Our Secrets, Our Stories

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I have a secret and so, my cohorts or neighbors, do you. We may have known each other for decades and shared breakfast once a month. Perhaps lived across the hall from one another and picked up each other’s mail as a favor when one or the other was gone. Celebrated our children’s milestones. Participated in a support group, noting small nuances of our lives. Been related by blood or marriage–ample opportunities to get personal. But there is ever something kept to yourself, an experience, a feeling, a person, time or place set aside from the rest. It resides in a part unknown to anyone else. And the reality is that it is not singular but exists in multiples. We have so many secrets it is unlikely we could name them all if it was demanded of us. For some we have briefly acknowledged only to manage to hide forever–perhaps even from ourselves.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes that definitions for the noun “secret” include:

1) information kept hidden from others

2)  an uncommon way of doing something to achieve good results  (and unknown to most others)

3) something mysterious, inexplicable

The evolution from the Latin secretus: to separate, distinguish, sift, keep apart.

This covers a fair amount of territory. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot in a time where it is getting harder to maintain privacy in our world. Everyone is concerned about having personal information kept that way, yet we are obliged to share critical details in order to manage our lived in multiple ways. For many of the younger generations it is so pervasive a condition that they often don’t blink an eye when asked for minute details to establish identity. And social media provides easier access each year to whoever puts information out there. Want some attention? Post something on YouTube or Instagram. For that matter, post anything on the internet at our own risk, as the virtual ticker tape of our lives may unspool before us. It seems to me the illusory fame some seek makes one’s identity more fluid–and rather indistinguishable.

And of course I see the irony as I write a post for WordPress, a platform for many millions around the world. Writers, after all, write from what they know or want/need to know and then tend to share it, and a reader gets to know much about the person who is penning the epistle.

Or do you? Do I?

Secrets–odds and ends as well as dramatic moments–naturally accumulate as the years accordion. There seems to be room for all despite one more item being added, pressed closer and denser, our minds and memories akin to striated rock. What surprises us at times is that secrets appear to have as big a role in creating our identities as obvious known factors do. Perhaps more so, at times. Who we are may not be who we appear to be, which seems rather ominous. The reality is, few if any of us are strictly as we appear because everyone has something kept private, held at bay. For one thing, there are too many moments lived, a glut of informative tidbits, each making an impression that is discarded or given closer examination. Our brains are ceaseless workhorses twenty-four hours a day to manage it all. So from a generalized view, it’s not surprising we don’t share close to all of what we experience–much may hardly reach awareness. Until perhaps a dream reveals it to us or a sudden thought leaps awake in the middle of some mundane activity. That aha moment–which we often tuck away.

There are those events we felt/knew/wondered/observed, then receded. But the real secrets are pieces of knowledge we are apt to be acutely conscious of but decide are better left alone. It is likely to our advantage when we choose to close the door to outside probing. The private fact, if given light of day, might compromise the secret holder’s principles, or diminish his or her efficacy. Render the person too emotionally vulnerable. Spark a conflict with another that will have onerous or at least unintended results. Or maybe it is about protecting another and keeping one’s word. And so one’s observation, a feeling or a nighttime dream may remain under wraps for awhile or forever. Details can undo us, we think, and there seems to be some truth in it.

The problem is the tendency to believe that unleashing a secret might end up taking something from someone. Ourselves, usually. We’re each born a (generally) separate human and have ownership of who we are–what we think, how we feel, why we act–until we do not. Until we give ourselves freedom to come forward with the entire, unadulterated truth of whatever it is. Until we take a risk and take someone into our confidence. And in this day and age, how many are willing to do that when it is so easy to live in subterfuge, masks switched at whim, a persona for each situation? It seems easier to do without the backdrop included–the real facts that uphold our individuality. And as human beings, we are undeniably versatile. We can keep secrets as well as divulge them; it only takes words or actions to set either in motion. How much could we lose or gain by not saying what we are so loathe to expose?

There’s a time for honesty and vulnerability, as well as maintaining that golden silence. It can get quite tricky.

The dictionary’s second definition seems reaonable while interesting. It refers to keeping hidden a special method or idea that has had a good outcome. Anyone can relate to that. If there is an arcane ingredient of a recipe or a revolutionary manufacturing technique a company uses, one is not about to spill the beans. There may be a provisional solution to a thorny problem and when it becomes verifiably tried and true, the minds behind that solution may choose to keep it closer for all posterity. Maybe it comes down to greed. But it could also be wise management of resources, depending on the personalities and circumstance. I would tend to go for the greater good, if it came to that–but even that could end up meaning sharing information or keeping it under lock and key.

I opt for both a privacy determined by self counsel as well as a more trusting openness. I want transparency in my living because it is authentic. Complete in a way that layers of diverting signals can never attain no matter how smart or intriguing. It is, however, a surprise to family that when I write I am willing to say so much about who I am. I have been perceived as a primarily pensive, calm, reserved person much of the time, especially in my career. True, all a significant part of who I am, having been raised to be circumspect. It was good manners if nothing else, and often a deciding factor in success and failure or happiness or misery. We take into our beings what we gleaned from earliest years. But there was also a fire within, a strong need to speak out, and so openness flowed more naturally as I grew up. I had discovered, too, that some secrets could do irreparable damage and why allow that if there was another way? Armed with questions for the world, I asked them of myself first and the one I loved the most was: What is the truth? I have never been one to accept a glib answer as the final say. It can make me a bit insufferable. I am not a good small talker, all that easy breezy stuff.

I might have made a better reporter, detective or spy. Let me at the innards of the object of my interest. Spy craft is another thing altogether but if there were no secrets, there would be no spies–real or created– and what would we do without those ramifications to engage and entertain or offend us? Secrets have played a significant part in the world’s history, I gather.

But there are vast amounts to uncover when evaluating the entirety of a person, a place, an experience. The truth, it turns out, tends to be complicated. The beauty of this is in the unmaking and remaking of it as well as the sheer existence of it. Each is a kaleidoscope to turn around, a puzzle to decipher. And memory alters it, as well.

If my impulse is more toward rooting out the gist of a matter, the unvarnished core, it may seem that secrets are not my preferred domain. But poetry can arise from secrets glimpsed within one moment. This is true of fiction, too, a story gathering shape from threads and the snags as its design is gradually woven. A writer develops tools from an array of generous offerings from mind and heart as well as strict information. And so it is the third definition of the word “secret” that draws me most of the three: the mystery of all things.

It matters to me, the numinous nature of mystery. Even more than it did decades ago, because of greater permeability of societal boundaries and the wider reach computers have brought. So much is far more than I want to see or hear. I have to block those distractions to give serious attention to what is going on inside and out.

I find there remains the same evidence of mystery I had as a child. Pulsing star maps of sky and undulating oceans emblazoned with sunrise. The give of grass beneath tender feet in summer. Songs of cicadas and loons; the calls of coyotes and a bear cub. The transitory radiance of fireflies on summer’s eve. The opening of one hand by another. Tears that ease a formidable grief. Victory that arrives in a moment after years of relentless work and the bitterness of failures. Love, how it can bless those downcast or those rising up.

Mystery in all honesty rules me. The secrets of God’s ineffable presence have illuminated my journey, the seeking and finding, bewilderment and awe. I stand here now only because of a power I can barely begin to identify with such small, poor language. I know I am impacted beyond all reason when I feel God-moving-here, and yet it is the lofty reason of science that reveals to me God’s business in the physics of our universe. I cannot get enough of this gorgeous, messy living, not even on tough days, not even when I feel my own secrets are the worse for wear yet make me foolish.

Why do we even need secrets? Why do we not? Such contradictions seem commonplace and that, too, is not wholly understood. There is so little we can well account for when we come to the end of the road. Why not take in and hold those set aside moments, our own secret knowledge close enough that it shakes us up so we break open to more jubilant life? There are times we have to rend our egoistic cloaks of darkness and let go the shame or fear, let it stir in the air. Shake out spasms of anger, of regret. Pronounce our liberation when our dream looms close–grab it before it passes. Say aloud the hesitant words as if everything depends on it: I love you, let me help, I honor your life, God’s peace to you.

If there is an experience that persists like a steady lamp along the way, a certain person who was a gift or a season in life that meant more than can be told, cherish it. It will nurture you. If there is something that dissipates your energy and shadows your soul, perhaps now is a time to speak or you may remain captive by its presence. What we decide to keep is ours and ours alone if we choose. Let it be a secret for the best of purposes. Otherwise, let it go and let the greater mysteries reign.

 

A Wholeness of One Amid Others

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Being more alone has become a curious experience; the more it occurs, the more its vagaries and useful qualities surface. And the longer I live within it, the more I find a home within its mutable parameters.

It’s similar–though granted, non-material in essential nature– to the first time wearing a new pair of jeans. I mean real jeans, not the ones with plenty of helpful stretch. Think how they feel somewhat stiff,  perhaps unfriendly to hips and other rounded bits when squatting, stretching, even sitting a long while. Much more in the newness except easing in, out and walking about is not that great until they relent under the bulk of your body. In time, though, they get used to your personal configurations and you, theirs. The denim and seams, zipper and brass button begin to conform to the owner’s shape and every requisite movement. After thorough washing several times and repeated wear and stretch, you begin to forget they were once new. They become much better than new–that is, comfortable, a pleasing part of your wardrobe and even the easiest option. Trustworthy, you might say.

The analogy works pretty well but it stops here since the state of being alone is not an object, of course, not disposable or shareable. Unlike blue jeans, its innate and defined nature would be altered entirely: it is no longer be aloneness when including another person. Since I am not talking about the trying experience of acute loneliness–which can move into a danger zone–being alone necessarily exists in a modified vacuum ( things and events can exist in the same time/space). A situation separate from others’ direct impact. This state is at the beck and call of the one who inhabits it. Aloneness can sought out, welcomed and then shaped by what is added or subtracted. It can be avidly protected and nurtured and made into something delectable. And also found wanting, even despised and rejected. Being alone in itself seems to me a neutral state that can be managed for various purposes. It can be a metamorphose into a deepening, complex thing whether it is left to itself or designed with care. It’s nature reflects the one who is alone, the current emotional needs, spiritual flux and physical health.

Since no longer working away from home in a 11-12 hour a day position, it has been a more frequent experience. The first couple of years of (somewhat early) retirement I felt out of sorts being home every day, was more restless than usual. Much was missing suddenly. I found myself seeking contact with storekeepers or people walking their dogs on the street, even the neighbor with a grumpy affect whom I usually avoided. I visited book stores or coffee shops for an hour or two to be a visible part of gathered Homo sapiens. And noticed for the first time that others might be doing the same. I often felt guilty about wasting time but no one else hung their heads in embarrassment or shame. So this was how it was to be anywhere I wanted with no scheduled appointments, doing little of import at ten in the morning or two in the afternoon. I found it extraordinary. Weird. I felt like a wastrel in between moments of enjoying myself.

Lest I forget, let me include the fact–for those who don’t know much about me–that I am married. So, I might agree, not strictly alone in the long run. But he works worse hours than I used to and his business can require travelling. Thus, I’ve ever not had adult company around day in and out. I am often asked if this has bothered me but it became status quo after the first few years of marriage. It was not that relevant even raising five children. We all do what we need to do; I certainly didn’t count myself heroic or unusual as a kind of single parent. Being an independent sort, anyway, I didn’t require his constant presence. I was seldom truly alone with all those kids–and their friends and the pets that came and went. My familial community thrived from my early twenties to late forties–and a couple children returned a short time.

So how much have I even had alone time? The truth is, I’ve had a lifelong kinship with introversion and solitude–as well as moderate extroversion. My work as a human services employee and later, a counselor, kept me connected to large networks of co-workers and clients with emotionally diverse exchanges each day. Beyond work, though not an avid seeker of memberships to groups, there have been some I did enjoy, like choirs or writing critique groups, dance classes and gyms–those which reflect interests.

So when being part of the fray in the work world ceased, I was surprised to find myself out of the loop. Alone. Not dismayed but discombobulated. I was unable to reconcile this outgoing part of my nature with such sudden loss of routine interactions. I am sure most who cannot or do not get up and go to work know what I mean. I had a few months of estrangement wherein a couple of “Meet Ups” with neighborhood writers and also some tai chi students were sampled. Those were dissatisfying. I decided to wait things out, see what developed. How I might change.

There was plenty to do in the meantime with all this elective isolation from the outside world. There were ubiquitous, repetitive household tasks and errands. I read and wrote several hours daily and prepared more submissions for journals. I spent time with my family and a handful of friends when they weren’t working or otherwise engaged. I power walked daily at least an hour–an old habit now possible before nightfall–and did finally join a gym for a year. And, of course, my marriage kept me engaged. We share activities every week-end possible.

Gradually I spent less and less time longing for and seeking others’ company. I can’t pinpoint when, exactly, it happened. I might take into account a few serious family needs that asked more of me. Or hurting my foot and not being able to exercise hard for months. But it started before then, perhaps the end of my first no-paycheck year, when I found the more I hung out with myself, the better it felt. Insidiously, imperceptibly, I changed from someone who longed to be with others every day–the chatty camaraderie and intense work and meetings and gatherings–to someone who didn’t miss it for days on end. Then weeks. That crammed schedule seven days a week faded from memory. The bone-deep tiredness that sometimes brought unbidden tears to my eyes as I finally drove home from work at nine o’clock at night accompanied by the thought: will I always feel overextended? It vanished.

There may have been a smear of loneliness hidden inside all that activity. It was partly an effect of being in a human services profession–it requires output of immense emotional energy, the mental presence that cannot afford to miss important cues, long hours that get longer if you want to do your best. But it was also a result of not refilling my emotional wellspring often enough. This is a hazard for counselors and others in helping professions. Oh, I believed I was exercising good self-care, allotting time to do things I enjoyed. But I needed more. I didn’t think “burn out” was hovering on my horizon nor the suffering from dreaded “compassion fatigue” that hits so many who do such work. Not even after decades. I had seen some bow out from this work after five years or ten. I knew how to avoid such a demise. Right? Of course.

But I may have to amend that now. I better understand I truly required more time…alone. To rest, to follow my separate creative passions, take assiduous care of my health to avoid another heart attack. To experience deep peace in sustainable, rewarding ways.

A memory comes forward of a younger co-worker, perhaps in her mid-thirties, who one day swiveled her chair away from her desk toward mine.

“Cynthia, I’m so tired  of working…. I’m up for a promotion, you know–supervisor of the team. But I hate being copped up in an office, at times find it hard to listen so long to clients. I care about them, sure, but what I want is–oh, never mind.”

She turned away, acutely aware that she had let down her guard. We had been friendly, yes, but neither of us had time or the inclination to get that personal.

“What is it that you really want?” I asked.

“I mean, I want to advance and make more money. I guess. But I am an outdoors person first of all. I love sports and nature and just being on the move physically. It kills me to be sitting every day.”

“I can see that–you fidget, stand up to type, move your legs and feet all over even when you’re at your computer. I keep waiting for you to get up and do jumping jacks. So if you don’t want to be in an office, what would you be doing for work?”

She frowned. “Maybe I shouldn’t be saying all this. I could be your manager.”

I laughed. “No worries. If you’re ever my supervisor, I know you’ll be organized and direct–we’d be fine. And as far as that position–in the last ten years I was offered opportunities twice to get into management. Obviously, I declined. In my earlier career I ran a whole department for a Detroit area aging and home-bound services center, hired and trained and fired people, oversaw 350 clients’ welfare. I wouldn’t do it again though I learned much. I did love the client contact just as I do therapeutic contact here. But you don’t want to even be here…do you?”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Well, no.” She rolled closer and whispered. “I want to be a firefighter or a police officer, maybe an EMT. Is that nuts? But I am an adrenaline junkie, I’m physical, I love those kinds of challenges.” Her face, usually so composed, even emotionless, was fully animated.

“That’s great. So what’s stopping you?”

“Maybe I’m too old to start all over. Or maybe I would fail. And I don’t want to let down some people.”

“You’re stopping you, that’s all. You ought to do what you truly want to do. You can figure it out step by step.”

She nodded, stood up, then turned back leaning against her desk. “What about you? Is this your true calling?”

“Well…I fell in love with it accidentally. But my first passion is writing and I’m thrilled by the arts, though I also crave being outdoors. I’ve enjoyed counselling, yet I’ve waited a long time to do more of what my heart desires. I feel like I need to change that, I’m quitting soon. I’m not that pleased with the clinic’s politics, long hours–I’m just done.”

Her face registered genuine surprise.”But you’re good at this work!”

“So are you. But do you want to keep doing it because you’re good at it or do you want to do what you love most before you’re my age and wish you hadn’t put it off?”

She–a woman known for composed manner, reserved nature– smiled at me warmly. I thought how beautiful she was when she let herself be herself.

“Don’t give up your real dream.” I said.

“You’re right. Thanks… for hearing me.”

“Thanks for talking with me.”

We both went back to work but whenever we saw each other in the halls or at meetings, we exchanged more personal looks and words. We knew each other now in a way no one else there quite did. We each had plans, I imagined.

A month or two later, I left that organization, the work that had become an avid calling. And have not looked back. Whether my co-worker made healthier choices, I do not know. But there needed to be a life change right then. I wanted to slip into a pool of sweet stillness, bask in a lifestyle of fewer demands, less crisis where one poor decision could impact a vulnerable client in terrible ways as well as good one.

I wanted to be more responsible to me, not just others and that mean more air and space inside and outside myself. Solitude beckoned me like along lost my intimate companion, resonating with possibilities. I believed in this separation from the one life for another. And after the first adjustments to make the fit better, my new schedule aligned more with body and mind. Life developed a different rhythm. It went from good to better.

The quietude in my home each morning is an edifying experience. I read meditations, pray while the tea kettle is brewing for a mug of Bengal Spice tea. Classical music is turned on, or jazz. I read from a few books or magazinea as I nibble a simple breakfast of toasted bagel and almond butter. I check my Moleskine planner–still useful. These lists include: WRITE, walk/dance, email or call (fill in blank), download and sort photographs, work on collage journal, WRITE. Paint, watch an online film, walk to tea shop, library, WRITE.

Yet sometimes I worry I could become a recluse. When I began this piece, that was the main thought while all the virtues of being alone rose up. I worry that I won’t do enough to aid others since I have not volunteered for any organization. Should I find ways to make a slew of new friends (who are also getting paid to work)? Will I look for more opportunities to just be kind and friendly? Will I run out of years before I get done all I find so compelling? Will I forget the value of social gatherings, how fascinating it is to spontaneously talk with strangers…will I lose the skill to interpret others’ unspoken selves or stop valuing the common ground of shared talents–and the brainstorming and the simple foolish moments?

You can see there is not a lack of things to stir up my brain even when I’m busy doing things I like. Perhaps it’s the lifetime spent rushing to assist others; one does get used to that mode of being. But it is natural, too, for me to seek other people; they intrigue me, mean something to me. Anyway, I worry, yes about the quality of this present life. And then I do not for long periods. I am becoming at home in the generous welcome of solitude.

I used to jot down story ideas between each clients. Now writing happens daily, and rewriting and more writing. So maybe I will become a woman whose life revolves around teetering towers of books, a love of photography and music. A woman whose life is defined by folders and stacks bursting with ramblings, odd musings, tales that will molder until someone is forced to come in and sweep things clean of all those odds and ends when my days here are done.

Perhaps this will be so. I feel less and less inclined to be concerned.

I trust the teachings of solitude. I see how it clears away my falseness, and renders me accessible to deeper feeling and being. It provides me with daily opportunities to take stock and blame no one but myself for errors. And to uphold my goals and ethics without constant defending of them or approval. My life is on me; the value comes from being alive, not accolades, not even responses from others. I have sought and honed the awareness that nourishment is yielded by constancy of God and I can respond with greater attention to my soul’s authenticity. I am carried into each moment. The directions taken arise from instinct and intuition, from sleep and waking. Small flashes of wonderment. I have a multitude of questions. Now there’s a good portion of time to seek knowledge.

There is also more to free up, snatches that circle within and then land well or clumsily on the page. Many stories may never leave this room. In solitude, who witnesses the joy or misery of what I discover know or undertake? We each face ourselves when alone. We sit with ourselves and are overwhelmed or find we are in acceptable company or some of both. I find it liberating, this going inward and beyond self to a greater embrace of life.

Some days aloneness can seem closer to lonely, its true. Not even my husband or family can abate that. It is being human. It may be the choices I have made. But it passes. I wrap myself in the beautiful patchwork cloak of solitude and it shelters me as I labor and meditate. I release it, let it fall away, and find the joy of other humans as I need to. Living is like being on a seesaw; we each find new points of gravity and balance. That requires careful thought and action.

We all maintain a symbiotic status that serves us well even when we do not share discourse. Whether you speak in the same room, I can still hear–feel–humanity’s hew and cry. Whether I need to come forward to respond more or not is part of what I am learning. How do I live a full and accountable life now that I am sixty-five? I am bursting with ideas. And I patiently toil and rest within this being alone, drawing inward toward more mysterious, opening doors. This time in my life I am giving my soul, mind, heart and body full permission to be still or to speak, to be alone or join others. To allow my writing its own power, relieved of the burden of any more punishing regrets.

Dear God, help me stay loyal to my chosen tasks and to give more freely. And dear readers, may you find your true path and make it a good home for your life.

 

My Call for GodCalming

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I am in need of it despite a surfeit of greenery in the Pacific Northwest; today’s cerulean sky with clouds to redesign it; jumbles of books that should be stocks as I have invested enough in them; sounds of living that lull and inspire from dawn to dark; the arms that catch and hold me fast in affection:  GodCalming.

Yes, I seek a good GodCalming every day.

Because, you see, I am so driven to get on with it and get things done that I have few skills for doing nothing. It seems nearly a waste, the inertia that is urged upon me at times. There is a blandness to it, colorless, empty. There is a lack of intrigue that stimulates me to do something. May I please read from at least magazines as I eat my meal? Can I work on lists for tomorrow as the television blares on? And excuse me, this song on the radio is so exotic and rhythmic I have to get up and dance–I can hear you, but just a minute. I’ll just dust a bit as I move about. And yesterday’s writing session: paragraphs light up in one small region of my brain and they need cutting or correcting, maybe a whole new ending. And bills to pay, those are not yet checked off. I wanted to look up something. There is stuff to be made and art supplies and all the ideas nag at me daily.

When I was still working as a mental health and addictions counselor, I admit you could count on me. I would work overtime. I would do extra research, get every bit of my documentation done before I left, volunteer for a committee, offer to train the new intern, clean up the kitchen mess. To get ahead? Please others? No, really; I was offered management opportunities but I deeply loved to work face-to-face clients. Rather, it was already my nature to stuff all I could into a ten-to-twelve hour day. I was interested in doing things, wanted to learn. Excessive engagement? Perfectionist? Hyperactive? Maybe some of all that, who is to say for certain? Sometimes it sure backfired–the more you do, the more bosses have you do. But this is America and we get used to being driven; it is the way we work.

Bu that is a perspective, not the whole picture. One of my personal fears is not having enough time to live all I want to live. Give what I have to share. Be of enough service. Embrace the love I can.

At a writing convention once, a speaker who is a better published and much younger writer told me, “Don’t worry, there is always time to publish. Just write your heart out; you’ll publish more as you’re ready and you’ll know when that time is.”

I answered, “You’re wrong. That time is here. I feel urgency every day, both to live and to write. For one thing, there is my aggressive form of heart disease but it could be anything, any time, right? For you that feels distant, or maybe you don’t think of it. But the years come and go and there really isn’t enough time to write all that wants to be written. Or do all else that is important to me, for that matter…”

I felt breathless. Her brow furrowed but she smiled as perhaps I was uninformed or a bit out of touch with real reality. I bought her book–she writes well–and walked on. Felt misunderstood and yet undaunted.

This was a scenario oft-repeated since I was a child. People not quite understanding such fervor for living, the undercurrent of urgency. From birth I felt the desire to embrace more and push forward, this life a beautiful puzzle box that contained never-ending mysteries. Let me be fully present, let me at it… it has not left me after six decades. I may be somewhat less dramatic about my choices but our essence rarely changes entirely.

GodCalming. I sought it from the start. A way through the mazes of need and desire. A key to the balance that can elude even as the weight on the scales is constantly redistributed. How to help true symmetry come forward from the free-form abundance of life, its vibrant intensity? As with invisible ink, I have held my life up to the light and sought more answers. Or perhaps only one that would work the best for me.

Sleep is a challenge. I am too busy to sleep. I am praying for everyone I can. Then in the wide-screen of my night mind arrive scenes I have visited and there is planning for places and people yet to see. Oh, no, that last line of the poem/essay/story, all wrong, must rewrite now, get pen and paper. Some times I replay things I should not–certainly could not if I had thought better of it– have said and weighing the pros and cons of being quiet more regularly. The past looms and I have to circumnavigate it. The coming years flare like an awesome firework display that then fizzles in the face of rock-hard realities. My several children float by, younger or older, marvelous, confounding. I wonder how they managed to be stitched into my crazy patchwork life but then think, naw, don’t think about all that. On to other things–I cannot wait to witness the superluna–how again does that work? The stars are out there, singing to themselves; if I listen I might hear them. I sit up, look out the window. My nearsighted, unaided eyes absorb glimmering darkness and my ears, its stillness. I am wide awake.

I lie back down, turn over and call on GodCalming.

I have many ways to root out peace and it’s a good thing. If you’re the sort of person who experiences life at high gear, unerringly attached to accomplishing goals daily, a surplus charge of energy even if sick or wounded, have a relentless curiosity about people and most any other topic–well, then, you’ll get this. Those who can just sit, be content, rest and be happily emptied of questions and concerns may not. I wish I could take that spot for a stretch and know how that is.

I have to stop myself. Make detours from tasks and goals. Quell the brain’s and body’s activities. I must remind myself to take deeper breaths, eat more slowly and better (I sometimes forget altogether), close my eyes and put up my feet. Or maybe stare out the window at the wind in the leaves.

Having a balcony was a bonus when I began living in this spacious, light-filled apartment. It would be an enticement to relax. The trouble is, my place is right next to a rambling three-story house. Sitting on my chair with my cold brew coffee I can see into the driveway but also kitchen and one of the bedrooms if I so choose. And I have heard people singing off-key in the shower. Sometimes this happens even if I try to assiduously avoid paying attention. But I got to watch a small family that lived downstairs grow up. The couples that lived above have seemed to come and go. I got used to all their work schedules, the sound of their cars. Their arguments and enthusiasms. But after many years, in this historical, leafy neighborhood, it became another scenario. I can, I think, safely note–now that some residents have been long gone–that it somehow morphed into a drug house, at least in one part. I know because I sat on my second story, partly covered, wide balcony to read, write, eat, talk on my phone and care for my little potted garden. So I gradually saw it unfold. My momentary refuge outdoors became a post from which I could observe too much. This ought to be another story so suffice it to say, they knew I could see them. I even complained to them about the activities. They just shrugged. And all the while I was going to work to treat addicted and/or mentally ill clients and I had to come back home and see teenagers buying drugs. The police seemed otherwise engaged. The balcony was no longer a place to retreat. Nor was it safe. Eventually it resolved by itself, like an illness that got so bad it created its own intervention.

Our tomato plants are thriving and the flowers are  still lovely. I sit and relax, sometimes. GodCalming. Believe me, I needed that during those couple of years. But I still need it daily, no matter what is going on.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I explained what GodCalming is for me. If you guessed prayer has something to do with it, that is true. And reading Scripture and various meditation books. I do these things in the morning, off and on in the day and at night. I go to church as often as I can or want to and appreciate the liturgy, the music, the fellowship. I attend a Christian women’s study group once a week that is lively and thought-provoking. But it isn’t just about engaging in traditional actions of my faith.

It might include daily walks (when I can walk well again–a broken toe forbids it for now) as I am most content outdoors unless writing. I am a seeker of forest trails, enamored of the mountain ranges that surround our valley. I am at home by water, the Pacific Ocean, the abundant rivers and even stony creeks. Yes, God resides in the elements and I hear, smell, touch, view the Presence as much as I can.

God may find me as I take out pencil and paint. Or listen to refined or funky music and sing and move to shake things up. Read or make poetry. Look for clues of spiritual wisdom woven in conversations, faces, hearts. God is present when I am with our grandchildren, extended family, trusted friends. And God is often right between a stranger and myself. In giving my hands work to do for others. There are so many ways I experience God it would take a long while to note them.

But this is my truest GodCalming: the opening of my being and flooding it with universal synchronicity. A deep reassurance that the infinite design is numinous if also ineffable, still orderly and humming. The absolute sense–of body, mind, spirit–that the meaning we need is in life itself, wherein we realize the intricacate cohesion of what has been, is, ever shall be. Suffering–there is so much–matters. So, too, compassion and mercy. GodCalming infuses me with hope with an acceptance of the duality of life and a unifying force of Love. I am not truly alone here. I am not very unique. I am a reflection of multitudinous wonders, just as are you and you. In this moment there is the essence of wholeness we are each given; we are to be it, use it, share it. We are made of stars, lest we forget.

So I am to rest within the vibrancy of God. Be unafraid. Know God calls to us to do good, walk in humility. To treasure this span of time on earth we each are given. To know there is no full stop, only a continuum. We are welcome travelers, if not always here, then truly in God’s realms.

The world is so frayed. Frantic and heartsick. How fast we all go, treading water at times to just keep our heads above it all. To make sense of chaos. To construct spiritual or actual protection, to hold in our lives peace. To bring to fruition our dearest endeavors. We do have our work to do; we also have need of calm.

And to just lie down at night and find goodness still is afoot in our thinking and doing and resting, in the tender woefulness of this world. It may seem hard to believe but try to trust a little more.

This is my GodCalming: to right now experience Divinity. To be alive with heartfelt abandon. Keep building kindness and courage. Accept the gifts. Take rest now for all to come. Expect miraculous things as they do occur, every moment, somewhere. Be faithful to my own calling, as we each have a place on earth and beyond. And no matter what, know God (in all glory) Is (with us, in this and all worlds).

Breath of God, find and fill us.

 

“God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of trouble… ‘Be still, and know that I am God’…”

–excerpted from Psalm 46

 

 

 

Praises in Place of Pain

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Have you wondered when cascades of minor or major trials will slow and trickle, perhaps even end? Or how you will weather them, and then what sort of state you will be left in when they do once more pause? My own spring and early summer have provided a few wearisome and worrisome times. I have had my moments of irascibility, feeling emptied, undone. But I have a marvelous tool that guides me in fine or foul weather. I have to admit I rarely forget to avail myself of this small action, as it instills tranquility and even buoyancy amidst loathsome moments. Or calms the chaos. It is not a secret, being familiar to most if not all persons. Yet, despite the fact that it is free of cost and requires little effort, it is not always claimed as the healer and helper it is.

Giving praise. That’s it: finding and engaging in grateful thoughts, feelings, actions. For me, that involves frequent prayer. But it also surfaces as I simply live, morning til night, day in and day out. It is so vital to me to express joy in living, appreciation of diverse experiences and my hopefulness despite hard challenges that when I sat down to write today, the praise just welled up and spilled over. I have to tell you, I could write my praises for many pages; you would be faint with boredom by the end of them, no doubt. But innumerable things astound, uplift and illuminate me. Yes, there will be undeniable sorrows and bitter hurts in life. But to be engaged with the omnipresence of God as you live and breathe is to cross those barriers that would keep us ignorant of great marvels, from the simple to sublime.

The next time you are inundated by tribulation, doubt, anger: stop, unclench your fists, breathe in life-sustaining oxygen and praise one thing. Then discover that deep vein within you, let it open and excavate the everlasting gold of the Spirit within you. Live a transformational life.

Praise the evening as it flies daytime remnants, bright flags.
Praise light and long shadows caressing city and country lands.

Praise rains that gather and fall to bring relief.
Praise arch of foot carrying bones and sinew.
Praise the dancing that lifts the soul higher.
Praise palms with their elegant lines of love and life.

Praise lips that kiss and speak without misgiving or fear.
Praise minor keys as they move near major chords.
Praise mountain’s indigo, water’s turquoise, deep valleys between.
Praise tunnels and bridges that lead me across, through.
Praise the path that curves around beasts and blossoms.
Praise the wings of hummingbirds that hover in trees.
Praise the nectar of flowers that fill glorious bees.
Praise eyes and ears that transfer fresh magic.
Praise the love that shows up at the door.
Praise multi-world dreams that entertain sleep.
Praise minds of children who are flooded with whys.
Praise daughters and son for being daughters and son.
Praise ice cubes and mint herbal tea swirling in the glass.
Praise every simple or complicated bread for filling our hunger.
Praise words that deliberate and shining silence that knows.
Praise this humbling moment that grants me space in time.

Praise the strumming of my heart, full of its strength.
Praise revelations of life, preserved, empowered by the Creator!

(“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”)

Leaving Your Troubles Behind

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Sometimes, in the midst of rocking and rolling within our invisible life boats as another mini-gale peaks and subsides, we yearn for a break. And speaking for myself, there are also moments when I need to vacate the confines of my vacuous or nitpicking or redundant thoughts. It isn’t always clear what a reprieve may be despite desperate daydreams or spontaneous forays onto travel sites to check on the cost of a plane ticket to (and cheap hotel room in), say, Copenhagen or Buenos Aries. How many “free” miles has my spouse racked up after several business trips already this year? Likely not enough for where I want to go, what I want to do. I was thinking: a month in a cabin by a sparkling lake under the reassuring watchfulness of mountains in British Columbia. Or a combination of a thrilling/lazy respite in pristine New Zealand. But I will just as gratefully take a steamboat cruise down the Mississippi River for a couple of weeks.

Next year, maybe, if I start saving now.

Since I don’t have huge money at easy disposal I’ve become reasonably adept at taking little internal and external breaks. It gets even easier when the rain stops, since I love the outdoors. I enjoy the beach for a week-end, meander by car over the breathtakingly varied Northwest topography, take day hikes and visit all green spaces and nature preserves we can find nearby. All these make an immediate difference in my state of mind.

Simply stepping into fresher air (for the most part it is fresher in Oregon than many places) gives me a lift. I like my balcony all year around even though it does face a two-story house and a big backyard with its oft-used barbecue. I have flowers in crayon-colored pots. There is room enough for a three or four other folks if required or desired. And I can see partial sunsets and a few choice constellations even within the city.

And there is my usual: daily walks and the gym, music and books, action-packed or funny or romantic movies, light shopping (must watch cash flow), having lunch with friends (as long as heavy topics are off-limits), making art (I even have a Lego brand architecture set waiting for me to build something), visiting galleries and so on. I am not easily bored unless my own mind corners me with it pathetic insistence that I keep perseverating about the infinite meanings of life. Or the lack of signs of optimum earth life. The other night I thought: I just have to shut the door on myself more often. Granted, I have been grieving my sister’s death, but the thought still seemed right in the morning. It was easier to do that when I still worked long hours with other people’s issues.

But there are times when I am surprised by a turn of events, when even something expected takes on a far better sheen and opens up mind and spirit.

My new once-a-week break took shape a few months ago when I joined a women’s study group at my church. Alright, I suspect you want to stop reading right now and are thinking: really, a religious group, a bunch of women mostly over forty and a couple into their eighties? Not an auspicious rendering of “taking a break.” But I had gone to the traditional coffee hour after a church service and talked with an artistic woman whose cards I admired. She–right then and there–asked me if I would like to come to the Open Circle group. I liked the name of it immediately and her responsive but quiet way, so agreed to attend, shocking myself.

It took a month or two to get there, but when I made the decision I felt ready. Yet, as I entered heavy wooden side doors and trudged up the stairs to a very large room, it again crossed my mind that maybe this was not what I needed or was looking for; maybe it would even put me to sleep. Or I would say something not acceptable to them. But I had been looking for a welcoming, energizing congregation for years and when I finally felt that church might be the one, I took an unprecedented action: I joined something without having a clear idea what it was about and would happen.

Frankly, I am not an easy joiner as much as I appreciate mingling and working with others. And I do not fit a “typical” mainstream Christian believer in a few ways, due to my own theological understandings and personal experiences. I have tried other study groups throughout the years and never found a comfortable spot, at least not since my youth.

It has, however, occurred to me that being comfortable is not always the best thing. Into the room I went and surveyed the scene.

The women sat in a loose circle as if reflecting the name Open Circle. The decaf and regular coffee dispensers and cookies of the sort one has at any meeting anywhere were arranged on a cart. I availed myself of some of each. I was instructed to write my name on folded white construction paper as the others had done, then placed it at the spot I claimed. I recognized a few faces; people greeted me with a smile and nod. And we began.

I’ll spare you the tiresome bits and exact nature of our studies. But I do want to note that each time we get to know one another with creative icebreaker questions and personal prayer requests. The informative studies happen, but within this context. And the women are lively in discussion, thoughtful and open to others’ opinions.

Their sincerity that first day nearly overwhelmed me. Many are so invested they continue to attend after many years, extend themselves to one other beyond the meeting, engage with bold intelligence. It is a genuine community of thinkers and doers, all Christian and still searching for greater knowledge and connection.

I couldn’t wait to go back and did so. After a couple of months I began to develop a clearer sense of folks. My respect has grown. Their lives, of course, hold challenges not readily apparent while demonstrating strength and hope moves me. I began to rearrange a corner here and there in my mind so it was a better space to think about things in a fresh ways, ponder an array of faith concerns, consider the impact of their lives intersecting with mine. I am learning more about our complicated, sometimes  confounding faith. It is like moving steadily across a common landscape toward a brightening horizon, only this time not so alone. New information is being excavated, with better tools to aid us as we dig even deeper. How do we demonstrate in our living what we are committed to upholding?

The prayers at that table can shake me in my innermost center. Those moments tell me this is where Spirit thrives and people work to bring into fruition thoughts and deeds of compassion, despite human frailties. God, after all, already knows how and why we have failed or could fail–but that’s no excuse for not keeping at it.

Yesterday was the end-of-the-year group luncheon. It sounded like a pleasant way to spend a few hours at a stunning home with women I wanted to know better. The sky was displaying its early summer genius with vivid blue; bright sunshine made it even better. Roses and many other flowers were showing off, their blooms redolent of a tender richness. As I entered, women greeted me, chatted with me, showed me around. Iced tea and lemonade and a little wine were passed from outdoor table to hands. I finally took a seat and in minutes enjoyed various companions. Something interesting was revealed about each person with whom I conversed as we filled the deep patio and shady yard, waiting for lunch to be served.

The hostess, a woman likely in her later seventies or early eighties, made all the food herself. The simple lunch was made of freshest ingredients with subtle but tasty seasonings. The desserts–five that I can recall–were five-star deliciousness. We ate off pretty china and sipped from chilled crystal goblets. I was told this lady puts on the luncheon yearly, as she has been church and group member for more than a couple of decades. It is an act of love, a gracious offering of her time and an unusual talent for hospitality. I left content, satiated by excellent food (I am not a foodie, either) and genial conversation.

Much to think over. Already I am wishing it was autumn so the group could reconvene. I look forward to welcoming someone who is newer, finding out how to be of service, participating in more thought-provoking discussions. I am hoping to become a good friend as well as welcome others into my life. And that my faith will expand and be shared in effective ways.

This post was to be about taking a break, leaving behind troublesome or self-absorbed thoughts that can threaten to undermine–any sort of reprieve that does what you need it to do. Or what you weren’t looking for at the start. And maybe this kind of time away from your home or head would not be for you. I wish you well in your search for rejuvenation.

But for me, this circle of pilgrim women has been a surprising answer to prayer.

(Thank you, KB, for extending a kind invitation to me.)