Freestanding and In Charge — Or Not

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” – Ernest Hemingway

I often think of myself as freestanding and in charge – only to repeatedly learn I’m not. I say that even as I know my best decisions, like the ones to have my beautiful children as a single person, came from a calling that was far beyond me. I read an amazing piece on that subject this week from Mark Nepo that I am posting here in case anyone else needs to hear the same thing.

Teachers Are Everywhere

Teachers arise from somewhere within me that is beyond me, the way the dark soil that is not the root holds the root and feeds the flower.

So often we think of ourselves as freestanding and in charge, because we have the simple blessing of being able to go where we want. But we are as rooted as shrubs and trees and flowers, in an unseeable soil that is everywhere. It’s just that our roots move.

Certainly, we make our own decisions, dozens every day, but we are nourished in those decisions by the very ground we walk, by the quiet teachers we encounter everywhere. Yes, in our pride and confusion, in our self-centeredness and fear, we often miss the teachers and feel burdened and alone.

In trying to hear those quiet teachers, I am reminded of the great poet Stanley Kunitz, who as a young man struggling darkly with how to proceed with his life, heard geese cross a night sky and somehow he knew what he had to do. Or how a man I know was slowly extinguishing himself, sorely depressed, when, finally exhausted of his endless considerations, he heard small birds in snow in unexpected song. He realized he was a musician who needed to find and learn the instrument he was supposed to play.

From the logic of being freestanding and in charge, experiences of this sort seem crazy-making and untrustworthy. But the soil of life in which we grow speaks a different language than we are taught in school. In actuality, truth and love and the spirit of eternity are rarely foreseeable, and clarity of being seldom comes through words.

In my brief time on Earth, I have felt the light of ageless spirit fill me unexpectedly when I thought I would die, and as water pumps its way up a slim root making that plant leaf out toward the light, I have found myself, against all fear and will, flushed with possibility in the direction of dreams I had hardly imagined.

Whether through birds in snow, or geese honking in the dark, the brilliant wet leaf that hits your face the moment you are questioning your worth, the quiet teachers are everywhere. When we think we are in charge, their lessons dissolve as accidents or coincidence. But when brave enough to listen, the glass that breaks across the room is offering us direction that can only be heard in the roots of how we feel and think.

The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo

The Four Habits of Happiness

It all comes to this: the simplest way to be happy is to do good.” – Helen Keller

I was listening to a 10 Percent Happier podcast that featured Arthur Brooks. A professor and social scientist, Arthur Brooks has recently published a book called From Strength to Strength: Finding Success Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life. He named a list from research of the 4 most important habits of happiest people:

  • Faith
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Work that serves others

But it made me wonder if everyone can fulfill that formula? First of all, faith means so many different things to different people. But perhaps it’s the trust in one of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes (which as Dr. Stein pointed out seems to build off Kierkegaard’s famous quote about living life forwards):

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Steve Jobs

But going down Brooks’ list, what about people who don’t have a lot of agency in their work? I recently heard an example of a hospital janitor. Instead of feeling like he didn’t have purpose in his work as he cleaned up vomit in the oncology ward, he’d framed it as an opportunity to make people feel a little bit better on what might be a low point in their lives.

And this made me think of my life. One of my least favorite activities about parenting is cleaning up spills. On a weekday when we are at work/school/daycare, it’s not so bad, but on any given weekend day, I clean up (or help my kids cleanup up) 6-10 spills a day. It feels like a waste of time to me, like I could be spending more time laughing and playing with my kids if we didn’t have spills.

But of course, despite my best precautions – kids, especially at age 3-years-old and age 7-years-old have accidents. They splash water out of the sink, they tip over the reservoir of paper they were using for a project, paint brushes fly out of little hands, and so on.

Reframing it, I see that I am not cleaning up spills. I’m teaching my kids how to react when things don’t go right. I’m helping them learn to pick up the pieces and continue when we have lost our mojo. And most importantly, I’m building up their belief that they can do it, even when it isn’t fun.

This big picture sentiment when it comes to caretaking is echoed by research professor Dr. Alison Gopnik “Taking care of children, like taking care of elders is frustrating, is tedious, and it’s difficult in all sorts of ways but it is also deep and profound and an important part of what makes us human.

In this way, maybe it is not only work that serves others but also quite possibly a habit of happiness.

What do you think about the four habits of happiness? Is there anything you do regularly that you’ve reframed as work to serve others?

(featured photo from Pexels)

The Big Questions

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.” – Rainier Maria Rilke

I have a friend who is going through a hard break-up. Sitting with my friend as they process makes me think of all the questions I’ve wanted to know when going through hard times: When will I feel better?How will I survive this? What meaning is going to come from this? What is my purpose here?

Wanting the answer to big questions is the topic of my post for Pointless Overthinking this week: Waiting for the Big Answers.

(featured photo from Pexels)

Win as a Team, Lose as a Team

When the water in the harbor goes up, all the boats rise.” – Chinese Proverb

The other day as we were driving home from the camp Miss O is doing this week, she grumbled, “It’s not fair that we lose as a team.” She explained further that the camp motto is we win as a team and lose as a team.  Earlier that day some people on her team had not been listening to their counselor so the whole team had to sit out for three minutes.

I’ve been volunteering at this camp every afternoon this week so I’ve had a chance to observe some of the brilliant team building activities the campers have been doing. In one, they needed to traverse a course set up with strings that have bells attached. Then can go over the strings or under the strings but if a bell rings, they become “blind” and have to ask for help from someone who is doing the course but not blind to lead them to home base where their sight is restored. Then they start the course again.

Once someone gets to the end of the course, there is a bowl that they need to deliver back to home base. Except the person carrying the bowl can only hold it for 5 seconds and they can’t move their feet while holding the bowl. If they hold it too long or move the feet, the bowl goes back to the beginning and they start again.

Watching these 6-8 year olds, it was fascinating to see how they managed these tasks. First, they all seemed pretty willing to help their teammates when they were blind, even if it meant having to start over themselves.

For the bowl passing part, they clearly needed to create a bucket brigade but were too excited by the instructor counting down the seconds they could hold it, “5 – 4 – 3” that they had trouble organizing themselves. They rarely held it more than 3 seconds and everyone crowded around the bowl instead of stringing themselves down the line so that they could be passed to.

The bowl went back several times, usually because someone moved their feet while holding the bowl, once when they were just feet away from the goal  – but they stuck with it and eventually got it done. They won as a team.

But do we, in the bigger picture, also lose as a team? Climate change, poverty, drinking water for all, public health – it appears we are all affected by these issues, some more and some less. And yet we forget that we have to work together to solve these big problems. Perhaps we all need to go back to camp.

What do you think? Is it fair that we lose together? Are we remembering to celebrate our wins together?

Wired to Yearn

One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art in conducting oneself in lower regions by memory of what one has seen higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.” – Rene Daumal

U2 released the song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For in 1987 just as I was graduating from high school. The song filled me with a longing that seemed perfectly appropriate for a young woman in the summer before she headed off to college.

In this summer 35 years later, I’ve heard the song probably as many times in close repetition as I did in 1987 because my kids are crazy about the movie Sing 2 in which I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For figures prominently.

And the song hits me just as deeply, filling me with yearning. Which might be chalked up to nostalgia for those carefree days of youth. But it also strikes me that our capacity to yearn is also something that is uniquely human. Our thirst for depth, purpose and God surfaces in some sort of repetition as we traverse our days, and it drives us to look for more or dares us to try to dismiss it.

I have climbed highest mountain
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
No I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2

The poetry of the first verse reminds me that I have experienced much that my young self never saw coming including climbing to the tops of mountains. And indeed, I started climbing because of that deep yearning inside, a God whisper that I told me I needed to look.

When I first heard the song, I thought I would have it all figured out by the time I was 53 years old. Heck, I thought I would have it all figured out by 23. My young idealism and optimism would never have predicted that yearning can last a lifetime through the highs when I’ve wondered, “Is this all?” and the lows when I’ve groveled, “Please let there be more.”

In the moments when I experience the Oneness of all, the yearning quiets. And then the next moment I stub my toe or spill the milk and the desire to restore that unity returns with vigor. I’ve found much of my purpose in the busy and joyful days full with my two precious children and still want more. I get up early in order to find the stillness in which I can hear. I stop the car at the top of the hill to take a picture because the sky speaks to me. I write in order to keep pulling and finding the thread of awe, wonder and Divinity.

All this leaves me saying to my 18-year-old self, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” but I have figured out that I’m not meant to because the yearning itself has meaning. I have moments of enlightenment and feel peace. I hear echoes of Universal truth and I know it’s real. Now I know it’ll keep opening my eyes to look for Divine beauty all the way til the very end.

(He will lift you higher and higher)
(He’ll pick you up when you fall) I believe
(He’ll be your shelter from the storm)
I believe in a kingdom come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by songwriters: Clayton Adam, Evans David, Mullen Laurence, Hewson Paul David

(featured photo is sunrise on Mt. Adams)

Are you a U2 fan or have you seen the movie Sing 2? Have you found what you are looking for?

Miracle or Coincidence?

There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” – Albert Einstein

When a friend turned 60 recently, I tried to think of 60 things I could give her that would be relevant, useful and fun. She really didn’t need anything so I created her a little tree with 60 of my favorite quotes.

During the unveiling, my friend and I were looking through the little quotes, taking them down, reading them and then reclipping them. We were rotating the tree so it wasn’t clear which ones we’d already tried and we kept on grabbing one quote, the quote for this post, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” – Albert Einstein

And then just as I was writing a piece about the quote for the Pointless Overthinking blog, Eddie Two Hawks posted that exact quote yesterday.

Coincidence? Or a miracle? It feels as if we are collectively in need of a miracle. Whatever the shade of our belief in God, the Creator, the Universe, optimism, or goodness, we can do the work to develop eyes that see.

I’m better at spotting miracles in the small circumstances of my life but I believe they apply to the bigger view of our world as well. The key is practicing seeing the world that way. Here’s my post about Creating Eyes That See at Pointless Overthinking.

Certitude

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” – Steve Jobs

You know that feeling when you start to wobble? It could be riding a bike or stand up paddleboarding or going down the stairs too fast with your hands full but there’s a moment when it all starts vibrating and you think, “Oh no, I’m going to fall!” but you haven’t fallen yet. That’s how my family feels right now.

It started with my two-year-old’s root canal – his fever spiked, the dentist worked on the tooth and then put him on antibiotics. Just as that pain was starting to heal, my 6-year-old daughter came down with a head cold. Right as she started to kick that, my son’s fever spiked again so it was back to the dentist who finished working on the tooth and continued the antibiotics. Then his body signaled it was done with antibiotics by breaking out in a rash all over his body. Right as that began to clear, I caught my daughter’s head cold.

It was hard to put my finger on why all this feels difficult. It’s more than the aches and pains, although they aren’t very fun and different than the fear that I won’t be able to get my work done.

But I put a name to what I was grappling with when I listened again to an Unlocking Us podcast where Brené Brown talked with Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and prolific author. CERTITUDE

“People who’ve had any genuine spiritual experience, always know that they don’t know. They are utterly humbled before mystery, they are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a love which is incomprehensible to the mind.”

Our ancestors were more easily able to hold on to mystery in general and God in particular. Whereas we worship workability, predictability and answers. We like answers! It’s not good to think that way. It takes away a natural humility.

We created an artificial world in which we create circumstances in which WE KNOW.

You have to get away from Western over-developed countries to meet a different kind of human being who isn’t that way. Who don’t think they have a right to certitude.

Father Richard Rohr

Uncertainty is a great word to describe what I’ve been feeling as my family wobbles. I lose my ability to predict what the next day is going to look like, more or less, and I feel a little bereft without that. I start casting about trying to think of when this is end so I can get back to knowing.

And then I think of one of my favorite quotes from Mark Nepo, “When we stop struggling we float.”  I imagine just leaning back into this time of uncertainty, having faith that a dots will connect as Steve Jobs says in the quote for this post.

When life roughs me up I often find that it gives me a little bit of texture to hang out to. Almost as if when things are going too smoothly, time glides too easily through my fingers and I “routine” my life away. Difficulty keeps us close for a moment and life becomes more of an adventure.

There was a COVID case in my son’s classroom last week. Will his COVID test come back negative this morning so that he can go to school and I can go to my 11:30 meeting? It’s a mystery – and I’m so grateful I woke up this morning so that I will be able to solve it and go on to the next.

(featured photo from Pexels)

When the Clouds Roll In

One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art in conducting oneself in lower regions by memory of what one has seen higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.” – Rene Daumal

Twenty-three years ago when I was practicing to get ready for a five-day expedition on Mt. Rainier, my friend Jill and I went up to the mountain to do a day climb up to Camp Muir at 10,200 feet. It’s is a non-technical climb of almost 5,000 vertical feet starting on trails and then trudging up the Muir snowfield which is snowy but not glaciated. On that June morning it was a lovely 4-5 hour hike up with views of the mountain and surrounding peaks to the south. It was early enough in the season that there were a few people on the route but it was comparatively quiet to the really busy high summer season.

When we got to Camp Muir, we sat on a rock outcropping and were eating our sandwiches when we saw the clouds coming in. They started from below and then just rolled up the mountain, thick and gray. Jill had summitted Mt. Rainier the year before, I had attempted it but not summitted so even though we didn’t have a lot of experience, we had heard warnings of how conditions on the mountain could change quickly with dire consequences.

Jill and I started hiking down and very soon were enveloped in the clouds. It was so thick, we couldn’t see the route. If you hike straight down from Camp Muir, you end up off the snowfield and in dangerous glacier territory strewn with crevasses. So Jill and I searched for the wands left by the guiding service. We couldn’t see from one wand to the next one about 150 yards away so we developed a strategy. We’d hike down about 50 yards from one wand until we could just barely see it and I’d stay there while she went down about 50 yards until she could see the next one and then I’d join her and we’d walk together to the next wand. It took us several hours to get down but eventually we reached the paths and got safely to the parking lot.

This hike makes me think of what we do when the clouds roll in. When we can’t see the horizon or any way points and everything looks white, grey or something in between. Do we look for the Divine waypoints marking the route? Do we ask our friends, therapists or other professionals to help us navigate safely through? Or do we keep walking in hope that motion will carry us down?

I think there as many answers to these questions are there are Wisdom traditions and personality types. But life has taught me that there are markers out there, just like the wands in the snowfield, if we bother to look.

The older I get the more I find it easier to stop and ask for Divine guidance. And when I have trouble discerning that, to seek out help from my friends. Whether it’s my ability to be vulnerable, imperfect or just because I know more quickly that I’ve lost perspective, I’m quicker to seek safety. When I’m having trouble finding my way, I have found that talking or writing about it helps me immensely.

The reason I remember this particular hike so well was the day after we returned the news reported that a 27-year-old doctor that had just moved from Georgia for a resident program in Seattle was missing after snowboarding on Mt. Rainier the same day we were climbing. The park rangers were out searching for him but in the days and week to follow there was no luck finding any sign of him.

Then the epilogue to the snowboarder story came for me about 3 years after that climb. The “nice guy” (from The Deep Story post) I dated told me that he had been hiking on Mt. Rainier the summer before with a friend and had gotten lost in the clouds. Knowing they were in dangerous territory, he set up camp and they waited out the night. The next morning rangers found them right on the edge of the Nisqually Glacier. And right around the corner, under a waterfall, was the body of the missing snowboarder who hadn’t been discovered for 2 years.  

While I drew parallels between my hike and life experience in this post, I don’t mean to infer any parallels or judgment on that snowboarder, a promising young man tragically lost too early.

(featured photo is of me and my parents at Camp Muir that same summer)

Spiritual Leaders

Gaining knowledge is the first step to wisdom. Sharing it, is the first step to humanity.” – unknown

Several years ago I had a friend who was struggling to keep his marriage together after it was revealed that his wife was having a long-term affair. From time to time he’d recount some of the help and advice they were getting as they tried to heal – from therapists, friends and books. One of the most insightful pieces of advice he got was from his pastor who sagely counseled, “You are going to have to say ‘good-bye’ to that marriage. If you two are going to go forward, you will have to build a new marriage together.”

It takes a special role to be able to drop truth bombs and still be heard. Friends might be able to do it, but often have a vested interest in offering up advice. More often than not, they offer idiot compassion as therapist and author Lori Gottlieb calls it. “Idiot compassion is where you want to make somebody feel better, and so you don’t necessarily tell them the truth. And wise compassion is where you really hold up the mirror to them in a compassionate way, but you also deliver a very important truth bomb.”

Therapists can deliver truth bombs but I think we often forget that our spiritual leaders have that capacity too. Given that church affiliation in the US has dropped below 50% for the first time ever, I wonder if we are losing touch with a unique group of people who want to help and also celebrate with us.

Twelve years ago when I was in crisis going through a divorce, I was lucky enough to find my way to a meditation teacher that helped guide me into that practice that has changed my life in many ways. And often when I have a spiritual question or even a lapse in understanding, I will go to my meditation teacher.

I also have the added benefit of relationships with a number of pastors since my dad was in the profession. They teach me again and again that our spiritual leaders whether they be pastors, rabbis or yogis have deep wisdom and history to access whether or not you agree with every bullet point of their theology.

When I asked my dad about that job/role/life calling as a Presbyterian pastor in the years before he died he said,

“I never would have imagined, at 20 years old when I finally made the decision to go in to ministry, I never would have thought that this is what my life would be like. I am so grateful to God for what that has meant, the number of lives that I’ve been able to be a part of. One of the unique things about ministry is that you are able to be with people in some of the most precious, important, holy moments of their life . . . birth, death, baptism, marriage, funeral, crisis. A pastor steps in to the middle of someone’s life at those unique times and that is pretty rare.”

So on this day that is Good Friday for Christians and the start of Passover for Jews, I dedicate the post to all our spiritual leaders that are willing to help us through the important moments of our lives. May we all find ways to support and honor them.

(featured photo is one of my favorite pictures of my dad)

Sunday Funnies: March 27

Another installment from my dad’s humor cards.

The backstory: My dad was a Presbyterian pastor for 40 years. He kept a well curated stack of humor cards – little stories or observations that he typed onto 5×7 cards. Then he wrote in the margins when he used that particular item. His humor was often an easy way to settle in to something deeper – by laughing and thinking about the buried truth in these little nuggets, it paved the way to an open heart.

When we cleaned out his desk after he died 7 years ago, I was lucky enough to stumble on this stack. I pull it out regularly to have a little laugh with my dear Dad. Now when I post one of them, I write my note next to his and it feels like a continuation.

Potty Talk

A woman in England runs out of petrol. She can’t find anything to carry gas in – until she spies her child’s portable potty. She walks 3 km, gets the gas and returns to the car. She is pouring it from the potty into the tank when a Cadillac pulls up beside her.

The window rolls down to reveal 4 men from Saudi Arabia looking at her with astonishment. They finally say, “Maam, we don’t share your religion, but we want you to know we admire your faith.”