A Lot of Choices

I just activated a new credit card, and the helpful, robotic voice on the other end of the line said, “Thank you for using [our bank]. We know you have a lot of choices.”

We do have a lot of choices, and I often confuse the important ones with the unimportant. Should I push the snooze alarm? Can I wear brown boots with a black jacket? Will I miss the van if I take the time to put on lotion? And that’s just the first hour of the day.

When I got back from China, I was overwhelmed by the entire aisle of salad dressings in the typical American grocery store and the immense selection of deli meats. I almost ran away without my meat when the kind person behind the counter asked me whether I wanted cheese with that.

Because we experience such an onslaught of this type of decision every day, it’s easy to confuse the trivial with the essential. Even those decisions that often seem the biggest—what house to buy, what job to take—will not shape our lives as profoundly as the essential choices, as in, having to do with the essence of things.

Some true choices we face every day:

  • Will I practice forgiveness?
  • Will I be kind?
  • Will I be patient?
  • Will I do whatever I am doing with love?
  • Will I listen to my mental tapes of self-destructive messages?
  • Will I accept help?
  • Will I let others love me?
  • Will I believe that there is something bigger and more hopeful than I can see at this moment?

The list goes on, of course, but our attention to this kind of question truly determines how alive we are. It is so, so hard to believe this in a culture that constantly asks us to quantify ourselves based on whether we selected ham or turkey. Clearly, there was a right one and a wrong one and we better have picked the turkey.

Personally, I answer “occasionally” or “sometimes” to most of the above list, and those may remain my answers until I die. But that’s not important either. What’s important is to keep asking the real questions.

Making New

In other parts of the world, it is still spring. A friend who lives in the Colorado mountains posted a beautiful description of the new life frolicking outside her window: baby foxes, cranes, and birds.

I easily fall into thinking that nothing really changes, or perhaps more exactly that I am not making things change fast enough or am incapable of doing so at all. The thing is, as usual, it’s not me who changes things. “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” God says in Isaiah.

Fr. Bruno Barnhart, OSB Cam., looked out at the beauty of the Big Sur coast and wrote, “Within us…is to be discovered a free, imaginative power which has been given us so we can actually bring forth the beginning of a new creation” (from his essay “The Big Sur Coast—Sixty Miles of Music to the Eye”). So how can this bringing forth be both within us and not from us?

It is not our power, as in something that belongs to us. It has been given to us, Fr. Bruno says, not the way we’re given a set of cutlery to use every day but rather the way we’re given the gift of baby foxes playing outside our window.

We didn’t do anything to make it happen. We can’t do anything to make it stay. We can’t use it to do whatever we want to because it’s a “free, imaginative power.” It’s never separate from us, but we can’t hold onto it. It works through us, sometimes in spite of us; it both does and does not need our participation.

If you’re thinking right now that this doesn’t make any sense, I agree. This power is not especially interested in making sense—it’s interested in making new. And it’s important to remember that we, too, are part of the new creation, that we are being brought forth, continuously, from the inside out.

Hard and True

Jim Finley often counsels “keep[ing] faith with your newly awakened heart.” It sounds abstract, but I experienced it as practical advice this week.

Finley has a few examples of moments that awaken our hearts: “a flock of birds descending, seeing children when they’re really children.” I’m not sure what it was for me this week—the blooming jacaranda trees, a feeling of playfulness that resulted from a spontaneous trip to In ‘n Out—but there was a time when creation felt porous, as if the things we consider insides and outsides are separated by much less than we usually think, by something more akin to a cell wall than a cement one.

Then there comes the time to sit back down at the computer at work or read the news, and it is suddenly very difficult to believe in what a few moments ago was readily apparent. This is where the being faithful comes in.

It might help to admit first that it’s hard to do. It’s hard to remember that the jacaranda trees matter when there are Things to Get Done. It’s hard to believe that existence is evolving toward a greater consciousness of love while watching the news.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. We’re being asked to keep faith not with something abstract and far away but with something we’ve felt deeply. These experiences are every bit as real as those we see on the news. We don’t need to choose one over the other; we only need to trust the reality of our own path through life.

Everything is harder when we first start doing it, from walking to using power tools to trusting our hearts. Practice helps. Community helps. Remembering that we will fail again and again but that it doesn’t really matter because creation is there waiting for us to join in the fun helps, too.

Being Love

I often have a hard time remembering what I’m on this Earth for, which is to love and be loved. I am not referring only to interpersonal relationships, though they are likely our truest guide, but rather to a way of being in the world, a participation in the life of God.

One conception of creation is that it’s a result of God pouring out God’s love. My understanding of a recent talk by Jim Finley is that we are called to live in this love and let it flow through us until we’re just one big love exchanger with God, both the unimaginably bigger than we can understand God and the God within all that we see and meet. That’s what creation is, including us, and that’s what keeps it unfolding—this reciprocal flow of love.

I’m not very good at this. There’s something about being human that makes it often difficult, but it’s desperately important. As a friend pointed out in an online discussion this week, if we’re not practicing love, we’re practicing something else—fear, retribution, take your pick among several nasty alternatives.

So I started reminding myself by saying, for example, “I have to do the dishes with love.” Whatever it was that was on my list, I added, “with love,” the way you add “in bed” to the advice from a fortune cookie.

Then an interesting thing happened: I realized that “with love” and “have to” don’t go together. Love is always free, never forced. I changed it to, “I would like to walk down the stairs with love.” The current iteration is “Grant me the grace to write this blog in love.”

I am sorry to report that I’m not walking around in an aura of glowing golden light yet, though I’m sure that’s right around the corner. Maybe I was more patient with a friend or my cat or the garbage disposal. Practice, practice.

A Push Stroke

There are a couple of certainties when my dad comes to visit: we will eat a lot of fish, and home improvement projects will be completed. Odds are also pretty good that we will go kayaking.

I was much more relaxed during this kayak trip than during the previous one with the death machines/motor boats, relaxed enough to think about my form. “It’s a push stroke,” Dad always says, meaning that to get the most power, I need to lean back against the seat, push against the foot pegs with my legs, and then, with all this support in place, push the paddle through the water using my back muscles.

When something terrifying is happening—for example, I can’t get the boat to turn around, which is really urgent because I’m in open, calm water with nothing around me—I do the opposite of this. I lean forward and try to pull the paddle harder through the water using my massive arm strength.

I do this in life as well. Rather than leaning into the Divine, I often decide that I need to attack whatever it is on my own. I don’t trust that when I lean back there will be any seat to hold me.

The problem is, I’m kind of puny, like the strength of my arms compared to that of my legs and back. I’m not going to move the kayak of my life very far by relying on myself.

It would be nice if God were out in front of us, visible, parting the Red Sea as he did for the Israelites (although, really, who was volunteering to take that first step?). But charging forward is most often not how we experience our connection to God, to the power that sustains and ultimately moves us. Richard Rohr would say we have to fall into God, to let go of being in control. Perhaps that journey can be as easy as leaning back with trust.

Doubts and Loves

One of the nice things about days like Earth Day is that people use it as an excuse to get together and do kind things for creation or each other. A local farm had a fair, and there I ran into this poem that a friend of my mom’s had included on a piece of art. It took my breath away.

The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Richard Rohr often talks about necessary suffering, not my favorite phrase or concept. He defines suffering not as something awful happening to us but rather as any time we’re not in control. In one fell swoop, this poem makes clear why that’s so: “The place where we are right/Is hard and trampled/Like a yard.” I can feel the compacted earth under my feet.

It astonishes me to consider that “doubts and loves” combined provide the way forward. How often do we consider those as related to one another? We generally much prefer loves to doubts but here they are, intertwined, working together toward the same purpose.

This combination might say something about what love really is, a question that comes up for me when people say “God is love” or Jim Finley talks of “infinite love infinitely giving itself away as our every breath and heartbeat.” Love, this poem argues, is an openness, an availability, an invitation, a movement. It is dynamic, changing, and it is only love if we allow it to change us, to dig up the earth of our hearts.

Perhaps love and doubt are in a dance where each opens the door for each other. I imagine any couple whose relationship has deepened over the years has had to hold and accept some doubts about each other and in that process has grown in love.

Meister Eckhart says that we all share the same ground of being and that our ground is God’s ground. Let’s get some moles and plows into that ground.

Always In-Between

Green hills in California never last long enough to achieve that deep, lush color found in the Midwest or Seattle. The green remains bright, almost electric, for about three months, and then it begins to fade. And I begin to hang on, as if I could hold the season still by wishing it so.

First the hue ebbs, as if nature has changed to using watercolors, and then patches of brown begin to appear. Then one day, as happened this week, it shifts. The hills turn golden. The oak trees with their dusky leaves stand out against the grass gone to seed and the landscape is beautiful again.

Of course it probably never lost its beauty, but that transition time is so hard, not because of anything inherent to it but because I want what is gone and fear what is to come. Life is so often like this. Transition is so often difficult.

Perhaps the indefinability of in-between times upsets our footing or the reality of something new coming into being demands dance steps we don’t know. Or maybe during these times we are forced to pay attention to the transition we are always in, from the cellular level on up. If we stopped wanting to return or skip ahead, would these times be easier?

Neither regret nor fear exist in the present. They are a relationship we create with what has passed or what is to come. I’m not suggesting that if we achieved mass enlightenment, we’d no longer need to mourn. But if we could embrace our transitions, we might find beauty where before we saw only hardship.

Here is a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that wonders about this type of thing. I found it on the Poetry Foundation website, which is a wonderful place to visit.

Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change
By Naomi Shihab Nye

Roselva says the only thing that doesn’t change
is train tracks. She’s sure of it.
The train changes, or the weeds that grow up spidery
by the side, but not the tracks.
I’ve watched one for three years, she says,
and it doesn’t curve, doesn’t break, doesn’t grow.

Peter isn’t sure. He saw an abandoned track
near Sabinas, Mexico, and says a track without a train
is a changed track. The metal wasn’t shiny anymore.
The wood was split and some of the ties were gone.

Every Tuesday on Morales Street
butchers crack the necks of a hundred hens.
The widow in the tilted house
spices her soup with cinnamon.
Ask her what doesn’t change.

Stars explode.
The rose curls up as if there is fire in the petals.
The cat who knew me is buried under the bush.

The train whistle still wails its ancient sound
but when it goes away, shrinking back
from the walls of the brain,
it takes something different with it every time.