Bloom where you are planted

Years ago I was in a lonely space. I was struggling for answers and life’s direction but receiving little inner guidance. I decided to head to a retreat facility — a rambling Victorian house run by a religious community — by the ocean.

But it was October. Off-season. And the house would be empty.

The retreat director asked if I would mind this. I said it would be fine. I needed the quiet and the space to breathe, to pray, to listen.

When I arrived, the house was everything I had hoped for. My room overlooked the ocean and I was a short walk to the sandy beach. But as evening drew on I discovered that indeed I was alone in this big, rambling house. I stayed only one night and came away with fewer answers than before.

I did learn this, however. I didn’t need to travel to another location to find what I was looking for. Oh, sometimes traveling to a new locale gave me a fresh perspective and was helpful. But more often than not, I found that the answers unfolded no matter where I had planted myself.

And sometimes they didn’t unfold at all, which ironically, was part of the process.

I know. I know. Life can be filled with WTH do I do next? Do I turn right or left? Yes or no? Stay or go?

Burning bushes are not easy to come by, for any of us.

Since I retired and dad had his stroke, my time has been filled with caring for him. But I’m also looking for direction at way past midlife, at what else I might want to do with the years I have left, with the talents and gifts I have. I still have much to contribute.

So today I had some time off from caregiving. Although still Springtime, the weather blazed hot but beautiful like a summer’s day. I went to a nearby park with a lake, and toting a lawn chair, blanket and book sat under a shady tree, soft warm breezes caressing me.

Blessed silence. I hadn’t felt such peace in a long time.

Then a sun-tanned man ambled by, about my age, smiling big and waved his hand in the air in a friendly arc. He had a laid-back vibe about him with his straw hat with a feather, jeans and sandals. He started chatting about the beauty of the day, about how he had cared for his mother who at 88 had still belonged to the women’s bowling league, how he enjoyed music.

And how in his 20s he had traipsed off to Hollywood, following a girlfriend.

“What was I thinking?” he asked with a huge grin. “We got involved in show business a bit. She did makeup and I had some background parts. You know, the guy who drives the bus or stands in the background reading the newspaper.”

Part of me was fascinated by his sharing. Another part wanted my silence back. I decided to allow whatever was happening, to happen. Finally, he said “good-bye” and I watched him walk away, wondering about his life, how he had taken another path long ago and had returned here. As I had.

I had moved to many states, for many jobs, for many reasons. And in the end, I came back to the place I know as home.

We make choices for many reasons. None are good or bad. They simply are. In hindsight, they may feel like mistakes, but if we are open, I feel that all our decisions are for our growth. They eventually lead us to where we’re meant to be.

I rose from the lawn chair and did as poet Mary Oliver wrote in the poem The Summer Day. I fell down on my knees into the deep green grass and inhaled its heady fragrance. I stretched out on the blanket, looking up at the green leaves of the tree silhouetted against a blue-blue sky.

I listened to the birds twittering around me, the hush of the breeze in the branches, and marveled at this unique perspective of seeing the world from the ground up.

I paid attention.

And I heard yet again Oliver’s haunting question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

But no answers came.

Sometimes I think too deeply. Ask too many questions. They block trust. They are ways of controlling and of not allowing Divine flow to take over. I’m aware of this.

So as I stretched out on the grass, I decided to follow a saying popular when I was a teenager. It would become my mantra — to bloom where I am planted.

Sometimes I am planted in uncertainty. Sometimes in the hard earth of sadness or the rich soil of joy. And sometimes I am planted in meeting a stranger who simply wants to connect.

I sunk deeper into the earth. In the moment. Blooming.

**********

THE SUMMER DAY

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

 

 

 

Your one wild and precious life

I stopped at the Dollar General Store the other day and Clara was behind the counter.

I love Clara. She only works part-time but she always seems to be there when I show up and over the years we’ve developed a friendship. She’s 85, spry and wiry, always smiling and has positive words for everyone.

How does she do this at her age, I often ask myself. And she’s happy at it, too.

I sometimes joke with her: “I want to be you when I grow up.” She laughs it off and keeps talking about her grandkids or how she’ll have tomorrow off as she rings up my laundry detergent and dishwashing liquid.

So it got me to thinking about that old axiom that our parents, an aunt or neighbor asked us when we were kids: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

lion-tamerMy goals weren’t lofty at six or seven. I thought a ballerina might be fun. Then the idea of a tightrope walker seemed thrilling. From there it was a short trip to lion tamer and clown. I look back with amazement at how anything seemed possible at that age, along with the idea of being able to do it.

What we want to be when we “grow up,” I believe, is related to a deeper question: What is our purpose? Our calling?

I think we all want to use our talents or gifts in some way. Our souls are hard-wired to want to better the planet and ourselves and leave behind something meaningful.

But most times, the reality of being a grown up doesn’t allow that. We take jobs we don’t like because we have to pay the bills. We are stuck in cubicles or in endless meetings asking ourselves, like the old Peggy Lee song, “Is that all there is?”

I was fortunate to use the gift of writing to support myself. Barely. But I did. It’s been my career over the decades. Still, that’s never felt like my true purpose.

So what is it I’m seeking — what we all yearn for?

woman by door at oceanWriter Elizabeth Gilbert has some brilliant things to say about all this, separating what we do into these categories:

JOB: A job is vital, she writes, but don’t make it YOUR LIFE. It’s not that big a deal. It’s just a job — a very important and also not-at-all important thing. “We need a job to pay the bills. But a job doesn’t have to define who we are,” she says. So, I could have had a job as a lion tamer, and if I had excelled at it over the years then I might have made it my ….

CAREER: A job is just a task that you do for money, Gilbert writes. But a career is something that you build over the years with energy, passion, and commitment. Um, no. Lion taming did not call me, which leads to ….

VOCATION: The word “vocation” comes to us from the Latin verb “vocare” — meaning “to call”. Your vocation is your calling. Gilbert writes: “Your vocation is a summons that comes directly from the universe, and is communicated through the yearnings of your soul.

“While your career is about a relationship between you and the world, your vocation is about the relationship between you and God. Vocation is a private vow. Your career is dependent upon other people, but your vocation belongs only to you.”

Writing and creativity have always called me. Sometimes it’s been work and just a job. Over a lifetime it’s been a career. But my calling?

I’m still scratching beneath the surface of my life — even at this age — and asking what tugs at my soul. I ask how I can best use the gifts I’ve been given to serve. And the truth is, I don’t know. Other than writing, are there other talents waiting to be claimed?

I do know this, however — as writer Wayne Dyer has said — I don’t want to die with my music still in me.

Then again, perhaps I’m making it too complicated. After all, look at Clara. She’s content in the moment with her job as a cashier. She doesn’t ask about her purpose in life.

WOMEN HEARTWhen she was a child and people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, I’m almost sure she didn’t say “cashier.” But it’s her job. It gives her spending money. Her family, most likely, has been her career.

Her calling, however, is being present to those who stand on the other side of the counter. Her vocation is bringing joy and love to the space she inhabits.

Perhaps, in the end, that’s what we are all called to do. Whether we’re a cashier, taming a lion or writing — our ultimate calling is to be love. To be in the moment and pay attention, as Mary Oliver writes so gracefully in The Summer Day.

Whatever we choose to do with our one, wild and precious life, let us do it with love. This, I believe, is our ultimate work, today, when we grow up … and forever.

 *******

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

The courage of gratitude

“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” ~ Meister Eckhart

*********

One day you wake up and you think — this is it. This is my one and only life.

I don’t know what causes that to happen. It may be as traumatic as the death of a spouse or a diagnosis of cancer. Or it may be something as simple as the unexpected ache in your back or knees, reminding you that you are aging and nothing lasts forever, especially your body.

Whatever the cause, the thought is startling, like your breath snatched from your lungs in a stiff, cold wind.

You may have dallied with the thought of the time left you on this planet, but chances are you lost it in the deadlines of life. Or in denial. But then there it is. Persistent. Defining. And the realization sinks in and chills your soul.

brevity of lifeMost of us pull the covers over our head and tell it to go away. We don’t want to look at our own finiteness. We don’t want to have to ask the hard questions. Besides, who has the time to lead the “examined” life?

Isn’t it bad enough that we have to wake early each morning and face rush hour traffic, a sink full of dirty dishes, a desk piled with work and bills, that we have to listen to news filled with murders, wars and terrorist attacks.

Who has time to contemplate his or her “one and only life?” This is it. The bills. The job. The extra 20 pounds.

Still, the nagging thought persists. We want our lives to count for something. So what do we do with this realization when it pricks us? Or do we need to do anything at all?

Perhaps we first need to see it as a gift. We can take this realization of our limited nature and celebrate it. This gift of awareness, if we have the courage to truly look at it, has much to tell us about how we choose to spend the rest of our lives. It is the “wake up call” prodding us to “do the thing we think we cannot do” as Eleanor Roosevelt said.

But exactly what is that thing? Is it writing our best-selling novel? Climbing a high mountain? Working with the poor in India? Some may do those things. But chances are, most of us will do none of them. We will get up each morning, wash, brush our teeth, eat breakfast, get the children off to school, go to work. Over and over and over again.

So if this is our one and only life, and this is it — the mundane and routine — how can this possibly be a gift?

appreciation-can-change-your-lifeThrough choice. It is the lens through which we view those hum-drum moments of our lives, either blurring them with dislike and boredom or clarifying them with appreciation and love. But it takes courage.

Choosing to take our lives and celebrate the little moments is not for the faint hearted. For who among us wants to appreciate driving in rush hour traffic on a rainy Monday morning? Or who wants to be grateful for sitting through another boring business meeting?

None of us, I imagine. But I believe it is possible. It takes practice to adopt a different mind set and to see life in a “new” way. It takes appreciation and gratitude. And acceptance. Believe me, these are no easy tasks.

And they begin with simple steps. Perhaps thankfulness for a job when so many today are unemployed. Gratefulness for children when many are unable to have children. A safe home when so many people today are displaced from their countries. Appreciation for legs and feet when many are in wheelchairs.

Pollyana-ish? Perhaps. But there’s nothing wrong with being a Pollyana. It is in choosing to take the ordinary of life and transforming it with love and gratitude that we transform and elevate the average into the awesome, the banal into bliss. The little moments count, whether it’s stuck in line at the bank or grocery store, or sitting with a loved one on the front porch on a summer night, watching the fireflies dance in twilight.

In her poem The Summer Day poet Mary Oliver dares us to savor our lives and not take a minute of it for granted. In her walk through a meadow and her encounter with a grasshopper, she sees the fleeting nature of life and accepts the goodness of all that is given her in that moment.

She questions if she shouldn’t be doing something else on that summer’s day, but then asks, what else should she be doing except kneeling down into the tall grass and savoring the day.

mary oliver tell meAt the end of her poem she challenges the core of our being with this question:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

In my own life, I’m still answering that question. I believe my writing is part of it. But perhaps there’s more. I don’t know yet. What I do know is that when I open my heart in gratitude to all that is before me in a day, the burdens of life are lightened. I even discover pockets of joy.

But some days, I falter. I’m always learning. As I said before, gratitude for all that is given us is not for the faint hearted. But if we are not thankful for each and every second of our lives — what then? Tell me. What then?

 

Let it be

“Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild precious life?” — Mary Oliver

*******

I ran into Sally at the store the other day. We had been in a spiritual/prayer group together last winter and at the time, she had mentioned her father who was ill. She had been managing his care while he was in a nursing home.

I hadn’t seen her since that group ended and when I saw her, I asked about her dad.

“He died two months ago,” she said, sobbing.

women-huggingI hugged her and listened.

“It was so hard and so easy at the same time,” she said. “We were praying at his bedside and I was in tears, and I felt him go. I knew he was out of pain … still … I cry a lot these days.”

I felt my soul split open, wanting to spew out a river of sorrow. Her father’s death was triggering my own feelings of anticipatory grief about my own father who had a stroke two years ago.

Sally asked about my dad. I told her that for now, he was OK, but declining with each year. And I told her that I knew her experience would soon be mine.

“It will be painful,” she said, “but you will get through it. Let me write down your dad’s name so I can pray for him and for you.”

We said good-bye and I left the store, even more saddened. Meeting her and learning of her father’s death felt like a wake-up call, a gentle nudge from God. For whatever reasons, life has spared me the death of a close loved one. And Sally was a visible reminder to me of my story right now — one that each day knocks closer on the door of my heart.

For me, it continues to be a lesson in acceptance. And to be honest, I’ve never been good at it. I’m not good at letting go, especially of those I love.

I write a good deal about letting go because it’s a lifelong lesson for me. Lately, however, I have come to consider that perhaps it’s not so much a matter of letting go, but rather of “letting it be.” Wayne Muller an ordained minister, therapist and author, writes:

When we die, we need not let go of anything. Death will come when it comes. We are simply letting it be. And it is the same with life. We need not let go of our illusions of immortality. They will go on their own soon enough. But if we can mindfully accept it all simply as it is — we live and then we die — then there is nothing to do at all, only to let it be. This acceptance brings tremendous freedom.

These are fine words. And I yearn for that freedom that Muller describes. However, in this moment, they are just that —  words and not experience. I can only hope they uphold me when my father dies. And I pray I also find strength in God and the support of those around me.

But here’s the irony. Even while I wait — with grief, with dread — I also experience each moment with my father as precious, as new. When I am caregiving and with him, I find life somehow is born again, even in the face of impending death. And this, strangely, is a gift.

In his decline, I am learning to live attentively and deeply in the moment. And when he dies, I will offer thanks for my father’s life, one filled with countless examples of loving service. He truly has taken Mary Oliver’s quote to heart and lived life; he has not wasted one precious second in his desire to serve and help others.Letting-go21

Dad is not always coherent and the last week or so, every time I mention something — no matter the topic — he says “Let it happen. Let it happen.” He used to offer this advice when I would be troubled about the outcome of any given situation.

I believe this has been dad’s way of telling me to “let it be.” With such a teacher, how then, can I not be in gratitude? And how, when he dies, can I not keep from crying — in both joy and loss?

 

 

 

To be idle and blessed

What do we do when we are exhausted with life? Here are some thoughts and stories.

*******

Sometimes we feel we have nothing left. We are empty. Dry. Earth that is caked and cracked and aching for water.

weary 1We have done too much in our lives, driven too many miles to work, attended too many meetings, cooked too many meals, had too many sleep-deprived nights, and worried too much about children or spent too many hours caring for aging parents.

We’d like to pull the covers over our heads and sleep. Preferably for months.

This, I believe, is the human condition today.  We are exhausted, physically. On a deeper level, we are soul weary. Our spirits yearn to be refreshed.

But how do we do that? How do we restore our being, especially when so much is demanded of us?

A friend of mine has been grappling with these questions for some years. She wakes up at 5 a.m. each day and travels into Manhattan where she works for a large corporation. Her pay is excellent but in exchange, she puts in long hours, manages mind-numbing projects and puts up with wearisome meetings. If she loved her work, perhaps all that would be bearable. But she doesn’t. After work hours, she is exhausted, with little energy to do the things that might replenish her.

My own story is one of caregiving. I was pushed into the “graduate course” of self-nurturing after my father had a stroke two years ago. I eventually came to realize at deepest levels that I had to make time for myself, even if it was for an hour. Otherwise, I had nothing left for him, myself or anyone else.

quiet and restToday, I am still learning to let go and simply be — to allow a sunset to soak into my soul, to curl up with a book or daydream — and not feel guilty about it. I know that if I don’t make time, it won’t happen. So I schedule a date with my spirit, to nourish it, and with my body, to relax and heal it.

Only we can decide what will refresh us down deep. It may be gardening. Prayer. A walk. A nap with a dog curled at our feet. Or, it may be allowing the moment to unfold in its fullness while we “do” nothing. I love Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day” and her words:

“… I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed …”

Sadly, we have forgotten how to pay attention. We don’t know how “to be idle.” So, for many of us, “falling down into the grass” won’t be easy. Being human, we will make excuses and allow the pressures of life to drain us.

But the truth is, some task or person will always be pulling at us. To find rest for ourselves, we may need to ask for help. We may need to say “no” more often. Or, we may need to let go of what no longer serves us. My friend did this. She eventually left her corporate job and although her income is meager, her soul is flourishing.

What I continue to learn is this: Much may be demanded of us but we have a choice as to how we respond. We can choose to be gentle with our precious being. We can simplify our lives and make the time to reboot, even if it’s for five or 10 minutes.

daisyIn the silence of our hearts, we can allow ourselves to fall into the arms of the Divine Beloved who wants nothing more than our restoration. We can be idle. And blessed.

Only then, will the hard earth soften. Life-giving waters flow into our hearts. And our souls bloom.