That Persistent, Inconvenient Necessity to Yield

Those who know me know I like to be in control. Those who love me do so in spite of my controlling tendencies. Call it Lent or simply “getting older”, whatever the reason, I’ve recognized it’s exhausting — even more, it doesn’t work!

Those of us in recovery of one sort of another are familiar with the adage: Let go, let God. It’s wildly popular and often repeated. But how deep do these facile references actually go? Nice words. Wise words. They give the illusion of actually doing what they suggest.

Somewhere in the last day or two I read something that has nudged me, became a burr in my saddle, won’t leave me alone. Adding intrigue to this insistent recollection, I cannot recall where it came from. Reviewing likely sources on various blogs or online sources has been to no avail. All that’s left is its recurring, persistent nudge.

The nagging invitation is quite directive: move from control to consent. Yes, it’s as plain and beguiling as that! Maybe this is what my brother Jerry came to know in his later years. His continuous refrain, almost to the point of annoyance, was: Life on life’s terms!

My husband — one of those people who loves me despite my propensity to be controlling — often repeats a favorite phrase that gets at this same hard-won wisdom: It is what it is! Here, too, his refrain captures the simple necessity to let go, to receive life on life’s terms, to move from control to consent.

This year the convergence of Lent and the fact of growing older seems to be conspiring to teach that there really is no alternative. Yielding, letting go, consenting to all that life brings our way ought not be done begrudgingly, reluctantly, fighting life’s natural progression at every turn.  That’s exhausting and doesn’t work in the end.

Surely the ultimate expression of inconvenient necessity to which Lent nudges us is Jesus in the Garden: Not my will, but yours be done. Yielding, letting go, consent to diminishment that appears even as death!

But this is only half the story. We also need to be reminded that this sort of consent is within human capacity and profoundly life-affirming. No one challenges or consoles us more than Denise Levertov in her magnificent summation of Mary’s singular fiat, her “let it be” —

She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Maybe this year we can each take one more courageous leap — yielding control, giving consent, letting go, saying yes to life on life’s terms.

If you are in any way like me, you may recognize this inconvenient nudge as an invitation to more fully embrace the fact that God is God and we’re not. Finally, we might yield sufficiently to see this as a good thing — in fact, as our very salvation.
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Levertov’s quote is from her poem, Annunciation in A Door in the Hive, New Directions, New York, 1989, pp 86-88.

Aspiring to Wisdom

Have you noticed? The world has gotten better — all the problems have been solved. Really! My brother and I have been together for ten days now and pretty well taken care of all the world’s troubles. No need to thank us — we’ve enjoyed doing it.

Mornings typically begin at Starbucks. We take the New York Times and Orlando paper delivered to his doorstep. But we never seem to get to them. Rather, the state of our world is so dire we need to attend to these matters first.

Yesterday was special. After services and a pot-luck at Bear Lake United Methodist Church featuring Black Gospel singers from Alabama, my brother and I settled into twin recliners in front of the fireplace. This time we ruminated on family, our ancestors, favorite relatives, reasons they were the way they were and we are the way we are. Three and a half-hours passed like thirty minutes!

This morning, specifics and details have coalesced into an all-embracing sense of gratitude and contentment. That’s pretty amazing given the characters, personalities and circumstances we rehashed, the achievements claimed, wounds recalled and losses remembered. Let’s just say Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham and the Viscount Downton, has nothing over on us.

Here’s what’s becoming clear after these days of trying to make sense of this thing we call “life”… We cannot always “think” our way into knowledge. Some explanations are simply beyond words yet we know them to be true.  Perhaps this is what St. Augustine, fourth century bishop in North Africa meant as well — “The heart has reasons Reason knows not.”

Call it “wisdom” if you wish. My brother and I would like to think our machinations suggest we are more than just two senior citizens grousing in front of a fireplace. We’d like to believe these are the sort of conversations and conclusions true elders begin to formulate.

Nevertheless, there is one thing we’ve concluded for certain: It’s not that some of what we “know” is irrational, it’s that some things are simply beyond reason… such as love, self-sacrifice, mercy, forgiveness, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile.

In the end, this remains the hope in which we aspire to live.

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!

What Would Mom Say?

When I’d be moping around in my adolescent funk or otherwise being disappointed with what life was — or wasn’t — sending my way Mom would often say, “Y’know, life is pretty much what you make of it!” Then she’d keep silent, letting reality sink in. She said a lot of wise stuff about life! This is just one that’s popping up a lot these days.

Earlier this week I was speaking with a dear, dear friend. She, too, is a Mom. In fact, she’s a Grandma seven times over. One of her children is considering a job transfer to a different city. This is really a painful decision for everyone involved. No more having just the grandkids for an overnight. No more spontaneous visits to the Children Museum. No more school productions or soccer games to applaud. Yes, life sends plenty of disappointment our way.

But what really took me off guard was Sarah’s response. Ever the “Mom” with wisdom aplenty she said to her son: “Yes, I would be very sad. I would really miss you. But you need to know this… You are not responsible for my happiness — I am!” Talk about profound, honest, empowering wisdom from a mother!

Yesterday was a day filled with many frustrations… a home repair project for a friend took twice as long as it should have, the caulk-gun didn’t work when I wanted to seal cracks in the driveway, insulation we had installed the day before wasn’t sticking to the window as it should, battle was waged with a health care system more focused on profits than on people, my 16 y/o car has developed a metallic clatter that I can no longer ignore.

No wonder the wisdom of these wise Moms resurfaced from the recesses of my consciousness. What am I to make of this litany of frustrations? Do I really want to concede my emotional wellbeing to the power of caulk-guns, window insulation, and the clatter of a car engine?  I guess the choice is mine!

We still depend on our mothers’ wisdom to navigate life’s disappointments, salvaging happiness from a litany of frustrations.  We might say of our mothers what I imagine Sarah would say about her grandkids, “They may be gone, but they never leave us.  And that’s a good thing!”

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.

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“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.

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].

Forty-Eight Hours Before the Wedding

Do you believe in serendipity?  Its more than coincidence.  More than luck, even.  Serendipity surprises us unaware with the appearance of valuable connections or pleasant experiences we had not anticipated nor could have even sought.  Serendipity is a lot like sheer grace.

Participating in “Prayer at the Fair” — the Sunday morning ecumenical service at the Minnesota State Fair — presented a marvelous moment of serendipity.  I am still savoring a poem by Maya Angelou days later:

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

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Maya Angelou’s poem is entitled Touched by An Angel and is readily available online and in the poet’s collected works.

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.

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