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Following the Glimmer, Not the Glitter

Midwinter at my home means a fire in the wood stove, a stew or soup bubbling on top, and a hover of crows cawing and landing in the meadow behind my house. Fitting subjects for contemplation. Like a crow, I’ve spent a fair amount of my life grabbing the next shiny object. I’ve collected experiences, workshops, credentials, books, and teachings like any good spiritual materialist. No regrets. Sometimes there’s been a huge pay-off for my curiosity, and sometimes I’ve gotten myself in some pretty tight situations. All of the resulting course corrections have taken the form of a learning curve. But at this stage of life, something a bit more subtle is operating.

Instead of grabbing onto the glitter, I’ve been leaning with curiosity into the glimmer and also suggesting my clients learn the difference.

When I get a little quiet with myself, my mind begins to imagine all the exciting and glittering futures it could create. This is when catchy YouTubes and online classes take me right into the sink hole. Next I wonder where the time has gone and how I’ll ever find the time to read the next self-help or spiritual book. And whatever time I’ve scheduled for writing or self-reflection is over. Carpool time, dinner time. Once again the taste for glitter has taken over.

But…when I remember that I’m not a crow, that I have a choice of where to put my attention, I’m more likely to spot a time-sink wormhole and bring myself back to what truly soothes and uplifts me. I’m more able to listen for something else, for a slight uplift in my body. If I slow down and look, there’s sometimes a cinder left from the past, some longing or inner curiosity. I can ask my heart to find it. Remembering the fire I built to keep away the chill, I can blow on the glimmering coal.

Staying curious, I watch for the glimmer to grow. Sometimes a slow, steady flame is ignited, and sometimes it’s an ember that dims and becomes an ash. I notice where it sparks, find some appropriate kindling by taking the next step. Only that one. After that I watch with curiosity, see what happens next, what resonates in the heart and the gut as true. After that, I keep it simple. I take the next small step that occurs to me.

I continue to watch, find a little piece of kindling, gently blow. On and on. Keeping it simple, I watch for life to show me the way. Then perhaps I sign up to sponsor that child in Nepal; perhaps I make some calls to a policy-maker, perhaps I take up tango or salsa.

It’s a subtle art, much less dramatic and stimulating than the shiny object approach, but instead of being stuck in tight places of my own creation, instead of being over-committed to everyone else or to the wormholes competing for my attention, over time I have a glowing life that sends new sparks and glimmers and offers new possibilities. But, best of all, I have a place to warm my hands.

The Lingering Gift of the Flu

I’m just emerging from the profound depths of this 2018 flu. I’ve developed a battalion of illness-fighting forces over the years, and it’s been decades since I actually experienced the full ride. But this month the little virus buggers wanted to set up shop, and they had their way with me.

While I was fighting them back there was struggle and stress. But then I remembered to ask one of my favorite questions of myself: How might this be a good thing? “It’s over. Give up the fight,” came an answer. After that, such a deep surrender. An opening. Peace. The mind stopped its incessant solving and strategizing. I simply couldn’t think that anything needed (or even could) be done. There were no appointments to be keep. No calls that needed to be made. No battles to be fought (or thought).

And what was left was breath, silence and spaciousness. The body had aches, fevers, coughs. Yes. And I can’t say that it was pleasant, but some other part of me could see that this existed inside something else, something vastly deep and powerful. Something that I could trust to either kill me or heal me. Suddenly nothing about it was personal.

I was already aware that sometimes these viruses take no prisoners and make no sense. So the breakthrough surrender wasn’t like a magical New Age carpet ride of positive thinking. I’m old enough to find evidence of my own ultimate fate all around me. A woman I know died of the flu three or four years ago. She was in her late fifties, fit and full of life force, on her way to Hawaii with her first grandchild and her children. There was no sense to it.

During the worst part of the flu, I remembered her. And instead of fear I experienced a deep understanding of my own powerlessness in the face of the most mysterious of forces. Without the words to frame it, there I was (or wasn’t) again. Simply a deep and powerful state of surrender and vast space.

It’s been a couple of weeks since this realization, and now I feel a lot like I did during my pregnancies. Once the morning zest (aka coffee) wears off, the tiredness comes…and goes…and moves around. I’m focused on catching the old habit of “pushing to overcome,” because I have somehow believed that this is the same as thriving. I don’t want to lose this new perspective.

There’s a different sense of things now, just at the edge of the fatigue. Something big, ineffable, irrefutable. A softness. A deep willingness to trust in the way of things.

It’s not altogether unfamiliar; it’s a way of being and living that I have sensed around the edges before. I’ve used words in an attempt to describe it. And I’m using words now. But ultimately words are no match for the peace. It’s an experience. And that has no words.

What’s left of the flu is a felt sense that I used to call fatigue. But now it feels more like gratitude.

Epiphany for Us All

It’s Epiphany today. For thirty years I’ve taken this holy day from the liturgical calendar as my own private day for solitude and reflection.

Will you join me?

This year I’m reflecting on this poem written by Pulitzer-prize winning Buddhist poet Gary Snyder during another dark time in history. I had two calligraphy versions scribed many years ago, and I framed and posted them near the door of my home and (later) in my mountain cabin. It continues to give me direction, comfort and support during these challenging times. May it inspire your days now.

 

For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes

of statistics

lie before us,

the steep climb

of everything, going up,

up, as we all

go down.

In the next century

or the one beyond that,

they say,

are valleys, pastures,

we can meet there in peace

if we make it.

To climb these coming crests

one word to you, to

you and your children:

Stay together

Learn the flowers

Go light.

-Gary Snyder, 1974

Barely Grateful

The branches of the oak trees surrounding this Oasis are nearly bare now.

And so am I. Stripped of assumptions and suppositions about how the world works. The gratitude notebook I launched with such fervor last year has become largely forgotten. It’s been that kind of year. For for many of us.

But there’s good news on the horizon (At last!)
We actually have a holiday dedicated to celebrating gratitude! (Hooray!)
At a table loaded with rich foods! (Oh boy!)
With people who sometimes have different ideas than ours! (Groan!)
For all these things I’m barely grateful.

There’s a probability that Thanksgiving didn’t go so well for you last year, at least in the Family Peace and Politics Department. In addition, this year many of us have been closely touched by things that seem to be happening way too fast: Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Wildfire. Shootings. So unless we’re very careful or prayerful (or both), we’ll be bringing some stress to the table.

The magic of any yearly ritual, like Thanksgiving, is in the way it just keeps regularly rotating in, year after year. When we stop and gather, often with people unlike ourselves, there is a comfort and a perspective to this yearly rhythm. Despite everything, the seasons keep turning.

A year ago I committed myself to “grateful seeing,” as a spiritual practice. This means that, as I remember, I shift my lens and find gratitude in the current moment. This re-focusing accompanied me through the decline and death of my mother, the shootings in Las Vegas, and a wildfire evacuation. The practice of writing has anchored it all.

My blogposts of the last months are reflections on miracles and disasters and the life that holds it all. They are a gift of gratitude.

I gratefully raise a glass to Life…and to each of you.

To Life As It is!

The Sweet G-Spot of Gratitude

In the time before Thanksgiving I was drawn to take a deep inner dive into “grateful seeing,” declaring a practice of slowing down for the micro-miracles of daily life. There’s been ample nutrition for the soul in this deepening practice, as I peeked beneath the clichés about gratitude to find my own deeper experience.

Honestly, Universe (or God, or whatever you call it), it’s been really fun. And in my humble opinion I didn’t really need more of a challenge.

However, as it turns out, my opinion about these things seems to be just that. My. Opinion. Reality never fails to show me my real job, whether I approve or not.  Reality brought a stroke to my brother first about six weeks ago and then my mother just before Christmas. All of us (and another brother) have A-Fib, which makes strokes more likely. Since I was scheduled in Texas for proactive surgery for the problem, I was unable to cancel and fly to manage the crisis.

So we all puttered arrhythmically along, in and out of surgeries and hospitals and emergency rooms.  My brother with the recent stroke somehow kept up with my mother’s crisis and his stroke rehab, while I texted and called and did everything I could to not wring my hands into ribbons of worry. The multitude of Care Givers and angels all along the way earned a place in my gratitude pantheon. And yet the reality and the stress of it all has been there all along, lurking in the background. I just returned back to my home for a few days of rest and rebooting before I climb on another plane and head “back East” to my mother’s nursing facility.

So I just today returned to my grateful seeing project for 2017. It’s one thing to make a commitment to living into a “year of gratitude,” imagining quiet moments in nature with birdflight and windsounds. But it’s quite another to welcome all of it, the “full catastrophe,” as Zorba called it, and find the Gratitude Spot somewhere below the apparent disasters.

The small savings account I’ve built up through the practice of micro-moments of gratitude have carried me a long way. But then has come the big challenge of knowing that those you love are struggling without you. That your mother, already confused, has lost her ability to speak. That hospice has been advised.

During the last two months I’ve also been more deeply committed to questioning a myriad of upsetting thoughts and beliefs about everything, including the future of the world. This radical discipline, one that I have been practicing for about ten years, has delivered me again and again to humility and peace. While I’ve learned to question my mind’s assumptions, I’ve also been preparing me to be with my mother, to help make decisions about her future. Without the discipline of pausing and questioning my mind, I’m not much help to anyone.

But with a little pause comes the realization that I really have no idea what will happen next. The relief and acceptance that follows this recognition brings me the deepest acceptance. And from this calm and open mind comes guidance. Again and again. The next thing. For this I am eternally gratefully.

This is the Sweet G-Spot of Gratitude.

Holy Micro-Moments for Sanity

Now that the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone and all the toasts and blessings have been offered, I’m left with a familiar feeling of letdown. Although I savored the time with family and friends, the Holiday of Gratitude doesn’t find much of a footing in my heart, especially during the challenging time of division and fear that has followed the election here in my country.

Regardless of the external circumstances, I’ve never been a big fan of generic gratitude lists. My mind just doesn’t seem to settle on vague concepts. The kindness of people seems way different than the very specific memory of watching a hurried person slow down and hold the door at the gym patiently for someone struggling to get his walker out of the rain.

To save my sanity this month, I launched my own personal Holy Micro-Moments project. I’ve been stalking the little magical details hiding in plain site as I take daily walks or run errands. A certain slant of light, the children at the bus stop, the cashier at the grocery store. Early on it was the mushrooms in a neighbor’s yard.

Mushrooms

What I’ve noticed, without a big investment of time, is that nature seems to conspire to get our attention.  As does human kindness, when we see it, when we let it in.

Even in the midst of all the hubbub in the world right now, holiday or otherwise, there’s that moment of perspective, a deepening of breath.

Join me in exploring the art (and the relief) of finding holy moments in ordinary time.

Take two or three minutes each day to stop, breathe, and savor a moment. If you can, take a photo or jot a few lines in your journal to remind yourself. Share it with the world on Facebook or tuck it away for just you. I’ll do the same.

Gratefully,

Susan Grace

To Life as It Is

To life as it is!  My Danish host offered. As a frequent traveler I had gathered toasts in dozens of languages. But at the moment I clicked goblets around the table this time I was speechless. This was a toast deep and wide enough to say all that couldn’t be said.

Years later one of my best friends drowned and two months later we hosted Thanksgiving dinner for friends and family at our place. These words and a song, “Waters of March,” by Susannah McCorkle, held us all in a time of grief and a hint of hope.

I’ve offered this toast many times since.

This year I keep thinking I’d like to qualify my toast. To life as it is (except for politics). To life as it is (except for my brother’s recent stroke). But I notice even though I have other opinions about what life should do, it doesn’t seem to matter to It. I can honor its ways, even as I do my part to alleviate suffering or change what can be changed. It’s a deal we’ve struck, Life and I.

And so I offer these words to you. May you share them many times as you go into the season of gatherings and celebrations. To Life As It Is.

I bow to that.

“Perhaps”: the Power of the Long View

I just spent election week driving across the country, cutting a swath through red states to blue on my way. I was traveling with my daughter, with the plan to celebrate her birthday and the first woman president on the same day, Nov. 9th. You already know how that went.  Since that morning I’ve become painfully aware that my living in a blue bubble might have warped my vision a bit. But I spent most of the fall in the Midwest, and I’m just as aware of people there I care about who have their own reasons to be celebrating.

The oddest inner whisper has been haunting me all the way:  A simple word, perhaps, repeating in my head like a mantra.

An image of white smoke comes to mind, and a memory:  Sitting with my spiritual ama or mother, at a Benedictine monastery where I was studying interfaith spiritual mentoring. Before this I had never paid much attention to popes, having somehow concluded as a child that they were similar to the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.  Sister Antoinette was one of the most transparent, illuminated, and open-minded people I‘ve ever met. She was also a “cradle to grave” Democrat, by her own description, and a strong progressive by mine. In her mid-seventies at the time, she glowed with Life. When I was a pre-teen in a Southern Baptist camp, I had been warned of the Catholic plot to take over the world.  In the company of Sister Antoinette, I could see how this could happen.

The news was full of updates on the process of selecting a new pope, which included white smoke from a chimney. This was the second day of a process that could last weeks. While I was sitting with Sister Antoinette, the silence was pierced by the chapel bells right outside our window. A phone down the hall rang, and Sister Dorothy, her slightly irreverent friend, tapped on the door.

I knew enough about the candidates to surmise that one of the cardinals, Ratzinger, was strictly literal and a bastion of conservative forces. I had already formed a strong bias against him. I had shortened his name for memory’s sake to “Rat.” I was fairly certain that my friends would have a similar feeling about him being selected Holy Father.

So when Antoinette opened the door to get the news from Dorothy, I watched carefully.

“It’s Ratzinger,” Dorothy said softly.

The Sisters looked into each others’ eyes.

“Perhaps….” They said at the same moment, as each nodded gently.

This moment has stayed embedded in my memory ever since.

They were like visitors from another planet. I saw that their minds were wide open and deeply accepting, at the same time I was pretty sure they wouldn’t change their political activism.

This past week I’ve begun to understand the depth of surrender this takes. My mind and heart haven’t been able to sort through all that is happening. So many parts of the process just haven’t made sense in my world. I’ve been working through my fears and my preconceived opinions about the elected president. At the same time, I’m finding my own way to take effective action to protect people who are bullied or threatened.  In the meantime, I’ll practice putting my ultimate trust in the power of the long view.

Cardinal Ratzinger, or Pope Benedict II, was a less than perfect church father who was politely retired for complicated and disturbing choices he had made in his past. The eventual result was the selection of Pope Francis, a much-revered bringer of reform and change.  Perhaps it took the house-clearing and honesty that was required to confront priestly child abuse to allow a new leadership to surface. These developments could have never been predicted ten years ago. Who knows how things will continue to evolve? Not me.

It’s now a week after the news, and I’m back home. My mind settles a bit. I make a list of the issues close to my heart and begin to think about how I will support them with action and money. I’m feeling a strongly renewed commitment to stay awake and alert on behalf of justice for my fellow beings and for the earth I love.

And always…I just keep thinking… Perhaps.

Fish, Fowl, and this Waiting Time

I’m not usually a political junkie, but this year seems more like a morality play than an election, and I’ve been hooked, finding my equanimity tossed around by the story line as well as the political implications. It’s a biting-your-nails kind of time for me and for so many others in the world.

Action usually helps, so the first thing I thought to do was to vote. So I did. And mailed it in. It’s something we do here in Oregon without polling sites, voting booths and lines. But I’m still not done with this democratic ritual we call an election. First, there’s more to do. And second, a guilty admission: I’m a little too hooked on the dopamine of the Barnum & Bailey sideshow that has characterized this year’s election.

There’s something familiar here, I think. I’ve always found the stories of ancient and universal human experience helpful in such times as these. So I wasn’t surprised when a couple of words pop through the fog: liminal time. These are the words I’ve often used to describe the state of being neither fish nor fowl, having left the old life behind but not yet having arrived at the new one. In anthropology it describes “a threshold during the middle stage of a ritual when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.” Neither fish nor fowl.

So I gave my Inner Researcher a job, and she turned up a gem. “Liminal time” is usually characterized by a quality of ambiguity or disorientation. During these times “continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.” Of course! We’re all in liminal time!

My researcher went on: “There’s a lack of the usual order of life during this in-between time. However, with a more fluid situation, new institutions and customs are able to emerge.”

Now I’m back to a turf I know for real. I’ve seen so many times how important a time of not-knowing seems to be for personal transformation. And so here we are as a culture, not knowing the future for a couple more weeks. Preparing for something new to emerge. I have seen this process again and again. Enough that I trust it completely. Now I know the territory.

When I work with clients, I remind them that this state of waiting can seem excruciatingly long. But again and again my peeps have found that the results are worth the waiting and the not-knowing.

This seems to be always the case. Patience and trust are not necessarily my strongest character traits, but I know I can do this.

We can all do this. Together. Not fish. Not Fowl. But some seaworthy and airborne combination of patience and determination worthy of what is to come.

From the Sweet Spot

When I was a preteen, I loved visiting all four of my grandparents the rural town of Sweet Springs, MO.  An active farming community, there was room enough to test my wings and my understanding of how a simpler world worked. My favorite place was a teenage hang-out called the Sweet Shop, a genuine fifties-style jitterbug place, still alive in the early sixties. Yesterday I drove through the town, and all the edifices are crumbling around the ghosts of my past, but the memories are still alive. During these “wonder” years I had enough time to create memories and enough brain space to give them permanent residency.

I also celebrated my fiftieth high school reunion last weekend at my real home town of Columbia. A large group of 200 or more showed up. We had a few memories in common, but mostly, we were all the same age, even though a neutral observer who was forced to guess might assume a twenty year range. Words from Ann Patchett’s book Commonwealth cycled through my mind: He was as old as the rest of them, but age arrived at different rates of speed, in different ways.

My friend Vicki shared her Sweet Spot theory, wise and worth sharing here. “There are three basic components of life: time, money, and health. When you’re young, you have lots of time and health but no money. During adulthood, as you create your life, there’s money (assuming you find a good job/career) and you’re healthy, but you have no time. Then, if you’ve planned ahead and have good fortune, there are some years where you have time, money and health. This is the sweet spot. (These are the years of early “retirement.”)

I’m fortunate enough to be able to see the truth in her words. And I want to be aware enough to remember the elusive sweetness of this moment in time, in my life. Most of my disturbing thoughts and memories have been put to rest. I’ve discovered, as Patchett says, “There’s a pleasure in a long life, the way some things work themselves out.”

And what is left can only be described as sweet.

 

 

Image by Chinese World Hotel, Beijing, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0

My Mother, Myself, and the Shoe Worship Lineage

Today I’m packing for a pilgrimage back to the Midwest. First, I’ll be connecting with lifelong friends at a big number high school reunion. There’s always news at these events, but mostly it’s a simple celebration that we’ve made it through life’s obstacle fields and we’re still here.

As I put my turquoise shoes into the suitcase, my 87-year-old mother is already with me. She’s the biggest reason for the trip. Living far away from her as her memory fades, I’m reminded of a line of a poem by Lyn Lifshin: She was like a kite whose string I’d lost hold of, getting smaller and smaller.

I’ve been feeling a bit untethered myself lately, living halfway across the country from her.  So this trip I want to remember every minute the gift it is to spend any time together. We have so few opportunities left. This brings me to the subject of shoes. They’re the one thing that’s guaranteed to tether us to the present moment, to strengthen that string. Last spring, my mother fell in love with the very shoes I just packed. I mean serious love. These love affairs run deep in our blood, a part of our ancestral lineage.

Or it could be that it’s a little vein of rebellion within our sturdy German peasant ancestry.  My German-speaking great grandmother wore black lace-up oxford heels, a style that looks far more chic on models in magazines now than they did worn with her cotton stockings. Her mother was “Grossie” and as a child I thought this was a mean comment about how she looked in the photos, in dowdy flower prints and crocheted collars and lace-up boots. I later found out the name was commonly used in the German farming community as a form of respect.

My grandmother, her daughter, bought shoes of every color and style to show off her slender legs and ankles. We all called her Imelda, especially when we were packing up her pumps and heels in every style and color. Vanity was something she never surrendered during her ninety-plus years.

My mother should wear Mary Janes or tennis shoes that she can count on as she pushes her walker. But she’s not satisfied with these when I visit. Lately she’s insisted on getting exact copies, in style and color, of whatever shoe I’m wearing. Tan sandals with ankle straps, red slip-on wedges. Without the support at her arches, they fall…or she does, which might mean the dreaded breaking of a hip and all that entails at her stage of the game.

I’m torn between practicality and pampering as I think of savoring the time we have together.  So maybe during this visit I’ll wear straps and laces, red, purple, or pale, pale yellow. And maybe we’ll take a long, slow jaunt to her favorite shoe store and look for some turquoise.

Finding Carrots, Finding Hope

It’s officially Autumn. The slanted light cuts through the sky to wash the world in gold. This year, more than many others, I’m remembering to stop and notice. It’s easy for mind to get tangled in the muck of the newsfeed . Sometimes it takes all I have to remember what’s right in front of me. But the other day I stood as a friend dug up root vegetables from the soil, where they were growing tucked into the dark.

I decided to stay focused on what’s in front of me (as opposed to the stories in my head: the latest tweet or outrageousness to emerge from the news). At first look, the clump of dry brown dirt was kind of ugly, just like so many of my stressful beliefs about how things aren’t right. But (I reminded myself) my job was to watch. And it seemed like these particular carrots gradually appeared to remind me of something important. Of hope.  I wrote this right afterwards:

Finding Carrots

It doesn’t take a lot of watching for the beautiful, gnarled, brilliance of carrot to Become.

What happens below the soil line in the depths of the darkness is an alchemy that we come to trust.

When the swollen roots are unearthed, sheathed in dirt still, even then the miracle of beauty remains hidden.

In a handful of dirt and a few undefined rheumatoid clumps.

But beneath that ugly surface there they are:  waiting safely until the time is right,

until the right hand comes along that will carry them to light, to water, who will dice through their tender hearts and reveal

the glowing fuse at the miraculous center of life.

That Tall Distance Between Something and Nothing

Here on the planet floor, all the particular somethings of an autumn morning beckon me to stay here, now:
chipmunk balancing on snowberry bush, fawn tiptoeing through the green ferns, even a prayer of a very specific bird in flight.
Mind catalogues the beauty, the metaphors.

And how high would I need to rise to find the answer to the riddle of grave importance:
Where does something stop and nothing begin?
Above the clouds, I think.
Above the thoughts of species or meaning, I think.
Or don’t think.
Because now that I’m at this rarefied altitude maybe thought will fall away. So what of it?
Without thought, in this tall distance, I approach the intersection of Something and Nothing.

Here, without context, is the true Final Frontier.
I move in the spaciousness of Nothing.
Of not knowing, not imagining a future or a memory of past.
I float lightly in the freedom of space. Not just above but below, around this moment and leading to the farthest stars.

This is the Tall Distance I’m not thinking about now.
Very high. Fat. Open horizon.
Where nothing is no longer ignored but embraced.
In an opening this large
Anything is born of absolute and sacred freedom.

Remedy for Lost Souls (Labor Day, 2016)

What if you couldn’t lose your soul?
What if your soul just sometimes lost you?
What if it just couldn’t compete
With the list of what must be done,
Couldn’t be heard
Over the light speed whizzing of freeways,
The invisible waves of information,
Of entertainment and stimulation
Couldn’t find you, caught as you were
In the death squeeze of entrainment.
What if it’s looking for you right now,
Your soul that is. How would it catch your attention?
Could be a TV commercial or Google Ad would work.
It would have to catch you in the right place, at the right time.

How about making it easier on your poor soul?
Just. Stop.
Spend a day, an afternoon, an hour under  a tree. Any tree.
Take nothing but a blanket.
Gaze at the limbs, the teasing blue in the space between branches.
Move in or out of the shade, as needed.
Sigh once. Sigh twice.
Stare at a leaf.
Watch for chipmunks stuffing their cheeks.
Like a bird watcher, quietly wait for a sign.
Silvering light on an aspen leaf will do,
Purple clover or hairy yellow bumblebee.
A patchwork of green and light on the ground around you.
Hear the soft murmuring in the trembling leaves.

Now listen for the sound of your breath fully released,
Catching in the throat at your own shuddering surrender
Remnant of a sob.
The elusive soul’s welcome home.