Less Head Time, More Streudel

News flash for the week: my perceptions are not reality. Shocking, I know. Go ahead and sit down—that was probably a hard one to absorb since you thought I had this whole existence thing figured out.

For example, I tell myself a story about a group of people at work. It goes like this: they tolerate me because they have to, but I always get work to them late, I constantly tell them they can’t do things they want to do, and I don’t offer them as much support as they would like. So imagine my surprise when at a meeting last week they told me I was a joy to work with.

I don’t bring this up to brag (OK, maybe just a little) but because based on this headline in The OnionReport: Today The Day They Find Out You’re A Fraud—other people might tell themselves these stories, too. People who are a joy to work with are walking around not knowing it, and these people might be you.

So of course we’re all going to implement a radical perception shift, and these thoughts will disappear by the time you finish reading this blog. If you figure out how to do that, let me know. In my experience, this type of shift doesn’t happen at warp speed, and if it does, there’s a lot of pain involved.

Pain is not up there with cream colored ponies and crisp apple streudels on my list of favorite things, so instead I’m going to practice remembering that the voice in my head lies. And I’m going to get some apple streudel and share it with the people who bring joy into my life and tell them that they do so that they have a little evidence to present to the voices in their heads.

Here’s a poem by C.K. Williams about a moment that broke through the cloud of misperception. One cool, nerdy thing about this poem—it is all one sentence.

The Dance
By C.K. Williams

A middle-aged woman, quite plain, to be polite about it, and
somewhat stout, to be more courteous still,
but when she and the rather good-looking, much younger man
she’s with get up to dance,
her forearm descends with such delicate lightness, such restrained
but confident ardor athwart his shoulder,
drawing him to her with such a firm, compelling warmth, and
moving him with effortless grace
into the union she’s instantly established with the not at all
rhythmically solid music in this second-rate café,

that something in the rest of us, some doubt about ourselves, some
sad conjecture, seems to be allayed,
nothing that we’d ever thought of as a real lack, nothing not to be
admired or be repentant for,
but something to which we’ve never adequately given credence,
which might have consoling implications about how we misbe-
lieve ourselves, and so the world,
that world beyond us which so often disappoints, but which
sometimes shows us, lovely, what we are.

-from Repair by C.K. Williams, reprinted in Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor

Fleas by Ogden Nash

Had ‘em.

A little levity for tax day eve when you discover you haven’t written down either your password or the answers to your security questions. Thanks to my uncle for reminding me of this fine function of poetry.

Note: This is one in a series of poems selected to demonstrate that poetry need not be complicated to be beautiful and meaningful–and funny. Happy National Poetry Month!

Encountering Mystery

Mysteries come closer and more often than we think. I used to see a couple in their fifties or sixties walking through my neighborhood every morning as I drove to work. In my memory, they always walk hand in hand. I don’t know if this detail is true or invented, but they had an air of closeness, of having grown together over time.

They are both heavyset, almost square. He walks with a cane. The other day I saw only the man, walking alone. I worried about what had happened to the woman and about how the man would fare without his companion. I also felt negligent because I hadn’t seen them in quite some time but hadn’t been conscious of their absence. Had they been right there and I hadn’t noticed them? Or had one of us changed our routine by a minute or two, enough to no longer be a casual occurrence in the other’s life?

Another couple, slender, faster, maybe younger, maybe not, used to walk their dog farther along my route to work. The woman always wears a knit hat and the man a blue fleece jacket. I would glance at the clock every day when I passed them to figure out whether or not I was late. I have not seen them in a while either.

I wonder who, if anyone, I am to these couples. Am I the woman in the gray car who drives too fast? Do they even see me?

I know nothing of these people, despite their proximity, yet on some level they matter to me. I wonder whether I know my acquaintances at work any better. I assume we have more in common because we share certain experiences, but are they really any less mysterious? And when it comes to that, would my closest friends and family tell their own stories the way I would tell them? Is it possible to conceive of the world from inside someone else’s heart, mind, and soul.

Perhaps that’s why that couple holds hands, even after all these years—they know they are holding onto something precious, a piece of the world unlike any other that can be explored for a lifetime and remain unknowable.

Here’s a poem from the Polish poet Anna Swir that argues the opposite of what I just have. Or, at the end, maybe not.

The Same Inside

Walking to your place for a love feast
I saw at a street corner
an old beggar woman.

I took her hand,
kissed her delicate cheek,
we talked, she was
the same inside as I am,
from the same kind,
I sensed this instantly
as a dog knows by scent
another dog.

I gave her money,
I could not part from her.
After all, one needs
someone who is close.

And then I no longer knew
why I was walking to your place.

-Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

Reprinted in A Book of Luminous Things, ed. by Czeslaw Milosz

So Many Ways

It’s National Poetry Month! I know you’ve been waiting all year for the return of the Everybody Can Love Poetry Series. It has arrived.

For those of you who started following the blog more recently, last April I posted a couple of poems each week in hopes of convincing people that there are wonderful, meaningful poems that you can understand without a degree in English. Welcome to round two.

One of the wonderful things about poems is that they are beautiful, the way a piece of music or a painting or a sunset is beautiful. I walked to my neighborhood grocery store this week right after it had rained. One of the neighboring houses was surrounded by poppies, which always display their most gorgeous side in profusion. Another house sported a few well-trimmed, carefully placed flowering bushes, and I thought, there are so many ways to be beautiful.

I think about this sometimes when I look at my cat, who is quite handsome. We think cats with all different types of coloring are cute. Black and white cats, like Tux, can have four white paws or only a couple; their faces can be all black or a little white or half white with a big freckle on the tip of their nose, and their owners think they’re adorable regardless.

But sometimes we don’t extend the same generosity to ourselves. We face ourselves in the mirror and wish this or that looked otherwise. We look at how we’ve lived our lives and how others have lived theirs and find ourselves wanting, yet if we expected a poppy to look like a rose, we’d miss its beauty.

Here’s a poem from Mary Oliver that I think speaks to how we might recognize our own beauty.

The Buddha’s Last Instruction

“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal — a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire –
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

From: House of Light




Don’t Drink the Rat Poison

As usual, it appears I’m not going to attain enlightenment by the end of Lent this year. I’m giving up resentments and grudges—in other words, practicing the F word, forgiveness—and there just might be a few still hanging around at the end of forty days.

I am really good at resenting people, even people I don’t know. For example, I have a running grudge against all people who weave in and out of traffic, not a mild annoyance, an active dislike. True, their actions are unsafe, but what happens in my brain after they pass me has nothing to do with safety. It sounds more like, “How dare they make me feel as if I’m not going fast enough” or “they should wait their turn.” Meanwhile, they are several cars in front of me, merrily on their way to wherever, and I’m still fuming.

Here are some things I’ve learned from other people about forgiveness:

  • “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” – Anne Lamott
  • Forgiveness is a refusal to judge someone’s soul. – I forget who
  • You have to forgive yourself first. – my mom
  • Forgiveness does not mean that you are saying what the person did is OK. – lots of people, most recently Fr. John Heagle
  • It is not necessary—and sometimes not safe—to add forgetting to forgiving. – Fr. Heagle again
  • Forgiveness is a practice that takes time. – Paula D’Arcy, Fr. Heagle, other people

There are interestingly no how-to instructions on this list. What I’ve learned so far is that first we have to realize we’re the ones mixing and drinking the rat poison. What the other person did has ended—it no longer exists, and I don’t have a time machine in which I can travel back and force him or her to do it differently, though my mind incessantly recreates the situation as if that were possible.

And then we have to ask God/the universe for help. Because it’s hard and we’ve been hurt. But it’s worth asking because then all that energy that’s been tied up in being angry can be used for joy instead.

Given to You

When you are at a religious education conference and someone at your hotel asks you to bring her a copy of the Lord’s Prayer, you really can’t refuse.

Last weekend, I attended the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress,  a wonderful celebration of everything that is alive and blossoming in the Catholic church. As our group was leaving the hotel one morning, a young woman in the room next to us opened the door and, catching sight of my name tag, asked if we were going to the conference. When I replied in the affirmative—you also really can’t lie—she asked me to bring her a copy of the Lord’s Prayer. She said she was Jewish and had never had a copy.

The whole conversation made me uncomfortable. I’m not big on converting people, and I don’t know many practicing Jews who are searching for the Lord’s Prayer. I hesitated, but she insisted.

So I said I would and proceeded to spend two hours walking around the exhibit hall searching for a printed version of said prayer. Lest you fear that the rise of Catholicism will bring about the demise of capitalism, let the exhibit hall at the largest religious education conference in the country put your mind at rest. Hundreds of booths offer everything from the kitschy to the sublime. I wandered past cards, candles, crosses of the metal, glass and wooden varieties, rosaries, priest’s vestments (one of my favorites because they are simply gorgeous, almost tapestries), countless spiritual books and Christian music recordings in English and Spanish, not to mention representatives from charities, universities, and every flavor of religious order.

In all this abundance, I found exactly one copy of the Lord’s Prayer with a horrible picture of a white, shiny Jesus on the back. I bought it for seventy-five cents. I left this and a Psalm 23 bookmark that a sympathetic Capuchin monk had given me in a bag on the woman’s door handle and went to my afternoon session, a music workshop.

In the music workshops you always receive a printed copy of the songs so you can sing along. On the last page of the handout was, of course, a new arrangement of the Lord’s Prayer.

When I knocked on the woman’s door that night, there was no answer, and so I still have the musical version of the prayer, along with a new understanding: If we are asked to give somebody the Lord’s Prayer—or anything else—it will be given to us.

Joy Hovers

A hummingbird has been trying to tell me something this week. He hovered outside my window for a few seconds one day, expending probably hundreds of his precious heartbeats to make sure I’d notice, then zoomed away only to return several times during the morning for a repeat performance.

According to a book I once read on Native American understanding of animals, hummingbirds bring joy and the nectar of life. The first day, I went outside to see if something remarkably joyful might bump into me. A tree had opened up the first of its delicate white blossoms, but that didn’t quite seem to be it. I stood under the tree waiting for a long-lost friend to happen along, but nothing happened.

The next day I was still trying to figure it out—I had a blog to write after all—but I wasn’t making much progress. Then he came back and hung out so close to the window it looked as if he could tap his beak on the glass.

I confess I wasn’t doing a great job of practicing joy on these days. Most of my practice consisted of self-imposed stress and feelings of inadequacy. Not everything that happens in this life is joyful. There’s more than enough pain and grief to go around. But I know there are plenty of opportunities for joy that I don’t take, that it’s not regularly my baseline approach to the day.

As I was driving home that second day, it occurred to me that perhaps there’s nothing to figure out. Joy is there waiting for us and all we have to do is open the window.