I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.
My seven-year-old grandson sleeps just down the hall from me, and he wakes up a lot of mornings and he says, “You know, this could be the best day ever.” And other times, in the middle of the night, he calls out in a tremulous voice, “Nana, will you ever get sick and die?”
I think this pretty much says it for me and for most of the people I know, that we’re a mixed grill of happy anticipation and dread. So I sat down a few days before my 61st birthday,and I decided to compile a list of everything I know for sure. There’s so little truth in the popular culture, and it’s good to be sure of a few things.
For instance, I am no longer 47, although this is the age I feel, and the age I like to think of myself as being. My friend Paul used to say in his late 70s that he felt like a young man with something really wrong with him.
Our true person is outside of time and space, but looking at the paperwork, I can, in fact, see that I was born in 1954. My inside self is outside of time and space. It doesn’t have an age. I’m every age I’ve ever been, and so are you, although I can’t help mentioning as an aside that it might have been helpful if I hadn’t followed the skin care rules of the ’60s, which involved getting as much sun as possible while slathered in baby oil and basking in the glow of a tinfoil reflector shield.
It was so liberating, though, to face the truth that I was no longer in the last throes of middle age, that I decided to write down every single true thing I know. People feel really doomed and overwhelmed these days, and they keep asking me what’s true. So I hope that my list of things I’m almost positive about might offer some basic operating instructions to anyone who is feeling really overwhelmed or beleaguered.
Number one: the first and truest thing is that all truth is a paradox. Life is both a precious, unfathomably beautiful gift, and it’s impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It’s been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive.It’s so hard and weird that we sometimes wonder if we’re being punked. It’s filled simultaneously with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, desperate poverty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together. I don’t think it’s an ideal system.
Number two: almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes — including you.
Three: there is almost nothing outside of you that will help in any kind of lasting way,unless you’re waiting for an organ. You can’t buy, achieve or date serenity and peace of mind. This is the most horrible truth, and I so resent it. But it’s an inside job, and we can’t arrange peace or lasting improvement for the people we love most in the world.They have to find their own ways, their own answers. You can’t run alongside your grown children with sunscreen and ChapStick on their hero’s journey. You have to release them.It’s disrespectful not to. And if it’s someone else’s problem, you probably don’t have the answer, anyway.
Our help is usually not very helpful. Our help is often toxic. And help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody.
This brings us to number four: everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared, even the people who seem to have it most together. They are much more like you than you would believe, so try not to compare your insides to other people’s outsides. It will only make you worse than you already are.
Also, you can’t save, fix or rescue any of them or get anyone sober. What helped me get clean and sober 30 years ago was the catastrophe of my behavior and thinking. So I asked some sober friends for help, and I turned to a higher power. One acronym for God is the “gift of desperation,” G-O-D, or as a sober friend put it, by the end I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.
So God might mean, in this case, “me running out of any more good ideas.”
While fixing and saving and trying to rescue is futile, radical self-care is quantum, and it radiates out from you into the atmosphere like a little fresh air. It’s a huge gift to the world. When people respond by saying, “Well, isn’t she full of herself,” just smile obliquely like Mona Lisa and make both of you a nice cup of tea. Being full of affection for one’s goofy, self-centered, cranky, annoying self is home. It’s where world peace begins.
Number five: chocolate with 75 percent cacao is not actually a food.
Its best use is as a bait in snake traps or to balance the legs of wobbly chairs. It was never meant to be considered an edible.
Number six —
writing. Every writer you know writes really terrible first drafts, but they keep their butt in the chair. That’s the secret of life. That’s probably the main difference between you and them. They just do it. They do it by prearrangement with themselves. They do it as a debt of honor. They tell stories that come through them one day at a time, little by little.When my older brother was in fourth grade, he had a term paper on birds due the next day, and he hadn’t started. So my dad sat down with him with an Audubon book, paper, pencils and brads — for those of you who have gotten a little less young and remember brads — and he said to my brother, “Just take it bird by bird, buddy. Just read about pelicans and then write about pelicans in your own voice. And then find out about chickadees, and tell us about them in your own voice. And then geese.”
So the two most important things about writing are: bird by bird and really god-awful first drafts. If you don’t know where to start, remember that every single thing that happened to you is yours, and you get to tell it. If people wanted you to write more warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.
You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart: your stories, memories, visions and songs — your truth, your version of things — in your own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us,and that’s also why you were born.
Seven: publication and temporary creative successes are something you have to recover from. They kill as many people as not. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine. The most degraded and evil people I’ve ever known are male writers who’ve had huge best sellers. And yet, returning to number one, that all truth is paradox, it’s also a miracle to get your work published, to get your stories read and heard. Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, that it will fill the Swiss-cheesy holes inside of you. It can’t. It won’t. But writing can. So can singing in a choir or a bluegrass band. So can painting community murals or birding or fostering old dogs that no one else will.
Number eight: families. Families are hard, hard, hard, no matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be. Again, see number one.
At family gatherings where you suddenly feel homicidal or suicidal –remember that in all cases, it’s a miracle that any of us, specifically, were conceived and born. Earth is forgiveness school. It begins with forgiving yourself, and then you might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants.
When William Blake said that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love, he knew that your family would be an intimate part of this, even as you want to run screaming for your cute little life. But I promise you are up to it. You can do it, Cinderella, you can do it,and you will be amazed.
Nine: food. Try to do a little better. I think you know what I mean.
Number 10 –grace. Grace is spiritual WD-40, or water wings. The mystery of grace is that God loves Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin and me exactly as much as He or She loves your new grandchild. Go figure.
The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and heals our world. To summon grace, say, “Help,” and then buckle up. Grace finds you exactly where you are, but it doesn’t leave you where it found you. And grace won’t look like Casper the Friendly Ghost, regrettably. But the phone will ring or the mail will come and then against all odds, you’ll get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness. It helps us breathe again and again and gives us back to ourselves, and this gives us faith in life and each other. And remember — grace always bats last.
Eleven: God just means goodness. It’s really not all that scary. It means the divine or a loving, animating intelligence, or, as we learned from the great “Deteriorata,” “the cosmic muffin.” A good name for God is: “Not me.” Emerson said that the happiest person on Earth is the one who learns from nature the lessons of worship. So go outside a lot and look up. My pastor said you can trap bees on the bottom of mason jars without lidsbecause they don’t look up, so they just walk around bitterly bumping into the glass walls. Go outside. Look up. Secret of life.
And finally: death. Number 12. Wow and yikes. It’s so hard to bear when the few people you cannot live without die. You’ll never get over these losses, and no matter what the culture says, you’re not supposed to. We Christians like to think of death as a major change of address, but in any case, the person will live again fully in your heart if you don’t seal it off. Like Leonard Cohen said, “There are cracks in everything, and that’s how the light gets in.” And that’s how we feel our people again fully alive.
Also, the people will make you laugh out loud at the most inconvenient times, and that’s the great good news. But their absence will also be a lifelong nightmare of homesickness for you. Grief and friends, time and tears will heal you to some extent. Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate and moisturize you and the ground on which you walk.
Do you know the first thing that God says to Moses? He says, “Take off your shoes.”Because this is holy ground, all evidence to the contrary. It’s hard to believe, but it’s the truest thing I know. When you’re a little bit older, like my tiny personal self, you realize that death is as sacred as birth. And don’t worry — get on with your life. Almost every single death is easy and gentle with the very best people surrounding you for as long as you need. You won’t be alone. They’ll help you cross over to whatever awaits us. As Ram Dass said, “When all is said and done, we’re really just all walking each other home.”
I think that’s it, but if I think of anything else, I’ll let you know.
Young, tender, vulnerable.
Funny and fun loving.
A crooked boyish smile.
Blue eyes with a Christmas morning sparkle.
Slow dancing, holding me gently, like I was fragile and precious. Love poems before we ever even kissed. Dozens of roses and one time a black orchid.
Cutting in at dances when I went with someone else.
Dancing, I only come up to his chin.
I often ask: “Are you still up there?”
And every time he answers: “Always.”
And he meant it.
I look at you through memories
of running in the rain,
of funny children’s stories
and haunted Halloweens.
Of how you learned to hold me
and simply let me cry,
listening to my fears
to heal me of my fright.
Of you overcoming phobias,
so I wouldn’t be alone
while camping in the woods
or giving talks on Type.
Of nightmare trips in broken cars
and cabins full of scouts,
houses filled with strangers
and jeep rides in the night.
Letters shared in parking lots
and rooms full of golden flowers,
the kaleidoscope of memories
that fill my heart with love.
Psalm of Fifty-eight Years
All these years of tenderness and love, of fears and frustration and laughter
there has been you.
Your love has always been my strength because I knew you would be with me, any where I went. Now, in this new heartbreaking time of fearing the ocean of loneliness that lies ahead. I struggle to let go, to set you free, to not make it harder to accept whatever comes. Grace comes at night when I turn to God , who has been with us always in both the pain and joy. Then I know we’ll be together once more with tenderness, and laughter, and love at home with God.
I Miss You
In the silent nighttime loneliness,
even in the sunshine’s warmth
and cheerful chatter of the birds,
there’s still an emptiness.
I miss you.
I even miss your morning frown
from reading that day’s news,
when I would try to get a smile
by showing you the comic strips.
I miss your laugh.
In the busyness of daily chores
I often turn toward your door
to ask you someone’s number,
then catch myself, suddenly in tears
from missing you.
You always were so softly quiet,
I’d wonder if you’d gone out.
Yet silence now is so profound,
it has the very solemn sound
On Fridays, our party night,
I fix our usual picnic supper
and find my favorite TV show,
but you’re not here to snuggle.
I miss your snore.
Even church is not the same.
I keep waiting for you to come
and fill the empty spot beside me.
Then my tears begin to blind me,
because I miss you.
I remember that I complained
about how little we just talked.
Now, it would seem enough
If I could just hold your hand.
I miss you so.
I ‘m truly happy you now have joy.
I trust there’s a reason I’m still here
and that grace will get me through
until we’re together once more.
But I still miss you.
Heartbreak and joy are the two sides of loving.
I woke up this morning heartbroken over my husband’s suffering. The last week has been much worse for him physically and emotionally. There is some hope that a procedure he has scheduled will give him a respite from the worst of his physical symptoms right now. But his symptoms may indicate that the end is nearer than we had hoped.
Intellectual denial and emotional denial are two separate stages of grieving. In the first you cling to the belief that medical treatment will relieve the worst of a condition. In the second you recognize intellectually that suffering and loss are inevitable, but do not let that knowledge set off an emotional response. Once you respond emotionally, there are times of deep sorrow and heartbreak. But also recognizing that while God may not take away this suffering, God is in it with you. And in the midst of heart break there are moments of joy.
I have several small daily devotional books I read most mornings. But with the stress now, my memory is getting even worse and I find I can’t keep the helpful thoughts in mind. So, this morning I decided to just randomly chose one book and repeat that teaching over and over to keep it in my heart and mind all day. This morning I chose “The Upper Room.”
Today’s writing was by a woman from Nigeria about her husband dying though she had prayed to God to save him. At the end she takes comfort from 2 Cor. 12:9:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
I don’t believe my choice of what to read today was a coincidence. God is with us in this.
This weekend I drove an hour away to pick up a grandchild that we have not been able to spend much time with since the first of the year. She gets carsick and was pretty miserable during the trip. She had also been exploring the woods all day and it had set her allergies off. I was afraid that I had chosen a bad time to bring her to visit. Her parents are divorcing and she has become a very solemn and quiet child. My husband has been heartbroken that she never smiles anymore and I have missed the long conversations we used to have. She and I were sharing a bed and for the first time in a long time, she was very talkative. It was a lovely blessing and a sign that she is recovering from her world being shaken. But after sleeping a couple of hours her allergies became so severe, she was having trouble breathing. She hadn’t brought her medicines, but fortunately I found some Benadryl for children and it gave her relief and allowed her to sleep. The next day she and my husband renewed their long competition at cards. And after trouncing him thoroughly, she rewarded him with one of her brilliant smiles. His smile matched hers.
When you love deeply, you are vulnerable to heart break, but that love also brings great joy in seemingly small events. And when you have reached the end of your strength there is God.
My friend of over forty years, Norma Parham, died last week. She was a very interesting, talented and paradoxical woman. I miss having her to call and laugh with about aging. For the last year she had been a resident in a nursing home in rural Hickman County, where she played the piano for the residents and had just bought a ukelele to learn to play. She was the only Republican I ever knew that subscribed to Communist magazines in the 1970’s. They were delivered in brown paper wrappers. She grew up Church of Christ and converted to Catholicism. Though getting a Masters in Religious Ed made her a skeptic about taking scripture literally, she loved the psalms. Her mind was analytical, but at heart she was a mystic. She wrote poetry, painted, sang, and could tear up a piano playing everything from Boogie Woogie to Beethoven. She loved shooting my Pollyanna ideas down. She taught for 36 years. When I started teaching, she advised me to not smile for the first six weeks. When asked what it was like in her first years of teaching with several grades in one classroom, she said it was like herding cats. She spent summers either traveling or studying abroad on her own. She grew up in Hickman County in the country without indoor plumbing and with heat from a wood burning stove. After teaching about thirty years, she had a rather cynical opinion on the direction education was headed. So, when the new principal, a hardly dry behind the ears coach, called a meeting for all the teachers, she sat in the back row reading a newspaper. After a while the young new principal suggested that she might learn something if she stopped reading and listened. She carefully folded the paper and took out a pencil and pad and took notes for the rest of his talk. When it was over, she gave him her “notes,” suggesting that he might find them informative. The paper was completely filled with his grammar mistakes and her corrections. She was one of a kind. I miss the possibility of her.
A quote by Tara Brach from the blog: Make Believe Boutique
You might ask yourself: “Can I imagine what it would be like, in this moment, to have a heart that is ready for anything?”
If our hearts are ready for anything, we can open to our inevitable losses and to the depths of our sorrow. We can grieve our lost loves, our lost youth, our lost health, our lost capacities. This is part of our humanness, part of the expression of our love for life. As we bring a courageous presence to the truth of loss, we stay available to the immeasurable ways that love springs forth in our life.
If our hearts are ready for anything, we will spontaneously reach out when others are hurting. Living in an ethical way can attune us to the pain and needs of others, but when our hearts are open and awake, we care instinctively. This caring is unconditional—it extends outward and inward wherever there is fear and suffering.
If our hearts are ready for anything, we are free to be ourselves. There’s room for the wildness of our animal selves, for passion and play. There’s room for our human selves, for intimacy and understanding, and for creativity and productivity. There’s room for spirit and for the light of awareness to suffuse our moments. The Tibetans describe this confidence to be who we are as “the lion’s roar.”
If our hearts are ready for anything, we are touched by the beauty and poetry and mystery that fill our world.
With an undefended heart, we can fall in love with life over and over every day. We can become children of wonder, grateful to be walking on earth, grateful to belong with each other and to all of creation. We can find our true refuge in every moment, in every breath. Tara Brach
I found this quote on the blog, Make Believe Boutique. It’s Buddhist, but the only difference I can see between this and Christianity is our recognizing that we personally fall short of the glory of God and need the saving grace of Jesus. Otherwise it beautifully describes our human experience, hopes and spirituality.
From Waylon Lewis:
I love Christmas: I love simple, personal presents. I love coziness, and world-quieting white snow, which slows us all down and makes even bustling cities feel like they were Norman Rockwell 1940s landscapes. I love fires, and dinners, and parties with old and new friends and children and elders, people I wouldn’t ordinarily get to talk with much. I don’t see my family, these days, they’re all spread about the US, and money is tight, and that always tinges this time with emptiness. But I love sadness, as my mom’s Buddhist teacher said it’s the most genuine of human emotions though we’re not to covet it. I love, at this darkest time of the year, remembering that life is short, and it progresses quickly, and memory fades and all that really matters is being a good person, and making the better of two iffy choices every step along the way. It’s a wonderful life, after all. So let’s put the ‘holy‘ back in the Holidays. Let’s buy gifts that better the world, and support good people doing good things. Let’s put away our phones and laptops and TVs—if only briefly—and make some eye contact, and say the obvious: ‘I love you, and this is why.’ Or, ‘I’m sorry things have been funny between us. Let’s be genuine, and have a good talk.’ Because, before you know it, one third of your friends will have divorced moved away lost their hair become old people or even died of accidents or dis-ease or, you know, life. I’m still only 35, but I lose a friend a year, whether in China to an avalanche or right here at home, just a month ago, an only-recently-perfectly lovely healthy powerful friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer, stage IV. In Buddhism we say: this precious human birth is fragile. Make good use of it. Think about others as much as you do yourself and you yourself will find that elusive happiness. Meditate a few minutes, at least, each morning, before the ephemeral to-do lists that seem so important, the lusts and the anxieties, clutter up your snowy peaceful dozy mind. Don’t chase after the fast food of life: sex, bad food, money, big houses, cool cars. They don’t make you happy, the only thing that makes you happy is you sorting yourself out…