“…And a Happy New Year”

The “And a Happy New Year” tune reverberates in my mind almost like an ear worm.   “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”  Time passes quickly. During the month of January, it always seems like New Year’s Eve and Day were just yesterday when in fact they were a few weeks ago.  I remember sitting on the couch staring at the television bleary-eyed from watching nearly nine hours of college football.  Exuberant but clearly exhausted, I willed myself to stay awake until the perennial ball (or peach in Atlanta) drop.  I’m never certain why I engage in this ritual.  I’m either hypnotized or a victim of too many years of conditioning so I feel compelled to toast even with a non-alcoholic beverage and kiss someone at midnight.

Yet the ebullience of starting a new year, the excitement emerging from the awareness that I can erase the board and begin again slowly dissipates.  Typically, as I return to work or my daily routine, and later in January or as the February doldrums approach I notice that the thrill is gone.  I ask myself how I can make the merriment and excitement of my New Year’s celebration continue after the holidays; after recovering from staying up so late and eating too much artichoke dip, mini-quiches or from large holiday spreads filled with turkey, lobster mac and cheese, or lemon layered cake?  I want to keep the exhilaration of the new year yet I cannot make being happy a New Year’s resolution although I have tried to in the past.  Since I love making lists, I decided to create one to kickstart a year in which I maintain the peace and joy.  I want to share a few items that involve a little letting go and a little adding to.

1)  Letting go of my time urgency perfectionism would certainly alleviate nearly all of the anxiety that builds each time I run out of the house for an appointment or as a project deadline approaches.  Releasing the tendency to watch the clock would lessen my impatience with stop lights, slower drivers, and anyone who appears to obstruct my frantic path.  Likewise relinquishing my proclivity toward self-judgment might rid me of some of the shame I pile onto my heart anytime I make a mistake.  Mistakes are gifts serving as guideposts to where I want to be.  Now I understand that real perfection is more about wholeness–embracing shrubs with their dead leaves, cherishing well worn dishes, and ignoring a spot or two on the rugs.  The shift truly involves a change in my perceptions,  a re-focusing of my attention.

2)  The next thing to pop in my mind was the question, “What made me happy as a child?”  I loved to lay on the couch and read a good book with a green apple in hand.  In my childhood home the brown fabric couch in the living room sat between two mahogany brown end tables each with a standard gold lamp crowned with an off white lamp shade.  The couch with its worn out cushions wasn’t particularly comfortable but it sufficed.  Now I recline on a lovely forest green chaise lounge that sits next to a large cathedral window allowing the sun to shine on my face.  Great fiction and non-fiction allows me to escape into other worlds and munching on a green apple during pounding rain, singing winds or lightly falling snow affords me an opportunity to exhale and just be.

I also remember the adage, “An apple a day, keeps the doctor away.”  I don’t want to discount the health benefits of eating apples.  I am certain there are many.  However, I wonder if the sheer joy of doing something that made my heart sing kept the dis-ease at bay.  I suspect the obvious connections between joy and harmony, wholeness and health remain exiled to a back corner of my mind.  But a good book and a green apple are still my antidote to illness and I plan to make reading a welcomed habit throughout the year.

3)  I also love to sit outside in the wind no matter what season.  For me, nature is calming to my spirit; restorative, and offers a gentle serenity.  Warm summer breezes, or a crisp, frosty but not biting cold wind is what I yearn for.  Next time I notice the branches swaying, I’m grabbing a coat and heading out the door.

4)  Warren and I paused from the holiday rush and watched the PIXAR movie—Inside Out.  I was awed by the advancement of technology with the combination of animation and almost real life characters.  A fabulous movie in its storyline and presentation I felt a surge of energy afterwards.  Stopping to watch a movie is what Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan describe in The Artist Way as an artist’s date.  Watching this imaginative movie filled the well that had been depleted by Christmas shopping, meal preparation and far too much entertaining.  I think each of us needs to fill up more often—we wouldn’t think to drive a car without refilling the gas tank.  Even plants and trees pause their growth to re-energize during the winter.  I must make time to restore myself regularly instead of pushing, pushing, pushing.

5)  I plan to allow the creative spirit of mine to flow like a river–sewing new fashions, crochet-edge stitching fleece blankets for family and friends who are struggling or are ill.  I’ve even decided to hire a sewing consultant who can assist with those pesky sewing problems that permit unfinished sewing projects to clutter up my closet.  Clearly I need balance to what I perceive to be the drudgery of washing dirty dishes and clothes, picking of the house, and paying bills.

So what are you going to make your year a happy one that continues until next December?  Perhaps as you pause, listen deeply and more often to your heart, it will whisper to you what it desires and guide you to how you might maintain the peace and joy until 2017 and beyond.

Recovering the Joy of Christmas

How do you feel about the holidays?  When I was a little girl, I could hardly wait for Christmas.  The entire season seemed to be filled with anticipation and wonder.  Everywhere twinkling lights, sparkling Christmas trees, and joyful singing set the season apart. People felt different, nicer and Christmas marked the time when my immediate family gathered with extended kin.  Granny Coleman from Arkansas or Aunt Marye and her family might appear for a special visit.  On Christmas Eve, my brothers and me would jump in our beds early hoping that Santa Claus might know and bring our presents sooner.  I couldn’t fall asleep because I was so excited.  I tossed and turned still unsure if I would discover some gift I wanted under the Christmas tree.  Regardless, Christmas brought a very special day filled with Mass, a few presents, lots of food, and phone calls and visits with aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I’m not certain when I lost the wonder and joy of Christmas and the holiday season.  I suspect it began to dissipate with my discovery of the myth of Santa Claus and the realization of my role in producing the Christmas cheer.  As the oldest daughter, I was expected to help shop for and wrap presents, decorate the tree and assist in the preparation of Christmas breakfast and dinner.  I didn’t mind helping Mom but after about twenty or more years of the annual grind, I began to feel resentful.  My innocent little heart initially overflowing with genuine joy and silent serenity turned into a cranky, exhausted version of that child self wishing that Christmas came once every five years.

The holidays are difficult for many of us and for a variety of reasons.  The season often triggers sadness or resentment because of the unpleasant undertones of households we grew up in—maybe mom couldn’t cope or did so by taking more than a few sips from that bottle she hid under the sink.  Or perhaps an absent father suddenly appeared on Christmas Eve only to remind us of how much we missed him.  Maybe Christmas elicits unhappy feelings because Mom and Dad divorced, or one of them began ill, passed away or in some way was unavailable to share the fabricated happy family moments we see in the annual Christmas specials on television.

One woman described recently in a listening prayer group why she loves Christmas so much and how she decorates every available spot in her house.  “Christmas was the only time we could be happy in our home.  The remainder of the year was a holy hell characterized by abuse and dysfunction.  So at Christmas I could escape into a fog of temporary happiness if only for the few weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.”

I hear many stories about holiday experiences as I sit with individuals in spiritual direction.  In between sibling arguments or total breakdowns in communication among family members, we are barraged with relentless commercials urging us to buy presents when what most of us truly desire is love and connection. So how do we stay in tune with the peace and joy in our hearts at this time of the year?

I’ve struggled to abandon my bah humbug attitude in favor of some unbridled joy.  Even I am tired of being a scrooge so I decided to create a new script.  What I’ve been inspired to do this year is to make a list of things—activities or experiences that would ignite the inner joy that I know already exists within me.  Here is my of my short list of action items that I plan to execute for more holiday cheer:

  1. Drink some hot chocolate or tea in front of a fire.  Who cares if it is 00 or 850 or even if I have a fireplace (there is always one at some restaurant during winter or I can find a TV station with one).  There is something soothing and delightful about pausing to have a cup of tea or hot chocolate and look into a blazing fire.  Even the smoldering embers offer a gentle luminosity that warms me from the inside out.
  2. Holiday music, anyone?  Yes, I get sick of Christmas music.  Some radio stations blast more than I can take, and my honey, Warren loves to play it from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.  If I cannot escape hearing it, at least I can choose to listen to my favorite artists singing my favorite Christmas songs.  From Nat King Cole singing the classic, The Christmas Song to a more recent Christmas tunes by KEM or Susan Boyle, playing my Christmas favorites comfort me in my selected cooking tasks and gift wrapping.  My all time favorite is the Messiah—it sparks a serene, compassionate mood while also allowing me to feel like I am conducting a major orchestra.  I’ll also throw in some spontaneous dancing in the living room, kitchen, or in front of the bathroom mirror.  I love to dance to “The Mistletoe Jam” sung by Luther Van Dross which triggers fun, happy memories when I “danced with my hands in the air like I didn’t care.”  No, I don’t need extra egg nog to pull this off but if it helps and you don’t get too carried away, I say, “Go for it!”
  3. One of my greatest joys is to contact a friend, relative or even an old roommate just to check in.  I recently called Rose, who is now 95 year old.  We started a book group, The Boulder Briarpath Literary Society in Boulder, CO nearly 25 years ago and she still attends.  I could hear the smile in her voice, the genuine gratitude coming through a semi-chocked up, clearing of the throat sentiment because she was so touched that I took the time to call and chat for a few minutes. I plan to call her again.
  4. I also plan to bake some cookies or brownies to give away.  Surprising a neighbor or anyone with a batch of brownies, sharing a meal with a someone who lost a parent or family member recently—these things bring me joy.  Baking is my thing but when short on time I’ve picked up some baked goods at the local grocery store.  Sharing food or drink with others keeps me from having the holiday doldrums because it’s not about the food really, it’s the connection.
  5. Finally, I intend to take some leisurely walks.  These walks are not for exercise or to achieve any fitness goal.  It’s more like a meandering down the street so I can inhale some fresh air, capture the holiday decorations, and marvel at how branches of leafless, naked trees look as if they are inviting me for a hug.  I notice it every winter; trees with branches extended nonverbally saying,  “ Hey, I see you. Come here.  Let me give you a hug.”  And when I’ve hugged a tree, I feel an energy pulsating within— it’s almost electric.  I also wave at my neighbors that I rarely see in our “crazy busy” world.

I am determined to shake the bah humbug funk.  I will not get sucked into holiday stress.  I am pacing myself so I can en-joy the holiday baking. I want to feel the happiness that the season is meant to inspire.  This holiday season what I want to focus on is the connection—the bond that keeps Warren and I together for whatever time we have, and similarly the links that I desire to maintain with family and friends.  For me, Christmas is not about the gifts but the connection.

So what can you do this season to remember, to capture the excitement and wonder that you felt as a very young child?  What experiences will help you to uncover the peace and joy in your heart this holiday season?

Autumn Leaves

“Even if something is left undone, everyone must take time to sit still and watch the leaves turn.”

~Elizabeth Lawrence

I feel fortunate to sit at a window seat in my work room which overlooks a near forest of tall oaks, hickory, sweet gum and pine trees.  Even on a cloudy November day, I perch and view the autumn leaves, a few still stuck on the branches as if someone hung them there with sticky tape.  I love the beauty of fall and could spend hours just watching nature in action.   Trees with multiple shades of green, yellow, burnt orange and red just make my heart sing.  Everywhere I look outside it is as if my eyes are strolling through a gallery of masterpiece paintings.  Ah but the autumn season signifies change, a period of transition that prepares me for the upcoming winter season of deep rooting, hunkering down and cuddling up.

Although autumn leaves is the name of a famous jazz standard, the falling leaves of autumn provide an apt metaphor for such a liminal time. Perhaps it signals for me my desire for change because I have similar feelings about spring.  I love trees with buds popping open like popcorn to an absolutely gorgeous new green.  Spring green energizes me, stimulates me to move beyond the slower pace of winter.  Budding growth spurs me to start new projects, plant seeds, flowers, cook less heavy stews and soups and prepare my palate for fresh veggies and salads.  Perhaps it is the dramatic shifts of winter to spring and summer to fall that capture my attention since summer feels like a warmer spring and winter feels like a colder fall.

According to the Chinese medicine calendar that a friend shared with me some years ago, the seasons represent very meaningful symbols for the cycles of life.  Fall is a time for letting go, winter a period for quiet germination and deep rooting, spring the season for new growth and summertime an opportunity to nurture that new growth signaled by warmer temperatures. The Chinese calendar also includes a late summer stage for harvesting (completing those projects initiated during spring).  I can actively attune my life to the seasons or realize that I am sitting in or even stuck in one of them.  Occasionally with my writing or sewing I notice a number of unfinished projects suggesting that I am unable to move from spring to late summer.  I also struggle with symbolic winters lacking the patience needed to let ideas or plans germinate.

I have fond memories of autumn.  I remember walking home from elementary school kicking the leaves scattered over the sidewalks.  I liked to hear the crunch when I stepped through them.  I also fondly recall the school assignment of selecting certain leaves and pressing them between wax paper so as to create a semi-permanent piece of art.  When was the last time I did that?  Unfortunately, most of the leaves in my yard right now are the soggy yellow and brown ones assaulted by numerous rain storms during the past few weeks.

I love to see the changing trees no matter where I live or visit.  Of course the entire experience of admiring fall colors was accentuated when I lived in New England where the trees yielded a tapestry of breathtaking colors.  I looked forward to the foliage reports urging me to contemplate leaves colored olive, gold, fire red, and brown especially light golden tans and deep oak which painted an amazing mural against the varying hues of blue skies. I suspect once trees feel the dramatic shifts in temperature and as the sun’s heat loses its intensity, they know it is time to shake off the leaves in preparation for winter.

In releasing their leaves, trees trust that new life will return in the spring.  Why don’t the leaves hold on in an attempt to keep their inevitable demise at bay?    Maybe they know that they will provide new energy as they are recycled as mulch for their tree’s own nourishment.  The falling leaves symbolize that change is cyclical, natural and letting go is liberating.  Like autumn and similar to what the Chinese medicine calendar suggests, I also have seasons of change, periods of transition in my life and when I trust that they will lead to new growth, I feel joy in letting go.

I also notice that leaves gently fall to the ground.  It is not like a machine comes along to tear them off and leaves don’t drop until they are ready.  Sometimes a windy, blustery day facilitates a cascade of falling leaves but those that are not ready stick to the trees through rain and wind.  I wonder what I am willing to let go of as lightly as most leaves drift from the trees or am I like the few remaining leaves that seem to hold on no matter what?

Drifting autumn leaves also remind me that it is time to give away clothes that no longer bring me delight, books that others could be reading, and to shred old papers that are cluttering my desks and file cabinets.  It’s also a time to re-assess new and old relationships.  Oh it can be so difficult to let some people go even though they never call and are often too “crazy busy” to get together.  What are the trees showing me about holding on, about life?

Falling leaves prompt me to examine other aspects of my self in flux; do I still need to feel special, unique or extraordinary, to become famous or rush to cross off everything on the “to do” list?  I am ready to release unnecessary stress and a lesson in A Course in Miracles focuses squarely on this subject.  “It is but myself that I crucify” with all of the crazy, anxious thoughts about completing my much too long daily “To Do” list.

“The autumn leaves drift outside my window, autumn leaves of red and gold…”

I love when autumn leaves fall…when autumn leaves must fall…. What signs let you know that it is a time for change, for letting go?  Are you like the remaining leaves waiting for a shocking frost, a crisis to let go, to change?   In autumn, the season of release, what inner and outer items can be cleared from your life so that an inevitable spring, the new growth can take root?  Like the falling leaves what else do I, do you need to let go of——that will allow us to experience more of the peace and joy that lies within our hearts?

When Did Fun Become a Four Letter Word?

When did “fun” become a four letter word?  When did talk of fun become a taboo subject?  Everywhere I hear the term  “I’m crazy busy” like busyness is a badge of courage one wears for working so hard.  Yes, I grew up in a household where fun was the reward for getting work done.  If I finished my homework or if I cleaned my room, then I could go outside and play.  Now it appears my fingers are stuck on the busy button and I cannot let go.  Sound familiar?  Yet I must answer this question for myself–Am I having any fun?  I think not!

Now it is not unusual to find people even on vacation clinging to their electronic devices.  They continue to “work,” keeping “connected” while ironically claiming to “relax” and escape from the world.  National statistics indicate that greater numbers of people take less vacation time and many answer emails and send texts while on vacation.  How did life become so lopsided?

I’ve participated in many discussions about fun lately and it appears not many people are having any.  In June all six of us in my spiritual direction peer group meeting promised to incorporate more fun into our lives over the summer months, the summer months traditionally devoted to relaxation and rejuvenation.  As we checked-in around the table in August, only Sheila could recount engaging in a couple fun activities.  In my attempt to challenge the “demon of busyness” (a term coined by Janet Ruffing) by going off the grid for 5 consecutive days I reported one major fun event.  I chose to swing while on a silent retreat.

As I walked along the path that led from a labyrinth cut out of the brush on this 100 acre farm, I remembered the swing that hangs from a very large old oak tree.  I figured that tree which sits majestically on the grounds of the retreat center was at least 80 years old.  I’m certain if that tree could talk she might share some fascinating tales about the people who farmed the land and those who now come to retreat, rest and take in some stillness and silence.  There it hung, a swing with a long rope and a wooden seat just inviting me to take a whirl or two.

The previous day had been a scorcher, the South Georgia heat baking me, the grass, and dirt.  On this morning day I felt compelled to arise early before the heat and humidity made my time outside uncomfortably hot.  Fortunately the midnight rain created a cool mist that mixed with a slight breeze.  Covered in rough green khaki pants, long sleeve shirt, socks covering the bottom of my pants, sneakers, and a scarf on my head I set out for a walk.  Being a double organ transplant recipient, I needed to protect myself from mosquitoes and ticks, which sometimes carry West Nile virus and lyme disease respectively.  So I sprayed myself generously with Lemon Eucalyptus oil, a scent that mosquitoes detest.

I didn’t worry about the semi-damp swing seat and any leaves or dirt that might have blown on it during the rain.  I hopped right on after backing up as far as my petite frame could take me.  Then the loveliness began–swinging in the cool morning breeze.  Back and forth rhythmically and sometimes swinging from side-to-side, I found myself smiling, almost laughing with delight.  In the midst of my unadulterated happiness I also noticed an accompanying deep peace.  Suddenly I remembered how much I used to love the swings at the park as a little girl.  The slide was okay, and the sand box satisfactory but for me nothing beat the swing.   I felt like swinging forever.

Amazed that I took such pleasure in something so simple as swinging, I recollected how I enjoyed small gratifications like swaying in a hammock, watching the beautiful cloud formations above or observing butterflies and bees dance from one gorgeous flower to the next.  Unfortunately, I, like so many adults hold onto the belief that playing is only for children.  But that same child who experienced such a thrill from swinging still resides in me.  Little Rita didn’t go away.  I just stopped paying attention to that sweet girl who likes to play with no other goal in mind but to have fun.  What happened to the lightheartedness in my life?

Earlier in the summer I lamented about my life.  Clearly I was suffering from a moderate case of caretake burnout.  After spending a week with Warren’s parents both with memory impairments and with only a day in between I repacked and hopped on a flight to the Bay area where my brother struggled with cardiac issues.  Shortly after returning from that trip, I learned my younger brother lay in a hospital miles away in another state.  As I surveyed my relationships, I realized I cared for a lot of people–not necessarily in a physical way but more frequently by carrying their burdens in my heart.  People–friends, relatives, even “almost strangers”–people I’d met at recent events who emailed or called me filled my daily life.  Overdue for a silent retreat I knew I needed some time to restore my reserves.

I also observed that in the two and half years since I stopped working, I wasn’t having much fun.  I sensed “Little Rita” rebel using a soft but persistent voice nagging me about playtime.  My pat response was “we” will have fun once I get through the “to do” list.  Who ever gets through the “to do” list when new things are constantly being added to it?  The fun, whether it be sewing, reading, or sitting in the backyard I pushed further down on the priority list.

A memory bubbled up in my cogitations about fun.  Many years ago, my female colleagues and I in the psychology department intentionally set reservations for afternoon tea during the most chaotic times–the first week of the semester or during finals when people were so busy that they didn’t exchange pleasantries in the hall.  We found taking some time away from the busyness for tea was akin to a heavenly pause, an act that equipped us with an inner calm and resolve to re-enter the fray once again.  Stealing away from work for tea created a joie de vivre that lasted for weeks.

Perhaps you are caught on the treadmill of life and cannot seem to press the red STOP button or your caretaker burnout is turning you into a grouch that you don’t recognize.  Maybe you are afraid that if you choose to have fun, you’ll lose your positioning on your career trajectory or the competition will surpass you.  But how happy is your heart and when is the last time you took in some recreation?  Do you yearn for more joy in your life, some semblance of peace?  Then you might want to plan a playdate for yourself, buy some legos, stop by the bookstore just to browse or pick up a sketchbook or locate a public park with a slide or swing.  Making FUN a priority can lighten a heart that is likely burdened with obligations, unrealistic work schedules or an ego-driven identity.  I’d love to hear what you do for fun and how it makes you feel.

Here’s a link to Janet Ruffin’s article, ”Resisting the Demon of Busyness.”

http://divinity.yale.edu/sites/default/files/The%20Demon%20of%20Busyness.pdf

Gentle Weeding

Several weeks ago my husband Warren and I decided to jump in the car and drive to the local home improvement store. Ostensibly we were looking for stones for a raised bed he was about to build for me so I could grow some summer annuals. Once there we noticed they were having a sale on herbs and flowers and we each chose our favorites. Warren dived for the hot peppers; poblanos, cayenne, habaneros, while I chose tangerine and sunshine colored bell pepper plants. We both picked tomatoes although I stuck mostly to the lemon looking grape tomatoes that cost so much in the grocery store.

Next I eyed the herbs. One of the delights of summer is to step outside the kitchen door and quickly snip the ones I want for a breakfast or dinner dish. Despite the fact that I grow most of my herbs from seeds, this year I didn’t want to wait on the cilantro, dill, and Italian parsley. I also knew I was running out of time for dill and cilantro which tend to wilt in the hot Georgia sun and humidity by late June. After carefully examining our pickings for bugs and dead leaves we piled them into a whiskey barrel that I chose for growing tomatoes in my container garden and headed home.
The slowly setting sun allowed me to savor every moment of each gorgeous spring day. The winter of 2014 was long and hard for everyone everywhere so a week of warm weather brought a deep gladness to my heart. As Warren poured in new organic soil into my large pots, I feverishly tore off plastic wrapping and opened out roots to set in the fresh dirt. Watering the plants in, Warren called me over to look at the flags he placed to mark out where the new raised bed would be located along side of the house. It was difficult for me to envision so I let him know that I trusted him with the landscape design. I yearned for some well tilled soil and seeds so I could “play” with which flowers would flourish in my new space.
After a series of major afternoon thunderstorms the following week, I crept through the patio where my vegetable container garden began to take shape. As I examined the flowers for bugs and other chewing insects, I noticed some weeds growing into the large irises that Warren planted near our bedroom window. I had scrutinized these plants regularly since their fall planting. At first the irises seemed to just stand there, semi-erect watching the falling leaves dying all around them. Soon they even slumped over, laying in the soil as rain and snow and snow and rain, like big boots trampled them into the ground. As steady and warmer temperatures followed the deep cold, as if on cue the irises gathered some inner energy to once again stand even straighter and taller like soldiers saluting. I wondered once again about the power of spring energy, a power so great that plants emerge through rock.
Yet the weeds appeared as strong as the irises, budding and thriving right along side of and into them. As a master gardener, Warren often reminded me that a weed is just a flower in the wrong place. For me these “flowers” were definitely in an undesirable spot and they were about to choke my precious irises. As I pulled the first weed with its tall stem and pillar of yellow flowers, I observed that I would have to tug on it gently otherwise I would pull out the well rooted iris along with the weed. Then it hit me. Sometimes gently weeding works better than finding a shovel or trowel and jerking the weeds out of the soil. And this process of gentle weeding worked even better than the commercial weed killers which were likely to kill the irises as well.
Slowly and gently weeding these irises prompted me to ponder my life and the lives of others. Didn’t I need to do some gentle weeding this summer and fall? Were there some clothes and other items that I wasn’t using that needed to be removed and given to someone who would wear them? Then I thought about some bad habits, compulsions and recurrent behaviors that I could begin to let go of. Complaining and talking too much immediately came to mind. When I am around people who complain all of the time, it doesn’t look or feel good. I knew I needed to start focusing on what worked instead of what wasn’t working. And TMI (too much information) is never good. There also might be some people that needed some gentle weeding out of my life. Oh I always feel guilty when I think this way. But I’ve learned that toxic people along with their kin, “energy vampires” can quickly drain my energy. When I talk with people who always see the glass half empty and are not making any attempts to fill up the other half, I know I need to minimize the time I spend with them.
There is something healing about the practice of gentleness but that is a topic for another blog. Undoubtably, taking the gentle approach to people and situations in my life seems better than using a sledge hammer or heavy pesticide. I would much rather be awakened gently than to have someone frighten me with a loud voice or noise to wake up me up.
Is there something or someone you need to gently weed out of your life? Is some obstacle keeping you from growing and thriving like a beautiful summer flower or a succulent gorgeous tomato or cucumber? Maybe you have an addiction to television or social media when you know that time and energy could be used in a more constructively manner? What weeds need to be gently removed from your life so you can feel Peace in your heart?

Can’t Get Enough of Howard Thurman

HT-Meditations of the Heart

I think I have Howard Thurmanitis.  Yes, my last post was about him and I made up that name. But after giving two workshops on his writings in the span of three days, one at a conference devoted to his life and work, it fits.  I love talking and writing about Howard Thurman, about his love for nature, stillness and silence.  I resonate with the fact that as a young boy he was a contemplative and a mystic.  He felt called to something deeper and he followed that call throughout his life.  In some ways it feels like a betrayal of sorts, expressing love for a man other than my husband.  Yet my guilt is lessened by the fact that Howard Thurman has been dead for more than three decades.  He continues to speak to me, though, through his writings, his lectures, his sermons, his love for the Sacred everywhere.  His quest for a profound experience of the Presence, of connection to all living things acts as a role model for me as a spiritual pilgrim stumbling along what sometimes feels like as an unknown path.  On occasion I sense that I am wandering away from the Peace in my heart and at other times I march steadily toward it.  Thurman’s writings, lectures and sermons feel like worthy companions to take along the way.

I remember wandering around in my mind pondering what I could write about.  In order to complete my spiritual direction training at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation I needed a subject for my final project.  Fulfilling the requirements could involve a creative work, like building a labyrinth, composing sacred poetry or planning a silent retreat.  Another option was to write about someone, a mystic or spiritual person.  I wanted to research and write about a specific person, someone I could get to know intimately, to learn about how his or her spirituality unfolded.

I enjoyed reading about many of the mystics especially St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross but they felt so ancient and far away.  I also knew there were more contemporary figures like Thomas Merton and Evelyn Underhill.  Yet most mystics were typically nuns or monks, basically religious who lived in community.  I was curious if there were “ordinary mystics” as Marsha Sinetar refers to them in her book, Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics: Lifestyles for Spiritual Wholeness, regular people who communicated about their everyday mystical experiences.  Was there anyone out there who wasn’t living in a religious community but seemed to have contact with a Presence they couldn’t logically explain?  Were people having “peak experiences” as William Maslow labeled them?  Was there anyone listening to or following his or her heart?

I frequently experience mystical moments in the quiet of the morning or when I awake from a nap.  Sometimes a feeling of Oneness engulfs me when I view a gorgeous sunset or a vista of mountains.  When I find myself in the “thin space” as it is sometimes referred to—that place where heaven and earth appear to merge if only for a moment—my connection to a larger whole is palpable.  For a split second, I feel like the sun, the moon, and the trees all at once.

I continued to badger my spiritual comrades about ordinary mystics until a pastoral counselor friend asked if I had heard of Howard Thurman.  Given all of the spiritual material I’d read over the years and for my spiritual guidance program I was embarrassed to discover that he was unknown to me.  After perusing his autobiography, With Hand and Heart-The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, I learned he had written over 20 books, served as a spiritual adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr.  and was a “godfather” of sorts to the Civil Rights movement.  I was crestfallen to learned that he died in 1981.  I could have met him several times had I known about his existence earlier.

As a boy, Howard Thurman lived near the ocean in Daytona Beach, Florida and as he listened to it, he felt a Presence that held and embraced him.  In addition he became attached to a tall, solid oak tree in his backyard.  Thurman noticed that when the storms came off the ocean, while many trees toppled, the old oak tree stood firm.  Like the tree, Thurman sensed there was something inside of him, strong as that oak tree that could withstand the tempest and storms of his life.

My favorite Thurman books besides his autobiography include Jesus and the DisinheritedMeditations of the Heart, The Centering Moment, and Deep is the Hunger.  Clearly there are many more books, articles, lectures, and sermons on a variety of topics ranging from building and sustaining a beloved community to listening for the “genuine” in one’s self, in others, and in the world.  I especially savor his meditations and work that emphasize the power of silence and stillness and the gift of pausing more frequently to obtain spiritual renewal.  Here is one of his meditations:

How Good to Center Down!

How good it is to center down!

To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!

The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic;

Our spirits resound with clashing, with noisy silences,

While something deep within hungers and thirsts for the still moment and the resting lull.

With full intensity we seek, ere thicket passes, a fresh sense of order in our living;

A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring meaning in our chaos.

We look at ourselves in this waiting moment—the kinds of people we are.

The questions persist: what are we doing with our lives?—what are the motives that order our days?

What is the end of our doings?  Where are we trying to go?  Where do we put the emphasis and where are our values focused?  For what end do we make sacrifices?  Where is my treasure and what do I love most in life?

What do I hate most in life and to what am I true?  Over and over the questions beat upon the waiting moment.

As we listen, floating up through all of the jangling echoes of our turbulence, there is a sound of another kind—

A deeper note which only the stillness of the heart makes clear.

It moves directly to the core of our being.  Our questions are answered,

Our spirits refreshed, and we move back into the traffic of our daily round

With the peace of the Eternal in our step.  How good it is to center down!

(from Meditations of the Heart, p. 28)

Sometimes just reading one of Thurman’s meditations renews the Peace in my heart.  Google him, view one of his videos and see if his commanding voice does the same for you.

Have you ever come away from a “mystical or peak experience “ with a greater sense of Peace, a sense that Someone or Something loves and cares for you?  Have you ever found yourself out in nature—listening to the ocean crashing against the rocks or the chirping birds in early morning or felt awe at the sight of the green leaves of tall trees against the backdrop of a blue sky?  Just for a moment were you touched by a Oneness with everything that gave you a deep Peace and abiding Joy?  Next time you have an opportunity to pause and be present— to feel that sense of unity with everyone and everything, grab it.  See if it might lead you to uncovering more of the peace and joy in your heart.

Cousin Louise

I awoke to a voicemail this morning informing us that my husband, Walter’s 106 year old cousin passed away in her sleep overnight.  What a blessing it was to peacefully let go of her body in the comfort of her own home.  No unfamiliar facility or beeping machine with doctors and nurses hovering around or even a long list of medications.  “Cousin Louise” as we referred to her lived a long and fabulous life.  In many ways I am not sad.  In fact I want to stand up and give her a standing ovation for the kind of living she modeled.  I want to applaud her for the peace and joy I am certain she felt and expressed with her heart.

I often wonder about the ways in which people “transition.”  I purposely choose the word “transition” because I am not certain if our spirits, that essence or energy that gives life to bodies ever “dies.”  Yet I understand that the human body like all other kinds of bodies—birds, dogs, horses, fish, insects die.  I suspect death occurs because bodies serve as the vehicles that allow our spirits to move around in the physical world.  But why do some people leave this place as a result of an automobile accident, drowning, sustained illness, or shot by a family member or in a war?  Why aren’t more people able to die peacefully in their sleep like Cousin Louise?

I also believe Cousin Louise passed away with a happy, peaceful heart.  In the few years that I knew her, I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone.  She was full of stories many of them from the Civil Rights Movement in which she and her husband played active roles.  Although I am certain she encountered some frightening situations and in some cases, downright hostility, she seemed to hold a positive attitude about it all.  Cousin Louise felt bad for hateful people instead of being outraged by them.  She understood the relationship between ignorance and fear that quite often leads to bigotry and discrimination.

In addition, Cousin Louise taught English Literature to college students.  She loved poetry—Shakespeare, Tennyson and Chaucer and tried to ignite that love of literature in her students at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, GA.   She also loved playing the piano and continued to do so until she was 105.  When Walter videotaped her on that special birthday, he asked her how it felt to be 105.  She replied, “ Splendid.  It is just splendid!”

Her favorite scripture was Psalm 139, which she repeated often.  She was certain that she was held by some Presence no matter where she ventured.  Active in civic and social groups and her church as well, Cousin Louise rarely missed a Sunday at Big Bethel AME Church in downtown Atlanta until she became too fragile to attend.  Grateful for visits from her pastor that connected her to a church family, she also continued her monetary support until the end.  Her legacy includes her love of helping people especially encouraging young people.  She realized early that life was about service to others and living became even sweeter when her passions were combined with her desire to give.

Cousin Louise drove until she was much beyond age 95, in part because she fudged her age a bit.  It’s not clear if her husband, a few years her junior ever knew that she was older.  Yet because she was raised with Walter’s grandmother, the two being born just 2 weeks apart, we always knew her true age.  So when Cousin Louise turned 100, Walter and I took her dinner on her birthday and she admitted that it might be time for her to reveal her true age.

I’m not sure if I will live to 106 or if I want to.  But I know that in whatever time I have remaining on earth, I want to maintain the poise, elegance, and attitude of this great woman with a heart brimming over with love for others, a desire to help, and the radiant joy she emanated in living with a peaceful and grateful heart.

How might you describe your heart right now? What is it full of?  How do you think you would feel at 106?