Category Archives: belonging

“Let the Paths of Your Fingertips be Your Map”

For Rob who will never know;
for Parker Palmer for his wisdom and
for David Whyte for his fierceness

Some days ago, an acquaintance visited my home and I could tell he was uncomfortable there. He told me later that my house had told him much about what my life was like now, after the divorce, the tornado, the earthquake, as I am trying to put things back together. This surprised me, because although I think of my house as a way station of sorts, it is a comfortable way station, a kind of refuge that I am, for the most part, comfortable in. Leaving aside the unpacked boxes of things I do not plan to keep, the empty bookshelves I do not intend to fill, the mirrors I do not plan to hang, it is still a place of protection for me. So I was startled by his negative reaction and asked him to tell me more.  “It seemed so empty,” he said. “You seem so lost.”

emptyroomThis struck me, and as I wandered from room to relatively empty room, I could see what he saw. And I felt the truth of what he noticed. I was lost, in so many ways. This house was not my home. My life was still being pieced together one day at the time, with a sufficient yet utterly intangible sense of coherence about it. Who was I? Where was I going? Why did I still have that ridiculous box of dissertation crap from 16 years ago sitting in a box in my “office?”

Fortunately, being lost is familiar territory for me, and one of my most trustworthy guideposts is the poem “Lost,” by David Wagoner (Who Shall Be the Son?),** introduced and made popular to many readers by David Whyte. The poem is meant to be an elder’s response to a young native American child’s very real question of what to do when s/he is lost in the woods, something that could surely happen when you lived in the great Pacific Northwest from whence these poems originated.

So I sat in my bare living room, the one with no curtains, and few “decorations,” and I let the words of the poem slowly sink into me, into my pores, into the tight, tired, lonely muscles, then finally into the bone. “Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you/Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,/and you must treat it as a powerful stranger,/Must ask permission to know it and be known.”

Had I done that with this house, this quiet, solitary dwelling place that I sought merely out of refuge from the utter nightmare of living with my soon to be ex-husband and the woman he moved into my home when my side of the bed was barely cold?

No, I hadn’t. This house had treated me well, though; it made absolutely no demands on me. But now, as I sat in silence, I understood that I had not asked what “Here” was. What was this place? And who was I in it? Aside from the one paying the mortgage, and the one who tidied the worst of the debris now and then, what was I? I was reminded of the Dido song about home and displacement, “Life for Rent:”  “But if my life is for rent/and I don’t learn to buy/I deserve nothing more than I get/’cause nothing I have is truly mine.”

forest“The forest breathes. Listen. It answers./I have made this place around you./If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.” This strikes me as a call to homecoming no matter where we are–physically, emotionally, spiritually. It strikes me as a reminder that what surrounds us is on the one hand there for our knowing of it, but just as powerfully for our embracing of its unfamiliarity. It is not made for our convenience, but it will respond to our bravery if we are willing to step forward and say, “Here.”

“No two trees are the same to Raven./No two branches are the same to Wren.” In other words, this is not your world alone; there are many around you who know exactly where they are. “If what a tree or a bush does it lost on you,/You are surely lost.” If you have lost your powers of observation, you will never find out where you are, let alone where you are going.

I remember taking a walk with my 8-year old son Gabriel and our friend Cloydia and we stopped to observe a humble but ingeniously designed barn swallow’s nest (Gabe insisted it was a yellow tail, Cloydia held firm that it was a barn swallow), and we watched as the parent brought fortification for the nest, and food for the babies, and if you had not seen the intricacies of this perfect system, then you would indeed have been lost. The world goes on without you, in its own season and it its own time. Eventually we would come back and the mud nest would be empty but we had seen it, and we knew what it had been for.

I admit that I’ve never quite reckoned with that part of the poem before, but I feel I get a little piece of it now. If you aren’t paying attention to even the smallest things, things that seem inconsequential to your human existence, you’re missing something really, really big. If you are a writer person, like I am, you have been born with a contract you can either accept or reject. The contract is that, “I am here, and I will pay attention. I’ll never get it right, but I promise, and I believe, that if I try, the world will open and I will have something to share.”

ponderinfWhat’s more, and what David Whyte in his new book Consolations, and other essays brings us is important meditations on the ordinary–concepts like procrastination, concepts that, without gentle and insightful reflection, make one feel as though one should just be getting on with it, for God’s sake. Whyte writes: “What looks from the outside like our delay; our lack of commitment; even our laziness may have more to do with a slow, necessary ripening through time and the central struggle with the realities of any endeavour to which we have set our minds. To hate our procrastinating tendencies is in someway to hate our relationship with time itself, to be unequal to the phenomenology of revelation and the way it works its own way in its very own sweet, gifted time, only emerging when the very qualities it represents have a firm correspondence in our struggling heart and imagination. [From Readers’ Circle Essay, “Procrastination” ©2011 David Whyte.]

Carrie Newcomer sings, “I thought if I tried hard enough/with endless motion like a bribe/as if by this the will of God/would be bent to my version of right.” But then she goes on to sing, “What happens next is clearly weightless. The opening , we stand breathless, on the clean edge of change.”

Sometimes, many times, perhaps all the time, change is weightless, free of striving, free of hacking our way through foreign underbrush to force our way out. Sometimes, many times, it is sitting in the silence of a room that is shelter and refuge but not quite home. So that when home finds you, and the promise is that it will, we are ready to kneel gracefully, and kiss the ground of our uncertainty and start on our way home.

My favorite man sent me another email forward that I usually glance at and then delete. But he got me again with this one, from Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” When we have this, we have all we need, and we can give all we have away and never be bereft.

My friend and writing sister Cloydia shared this Ursula LeGuin poem with me. I hope you all love it (I know you won’t Dad, but I love you, so I’m prefacing just the last lines for your walks: “Walk carefully, well loved one, walk mindfully well loved one, walk fearlessly, well loved one, Return with us, return to us, be always coming home.”

manwalking

As always, in all love,

Leslie

——————————————————
Initiation Song From Finder’s Lodge
by Ursula LeGuin

Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.
Let desert sand harden your feet.
Let the arch of your feet be the mountains.
Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps
and the ways you go be the lines on your palms.
Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing
and your outbreath be the shining of ice.
May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words.
May you smell food cooking you have not eaten.
May the spring of a foreign river be your navel.
May your soul be at home where there are no houses.
Walk carefully, well loved one,
walk mindfully, well loved one,
walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home.

**Gift time!! If you’ve read this far, and share a comment below, I will send you your very own copy of David Wagoner’s Who Shall Be the Sun! Just comment and send me your deets! Woo-h00! Happy mail in winter!

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Filed under belonging, David Wagoner, David Whyte, lost

“Just Take a Deep Breath and Do Nice Things”

Folks who’ve dropped by here before may recall references to my frequent bus riding companion. I love seeing her in the morning and in the evening and sometimes find myself smiling with so much relief that she’s just THERE. Like bookends to my day. This little human connection, odd as it sometimes is, adds so much.

Recently I heard about this super cool project called Humans of New York (HONY) that posts quotes and photos about everyday people in NYC. With over eight million followers on social media, HONY now provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers in New York City. It has also become a #1 NYT bestselling book. It’s such an amazing example of how connection feeds and nourishes us, and how belonging is like oxygen.

Wanting to belong, to feel connected can come out in such weird, trivial ways. I recently started using this Google Chrome extension called “Momentum” that you can personalize as your home page. It asks you what your main focus for the day is. It also says, “Good morning [insert your name here].” I personalized my page on my home tablet to say “Good morning sweetie!” and it’s absurd how happy this makes me feel. For my main focus of the day on my home machine I’ve been writing things like, “love everything about yourself today,” or just “love everything.” It’s a tiny act of self-love, supported by goofy technology.

So back to my bus friend. She was recently telling me about some work stressors, and usually I tune in and out because I’ve heard them all before, but part of me is always waiting for “the line.” The line is the thing that she’s going to say that suddenly shifts the conversation from a litany of complaints to something major, and worth taking in. Towards the end of her last description of irritants, she said, “So I decided that all I could really do was to just take a deep breath and do nice things.” And there it was. The line.

Just take a breath and do nice things. Of course. Of course. My own personally-delivered version of John Wesley’s famous wesleyadmonition. My hope for you is that you are on both the receiving and giving ends of this deeply lovely sentiment as often as possible. And as always, that you stop by to tell us about it.

Today’s poem is again by David Whyte. Note how he moves towards suggesting that what we truly need may very often be seeing the reflection of ourselves in the eyes of another; feeling our own bodies through another’s touch. Just our real, physical, tangible presence is all we need and all that’s required.

With love,

Leslie

Second Sight

Sometimes, you need the ocean light,
and colors you’ve never seen before
painted through an evening sky.

Sometimes you need your God
to be a simple invitation,
not a telling word of wisdom.

Sometimes you need only the first shyness
that comes from being shown things
far beyond your understanding,

so that you can fly and become free
by being still and by being still here.

And then there are times you need to be
brought to ground by touch
and touch alone.

To know those arms around you
and to make your home in the world.
just by being wanted.

To see those eyes looking back at you,
as eyes should see you at last,

seeing you, as you always wanted to be seen,
seeing you, as you yourself
had always wanted to see the world.

– David Whyte
from Pilgrim
©2012 Many Rivers Press

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Filed under belonging, connection, poetry, real life

Time to Come Back

Hello and a joyful spring to any and all who still have even a thread of interest in this blog. I’ve been gone for a long, long time, but think of you often. I hope you will forgive the absence.

http://www.forestwander.comIs it spring where you are? Maple trees are budding here, crocuses and daffodils are blooming and I saw my first real dogwood yesterday, making a sparse but valiant showing.

If you listen to pop radio, you may be hearing Kelly Clarkson’s, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” and even if you don’t listen to pop radio, you know the expression “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” This is a good song to work out to; it is not, on any level, a good belief to live by.

Something that can kill you but doesn’t actually makes you weaker. A broken bone is weaker even after the regrowth; past injuries leave scar tissue and must be treated tenderly so as not to reopen or reaggravate wounds. Catastrophic illness makes you more susceptible to infection. Deep psychological pain, even though it can be and is survivable, does not ever truly leave your psyche. You are not made stronger.

This is good news.

Weakness terrifies all of us, but it is, without question what makes us most human, more tender, more vulnerable. My friend Ann says (I’m paraphrasing), “You’ve joined the club. It’s a weird club.”

My friend Mary tells me, after visiting a dying friend, “There is so much pain in the world. The most we have is leaning on each other.”

Mary’s heart is so open that when I am with her sometimes I feel like I am standing in it. Her tolerance for other people’s pain is a tangible, living thing.

Yesterday was Palm Sunday. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey flanked by illiterate fisherman. He was not stronger than thepalms army of soldiers who greeted him. I’m struck again and again at how the language of the Gospels is filled with words like “passion,” “desire,” and “longing.” When do we lose this connection (if in fact we do lose it?) When do we forget that the ache, the suffering, the longing for respite in the face of tremendous suffering…the blood and body passion for life is everything that brings us closer to others, to God?

This is not original thinking; none of this is. But today I am having lunch with two dear friends, one who has survived colon cancer, and is now celebrating her last round of chemo for pancreatic cancer, and another who is living with the constant sorrow of losing her brother. And we will be laughing, joyful. Whatever pain each of us is carrying will be shared, even for a moment, even if we don’t talk about any of it. We don’t have to. We’re in the club.

Carrie Newcomer sings about living a “permeable life.”  Go and listen to her remind you that “there is room at the table for everyone.” Or perhaps read some Parker Palmer, especially the poignant and lovely, “Let Your Life Speak.”

Or maybe, best of all, go and find yourself one of those people in your life who’s part of your tribe. One of the weirdos who makes you feel less alone on the planet. Preferably someone who really makes you laugh. I’ve been making myself walk as often as I can lately (venturing outdoors, especially to do physical activity is an effort at the best of times, but it is a sacrilege to admit that because it is spring and one is supposed to love venturing outdoors.) But because we here in the Midwest haven’t seen the sun for about 6 months, and because I know I will feel hugely better if I walk, I do it.

And many people are coming out of their homes, blinking at the sunlight as if released from cave dwellings. I enjoy seeing this. As I was walking last week, an elderly woman on an enormous elderly person’s bike with huge tires rode past me, very slowly. She was smiling. She gave me a little first pump as she drifted by. “Good weather!” she shouted, in her elderly lady voice.

It made me happy that our paths crossed, so to speak, at that moment. But earlier in the day, something made me laugh, really hard. I’d recently been visiting my parents in Naples, FL, and they took my 8-year old son and me to the Everglades. I hate the Everglades. I hate strong sun and humidity. I hate tourists. I hate snakes, especially 20-foot pythons, and no, I do not wish to feel the python skin on display during the python naturalist talk. I hate alligators and alligators are everywhere in the Everglades, as bold and ugly as can be. People talk to them like they are cute little pets. They are not.

As I was recounting being in the Everglades to an acquaintance (by recounting I mean to say telling him that he should never, ever go to the Everglades because it is ugly and dangerous), he said, “Well, to me the whole point of becoming educated was so that I wouldn’t have to go outside.”

In that moment, I had met a member of my tribe. I laughed all day. It was breath. It was life. It was spring.

With much love and gratitude,

LC

To a Snake (by Jeffrey Harrison)

I knew you were not poisonous
when I saw you in the side garden;
even your name—milk snake—
sounds harmless, and yet your pattern
of copper splotches outlined in black
frightened me, and the way you were
curled in loops; and it offended me
that you were so close to the house
and clearly living underneath it
if not inside, in the cellar, where I
have found your torn shed skins.

You must have been frightened too
when I caught you in the webbing
of the lacrosse stick and flung you
into the woods, where you landed
dangling from a vine-covered branch,
shamelessly twisted. Now I
am the one who is ashamed, unable
to untangle my feelings,
braided into my DNA or buried
deep in the part of my brain
that is most like yours.

“To a Snake” by Jeffrey Harrison, from Into Daylight. © Tupelo Press, 2014

 alligators

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Filed under belonging, hope, lent, spirituality

Dining with David Whyte, Part 3

paint the Hall orange

 I was cleaning out my office the other day, and I found a copy of a 2004-2005 University of Illinois publication called “The March to the Arch.”  2004-2005 was a huge year for men’s basketball at the University of Illinois, and this publication chronicled the team’s amazing year, which I only knew about because even though I was here at the time, my dad and my friend Ann told me about it.   But really, it was a big huge deal; it was the 100th season of men’s basketball at UIUC, and the team made it to the NCAA National Championship, where they lost to the University of North Carolina 75–70.  They ended the season with an overall record of 37–2, tying the NCAA record for most wins in a season, and a conference record of 15-1.  

Well, whatever.  The main thing I remember about that year is that diehard Illini fans really loved this team as a TEAM, that they exuded an incredible spirit when were on the court together.  The only reason I’m thinking about it now is because inside the booklet that I found in my office were two pieces of paper with autographs on them:  Dee Brown’s and Deron Williams’.  When I tell you that I could care less about basketball (or any other sport, really), it’s beyond understatement.  But for some reason, I felt caught up enough in the campus spirit to ask these two young men for their autographs one afternoon when Ann and I saw them standing outside the Illini Union.  Why?  Noooo clue (can you say “fairweather fan??”).

I don’t know why people do this with “famous” people: get autographs or other artifacts that somehow manage to obscure the fact that “famous people” are just human beings, and despite our adoration and/or devotion, we can’t really “get” anything from them.  Also, they are not more than us, nor are we less than them.  When I met David Whyte, it wasn’t as a famous person; I didn’t want to touch him, or to ask him to sign anything, or take a picture of myself with him.  I wanted to meet him as a human being, one who seemed possessed of a particular kind of wisdom that offered a way of looking at the world that was (and still is) deeply interesting to me.  I really, really wanted to talk with him.  And to my still enormous astonishment and gratitude, that’s just what I got to do.

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Filed under belonging, David Whyte

The Reasons Why We Should Celebrate Poetry in January

January is a confusing month.  First you get the sort of upswing of energy that comes from making it through Christmas, and it’s an emotional, albeit somewhat arbitrary fresh start.  It ushers in the pledging allegiance to the delusions of New Year’s Resolutions, though if you read my post about resolutions, you know my thoughts on that.  But then comes the emotional and psychological downswing of the fact that it’s actually January.  Two more months of winter (if you’re lucky), on top of the insanity of the fact that in your least reliable state of mind you have new self-imposed stuff that you feel like you have to do (if you’ve made resolutions), like lose weight, be nicer, be happier, be more organized, work harder, transform your personality so you fit in with the rest of the world, just generally try to be a more acceptable human being, blah, blah, blah.  And also, it’s cold and gray. 

My personal fantasy about January is that should be declared The Official Month of Freedom.  In other words, you don’t have to do ANYTHING.  Of course, your kids would still go to school and/or daycare, but every adult would receive vouchers for massages, home food delivery, housecleaning, esp. the crap stuff you never get to like the floorboards, behind the washing machine and dryer, and that one spot behind the toilet that you know you have to get to because your mother-in-law would, but you don’t really have the energy or generational self-respect to try.  For a week or two, you would have Staff.  Does anyone agree with me on this?  Should we start a petition?

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Filed under belonging, kindness, poetry