I recently listened to a guided meditation called “Loving What Is”, and, on our 90-minute walk this morning in the Canonchet Preserve, I seemed to be practicing that meditation. I was just silently praising whatever I saw, like these special scenes.
Someone might wonder what is so special about shriveled leaves, a sluggish pool, and centuries-old stones, but today, for me, they were as awe-inspiring as rainbows and mountaintops. Somehow, they shined in their ordinariness and sang in their commonness and simplicity. I felt like it was an honor for us to be there, as though we were witnessing some sovereign ceremony as we walked quietly over the leaves and rocks and roots. Perhaps I’ll call it the ceremony of ‘loving what is’. In their own way, the leaves and trees and big boulders surely loved being right there, at Canonchet Preserve on this frosty, sunny Sunday in November, and so did we.
On my walk today in the Peace Sanctuary, I came upon these scenes,
and they started me thinking about innocence – actually, the innocence of the entire universe. With so much obvious disorder in the world today, it may seem silly to speak of our universe as being ‘innocent’, and yet, when I manage to step far enough back to get a bigger picture, it truly seems like the universe does no harm, ever. Yes, there are storms and wars and heartrending losses and disasters of astonishing size, and yet the universe seems always able to stay on its steady, 15-billion-year-old course. There are tragedies, but these tragedies, again and again, seem perfectly balanced by triumphs. There’s loss after loss, but the losses are always, in due course, succeeded by offsetting gains. Leaves die in autumn, but fresh life always flourishes in the spring. The universe seems to be a purely innocent and smoothly flowing river of compensation, where every wave and swell has its necessary place, and where concepts like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ disappear in an immense and endless harmony.
When I paused on my walk and looked carefully at these scenes, all seemed innocent – the inoffensive river and sky, the stones and leaves lying harmlessly where they settled, the elderly tree trusting itself to the movement of the passing moments. I felt a strange and immense kind of safety, as though all of life was somehow shielded and sheltered. Despite the recently sorrowful flow of things in the world, especially the pandemic, I felt like well-being was definitely, without question, more powerful than any peril. I walked down the trail to the car with a soft smile inside.
This was a day of quiet wonders for me. Actually, I guess all my days are like that, but I often am not open to the moment-by-moment wonders, being more interested in following my wandering thoughts. Today, though, was so bright and shining in its quiet way that I couldn’t help but be lifted up by it. It was my 79th birthday, and, with Delycia’s loving help, it was definitely as good as birthdays get.
It began with this message above the window in the dining room, which I saw at 4:55 a.m. when I wandered in to make my coffee.
I received a lovely birthday card from Delycia, with a way-more-than-lovely note on the back, and then we had a rainy, happy morning together – reading, writing, passing each other with pats-on-the-back and smiles, snacking with ‘cuppas’ side by side, and just being our usual soft lights in each others’ lives.
Then, around noon, Annie, Gabe, and Louie came by for a social-distanced birthday serenade on the front porch, while we sat in the living room behind the big window, loving the show. Louie strummed and sang some of his beautiful newly-composed songs – an amazing treat for us – and Gabe and Annie joined in on ‘Happy Birthday’
Later, we enjoyed a traditional thanksgiving feast, just the two of us, including a bountiful, luscious berry pie. Delycia placed a candle in each of our pieces, and I had the honor of pinching them out.
Later, we had a loving Zoom check-in with most of our blended family, including Aaron. I felt tears trying to come for the entire 45 minutes. It was a remarkable end to a day full of unfolding wonders for this very lucky, almost-80-year-old dude.
This morning we took a tiring but rousing 5-mile walk through what is known as The Great Swamp, a strikingly wild-looking area in southern Rhode Island. The longer we walked, the more weary I became, but at the same I started feeling a surprising sense of unrestraint and spontaneity, as if the wildness of the swamp was seeping into me. Most people would not describe a swamp as beautiful, but to me there was a sort of fierce and untamed loveliness all around. Broken trees, tangled vines, and small pools of sluggish water somehow made a scene of ferocious elegance, and I started feeling as free and rowdy as the swamp looked. Yes, I was tired at the end, but also revived and enlivened. May the spirit of The Great Swamp stay with me!
And here’s a look at that spirit:
SWAMPED(a poem about Ellie G., 42, Blessings, CT)She feels almost swamped with abilities and possibilities, like millions of bright balloons are ascending inside her life,a life she feels flowing out foreverin never-ending ways. She loves to watchthe way the wind works, because it tumbles and rolls and dangles like her life does,just like every moment lifts the lid offendless options and chances and everlasting alternatives. She feels positively floodedwith wealth, as if gifts are forever thronging her, bringing a breathless number of pathways to nonchalantly choose from.
It is awe-inspiring to me how many surprises exist in my life – how many unforeseen thoughts, feelings, and events continuously occur. It’s like I’m a small stream in an endless ocean of surprises. Who knows what will happen in the next few hours, or even the next few seconds – what current of life will come and carry me along, what thoughts will waft me here and there, what bolts-from-the-blue will suddenly show themselves? The verb “to surprise” originally meant, in Latin, “to seize”, and it does sometimes seem like I’m seized, moment by moment, by one startling surprise after another. True, I don’t often think about this aspect of life – this tendency of life to be reborn and brand-new each moment – but it’s there, nonetheless. Each second, the shoreless ocean of my life shifts, a little or a lot, and a new and splendid surprise appears.
Today, on a walk in the Denison Pequotsepos Preserve, we came upon this surprise – some enormous stones piled perfectly together.
Of course, we pass beautiful stone walls almost every day, but, for some reason, this one caught me by surprise, and it caused me to feel, once again, absolute astonishment that human beings, probably more than 100 years ago, were somehow able to lift stones this large and set them in place. We stood in silence for a few moments and just studied it in awe and appreciation.
For years I’ve enjoyed the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, partly because in many of them the protagonists are able to step back, observe their lives from a distance, and then laugh – something I need to do on a more regular basis. I often get way too involved in the drama of ‘my life’. I regularly get lost in the plot that involves Ham, the brave hero who wages valiant war against the many adversaries that threaten to impede the progress of his life. It’s easy, I find, to actually believe the story line – to actually be convinced that I am the main character in this drama called ‘My Life’, and that it’s up to me to make it an overall success. What I need to do more often is what Mansfield’s protagonists often do – step back and get the big picture. If I can do that – if I can imagine myself looking down from far away upon this tiny bald-headed ‘person’ named Ham in the middle of this boundless, everlasting universe – I would see my life in its true perspective. I would see that what I’m doing at any moment is no more or less important than what the wind is doing, or what trash haulers are doing as they drive to the transfer station. The wind, the trash haulers, and I are all part of a grand extravaganza that has no heroes and no adversaries – just on-going present moments that are each uniquely perfect. If I could occasionally step back from my life in that way, I would feel more relaxed about it, more confident that each of life’s ‘performances’ –- each and every moment — will, in one way or another, be beautiful. I might even, like the characters in Mansfield’s stories, have a good laugh over the whole thing.
When’s he sad or stressed,
he settles himself down
and listens for laughter.
He knows it’s all around him --
in houses across the street,
in countless towns and cities,
in tall forests where friends
at this very moment
are making merry.
He sees in his mind
a world where one-third of the people
are probably laughing
with light hearts
right at this moment,
this serious moment in his life
when he’s so worried
about one thing
On our walk this morning in Elm Grove Cemetery, I took this photo,
and later, as I looked carefully at it, everything seemed to fit in perfectly right where it was, and the word ‘belong’ came to mind. I saw a peaceful harmony among all the parts – pebbles, old leaves, a misshapen sign, the river with a few floating birds, and the far off trees and sky, all belonging together. Later, sitting with Delycia in the sunroom, that sense of belonging, of togetherness, was even more noticeable as we sat surrounded by assorted plants and blossoms and footstools and pencils and tables and tissues, all seeming like perfect partners with us. We all belonged there in the sunroom, together, a good-as-it-gets group. Nothing was unseemly or out of place, just as the battered sign and humdrum pebbles were not out of place beside the serene Mystic River and under the boundless sky. I guess the truth is – and I’ve felt this again and again over the years – that everything always belongs. This is a universe of belonging, of connection, of fellowship. I, and all of us, have friends literally everywhere, friends called people and stones and trees and even terrific storms, all working in partnership to keep everything moving with ease along fellowship’s trails. I’m afraid I don’t usually notice this confederation of friendship in life, but it’s there – the universal kinship among absolutely all of creation, a ‘belonging’ which rules the universe.
When I was teaching, I often heard teachers say to a student something like, “You have a mind of your own,” but I’ve gradually come to wonder if students, or any of us, actually do. Saying that students have a mind of their own implies that they “own” their thoughts, that they somehow created their thoughts by themselves and therefore have sole possession of them. It’s as if there are thousands of distinct physical things called “thoughts” in each student’s brain, all of which are rightfully the property of that student. More and more, that seems to me to be an inaccurate view of the way things actually are. We don’t own our thoughts any more than one part of the sky owns a breeze that’s passing through it. Thoughts constantly come to us, move around in our minds, mix with other thoughts that are passing through, and then they all eventually relocate to other people, usually through our own words, but sometimes through our actions or even gestures. Certainly remnants of each thought are left behind with us, but then parts of these remnants mix with newly entering thoughts and eventually move along to other minds. How, then, can we say that any of our thoughts are really “ours”. Have we actually created from scratch a single thought in our entire lives, or have all the thoughts simply drifted into and through us from far distant places? Perhaps our thoughts got their start long ago in persons we’ll never know, and, by odd, meandering paths, in due course made their way to my students and me in English class. If that’s true, then none of us actually has a “mind of our own”. Our thoughts don’t belong to us, but rather we merely borrow them for awhile, sooner or later to send them on their way for others to enjoy.
We walked this morning in one of my favorite places, Elm Grove Cemetery, and I felt, as almost always there, a refreshing sense of spaciousness. For most of us, life can sometimes seem small and restricted, but at the cemetery, the openness of the Mystic River and the sky usually brings me a feeling that life’s boundaries have, for a few minutes, fallen away. I walked this morning, among these scenes, with a peace that seemed measureless.
Seeing the sunlight each morning, noticing that darkness has left the land somehow newer and fresher than before, I sometimes have the feeling of being alive all over again. I guess sleep is, in a way, a short-lived dying-out of life, a sort of simulated death, and so waking each morning is a kind of rebirth. With each new dawn comes a start-over, a fresh beginning, a resurrection of ourselves, you might say. And actually, almost everything starts over in the morning. Things clean and clear begin each day in the natural world – some new kinds of light, the somehow youthful look of even old snow, the crisp onsets of brand-new breezes. Nothing is old in the morning. The earth, the universe itself, is a refurbished wonder when I awake.
I’ve been trying to see this newness all my life – not only the newness of each morning, but the newness that’s everywhere and never ends, the newness that springs up inside our fresh and endless universe at every instant. It’s been a challenging quest for me. The apparent sameness of routine has plagued me for years, making newness not an easy thing to discover. In a way, I’ve had to be an explorer – an easy-going but fervent voyager in the search for the shine and sparkle of newness.
I see both spaciousness and newness in this painting by Dena Adams:
This photograph, shared by a friend, brought back memories of my often frustration-filled life. This unfortunate fellow (who, despite the resemblance, is not me) has obviously lost himself in dissatisfaction of some sort, perhaps shouting out “Oh, poor me!” as he bangs his big head on the board at the front of a classroom. Perhaps he’s a teacher who has chosen to think of himself as exceptionally smart, someone who should know all the answers to all the questions, someone whose work in this world is to sail through problems with good luck and a hard head. I must confess that I was this fellow for fully 50 years. I banged my head on problems day after day, believing, I guess, that a tough, stubborn head (and heart) can make any difficulty disappear. I guess I saw life as an unceasing contest between big brave me and the bullying world around me. I was this bald-headed old boy in front of the classroom (the world), smacking my head on the board of life to bring answers out into the open. Yup, this hard-hitting warrior was me for too many years … but thankfully, around the age of 50, I started taking better care of my head. I slowly came to see that life can be lived like a captivating voyage instead of a fight to the finish, that problems can provide more wisdom than frustration, that questions are far more exciting – and more reliable – than answers. Now, since I no longer bang my head against problems, it, and my heart, and my life, seem to have grown softer, more open, more durable, more endearing. When setbacks show up these days, I try to smile instead of scream, to shrug and keep going instead of thrash and keep grumbling.
And here’s Goofy, who know’s that a peaceful shrug is sometimes the best response.
Recently, as I was thinking about an old hymn that says a grateful heart is one that has ample ‘room’, it occurred to me that a heart has more than ample room in it. In its true state, my ‘heart’ — meaning my inner spirit – has no walls, no boundaries, no limits of any kind. My heart can hold as much as life can produce – all the heartbreaks, sorrows, and disappointments, as well as all the joys and delights. If I could imagine a room with no walls and no ceiling, that’s the kind of expanse my inner spirit actually has. What produces this endless roominess is the simple fact that my inner life – my ‘heart’ – is not made of a material substance, and thus doesn’t have borders and fences or beginnings and endings. My true ‘heart’, like all of ours, is totally non-material, and therefore has a spaciousness that defies measurement. It can easily expand to make room for anything that comes my way – anything. Strangely, I seem to have long since forgotten this truth. I often see my inner life as the opposite of spacious – as confined, cramped, and filled to capacity, with only a minimal amount of extra room, and none for any more troubles! I usually seem to think of my ‘heart’ as some sort of physical room with walls, floors, and ceilings, and there are simply times when nothing more can be crammed into it. The fact that I glimpsed recently, and am trying to understand more fully, is that no cramming is ever necessary, because my ‘heart’ – my inner spirit – is as spacious and wide-open as the endless universe. There’s ample room for any and all failures and misfortunes. In fact, there’s so much room that I could actually welcome disasters when they arrive. I certainly don’t have to like them, but I can definitely say, “Welcome. Please come in and make yourself at home.” As surprising as that sounds, the fact is that welcoming adversity always makes it less scary and more able to be managed. Like a good host, I can turn those frightening visitors – the calamites that visit all of us – into relatively harmless, and even helpful, guests. I can say to misfortunes, “Now that you’re here in my roomy heart, tell me what you can teach me” – and then thank them when they depart, as they always do.
ONE DAY A MAN WOKE UP
a man woke up and wondered
why he was in such a large place.
He looked in all directions
and didn't see a boundary
or border line, just a land
that looked like it went on forever.
He was accustomed to living
with limits and dividing lines,
but this was something
different, a world where the only
borders would be brought about
by his own little beliefs.
He liked this borderless land,
so much so that his little self
soon disappeared into it,
and what was left
was this endless world,
sometimes called the universe,
and his limitless life
Below is a painting of a very roomy sky … but not nearly as roomy as my – and our – inner spirit.
On our walk today at the Denison Pequotsepos Preserve, we came upon another kind of roominess – an autumn spaciousness in which leaves have floated off the trees and left behind a far more open forest. I think we both felt a little freer in this roomy woodland, maybe even a little more in touch with the everyday vastness of life.