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.

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“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!

Tomorrow, Tomorrow…

Could life get any better? Details aren’t necessary to make an important point — it’s not always like this! Stuff happens, sometimes very difficult and painful stuff. Something always happens to dump the apple cart — that’s just a fact of life, not pessimism!

All the more reason to remember sage advice — Take full stock of the good times, savor them, store them up! Hang on to them. File them away as a resource and consolation when times change, when tough stuff happens, when life ain’t so good. Sure as fierce February follows October splendor, seasons of our lives get harsh with regularity.

Only in retrospect does Parker Palmer celebrate the job he did not get for the way it prepared him for the career he eventually found. Omaha, where I grew up and will always be “home”, is reeling with news that ConAgra is moving its corporate headquarters to Chicago. Two-thirds of the way into the Synod on the Family, Vatican observers are describing it as a model of chaos and conflict. Challenges overwhelm us at times.  Loved ones die.

All the more reason to relish the good times so we will remember them in the tough times. Store up the spectacle of October for solace in the depths of winter. And my 65 years remind me to keep a light touch — grasping and clutching simply intensifies the eventual pain of letting go. Receive all as gift. Cling to nothing. Let gratitude be our only and constant refrain.

A final truth comes with Autumn spading of our backyard garden. Turning a year’s worth of household compost into the spent soil, earth yields an eternal truth — a plowed, over-turned field is better prepared to receive the promise of what has yet to be planted.

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.
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I encourage you to read Parker Palmer’s fuller reflection which inspired me.  They may be found of the Fetzer Institute website [here].

Too Late Wise

“Y’know life can be really hard!” A dear friend was summarizing a conversation we had recently. Each of us could recite a long litany of challenges family and friends are facing — death of a spouse, chronic physical pain, frustrating dead-end careers, relapses in addictive behaviors, unspeakable betrayal in relationships, the list goes on.

All this was washing over me as Jeb the Dog took me to Minnehaha Creek for our late afternoon walk. We’ve had a marvelous summer, gardens are well-tended and the world looks lush. Weeks away from summer solstice, the sun now casts a perceptively different shadow. Jeb remains enthusiastic in his obligation to mark designated trees but he too seems to recognize the waning season.

With head cocked, Jeb grieves the absence of once plentiful ducklings from the water. A fresh silver maple now obstructs the creek’s easy flow, sad consequence of the previous night’s storm. Mary Oliver’s lament in her brilliant poem, The Summer Day rippled within my heart, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”

In a few days Medicare kicks in. That more than the fact of turning 65 shocks me into heightened reflectivity. Like every Minnesotan’s experience of summer, it all happens too fast, passes too soon! There is no time for regrets. Precious time is now better spent remembering, gathering wisdom from what has been, harvesting all that is needed for approaching winter.

Upstream from where the silver maple diverts the free-flowing creek, Jeb plants himself as a sentinel surveying this place he knows so well. Feet squarely set, he appears oblivious as his chest creases the fast-moving current. A rock we know so well for its musical ripple when the creek dances with a normal flow has been smothered by the swarming storm water.

Again, Jeb becomes my best teacher. With legs squared and eyes fixed on the approaching torrent, he ponders our familiar terrane and the changes transforming our daily routine. Like the now silent rock that lies submerged by the storm, his resolute posture tells all I need to know. Do not fear deep water or the rushing torrent. Stand resolute in the middle of it all and let the waters flow over and around you.

As I officially join the Medicare generation on Saturday and turn 65 mid-month, what wisdom is to be gathered? Is there a harvest to be gleaned from these fast flowing years? By necessity, a new modesty seeks to take hold — I am far less certain about everything for which I once asserted a cocky self-confidence. I recognize a propensity to attack paper tigers like Papal infallibility all the while laying arrogant claim to my own.

If age smooths certain edges, it yields strength and confidence as well. Jeb resolutely squared himself midstream. Just as the stationary rock provides rippling melodies when the creek is running its normal course, so too it remains planted and ready to resume its role once the surge subsides. So too with us — I cannot imagine how we are to remain centered amid life’s litany of challenges without resolutely planting ourselves in a spiritual practice of prayer or meditation.

I increasingly cringe at the “wisdom” and “advice” I so wantonly gave whoever would listen. No longer do I claim to speak for God. In fact, I am coming to recognize the God I claimed to serve was too easily an idol of my own fashioning, one I tried to direct and contain. The Risen Christ breaks boundaries, defies our categories and shows up where we least expect — sometimes among those of whom we would not approve.

Finally, I am getting a glimpse into what Benedict of Nursia taught in the sixth century. This preeminent exemplar of western monasticism prescribed that any who would presume to offer spiritual counsel to others should know how to heal their own wounds first (RB46.6). Only when we have felt the full force life’s torrents wash over us may we presume to understand those who feel overwhelmed or are mired in despair.

Of this I am certain… those to whom I have been consistently drawn for solace or counsel somehow communicate they too have known the overwhelming mercy of God. They too are familiar with life’s torrents and human frailty. They know what it is to feel submerged or planted amid life’s rushing currents.  They simply stand firm with legs squared in the assurance that we are loved — beyond measure, beyond ourselves, beyond time.

Suddenly, It All Looks Different

It’s like suddenly seeing the whole world with a pair of 3-D glasses.

Every once in a while something happens and everything seems different. Often we don’t see it coming. Life just “accumulates” until something shifts. The old way of seeing, doing, being doesn’t fit anymore. We just know the change in our bones! Doesn’t have to be dramatic. There’s no going back — we wouldn’t want to. Often its quiet, subtle — like falling in love.

This time it came in an innocuous Tweet. I read it only once. I don’t even know the context. There hasn’t been the need or even the inclination to go back and retrieve it. It simply made explicit what now seems conspicuous, true, enduring. The Tweet was quoting Pope Francis: “The church doesn’t need any more teachers, the church needs more witnesses.”

We spend our lives going to church, saying our prayers, paying stewardship pledges, taking kids to Sunday school, maybe even teaching Confirmation class. We “do” a lot of stuff!  But, doing somehow morphs over time into “being” different. It’s not that the old stuff isn’t important, it just doesn’t seem to matter that much anymore.

I cannot speculate what this looks or feels like for anyone else. One way I’m experiencing the change is in the difference between ministry and discipleship. The self-introduction (the About Me tab) that accompanies this blog speaks of my “desire to return to ministry.” That was absolutely true — but that now feels obscure, somewhat foreign, certainly obsolete.

When I get around to updating my bio for this site — even that editing doesn’t feel like a high priority now — I will revise “return to ministry” to a current “desire to live a life of more explicit discipleship.” Do you recognize the shift? If you do, great. If not, no sweat! What matters is that a new set of glasses has changed the way I’m seeing, what I’m seeing, and how I want to respond to the world.

We give a lot of lip service in church circles to conversion, repentance, transformation, being born-again, call it what you will. Some of us try all sorts of spiritual practices, follow proven routines and rituals, read the latest books (or blogs!) and even regularly go on retreat. These are praiseworthy, serve a purpose. But their value is good to dispose us to receive what we seek. That’s all they are — dispositional. They are not the change itself.

Change comes through the initiative of grace. It awakens, enlightens, transforms our whole world — like a new pair of 3-D glasses. Whether my new appreciation for the difference between ministry and discipleship endures is yet to be seen.  But its welcome, feels refreshing.

What’s the “shift” you seek?  Is yours also a move from “doing” stuff to “being” different in the world?  Whatever the change turns out to be, I’m certain we all need more of it.