Green is the Color of Grace

Act as if the future of the universe depends on what you do, while laughing at yourself for thinking that your actions make any difference.                                                                                                –Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Back in December, a friend gave me an amaryllis bulb. Follow the simple instructions, then…Voila!…in mid-winter you’ll have a beautiful flowering plant to lift up your spirits!

As you might have guessed, I didn’t follow the instructions.

First, I forgot to bring the bulb home from the office. In late January, I finally carried it into my apartment and deposited the box, unopened, on my dining table. It sat there until I was home sick one afternoon in late February. I was ill, depressed and tired of the unremitting grayness that is Iowa in winter. I thought that planting the amaryllis might help me feel more hopeful. And it did, at first. I not only planted and watered the bulb, I spoke to it daily about growing and hope and life.

The papery top of the bulb developed a green tinge, which seemed promising, although I couldn’t discern any actual growth. Over time, though, even that greenish color went away. It seemed unlikely that anything would ever grow. February ended, March passed, April flew by. The lifeless brown bulb just sat on my table, unresponsive for so long that I stopped talking to it, even stopped noticing it as more than just another item on a perpetually cluttered surface.

Except for the days I felt especially discouraged – on those days, I saw it as an emblem of my inability to do anything right.

Lately, I’ve been overwhelmed by the sheer number of things there are to get done in any given day. Mired in these tasks, I am unable to focus on the bigger picture – the one where what I’m doing makes a difference in the world, is about more than just running on an endless hamster wheel. Every time it seems like things are getting on track, that there might be an opportunity to look ahead – maybe even get ahead – things fall apart and I’m buried again.

The sense of failing at my own life overrides other perspectives.

In the middle of such a seemingly hopeless cycle this week, I was frantically searching for one piece of paper among the piles on my kitchen table when I happened to glance at the forgotten amaryllis pot. One tender green shoot has emerged from the bulb’s dry papery skin. Of course, it happened when least expected, when hope of it happening had been surrendered.

“Of course,” I exclaimed aloud, likely startling my neighbor whom I could hear leaving her apartment just then.

Of course – because we won’t always immediately (if ever) see the fruit of our labors.

Of course – because nurturing hope, tending growth, changing hearts, holding space for healing is important work, but accomplished below the surface.

Of course – because our most meaningful work often resides in attending to the drudgery of details.

Of course – because when we take/hold everything too seriously, too personally, too joylessly, too fearfully we forget about grace.

When you’ve forgotten that grace exists, each time it manifests in your life it is a surprise. A miraculous, living, green tendril that reminds you: everything matters.

 

 

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The Grace of Recognition

(Quote by Boris Pasternak)

On the day I met my friends Kate and Victoria, I found myself (somewhat tipsily) telling them that I felt certain we were destined to be friends. They were very kind to me, a strange woman squatting next to them in a bike shop parking lot, pledging friendship after a hot afternoon of alley cat bike racing. They were kind, but I’m also pretty sure they thought I was just drunk.

In the intervening year, as our friendships have grown, we have laughed about that moment. But the truth is, I’m so glad I spoke aloud what my heart had whispered to me.

Writer and philosopher John O’Donohue writes about the “anam cara” or “soul friend”, a person “to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life.” He also writes that many of us have such friends but we are largely unaware – our lack of awareness and presence in our own lives cloaks that friend’s presence. He says, “Sadly, it is often loss that awakens presence, by then it is too late. It is wise to pray for the grace of recognition.”

It is wise to pray for the grace of recognition.

You would think we would easily recognize our “soul friends”: those who are most emotionally available to us, those whose friendship calls forth what is best in and for us. How could we not recognize those friends who would as willingly walk beside us through difficulty as well as through sunshine?

O’Donohue has an answer for that question, as well. He writes, “Though the human body is born complete in one moment, the birth of the human heart is an ongoing process. It is being birthed in every experience of your life.” In other words, we learn these lessons and skills slowly, through experiencing those moments of grace, as well as through experiencing their opposite. Like a friend who recently lamented to me, “Why do I always chase after the cool people, when I should be focusing on the ones who are always there for me?”, we get distracted by the shiny and showy. We forget, or fear, to delve beneath the surface, to test the depth of intimacy that is possible with these individuals.

In friendships where we plumb those depths, we learn a great deal both about ourselves and about the other. Years ago, a friend confided her deepest life secret to me – I was stunned and humbled by her choice to share it with me. Afterwards, there was no longer any possibility of a surface friendship or acquaintance between us. Which isn’t to say we were no longer able to hurt one another or betray one another. Indeed, hurt and/or betrayal then became open territory for discussions and sharing, too.

I would take the injunction to “pray for the grace of recognition” one step further. It is wise to pray for the grace of recognition and the courage to speak it. For example, my dear friend called the other night just to tell me, “Whatever happens in life, I will always take care of you.” She said she told her husband she was going to call and say that, and he told her I already knew. Which I did. But the gift of having it declared aloud was precious and meaningful to me at a time of uncertainty in my own life. An “anam cara” knows when it is important to speak.

Recognizing and cultivating soul-friends may require us to invest our energies differently than casting a broader net of acquaintanceships does. It also opens our lives up in so many ways, as we experience the generative nature of intimacy. “Love begins,” says O’Donohue, “with paying attention to others, with an act of gracious self-forgetting. This is the condition in which we grow.” In my life, the intimacy with and support of my closest friends has freed me to take risks and to attempt creative work. They are the foundation that underpins my flights of discovery. As I hope I am for them.

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Today’s post is a reflection on my reading of Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue

 

Everyone, And No One, Is Alone

Last week I went with friends to see the movie “Into The Woods” at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis. Afterwards, as we walked from our cars into a restaurant for dinner, one friend began making up her own silly lyrics to “No One Is Alone” a song from the musical. We laughed and sang made-up snippets for a few minutes. My contribution was “But I am alone! Regardless of your lyrics…We are ALL alone!” After we all chuckled at that, I surprised myself by launching into a bit of a tirade on the subject.

“That song’s a crock, anyway!”, I exclaimed. “The truth is, everyone is alone. Everyone. We are all alone. That’s the reality of the human condition.” But we were in happy moods, and my outburst came across as humorous and less bitter than it might under other circumstances.

We ate dinner, talking and laughing – just enjoying the company of good friends. Later, when our waitress sensed we were finished with our meals and preparing to leave, she stopped at our table to ask how we would like the bill. I indicated that it should be split, my friends’ charges were together, while mine were separate. As she walked away from our table, I sang softly, “I will pay separately because…I am alone!”  We erupted into laughter again.

After dinner, my friends and I parted, returning to our own homes. I felt full of the good fortune that comes with friendship and laughter, fueled by tasty food and energizing conversation. But as I prepared for bed, my thoughts turned to more sober reflections on aloneness. Underneath the evening’s laughter, I rediscovered a core paradox:

We are, each of us alone…

…we are on our own when it comes to making the daily choices and decisions that define who we are – no matter how connected to others, only we can choose whether to be true to our deepest selves as we go about living each day; we can never truly know another person’s heart or mind, housed as we are in the solitude or our own, seeing with our own eyes through very personal filters; and (as I learned in existential philosophy courses in college) facing the end of our days – the great transformation known as death – is the ultimate solitary endeavor.

Yet we are, none of us, alone…

…we humans are built with a need for connection and community; we reach out in love and friendship toward others – we have families and tribes and neighbors; even when we are without direct interaction we have writers, artists, musicians whose work speaks to our hearts, whispering that we are understood; in moments of fear or despair, we often find unlooked-for hands reaching out to help or to soothe; and we have an internal urge to seek out an enlivening Spirit, sometimes known as God (which I learned in existential philosophy courses in college is a fallacious crutch, but which I have experienced as very real) a presence in our universe that accounts for countless moments of grace and giftedness is our lives.

That night, I dreamed a recurring dream I sometimes have.

In my dream, I have somehow come to be at the foot of a rocky wall of boulders and sheer cliff faces. On the plain atop the wall, is a place – and people – I need desperately to reach. The only way to get there, without miles of detouring on foot, is to climb. Even in my dreams, I have a healthy fear of heights. But there are many good hand- and foot-holds, my dreaming mind reasons, and I should be quite able to reach the top. And so I begin the arduous climb. As I pick my way upward, the climb seems to grow longer, becoming an endless upward path. Now that I am fully engaged, and more than partway up the scree, I have no choice but to continue climbing. My muscles fatigue, my body becomes weary and drenched with sweat. Just as my spirits flag and I begin to despair of reaching the top, I look up to see that I have finally progressed past the halfway point. This renews my energy, reminding me of the urgency of my quest. I climb with vigor, and feel myself equal to the task. However, in the first flush of self-congratulation, I look up a final time and see, to my sudden dismay, that the lip of the wall has extended out over the rocks I’m climbing.

I stop moving, clinging to my spot on the rocky slope, so close to my destination that I could touch the flat plain, except for the barrier that now extends over my head. I am flooded with disappointment, which quickly turns to despair. When I have dreamed this dream in the past, I have had to face the choice of climbing back down or of attempting a feat of physical prowess and strength that even my dreaming self knows is beyond me. Often, I wake at this point, my heart beating erratically and my breath labored.

But this night, something different transpires. As I cling there, scanning the rocky lip of the canyon, I notice a spot off to my right where the lip of smooth rock is broken. Under this spot are a couple of jagged rocks that, if I wedge my foot against them just right, might afford me the ability to reach the lip and haul myself up. Suddenly (and miraculously, as things sometimes happen in dreams) I remember that I have a bar towel in my back pocket. I remember a friend handing it to me in a flash of dream memory that hadn’t existed until that moment. I might, I reason, be able to fling the towel around some purchase at the top and use it to pull myself up the last bit. Though moving across the rock face is daunting, I now have a plan and my towel – so I face down my fears and scrabble sideways. Watching myself in the dream, I know it isn’t pretty as climbing goes. But it works, and I make it to the spot I have zeroed in on. Taking the towel from my back pocket, I look for some bit of rock or vegetation on the edge of the plain. Seeing none, I decide to blindly cast it up, an end in each hand like a very short jump rope. To my surprise, it catches! Relief sweeping through me, I lean away from the wall, my weight held by the towel, and pull myself up and onto the plain. The last thing I see before I wake from the dream is what the towel has caught on: not a rock or a stunted tree, as I had envisioned. But a human hand.

 

Lying in bed, the emotional residue of the dream floating in the atmosphere of my dark room, I  realize the Truth embedded in my dream: we are all alone in our climb, but none of us makes it successfully to the top without grasping the hand of another. Looking back at my own darkest moments, the light that appears and offers both help and hope is always shining from the face of someone else. Whether that light comes in the form of a helping hand, an unlooked-for gift, or a simple card reminding me that I am loved, it shines with enough power to illuminate a way forward or, at the very least, a way to regroup before the next push.

And because it is true that I have needed the help of others to survive and thrive, that I have relied on the hands that have stretched out toward me, it is vitally important that I strive to sometimes be that hand for someone else. I may not be able to fix their problems. I may not think I have applicable skills to offer “real” (or concrete) help. But I can offer something, even if only a friendly presence, encouragement, emotional support. Or more simply stated: love.

And this paradox, I see, is the truth of the human condition (though I doubt anyone will ever learn it in an existential philosophy course in college): we may be alone, but no one need be alone. A simple, but powerful, truth.

 

 

 

Un-guard!

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I stumbled yet again. In the murky half-light just before dawn, I had only been able to see a few feet in any direction. Now that day was fully upon me, I could make out dry, furrowed and rocky terrain stretching to every horizon. I saw no distinguishing features, just the promise of further punishment on my bare feet and the continued threat that they would see me. I clutched the vessel to my body, attempting to shield it from both the sun (lest its radiance betray my location) and from splintering on the unforgiving landscape. When I glanced behind me, I did not see them, but I could feel their pursuit.
 
My one protection was the long cloak I clutched about me, woven of thread which so closely matched the featureless plain that is served as a form of camouflage. Because my hands were not free to assist me in remaining upright, I often stumbled. And the length of the cloak caused me to step on it with regularity, tripping myself when the stony ground did not…I know not how long I toiled to carry the vessel. Time became meaningless on that journey.
 
Eventually, however, I saw a small something on the horizon, which turned out to be a simple square building, open on two sides. I approached it warily, fearful of what or whom I might encounter, but desperate for rest and water. I entered what could only be described as a temple. The room, open to the land on two sides, contained a simple pedestal in the center, on which nothing resided.
 
“Welcome. We have been waiting for you.” I turned toward the voice, to see a man and a woman, each garbed in simple white robes.
 
“Please,” said the woman. “We have prepared a place for your burden. Don’t you wish to rest? It will be safe here.” She indicated the empty pedestal, and gestured toward the vessel I carried.
 
It seemed like forever since I had been wishing to set the heavy vessel down. But now that it came to it, I was loathe to do so. It was my burden, entrusted to me. Yet, these two looked at me with compassion. They made no move to take the vessel from me, simply waited patiently for me to choose.
 
Carefully, I unwrapped the vase from the folds of my torn and weathered cloak and placed it on the pedestal. At first, it appeared a small and unlovely thing. And then a shaft of sunlight found it, and everything changed. It lit up the room with its brilliance, a myriad of colors in its ingeniously worked glass. I was overcome by its beauty.
 
“But it shines so!” I cried. “They will find it and destroy it!”
 
“I promise you,” replied the man, “its light is meant to be seen. For this it was created.”

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When I woke from the dream recounted above, I couldn’t shake it. The haunting quality of it, the visceral emotional impact of it. Most especially, I couldn’t shake the truth of the dream.

I say truth because I knew immediately upon waking what the dream intended me to learn: that the vessel I had so carefully protected and shielded from the eyes of others was my self. The vulnerable, beautiful, shy, powerful, loving, shining self that I was born to be. That I had worked so hard to protect from hurt. That with my misguided efforts and protective coping mechanisms I had hidden not only from the world, but also from me.

There is a quote, often attributed to George Eliot, which says, “It is never too late to become what you might have been.” I love that quote, but it is about what we do with our lives. What my dream showed me was a slightly different truth:

It is never too late to be who you ARE.

You have journeyed in silence, fear, and discomfort long enough.

Come out of hiding. Let your true self be in the light, instead of shrouded in secrecy and webs of self-preservation.

Will everyone love the true self you reveal? No. Will their rejection, if and when it comes, hurt? Probably. But not as much as the self-rejection implied by staying hidden. By keeping yourself small and unobtrusive. By pretending that you are not who and what you are.

This last bit I didn’t learn from the dream. I learned from practicing the lessons of the dream: by opening myself to vulnerability; by painstakingly making the conscious choice to stand in my own center when outside forces (often people I love) buffet me; by allowing a moment to pass so I can respond from my truth instead of knee-jerk react. I learned by trusting others. And I learned by trusting myself.

Have I learned these lessons perfectly? No way! Each day has its own set of conundrums, of tests and trials. That said, letting my true self live in the light of day has been significantly more fulfilling than keeping myself hidden. Shame and Guilt, who were my frequent companions, have mostly disappeared. They don’t thrive in the light.  They have been replaced by Acceptance and Grace – companions who encourage me to grow into my best self. And my self, who I am, is a gift to the world.

If you recognize yourself in my dream, or know in your heart that you have been guarding your true self from the light, I encourage you to take the steps necessary to let the you that is unique and beautiful and essential come out. Take tiny steps forward, if you must. But don’t deprive the world any longer of the gift that is you. It is never too late to be who you are – who you are shines, and is worthy of love.

From my journal, after waking from the dream.
From my journal, after waking from the dream.