch it. I just assumed the traffic on that freeway was horrible, Google was safely routing me around it, and my current route was the fastest available. Now that’s faith.

When things don’t go according to my plan in other areas of life, I don’t think, there must have been some traffic—or heartache or suffering—on that route I wanted to take; thanks, God, for safely routing me around it. Oh no.

My reaction usually begins with resistance, an attempt to immediately pull over to the side of the road and check the cosmic road map of life to see how I can get back on my chosen track. (My ability to see the cosmic road map of life has, thus far, proven annoyingly non-existent, but clearly if I just keep looking, the divine instruction booklet in which it is printed will reveal itself.) When this fails, I progress to wailing and gnashing of teeth until finally arriving at acceptance, at which point I often realize my surroundings are rather pretty.

I’m not suggesting that all of life’s detours are pleasant, but how might my way of existing be different if I placed at least as much faith in the creator of the universe as I do in a search engine? Here’s a poem from Hafiz that suggests an answer:

I Vote for You for God
by Hafiz

When your eyes have found the strength
To constantly speak to the world
All that is most dear
To your own
Life,

When your hands, feet, and tongue
Can perform in that rare unison
That comforts this longing earth
With the knowledge

Your soul,
Your soul has been groomed
In His city of love;

And when you can make others laugh
With jokes
That belittle no one
And your words always unite,

Hafiz
Does vote for you.

Hafiz will vote for you to be
The minister of every country in
This universe.

Hafiz does vote for you my dear.
I vote for you
To be
God.

From The Gift by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Celebrating Libraries

Today I found out that nestled inside National Poetry Month is National Library Week, which begins April 12. This is like having a truffle inside a truffle—both chocolate-chocolate truffles, of course, none of this white chocolate stuff or lemon filling. (Hazelnut cream is acceptable, in case you were wondering.)

Libraries are some of the most magical places on earth. To honor them, here are just a few of my favorite things about libraries:

  1. You can learn anything at all for free—you don’t even have to pay for an Internet connection.
  2. You can hang out as long as you want without buying a cup of coffee.
  3. Sitting in the stacks feels like curling up in a hobbit hole. There is nothing cozier than taking a book off the shelf, pulling up the little stool that’s there to help you reach the top, and getting lost in a story surrounded by all those other stories resting inside the quiet bindings.
  4. My sister works in one.
  5. They create community, whether it’s through traditional programs like kids’ story time or more recent inventions like Science Café, libraries offer a space for people to gather, get to know each other, learn, and create.
  6. They give kids free food and other prizes for reading.
  7. Their aura of mystery and possibility, as described in this poem by Charles Simic.

In the Library
By Charles Simic

for Octavio

There’s a book called
“A Dictionary of Angels.”
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.


You can read more about Charles Simic on the Academy of American Poets’ website.