Friday, November 30, 2007

graphite delight

"In this quiet moment
of a changing season,
We are called to remember:
Never stand still,
but move with one heart."

~ The Monks of Weston Priory, Move With One Heart

A universal transformation, even within the simplest of lives, is at once formidable and humbling. In my experience this has been so, through efforts to recover from loss, and, yes, in the reception of unexpected blessing. Hoping, as a human can, in fits and starts- but rarely with a sense of expectation. And perhaps the latter aspect is the defining corollary of trust. When we say we are in awe, we call forth a word that represents the paradox of both reverent inspiration and fright. When we are in awe, Webster’s Collegiate refers to our being in "an overwhelming admiration, fear, or wonder produced by that which is grand, sublime, and extremely powerful." Such descriptive imagery does not easily come to mind during times of tragedy, but it certainly does when we are overtaken by blessing we may not have dared to expect. When he retrospectively looked at his career, the apostle Paul advised his students to know how to "be both abased and abound;" through the spectrum of circumstances he viewed his life as a conduit, and not as the ultimate source of strength and inspiration. I think he found this powerfully liberating and humbling at the same time. And the wonder of this moment surely has no time to think about dread. To realize hopes I hadn’t dared to fully presume is cause to be abound. Yes, it is humbling and there is the awe of the road ahead (and remembrance of the ground already traveled), but the unfettered gift of joy is to be savoured.

A dear and wise friend recently wrote some poignant words to me about the joining together of souls, expressing, "the holding of hands can heal all the wounds of the past and the heart." The modest eloquence of the gesture manifests the unity that dwells within. I remember the occasions when I would be in attendance when a monk would make his profession, and at the Weston Priory they dance in a circle, hands clasped together, celebrating the circuitry of their kindredship. The living parables of drawing together and moving forward never cease to amaze me, considering how no two lives, no two histories, are exactly alike. But it is the mysterious combination of trust, unanimity, and pluralism that makes things continue to thrive. Considering again the words of my quoted friend, those observances of kindredship do neutralize past anguishes, and the pains which had only persisted to exist in their phantom forms, are finally washed away. And though we may set aside some long-established facets of our lives, we do so with a jubilant enthusiasm for the embarkation upon new beginnings.

The new chapter of the evolving journey moves between recovery and discovery. My origins and experiences serve me well in their context as reference points, not as focal points. When the ancient Psalmist settled his heart after having traversed intense duress, across the expanse of thousands of years it is still possible to hear his sigh of gratitude at finally being at peaceful respite. The depths of his gracious utterance amounted to very simple words that sufficed: "my heart is not haughty, neither are my eyes set on things beyond me; in the quiet I have stilled my soul." As the humbled David, in this instance, it is a wonder to be awed by goodness. And I’m willing to wager that even he never received a love letter, written all in pencil! Oh, but I know where I came from (and know not to ever belittle the disenfranchised), the journeys and places well known to me, giving enormous savour to something not quite comprehensible, yet renewing, and delightful.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

anam ćara

"Nothing has been
what I guessed so far.
This most sweet
Beautiful change."

~ The Innocence Mission, Beautiful Change

For those of us who have grown so accustomed to contending with life’s challenges, often steering our vessels through and around treacherous seas, and then find ourselves unlearning such ideas that have solidified our notions of life as some barrage of conflicts, the prospect of profound joy is both disarming and exhilarating. Aren’t the humbled visited by the sublime? Can we dare to really believe in the actuality of things we have hoped for? Of course, it’s all very well to speculate about hope, but what of the faith to consciously live one’s days with the certitude that we will see joyous times? Indeed, there’s enough in this society to persuade anyone to develop a habit of expecting the worst. Yet the force of such conditioning is thwarted and subverted when our souls behold something good. Though we may not know the forms in which goodness comes to us, it is at once sufficient and daring to desire the will of God, come what may. "Joy is never in our power," C.S. Lewis once wrote, and part of the surprise of glad tidings is the realization that change can surely be for the better. And all I can do is embrace the one who has come into my life, and be heartily grateful. Much like the very timely description of the Advent, the deepest fulfillment is a consistent and often quiet celebration.

The course of my pilgrimage steps evolves still more, with the new dimension of sharing my life with another’s. It is a living miracle that has taken time for me to believe, firstly because enough past failures obscured my vision of human relationships, and due to my plain astonishment with this advent of two soul mates finding one another. I have loved much and lost much, and yet am now mysteriously certain of being loved. Did I honestly believe years of those kinds of prayers would be answered? It is both expectation and surprise; recent years of adventures left me strengthened and prepared, though also quite delightfully unready for this new course of life. Beginning leads to beginning. Transition is a certain aspect on the voyage, and for myself this has been an evolving series of seasons of change. Through it all, I am still me; somehow that is sufficient. Surely my perspective and context are changing, but these are things that must develop with the days. And this raises the question, not of identity, but of how one identifies oneself. Soon, I shall cease to think of myself as solitary; and indeed it has been my wish that solitude be temporary. It has had great value- right up to the crossroads of this new threshold.

By embracing any new way of living, it has been necessary for me to surrender old notions: to understand the differences between how things may seem, and how they really are. And the best uses of the past, as any other historian would advocate, are in the lessons learned. For many years I have known how the soul longs to be recognized and understood, for its own intrinsic value, but what happens when that recognition is realized? When I did not strive to be accepted, I found myself embraced and esteemed. Seeking and finding by being. Still further, if seeking does preclude finding, have I really understood the meaning and the potential of seeking? Producing an answer will probably take even longer than it took to procure the question! Indeed, my healed heart has been awakened to something new. Life is changing and astonishingly so, in the ways I have wished for it to change. And through these transitions, I have glimpsed at how little I really need, and how complete my life has become- solitary or not. And now, it is both desire and time that hurtle the days forward.

In Wind, Sand, and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, "Love does not consist in just gazing at each other but in looking onward together in the same direction." Now I understand how soul-companions, those who consider the other as, in the Gaelic expression, their anam ćara, can be for one another reminders of belonging and home; their very presence a place of mutual refuge and nurturing. Now I know. As spiritual life draws us to embrace those around us, indeed our love and respect for each other is also a gratitude to our Creator. And renewed hopes can also mean finding new things to hope for, advancing from our hopes realized.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

un chant nouveau

"Here at the portal thou dost stand,
and with thy little hand
Thou openest the mysterious gate
Into the future’s
undiscovered land."

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, To A Child

If the measuring of our days and years is a marking of events and milestones, this recent season of many changes is perhaps a small portion of one greater threshold I have yet to fully perceive. Each of us can be our own documentary historian or statistician, as our imaginations will incline, choosing to appraise the moments that re-route our lives’ directions. And points in time may not necessarily have standardized durations. We cannot always know what is happening beneath the surface. Can the momentous manifest over a lengthened stretch of time, as well as in the twinkling of an eye? In the same sense, there cannot be one rigid surface-measurement for a threshold of the spirit. I may consider a year of thresholds, or a threshold of years. Some of us may retrospectively notice finite spans of time, such as our schooling years, considering numerous transitions as part of one impressionable passage. During my first September after graduating from college, I finally noticed having advanced away from the long shadow cast by consecutive school years beginning at the age of four. Alongside our perceptions is the mystery of realizing avenues presented to us by our circumstances (seemingly enforced), balanced with those we can determine for ourselves. Occasionally, we actually have a say in the matter. For a number of years, it had been necessary for me to work three- and sometimes four- simultaneous jobs, in order to survive. When there were projects of fixed-length, I had to continue to find new ones, in a constant pursuit. But the rewards came in the form of being able to make many rejuvenating retreats, finding ways to coordinate the time with my employers. In varying proportion there are time spans imposed upon us, beyond which we can find the journeys we choose to embark upon- and even change.

Transplanting the personal effects of two decades of daily life into a new home has provided yet another tangible threshold traversal. Though not to draw an over-importance to the occasion, the lasting impression is that of an initial enthusiasm for a new context for a new life, mixed with nostalgia for what had been simpler and staid. After that, a focused desire to move forward, and leave behind portions of the past that can cloud the brightness of this season and those to follow. And the plain, exhausting physical work ensued- a combination of heavy labor and delicate transport; enough immediacy to divert from much self-reflection. Where will the writing-table go? From there, seeing the mixture of everything from childhood artifacts to the day’s mail, heaped into an undecorated, darkened, and unheated space, generated a restless regret for the comfort I left behind. Now, the irreversible barrier of time’s increase causes me to reckon, take stock, and know not to even entertain looking back. And the life-giving forward-looking neutralizes the lure of the past.

A year of travels and transition winds again into the country of cold weather. Pilgrimage may be comprehended as a year of many days’ transition, or more broadly as an unfolding voyage, prefaced and accompanied by years of transformation. But surely not simply change for the sake of change; by choosing to move forward, albeit while seeing through the proverbial glass darkly, we can indeed journey from one fulfillment to another. The future is not meant to be a replication of the past. At times the new scenery is tangibly before us, in forms of foreign lands and living spaces, or simply in the ways our vision of the ordinary is transformed. Though my hands are cold as I type these words, bundled in outer clothing in this chilled apartment, my books are on their shelves and I’ve put some pictures on some of the walls. The place is clean and presentable, save for the still-packed material that will either be kept or discarded. This process has permitted me to detach from such heavy anchors as material possessions can become. A sense of home will follow, just as it had in my previous place. Just the other day, during a respite at the Boston Athenaeum, something of a home from home, amidst many familiar reminders, it suddenly became possible for me to "re-approach" the new living space back in Portland. Sensing the connotation of importance in everyday occurrences, in the miraculous eloquence of the simplest nuances in this season’s light and air, in the cadence of familiar conversant voices, are subtle reminders of mutual encouragement between my friends and me. I know I am not alone. Such is the good sort of anchor, in a safe harbor; a homecoming following a tumultuous passage. Not only is it good to take stock in what I find hopeful, but it is a gift in itself to be able to take stock. The winter is indeed a fresh start, and it reveals within a springtime of the heart.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

where the heart is

"Journeys ended
Journeys begun:
To go where we have never been;
To be beyond our past."

~ Monks of Weston Priory, Spirit Alive

Embarking still on another transition, along this unfolding journey, I have just moved from my home of many years. There surely was no great distance involved, but anyone who has packed decades of their belongings and vacated their living space, can understand that geography carries a separate impact from that of leaving behind the stable place called home. And this implication takes so many forms in these times. When I completed graduate school, I left the place of employment at which I hard-worked a living for nearly 13 grueling years. In such long stretches of time, places can become deeply personalized- and even internalized. Places that are thoroughly intertwined with our days become the arenas in which major parts of our lives are staged. At that job, I saw a life’s spectrum of individuals, situations, and emotions, all in the intensity of human lives engaged in stressed employment. The day I carried out the last of my personal effects from "my" studio space, I filled my car with supplies, tools, and manuals- along with cases of music discs, wall decorations, and coffee cups. When I did that last once-over, before turning off the lights, the bare shell of a space had the ghostly look of a lifeless cavern. I subtly realized how humanity combined with ingenuity can animate an ordinary space, making it into a place which emanates creativity and color, as a soul inhabits a body.

The home I’ve inhabited and cherished for nearly twenty-two years is now in the past. Only months out of college, I carried those first crated bundles of books up the steep narrow stairs and through the door. The place was barely affordable, but minutes by bicycle from work. Over the years, those three modest rooms in the Victorian mansard became something equivalent to a favorite pair of shoes: not the flashiest, but comfy and versatile enough to be favored despite its flaws. Convenient and hospitable. And in various combinations of my circumstances changing, and my challenges to transform my own life, I would reshape my home in numerous ways. That little configuration of rooms and nooks was a quiet study and a sanctuary, as well as a place of celebration and dinner parties. And indeed, aloneness and grieving. My long sojourns with the Benedictine monks in Vermont taught me to transfigure a place of desolation into a venue of friendship and warmth. On one of my countless retreats at Weston, Brother Philip told me that "it isn’t enough to say welcome; you must be welcome." Such thoughts bring us to realize the distinction between place and presence.

Throughout these years, there have been numerous times for me to reflect upon the definition of home. What is home, and where is home? Is this something that can be provided, or withheld, or even created anywhere? An ancient monastic saying exhorts the seeker to "carry your cell with you, wherever you go." This surely addresses our contemporary nomadic lives, and how families tend to scatter between chasms of large distances. Clearly the most joyful recollections about my home are connected to how it became a place of gathering and kindredship, and doubtlessly that will continue in the new place. When contemplatives were enjoined to set forth with their "cells," my understanding is that it was to express that they should wear their spirit of welcome and compassion in all places and at all times. Yes, Spirit transcends space.

And now life evolves still further. Recent years have seen increments of transition, much of it intellectual and spiritual. Transmuting perspectives. Now there is a physical transference. In those instances when I’ve noticed myself dragging my own absurd self, kicking and screaming, into all that is good about new life, I’ve had to recall the intertwined nature of stress and turning-points. Now it is useful to be reminded that just as we find our footing, after welcoming gifts into our lives, we must then move those feet some more, even in a seemingly unknowing faith. Admittedly, moving on- whether metaphorically or physically- surfaces the immediate temptation of regretting the benefits we once had, but that is invariably surpassed by the brilliant expanse opening before us. The present and future needn’t be replications of past things which surely pale in comparison to what is yet to be created.

At home I experienced the full range of emotions-
lost love very painfully,
but found love, and was reassured of the miraculous
(see detail from top of wall, above, in picture below),
with a surpassing strength of hope and gratitude.