I don’t like commercial television and rarely watch it, but I caught a muted ad one morning this week from the corner of my eye that intrigued me. I saw Passiton.org on the screen and looked it up.
I encourage you to go explore this site for yourself. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful videos, billboards, articles, and stories about real people. It’s positive, optimistic, and heartfelt. One of the videos, titled Caring and set to lyrics by Bryan Adams, particularly touched me.
For some time, as I go about my life, I’ve thought about the practice of love. It’s a hard subject to write about because I don’t have good language, but it’s the idea that loving and caring for the people I come into contact with is a kind of substitute for loving my, well, loved ones.
I told you the language was inadequate!
Sometimes our loved ones are dead or otherwise unavailable for a healthy relationship, or unable to accept or reciprocate our love for them. I’ve suffered decades of emotional pain over my inability to successfully communicate my love to some of the people in my life. I realize now love is a two-way street. Some of us, and I count myself among them, have a hard time accepting or receiving love, no matter how well it’s communicated.
Let’s just say the basic communication and reciprocity of love isn’t always there. We call this unrequited love, or “skinny” love. When I search the Internet, however, romantic unrequited love is the only topic I can find useful information on, and that’s not what I’m thinking about.
I have many times wondered, bitterly, what the point is of having such a loving heart, if the people I care about most are unable to receive my love.
Since I began my current job working in a rehab pool facility three years ago, I’ve been vividly aware that making positive contributions to others is in some ways a substitute for my inability to share love with the people to whom I cannot make this contribution, for whatever reason.
Sometimes I imagine a cosmic balance of giving love to others. If we’re unable to reach our closest connections with our love, we can give it to someone who is able to benefit from it. We may be no more than an acquaintance or professional in their lives, but love is love, and most of us recognize it when it’s extended, though we may not be skilled at accepting it with grace.
Perhaps, at the same time, my loved ones are receiving love they can accept and recognize from someone. Someone who substitutes for me.
When I say love, I’m not thinking about a single idea. I think of love as a container for many things: tolerance, respect, compassion, kindness, patience, presence, service.
This is not a new idea. Stephen Stills famously sang about it in “Love the One You’re With,” and Bryan Adams sings about it in video above, which opened me up to the feeling of unrequited love, the grief and anguish of it, and this substitution method of easing its pain.
I won’t amputate my ability and willingness to love, even if it’s unwanted or unwelcome in the places I most want to practice it. What I can do is step sideways, turn aside, and share it with those I come in contact with, those who can benefit from it, those who will receive it. In this way, my love becomes an offering to my loved ones, my community, myself, and the world. Everything I do, I do for you, for them, for myself. For all of us.
When inspiration struck and I set out to build a new website for my blog and other writing, I assumed the process would move quickly. I could hardly wait to see the vision in my head become reality. I’m a happy and motivated independent learner and felt certain I could fumble with the design software and master it without much trouble, the way I did when I created Our Daily Crime.
The software for Our Daily Crime is nearly ten years old now, a tech dinosaur. The new software requires a whole new level of skill.
I needed help. Scheduling a meeting with a professional took time. Then we had to reschedule due to a conflict. More time. I turned my attention to other things and practiced patience (not very successfully!).
In the meantime, we’ve hired a new team member at work to join us in lifeguarding, teaching, and working with patrons and patients in the pools. He’s older than I am, and he’s working hard on refining his swimming skills and learning new techniques. We’re giving him all the support and practice we can.
I admire adults who want to learn new skills. We’ve just begun to teach private swim lessons again after the pandemic, and I have two adult students. When I asked one of them what her goals were for her lessons, she said, “Not to drown,” which made me laugh.
I did eventually meet with my web designer using Zoom, and I spent an intense hour and a half taking notes, asking questions, and watching her use the design software. Since then, I’ve spent several hours working with it, and gradually I’m gaining mastery and shaping the website I dreamed of. I’m elated. Can’t wait to share it with you!
As a lifelong learner and teacher, I notice how varied our learning experience can be.
Context matters. I was wretched during my public school years. My goals were to achieve good grades to meet the expectations of my family and graduate. Any pleasure in the learning itself, for its own sake, suffocated under the long nightmare of those years. Graduation meant nothing to me, and I would have ignored it if I’d been allowed. My reward was surviving.
College was no better. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t belong there. Once again, I went through the motions of pleasing others and living up to expectations, two hellish years of depression, social isolation, and suicidal ideation before I dropped out.
I still wince when I think of the money wasted.
Somehow the joy of learning has been distorted into competition, capitalism, and perfectionism. Everyone doesn’t have equal access to education and educational tools. Many people don’t complete high school, let alone higher education. We don’t talk about education in terms of enhancing our lives and making ourselves bigger. We talk about getting a good job, making a lot of money (or not), and school loans. Capitalism defines success.
Worst of all, if we happen to be interested in literature, writing, religion, music, theater, philosophy – liberal arts, in other words – we’re steered away from those interests because “they” say we can’t earn a living pursuing them. I’ve got news for you. You can’t make a living as a librarian or medical transcriptionist, either.
Apparently, education is not valuable unless it leads to making a certain amount of money.
On the other hand, many learners in our communities are in it for the fun of learning something new. Their goals are about real life, as opposed to the construct of consumerism. They don’t want to drown. They want to do a job they’ve never done before and so learn new skills. They want to use technology as a tool to support their passion. Adult learners know learning enhances life. They’re not coerced into learning; they seek it out.
It’s a lot easier and more fun to teach someone who wants to learn than it is someone who’s having learning thrust upon them.
Adult learners have lived long enough to know how to learn. Not how to compete, how to cheat, how to work the system, how to manipulate good grades and references, and how to create their own personal perfectionistic demons, but how to learn. Adult learners also know something about how they best learn, and are able to communicate their needs and goals.
Learning requires time, patience and practice. It takes courage to seek new skills. It’s messy. We make mistakes, flounder, and fail. Good adult learners persist anyway, pursuing their creativity or passion, satisfying their curiosity and desire for mastery.
I’ve had the good fortune to know and work with wonderful teachers who have inspired, encouraged, and challenged me. I’ve also known destructive teachers who permanently damaged my trust, confidence, and sense of self-worth. The difference between them, I’m convinced, has nothing to do with their level of education or training, but rather with their power management. Good teachers seek to empower their students. Destructive teachers not only refuse to share their power, they actively disempower their students.
Healthy communities support learning and teaching, not necessarily as a formal process, but as a natural one. As a teacher, I know my students give me at least as much as I give them. Teaching and learning are collaborative, a sharing of power. To teach is to learn. To learn is to teach. Passing on my love of swimming doesn’t change the world, but it’s a contribution I can make joyfully.
Everyone succeeds when we teach and learn together.
I’ve been rereading James Herriot, who was a Yorkshire veterinarian. It’s been a long time since I last read him. His books are filled with love, affection and humor for the animals and people he spent his life with, but there’s another thread running vividly through all his books, a thread of place. He loved Yorkshire, the hills, moors and Dales, the little towns, the seasons and remote old stone farms, walls and buildings. Every page communicates his gratitude and contentment with his life and the place he worked. He and his wife raised two children. He worked all hours, and it was hard work. He was qualified before antibiotics and what we think of as modern medicine. He made very little money, but he was rich in love and contentment.
Dr. Herriot knew how to live deeply. One of his greatest joys was to pull over during his rounds and sit in the heather with his dog, drinking in the air, the view and the silence.
As I’ve been reading Herriot, the Fourth of July holiday has come and gone. I’ve never liked it. I hate noise and crowds. Fireworks are terrifying for many animals, both domestic and wild. They’re also dangerous and a fire risk. My idea of a really good Fourth is a nice, drenching three-day rain during which I stay peacefully at home.
This year, in addition to the usual associations, we have a pandemic. Each of the holidays this summer seem to be dividing the country more and more painfully, and all the hype and noise around escalating infection rates, distortions, denials, lies, economic concerns and travel concerns made me feel particularly anxious and miserable this year.
My Be Still Now practice has developed nicely. I’ve done it every morning for more than a month and it’s become a useful and enjoyable habit. It occurred to me, as I was sitting over the holiday weekend, that during this time I have an experience of depth. As I breathe and watch my thoughts move across my consciousness like clouds across the sky, I sink down to another kind of being, below the sound of boats, campers and ATVs passing the house, below my agonized empathy for animals, below my fear of fire, and below my general anxiety about the pandemic.
In the space of sitting, I move beyond and beneath clock, calendar, distraction, and compulsion. There is only the peace of breath, sun and rain, birdsong, wind, growing things, and the cycles and seasons of this place and my life. I feel peaceful and content. There’s nowhere I need to go and nothing I need to do. It’s all right here, right now.
We all have access to this deep life, but it seems the modern world conspires to keep us away from it. We are assaulted by so much noise, so much seductive glitter and shine, so much chaos and so many voices. Clocks, calendars and screens rule our lives, as do the numbers in our bank accounts and on our bills and credit cards. We are completely caught up in short-term, surface activity.
To live deep is to remember geologic time and rediscover patience and perspective. To live deep is to climb into the mossy throat of an old well, filled with sweet water that knows ferns and frogs and underground springs. Living deeply takes us to the roots of things, the quiet musk of earth, mycelium, mineral and microorganism. We enter the endurance of bones and seeds, the long memory of stone.
Most of all, living deeply takes me below my thoughts and into my feelings. In that deep space I find all the women and children I have been and all the wounds I’ve neglected. Without thoughts attached to them, my feelings are intense, yet simple. I discover an affection and empathy for my fears, old and new. I gain intuitive understanding and insight into my behavior and choices.
I meet myself in the depths, my most primal, innocent, wise self. I put my arms around myself, kiss my own shoulders. Gratitude wells in me, along with comfort and love. Creativity and inspiration blossom. I rest.
This deep time anchors my day. I usually sit for less than an hour. Even 20 minutes of retreat below the surface agitations of life provide me with balance and peace. Living deeply prevents me from speeding and helps me control my compulsions. It helps me stay conscious as I make choices about how much media I allow into my life, how much distraction, and how much noise. It opens me to the simple joys of working in the garden, sitting in the sun, watching the trees move in the wind, listening to the birds, and playing with our two kittens.
James Herriot had fears, inadequacies and troubles, just as we all do. He knew a thing I’m only just learning, though, and that is the skill of downing tools and simply being, welcoming the joy of uncomplicated presence and feeling gratitude for the experience of life in all its magic and mystery.
The meaning and experience of life is not on a screen, on a calendar or clock, or in dollars and cents. Those are but glimmers on the water, the topmost leaves on a tree, a passing cloud, ephemeral and only meaningful because we make them so.
The real stuff of life is slow, deep, quiet and timeless. We carry it always within us, but no amount of doing or having can unlock it. The key is being, just that.
It’s autumn in central Maine, and the leaves are falling. Sometimes they flutter in the arms of a sly little wind under a crisp blue sky, skittering across the road in front of the car, turning me into a more cautious driver than usual because they look so much like a squirrel or chipmunk. Other days they’re torn from the trees by rain and heavy, tropical air under low grey clouds, misty at their trailing hems.
So many leaves in so many shades of copper, bronze, orange, red and yellow. A sodden chaos of leaves underfoot in the rain and an airy whirlwind of them on dry, bright days. It’s as though the trees have been holding their breath all summer and now they relax and exhale, releasing the tension of production, growth and photosynthesis, easing themselves from yesterday’s clothing and burdens, shaking and stretching in naked freedom and settling down with a sleepy grunt for winter.
Bits of the world, leaves, songs scatter in painted light. The days break. –Carol Frost
The past hours, days, weeks and months litter the ground, trodden, damp and fading. Their stories, whispered to the wind, of nest and hollow; bird, insect and animal; stars and rain and dew and the secret underground life of root, soil and mycelium, are lost. From their bodies new stories for the next cycle and generation of life will green and grow.
Photo by Vanessa von Wieding on Unsplash
I envy the trees their grace and patience. They know how to let go. They turn change into glory. They understand surrender to the fading light and changing tilt of the planet.
I, on the other hand, am not so graceful. Starting a part-time job, even doing something I love and am familiar with, has me wild-eyed and overwhelmed. My carefully constructed and comfortable routine is in pieces. I can’t turn the calendar page and fill in my accustomed schedule. Horrors! Now the days ahead are as naked as the bared trees, allowing me time to reconsider the true shape of things. I think of periods of change as bone time. I can’t see the bones of my life when the calendar is predictable and lists guide me through the day. Habit and routine are powerful, and after a time I stop noticing if I’m staying in balance, managing my time and taking care of my needs well. It’s only in these periods when all my schedules, lists and calendar pages are so many leaves of paper tossed onto the floor that I see the bones again.
To inventory our bones is to let go of possessions, distractions, noise, activity, thoughts, beliefs, habits and behaviors and ask ourselves what our true shape is. What are the deepest pieces of our body and soul? What is necessary in order to express our highest purpose? What destroys our time, energy and joy, and what liberates them?
Can we let go of what’s no longer useful? Can we give it to the wind, to the air, to the frost and rain and snow? Can we give it willingly, freely, with grace and beauty?
Yes, I can let things go.
But grace and beauty are noticeably absent just now!
Still, the trees in this season comfort me and show me the way. They’re not worried about next month, next week or tomorrow. They don’t seem to mind change. They release yesterday’s leaves with careless abandon and show their bones proudly to the sky. They know who they are and they take what they need without apology or shame. They rest in the security of the endlessly turning cycles and seasons.
I don’t think I’ll ever achieve their wisdom or serenity.
On the other hand, I know something about my own bones because life gives most of us more than one chance to begin again, and I’ve had lots of practice. I know shortly I’ll be back in a steady, effective, predictable routine that accommodates my new job as well as my current needs and priorities.
wind tugs leaves away my hat begs to follow guide me wind the way you’re lost i’ll be lost — Kim Robert Stafford
Life is change, and change is life. Old conditions give way to new conditions, and the process is always happening, no matter how stuck or helpless we feel. Chaos comes, picks us up by the scruff of the neck, gives us a good shake, and we find ourselves flung into something new, which will in turn gradually fade away.
Leaves fall. Light wanes. We are lost, torn away from what’s familiar, and then the way ahead opens before us and we’re found again.
In old stories, a crossroad is always a magical place of power and choice. You never know who you might meet at a crossroad. Perhaps a lean, handsome peddler will draw up a cart and spread his wares. Other travelers may appear. Elders may linger there with wisdom under their tongues. Crossroads are not always identified by neat, straightforward lettered signs, but portents, omens and intuitive signs abound. A dismally croaking raven, a snake in the dust or a fleeting glimpse of a fox all have a message at a crossroad.
I rarely miss posting weekly, but last week I did. I succumbed to a virulent upper respiratory virus and for a few days had no choice but to down tools and lie low. Simply breathing occupied all my attention and energy. I cancelled plans and obligations, abandoned my ‘to accomplish’ list and let go of my self-expectations.
This was frustrating, as it was the week in which I intended to transition effortlessly from my old job to new possibilities, witness the smooth closing of the sale of my property in Colorado, and generally navigate these significant endings and beginnings seamlessly, elegantly, confidently and without mess.
Instead, I emptied two boxes of Kleenex, coughed as though ready for an end-stage TB ward, achieved a spectacularly sore and chapped mouth and nose, drank liters of fluid with the inevitable day and night result of continually needing to pee, and tried to sleep in a sitting position to facilitate breathing through my clogged airway.
Instead of transitioning smoothly into new work, I canceled one opportunity and didn’t follow up on others. I worried about money instead.
The sale of my house did occur, but a day late due to unexpected last minute paperwork that needed to be signed and notarized and sent from Maine back to Colorado. My renters have been unable to find a new place, the buyer (now owner) is moving into a trailer because her old house also sold and her new house still has renters in it, and I need urgently to return to Colorado and retrieve the rest of my possessions from the property.
In short, nothing about my internal, physical or external reality has been seamless, elegant, confident or without mess. In fact, there’s been quite a bit of mess, from sodden Kleenex to tangled feelings.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash
None of this really surprised me. I’ve never yet been really miserably ill without a significant emotional event of some kind at the onset. I might not admit my distress intellectually, but the truth will out physically. Unacknowledged feelings eventually reach such proportions they demand my attention, one way or the other. All of my pretty plans didn’t allow for any space in which to pause, reflect, feel and be with how things are.
So, I got sick.
I resigned myself to the inevitable, did what I could for my symptoms, reread all my old Mary Stewart books (so comforting, and no brain required), dozed, and thought about intersections, endings and beginnings, suspended activity and crossroads.
I have a tendency to view my experience through a lens of metaphor and symbol, and suspended activity has been much in my mind for the last five years. The Hanged Man is a Tarot card with just that meaning, and my first book is named after it.
The Hanged Man is a card many people fear, although generally the figure depicted hangs upside down from one leg, apparently perfectly relaxed and comfortable and even smiling, depending on the deck. The card illustrates that place in life we’re all familiar with between one thing and another, just like the crossroad. Events converge and intersect. Meetings and partings take place. We suddenly come to the end of a road and it’s necessary to choose a new one.
I’ve never been good at pausing. I can accept change, but I expect myself to adjust and adapt instantly and effortlessly, no pause required. I don’t want to hang around (if you’ll pardon the pun) and think about what’s over or what I’d like to begin. I want to get a grip and move on. Now!
This is a shame, and all the old stories and archetypes tell us it’s counterproductive. Crossroads are sacred ground, filled with resting places, old altars and tilted gravestones. The leaves on trees growing at crossroads whisper all the prayers and petitions they’ve heard. At crossroads we lay out cards, cast runes and yarrow stalks, interpret dreams, drum, dance and call on our intuition and faith for guidance. A crossroad is a place to linger, honoring where we’ve been and considering a way forward, or sideways, or perhaps even retracing our steps for a second time before we go on.
Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash
A crossroad deserves an offering of our presence and patience. It’s only in suspended activity that we access our deepest intuition and wisdom, only then when we begin to gain full understanding. Loss takes time to put to rest. Hopes and dreams need time to grow. Intuition can’t speak unless we’re quiet, and guidance can’t find us if we’re not still.
I’m writing this out on our deck in the sun. I can hear water running into the pond. The phoebe, back for another summer, is perched in her favorite spot on the barn roof, bobbing her tail and hunting for insects. Wonder of wonders, there’s not a box of Kleenex at my elbow! Not only that, but I’m breathing through my nose. Things are looking up.
Before me is a new week. I’ve sort of given up on the seamless and elegant thing. It hasn’t been fun to be sick, but I’m grateful I was forced to pause. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything except wasting time and blowing my nose, but I see now I needed to hang by one leg and just be for a little while. I needed to consider what’s ending, and how I feel about it, and what direction I want to go now. I needed to spend some time wandering in my graveyard, remembering what’s laid to rest there. It was important to revisit my hopes and dreams, check in with my intuition and take time to wonder what will happen next.
At this point I’ve decided to be content with lingering at this crossroad. When it’s time to go on from here, I’ll know. In the meantime, this is a good place. Maybe a peddler is even now on his way to meet me, or an old crone in a hooded cloak will come in the dark morning hours with an enigmatic message showing me the way forward. Who knows?
Now that this is written, perhaps I’ll go find the tree from which the Hanged Man is suspended and see what’s on his mind today.