Hello and Happy September everyone! A friend said to me recently that the seasons, particularly the spring (and particularly the rabbits in his yard in the spring), affirm his belief that “life trends towards hope.” I like this idea, though not, perhaps, for the reason my friend does. Seasons are cyclical, and cycles don’t really “trend” towards anything except repeating themselves. So one could suggest that the exuberant hopefulness of spring is not more or less important or meaningful than the still darkness of the winter. And vice versa.
[Note on the art pictured here: it is a photograph of a print by Carol McCrady that I have in my office. It’s called “Medieval Seasons,” and you can see more of her exquisite art on her web site.]
This isn’t a depressing perspective; just a realistic one, and one that I’ve learned a lot about from writers like Parker Palmer and David Whyte. They talk about the danger of human beings’ desire to accept only those parts of ourselves that are light, expansive, “up.” We do a deep disservice to ourselves when we live this way, because we’re making very little internal space for the times when we are not all these things. In the words of the fabulous singer songwriter John Prine, “That’s the way that the world goes round/up one day the next you’re down/it’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown/that’s the way that the world goes round.”
I love the line: “it’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown” because it’s so ridiculously true. I had to remind myself of this in the last few weeks when our entire university town was going through the transition from summer to fall: no students/no school—> thousands of students/lots of school.
I don’t know what it was about this year, but it also seemed like everyone I knew had some kind of insane personal crisis [ill family members, marital problems, weird health issues (kidney stones, anyone?), and my favorite–birth parents popping up wanting to meet adoptive children] all happening in this same time period. And that was in addition to the normal back-to-school craziness, city-wide construction in key traffic areas, and moving vans all over the place.
Driving to pick Gabe up one afternoon, I thought, “Man, what’s next, the plague of locusts?” But no, it was lice. On Gabe’s last day of pre-school, his teacher announced that 5 kids in his class had been sent home with lice. After 15 years of daycare and school, never have we encountered lice, and now, 3 days before the start of kindergarten, guess what?? Awesome. We’ll be the family that introduces lice to the class in the first week of school. But he didn’t get it, thank God.
Noah is a sophomore in high school, Jacob an eighth-grader, Gabe a “kindergarten guy.” This spectrum is an interesting exercise in strategic worry allocation–STD’s or healthy lunch box snacks? Pushing academic rigor or advocating for creative self-expression (i.e. “I don’t care what you have to do but you’d better be getting A’s in those AP classes!” or “it’s completely fine if you want to color the tree yellow, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!”)?
I did student advising all summer and it was an unbelievable amount of work. Sometimes I meet with a student in deep despair; sometimes I can help them, sometimes not. Often I don’t know either way. But I find that I always–always–even when I have no idea if it’s true or not–reassure them that whatever their current experience is will not determine how happy or comfortable, or successful they will be. That their distress will not last forever, that life gets better, that there is always reason to hope.
I say it because I want it to be true. I say it because I need to say it, to remind myself, to remind them. There would be simply no reason to continue on if I couldn’t offer it, across my desk, like a like a life raft or an oxygen mask. I am saying, “Nothing needs to happen right except that you breathe, that you simply allow for the possibility that there is more to you than what you know in this moment.” And as Anne Lamott has written about faith, it’s okay if you don’t believe it right now; I’ll believe it for you.
Gretchen Rubin, of The Happiness Project, posted a question on Facebook the other day that went something like: “The day after Labor Day always makes me full of resolutions, just like on New Year’s Day! How about you?” My immediate reaction was, “Absolutely not. The day after Labor Day only makes me wish it was still Labor Day.” I felt bad about feeling like that. I fretted and sort of worried about my state of mind, and got into a week-long funk. But then, sick of my own negativity, I realized that I had gotten sort of high off of all the energy and craziness of the transition period, and now it’s just…normal life. So I told myself, “one day you’re up, the next you’re down/it’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown/that’s the way that the world goes round.” After that, it all really started to seem okay again.
It’s just as accurate to say that life trends towards the dark as it is to say that it trends towards the light. But what I’ve realized is that this doesn’t mean that life trends towards despair. Dark is not the same as despair; death is not the same as despair. Illness, pain, struggle, confusion, failure…none of these presume the absence of hope. In fact, it’s the opposite. They call forth even more hope, or at least a deeper committment to hope, than the times that are free of suffering.
As we head into the fall, I’m praying for an even deeper commitment to trend towards hope. I’m sort of excited about it. Let me know how your summer to fall transition was. I’d really love to hear! Watch John Prine’s live performance of “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round” from 1978 here. And enjoy this beautiful Rilke poem, especially the last stanza.
Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colours
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you,
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth,
leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so helplessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs —
leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
Rainer Maria Rilke