Everyday for 7 Years

Again and again, rain or shine, through ice or humidity! JebTheDog has faithfully taken me for a walk virtually every afternoon since 2011 along Minnehaha Creek. Nothing I post on Facebook is as popular as photos from these outings. Friends consistently remark about how they look forward to seeing the latest in the “creek series”.

At first, the walks were a duty I accepted as part of dog “ownership.” Self-interest motivated me during bleak February freezes — why else would I get out for a 30 minute walk in the depths of Minnesota winter? …it was good for me! Hassles were not limited to obligation or inclement weather. In 2017 I tumbled over a granite boulder on an idyllic summer afternoon. Surgery, screws, plates and physical therapy over a couple months were required to return my left wrist back to normal.

What happens when we do the same ritual time and time again over a considerable period of time? I now annually await the bluebells on the north slope. These are followed by an explosion of violets. Unintentional comparison of water levels are noted from year to year. JebTheDog remembers where to look for the snapping turtle each June in case I forget. Worried curiosity wonders what’s happened to the coy white squirrel. The rotting stump of a ginormous willows plucks a cord of grief, followed by grateful memories for what remains and for all that has been.

Beyond the uniqueness of each day and incidental occurrences, something cumulative and and rhythmic takes hold. Shifts in motivation creep in over time. Obligation morphs into anticipation. Laughing water reliably softens a knot of worry. Trees become faithful sentinels. Field mice consistently entertain and confound Jeb. The migration of mallards and the cyclic flow of seasons nudge us to notice patterns in our lives.

After seven years, the creek no longer presents itself as a destination. Rather it has become an extension of home, a harbinger of relationship, a sanctuary of wisdom, a grounding in matter — and in what matters. The Shakers had it right:

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
It will be in the valley of love and delight

Seven years of mentoring by my faithful companion, JebTheDog, casts a gentle glow on my 68 years of “occupancy” on this planet. I recognize how so many years and relationships have been characterized by action/reaction, effecting change, leading the charge, not simply being driven but being the driver. Perhaps a certain intensity needs to characterize seasons or transitory roles in our lives — they too can reveal the bulwark of a life well-lived. Yet, these can too easily come to dominate. In dire cases we accept them as our destiny — such is the death rattle of stifling monotony!

The demise of leonine willows, the laughter of rollicking water, the tenderizing cycle of seasons unmask my patterns of foolishness. A smile begins to replenish worry lines framing my eyes. With a spiritual master extraordinaire leading my way, doing the same thing everyday for seven years nudges me to awaken, let be, listen, allow and behold — recognizing we are in the place just right and precisely where we ought to be.

I’ll be glad for another seven years of dog-duty!

___________________

The familiar Shaker quote is from “Simple Gifts”, composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett.

I am indebted to Martin Laird, O.S.A.; An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation; Oxford University Press, 2019 for the distinction between reactive and receptive mind as well as the perfectly prescriptive words: let be, listen, allow and behold (p. 94).

Transformed by Emptiness

It’s important for us to learn that imperfection is our natural state. For if we don’t, we will forever seek to fill the emptiness that cannot be filled with all manner of things, and mistakenly assume that we’re supposed to do something to change it. But what this emptiness calls for is acceptance and gentle perseverance with the lives we’ve been given. With acceptance comes peace and greater capacity to love.
+ Maryann Edgar Budde

We may not like it, but Lent is that necessary season for us to get in touch with our emptiness, fallibility and finitude. Sound too pessimistic or depressing for our feel-good culture? Well, perhaps it does — unless we grasp the great human paradox of death/resurrection. That’s the invitation!

As St Francis of Assisi — certainly the most popular Christian saint of all time — said so eloquently: “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Francis was not just referring to our ultimate end-of-life demise. He was speaking about the seemingly infinite opportunities and requirement to “die to self” that consistently come our way.

Our friend, the current Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington DC, expresses this invitation so well in the quote above. We got to know Maryann when she was the rector of St. John’s Church in Minneapolis. Today I can do no better than to recommend her reflection [here] for your prayerful consideration.

Live the Life You’re Given, Not the One You’re Not

Laparoscopic surgery ranks right up there with GPS as a marvel of modern life. Just had the procedure a couple of weeks ago for a hernia. But as marvelous as it is, I’m learning it provides no miraculous return to “as good as new.” There are some things — like a bit of arthritis in my hip — that are a function of age and will not change.

What are we to do? Well, within the range of options I’ve chosen to smile. Yes, smile! Seems like a new companion has arrived to stay so the best thing to do is to become friends. The temptation to complain and play the “poor me” card surely pops up. I’m skilled at playing the sympathy card!

But as my parents, and other elders deserving of emulation have taught, we really are about as happy as we choose to be. Somehow they smiled, spoke mostly of what is good and praiseworthy, cultivated gratitude. Their sage advice might be: Smile anyway! Live the life you are given, not the one you’re not!

Are episodic hurdles like hernia repairs and chronic conditions like arthritic hips misfortunes, a tragedy of our inevitable diminishment? Or, can we smile? Can we befriend these physical inconveniences as the companions they are, even befriend them? Can we receive them — even invite them — as reminders and bearers of true wisdom?

Just wondering… do we fear death to the degree we fear living, really loving, being truly alive, fully human? In the much loved Canticle of the Sun Francis of Assisi speak of “sister death.” It is said the last words he spoke were: “Welcome, sister death!” What’s that all about?

Yesterday, returning about twenty freshly washed plates from Thanksgiving dinner to a shelf over my head I wondered, “Should I be doing this?” A cautious fear of falling accompanied my navigating an icy driveway. Can such new-found cautiousness lead to an ever greater curiosity rather than some debilitating concern with diminishment?

Yes, we are about as happy as we choose to be. As my parents used to say, “life is pretty much what you make of it!” I first remember them saying that when I was a disgruntled adolescent. Now at 65, a renewed curiosity about what they were trying to pass on accompanies me.

I wonder… is our fear of death commensurate with our fear of living, really living life as it comes to us, not as we wish it to be? Are we free to really, fully live only to the degree we embrace our finitude, our finality? What is the wisdom of true elders?

More and more, I’m curious about whatever comes to us as a function of age with enduring truths that will not change.

Thanks for Everything, Even Death

Ending! So many endings! The end of the year is fast approaching. My scooter went into storage a few weeks ago. The patio furniture has been returned to the garage rafters. Trees are barren now. Even our Thanksgiving gatherings are primarily focused on gratitude for what has been.

Brittle brown stubble, a bit frost touched, marks once lush pastures at Wellsprings Farm. Sunset encroached on my days at the hermitage while dawn’s laboring toyed with my eager, expectant eyes. Ice settled the lake’s surface to a silent sheen, a blanket of white crystals acccenting nature’s somnolence.

Call it culmination, fruition, fulfillment, ending, whatever! There is a certain finality built into all things. Ultimately, we all die. Once death leered on the horizon, frightening, tragic, to be fought and denied, or simply ignored. Eventually, a certain silence dawns. Our eyes eagerly pierce and parse its darkness.

An enduring gift of these recent hermitage days echoes still, blanketing my anxious questioning, casting light beyond my fears. The gift? A poem by Michael Dowd:

Without the death of stars, there would be no planets and no life.
Without the death of creatures, there would be no evolution.

Without the death of elders, there would be no room for children.
Without the death of fetal cells, we would all be spheres.

Without the death of neurons, wisdom and creativity would not blossom.
Without the death of cells in woody plants, there would be no trees.

Without the death of forests by Ice Age advance, there would be no northern lakes.
Without the death of mountains, there would be no sand or soil.

Without the death of plants and animals, there would be no food.
Without the death of old ways of thinking, there would be no room for the new.

Without death there would be no ancestors.
Without death, time would not be precious.

What, then, are the gifts of death?

The gifts of death are Mars and Mercury, Saturn and Earth.
The gifts of death are the stardust within our bodies.

The gifts of death are the splendors of shape and form and color.
The gifts of death are diversity, the immense journey of life.

The gifts of death are woodlands and soils, ponds and lakes.
The gifts of death are food: the sustenance of life.

The gifts of death are seeing, hearing, feeling — deeply feeling.
The gifts of death are wisdom, creativity, and the flow of cultural change.

The gifts of death are the urgency to act, the desire to fully be and become.
The gifts of death are joy and sorrow, laughter and tears.

The gifts of death are lives that are fully and exuberantly lived, and then
graciously and gratefully given up, for now and forevermore. Amen.

Yes, for all that was we give thanks. For all that is and will be we give thanks. For all endings, even death, we give thanks to the One in Whom we all finally abide.

_________________
“The Gifts of Death” by Michael Dowd taken from Evidential Mysticism and the Future of Earth, Evidence: Oneings, A Publication of the Center for Action and Contemplation, vol. 2, #2; 2014, pp. 22-23.

November’s Singuilar Brilliance

The Burr Oaks are bare now. A solitary hackberry, much like a petulant younger sibling, vies for our attention from the kitchen window. It is no match for the sentinel oaks’ black knurled limbs cutting sharp furrows across November’s grisaille sky. Long winter looms though our larder is full.

Life is no less rich but registers differently, satisfactions more somnolent, gratitude more easily recognized as gratuitous. Example? On Wednesday we celebrated a dinner marking a young friend’s birthday. Five of us filled the table: our host, the 23 y/o honoree, her boyfriend, my husband and me.

Now well into our maturity we reveled in Grace’s vitality, potential and dreams. Yet, they are not ours. We vicariously share her eager enthusiasm for all that will open before her and everything which awaits her savoring and creativity.  Still, we will never witness Grace in her full stature as the woman of consequence she will certainly become.

When fickle November sun, filtered by the looming oak, pierces our kitchen window we feel only its light — bright, blinding luminance. Summer’s radiant warmth is now gone. We grow content with singular brilliance penetrating our shuttered eyes. Like barren branches that have yielded their fruit, color and sheltering foliage we stand exposed without shame, in our nakedness.

No longer do we ask Grace’s question: “Where am I called to go?” Rather, in full stature of our knurled maturity, our question becomes: “Where am I called to let go?”

With the brilliance only November yields, we take stock of an abundant harvest. All that remains is gratitude for everything that has been given. Yes, everything!

Unrelentingly True to Life

2015 will be remembered for its unrelenting display of October splendor, truly spectacular! Bright blue skies consistently frame brilliant yellows and blazing red landscapes. This morning softens the exuberance with an array of gray which Hopkins so aptly dubs “all a world of wet.”

Yes, October is the most honest month, the one most true to life. We are given the opportunity to rehearse and prepare for what lies ahead with vigor, gratitude and prudence — the wisdom garnered from all that’s gone before.

Our annual harvest is not limited to earth’s bounty. We are nudged by this seasonal reminder to embrace the fullness of our nature. A poem recently discovered expresses why October has become my favorite time of year…

If we could,
like the trees,
practice dying,
do it every year
just as something we do—
like going on vacation
or celebrating birthdays,
it would become
as easy a part of us
as our hair or clothing.

Someone would show us how
to lie down and fade away
as if in deepest meditation,
and we would learn
about the fine dark emptiness,
both knowing it and not knowing it,
and coming back would be irrelevant.

Whatever it is the trees know
when they stand undone,
surprisingly intricate,
we need to know also
so we can allow
that last thing
to happen to us
as if it were only
any ordinary thing,

leaves and lives
falling away,
the spirit, complex,
waiting in the fine darkness
to learn which way
it will go.

___________________
“Learning from Trees” by Grace Butcher. Text as published in Child, House, World (Hiram Poetry Review Supplement No. 12, Hiram College, 1991). I am grateful to Parker Palmer for introducing me to this poem.

October’s Honesty

My sister Claudia hates autumn. “Everything is dying, coming to an end.” Me? October is my favorite month of the year! Yes, it can be fickle. Sometimes it even disappoints by failing to deliver. This year, however, it has been spectacular!

Of course, October marks a season of diminishment , a time of dying. Morning walks with Jeb the Dog are now begun in darkness. Though we have not yet had what our Dad would have called a “killing frost”, it is past-time to retrieve sweaters from the cedar chest.

But the blue of an October sky is never more crisp. Yesterday, foliage along the Mississippi demanded an audible gasp. Is there anything more whimsical than the varieties of squash awaiting us at the market? And, the air… a fire-tower sentinel along Lake Superior is likely to see all the way to the Alleghenies.

Still, Claudia is not alone.  Perhaps she represents the majority.  At 65 — certainly the autumn of my years — the sufficiency of harvest is now tempered by the harsh necessity of winnowing.

Parker Palmer, an iconic elder for my generation, also laments the way “summer’s abundance decays toward winter’s death.” He confesses to being “drawn down by the prospect of death more than [being] lifted by the hope of new life.”

Palmer asks, “Faced with this inevitable winter, what does nature do in autumn? She scatters the seeds that will bring new growth in the spring—and she scatters them with amazing abandon.”

Yet, the recognition that I will not live to see to maturity the oak I planted last Spring sends an autumnal chill through my bones. Recognizing the same chill, Palmer admits he is rarely aware that seeds are being planted.

The courageous elder that he is, Palmer explores autumn’s paradox of dying and seeding, and discovers a deep reservoir of hope and purpose. We easily fixate on surface appearances—on decline, decay, finally death.  Mature reflection throughout his 76 years moves Palmer to assert, “On the surface it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown.”

He poses the inevitable, urgent question: “How shall we understand autumn’s testimony that death and elegance go hand in hand?” With the compassion, wisdom and clarity garnered only by a true elder, Palmer offers more than an answer. He frames the truth of our lives:

In a paradox, opposites do not negate each other—they cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. Deeper still, they need each other for health, as my body needs to breathe in as well as breathe out. But in a culture that prefers the ease of either-or thinking to the complexities of paradox, we have a hard time holding opposites together. We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter… But if we allow the paradox of darkness and light to be, the two will conspire to bring wholeness and health to every living thing.

Yes, October is the most spectacular of months. Fickle, but full of promise.  No other month is as honest in its portrayal of life.  As foliage falls a penetrating vision reveals the truth of what lies ahead.
____________________
I encourage you to read Parker Palmer’s fuller reflection which inspired me.  They may be found of the Fetzer Institute website [here].

Sufficient to Our Need, Despite Ourselves

It just feels relentless. Maybe this is simply what its like to be in your mid-sixties — at that ripe time in life where really painful stuff happens with regularity. Here are three current examples, all involving dear friends still in their fifties…

  • Divorce proceedings linger after nearly two years for a friend whose husband announced he hadn’t loved her since 1984!
  • The youth director at our local church returned early from leading a service trip in Guatemala after experiencing two minor heart attacks.
  • A mother of teenage daughters installs railings throughout her home and keeps a cain near at hand as an auto-immune disease steals her physical mobility.

Turning away with a smug gratitude for one’s own good fortune is not an option. With family, friends, neighbors we are bound in relationship. At times it is a painful “binding” for any with a heart that cares.

We can plant seeds in the young that we hope will bear fruit decades from now. Transformational encounters like “Outward Bound” can take our youth beyond self-imposed limits of endurance. We can wax eloquently about every athlete’s career ending in defeat — unless you are among the very few lucky enough to be on a league championship team during your final year of competition. But we just plant seeds. The harvest comes only when we are tugged kicking into our elder years.

All spirituality worth anything will nudge, coerce, entice us to embrace this confounding mystery. Mainline Christian churches too often ignore if not insulate us from pain, loss, suffering. More concerned with filling pews and feel-good sermons, too many of our faith communities have bought into the soft pastels and warm fuzzies of Easter and effectively ignore Good Friday. Too many seek a superficial solace in Sunday communion, forgetting that Christians gather for the breaking of the bread — offering stone, not bread.

Maybe because it is not my tradition, Native American spirituality has much to offer. Limited exposure to Lakota rituals such as the sweat lodge, vision quest and sun dance assures me that every human heart is indelibly imprinted with a greater wisdom. Tugged, pushed, coerced beyond our puny selves and self-referential egos, we are “birthed” kicking and screaming into a life beyond our imagining.

Like it our not — and if it’s the real deal, we won’t “like it” — every spiritual tradition worth our consideration will ultimately provoke a crisis in us. That’s not all it should do, but it is futile to expect a shortcut and foolish to short-circuit it. What good is a spirituality if it stands powerless to offer wisdom and counsel amid an onslaught of human suffering and inexplicable loss? Like the temptations Jesus endured in the desert, we too are called to reject the allure of idols.

Andre Louf (1929-2010), abbot of the Trappist monastery of Mont-des-Cats in the north of France expressed our condition in an especially poignant manner.  He counsels, it is the “holy ruse of God” to allure us through poverty, weakness, radical powerlessness and evident uselessness beyond anything we could imagine or suppose. Dom Andre describes where we will be taken, certainly beyond our will, to that place of ultimate grace:

…precisely where I am at my most vulnerable, stripped of my defenses, where I am totally diminished to an almost fatal extreme of weakness, where there remains but one single hope: that of finally laying down my arms and capitulating before God, that is to say, the hope of exposing myself, of casting myself upon his mercy, of allowing myself to be retrieved by grace at the place and at the precise moment where I was at the point of foundering.

To our ears so well attuned to feel-good, consumerist, self-anesthetizing pop-spirituality, this cannot be good news. Nevertheless, it is the only gospel worthy of the name or capable of addressing the inescapable truth of our lives.

_______________

Quote is from In the School of Contemplation by Andre Louf. Cistercian Publications. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. 2015., p 75.

 

Carol

Carol died yesterday. Although she bore the toll of battling four recurrences of breast cancer, and we knew this was in her future, no one believed it would happen so suddenly. We thought there would be more time. We all wanted more time. So did Carol — perhaps until the final hours when she knew the most loving thing was to let go.

Carol had an incredibly positive meeting with her oncologist recently where she learned that 90-95% of her cancer was being contained by a newly approved drug she was taking. She and Steve were planning a trip with friends to Italy in September!

Her husband of thirty years and their twin sons — both of whom live on the East Coast — had gathered in South Bend at the home of Carol’s sister as was their Fourth of July tradition. They were all at her side for her last day and hours when she was lucid and without pain. What a gift!

More than anything, Carol refused to let cancer define her life. We all want to say that and we sometimes even fudge the truth a little in our grieving. But with Carol it was absolutely true. Carol sought out people who could laugh. She remained engaged in social relationships. She was brutally honest about her physical and emotional ups and downs with a select group of intimate friends. Carol lived — until she died.

In that, she became gift-for-others. In that, Carol was ever the life-giver. The circumstances of her diagnosis and her death at a South Bend hospital were quite ordinary. There was nothing routine or typical about the way she left us, however — she left us better, blessed, believing in something more than our small, self-referential lives.

I have lost both parents, six of nine siblings, uncounted family and friends. Death always hits us in the gut leaving us empty, at a loss. Carol’s death is only the latest reminder that these holes in our hearts never go away. They recur and remain. And, neither do we want them to close. We reluctantly come to recognize such black holes of the heart to be a sacred space, a testimony to irreplaceable love.

Love endures. Love lives on in laughter, in relationships both intimate and communal. Love gives life, is always generative. Love ultimately gives its life for others.

Carol beat her cancer. Carol transformed and transcended the worst life could throw at her. She loved. She is loved.

Our hearts were ripped open a little more yesterday!  And that is as it should be.

There Comes a Time…. Then, What?

It is said that when Alfred Nobel’s brother died, media mistakenly reported that it was Alfred and printed his obituary by mistake.  We’ve all heard of people who write their own obituary. But, what would it be like to read your obituary written by the public media?

One apocryphal account should be true even if it is not. It holds that Alfred was so shaken by publicity surrounding his premature demise that he became determined to be known for something other than being the inventor of TNT.  Thus, after his death in 1896 his estate created the Nobel Prizes — of which the Peace Prize is the most prestigious.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with a local Focolare community. This “domestic church” movement was founded by Italian Chiara Lubich from amid the devastation of World War II. With death an immanent possibility, Lubich came to a deep reverence for “Jesus forsaken.” She recognized the intimate connection between Jesus’s passion and death with the unspeakable human suffering she and others were enduring in 1943.

It was not the magnitude of Jesus’s suffering that mattered — his suffering does not save. The immensity of Jesus’s love — first for the one he spoke of as Abba and us by inclusion — is the source of our salvation! Lubich spent the rest of her life, until 2008, living and leading others in her simple but onerous spirituality of bringing great love to others, especially to people and situations seemingly forsaken.

With this as backdrop I have begun reading We Know How This Ends, Living While Dying by Bruce Kramer with Cathy Wurzer. This dangerously beautiful book tells the story of Kramer’s diagnosis in his early 50s of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.  He died just last month.

As Susan Allen Toth expressed so well, “Kramer turns his diamond-hard diagnosis like a prism, reflecting light and joy in surprising places… invite[ing] us to consider how we live in the face of impending death or unwanted change.”

One turn of the prism is to the presumption with which we all live: “If only I could eat correctly, exercise enough, hold all things to moderation, devote myself in equal measure to my family and my job, I would have a great chance of living past ninety and looking back on a life well lived.” He recalls joking that he wanted his epitaph to be: “He died racing semis on his bike.”

Kramer writes: “I know what you are thinking — that you don’t need this right now, you don’t want to think about it, that you have plenty of time.” He acknowledges that we are “totally correct in thinking this way, until…” Call it the thief in the night or whatever you wish. That “until” will inevitably come!  Ultimately, we must accept that we cannot “fix” our lives.

Kramer had the inevitability of death foisted upon him. He was “pulled into the essence of what it means to be a living human being.” He reluctantly mustered the ability to recognize that he was “just aging exponentially faster than most… accept[ing] the fact that fixing is a lie.”

Like Alfred Nobel, Chiara Lubich and so many other noble saints among us, Bruce Kramer had the courage and fortitude to look death — his death — squarely in the eye and to ask, “How are we to live?” I am still in the very early pages of the book. However, I know already it is one that I hope you go out and read immediately.

Kramer frames our perennial human dilemma: “Out of the emptiness that was once the surety of my life came the question, what will you be from here to eternity?” He continues: “Therefore if I threw in my lot with trying to fix this, I would only be frustrated and bitter, and while I might glimpse the old normal Godhead from time to time, the person I wanted to become could not fix this.”

Again, the person Bruce Kramer wanted to become could not “fix” this!  Then, what?  How are we to live?

__________

We Know How This Ends, Living While Dying, Bruce H. Kramer with Cathy Wurzer.  University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2015.  Quoted material is from pages 17-21.  The quote by Susan Allen Toth is from the dust cover of the book.