I woke up early on Earth Day to the song of a white crown sparrow. It seemed fitting that to honor something as big as Earth Day, I needed to start small.
Listening to birdsong is like stepping into a land of wonder, a foreign world that I never really heard before because I never really listened. That, or the fact that the regular noise of airplanes flying overhead obscured more tender songs. (Fewer flights and less noise being one of the benefits of the pandemic.)
How generous nature is to provides such treats. Birds are almost everywhere and it takes only our attention to enjoy their trills, tweets, chirps, and chatter.
I’ve never been a birder nor could understand why anyone would wake up pre-dawn on a cold Northwest morning to stand, shiver, and watch birds. I prefer hot tea, morning meditation, and comfort. Then again, the world is changing and I am, too.
In these days of a BIG pandemic, I need the solace of the small. One bird, at one moment, became soul-food for me.
A new relationship
When I first learned history, many moons ago, I read stories of men (sic) as master-commanders, who built kingdoms and made “progress” by dominating nature.
I’m still occasionally tempted to believe that I’m the center of my own universe–or at least, with my husband, the center of our property.
This morning’s sparrow, however, didn’t get the message. He lives in his universe of song, hopping along the ground looking for seeds, insects, and spiders.
Birds are not deferent to our starring roles as masters. I doubt they spend much of their time talking about us.
That holds true for other inhabitants of our property, including the squirrels, worms, voles, chipmunks, tree frogs, and occasional raccoons, each holding private exchanges that don’t have anything to do with us humanoids.
It feels humbling and important to know how much of nature goes on without us, hurt by our actions, but never deferent.
Covid-19 is proving that.
During these stay-at-home days, I have no need to travel. I can sit and discover a world in a bird’s song. Even a little snail in a terrarium can open our hearts to nature. (Read Tova Bailey’s exquisite The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.)
Hearing the sparrow reminds me of when, at 17, I left the United States for the first time. Spending the summer in Brussels, my lens on life shattered when I looked back at my country and saw that it was part of the world, not the center of the world.
Will Covid-19 shake us so badly that we’ll look at our relationship to the world around us in new ways? Partnerships would be a good a place to start, between countries, among peoples, and between humans and the many aspects of nature.
When we let go of master-commander or center-of-the-universe roles, we observe our interconnected places within a larger system.
“We’re in it together,” is today’s strong and uplifting mantra. That phrase really should include birds, tree frogs, viruses, government leaders, and ground beetles.
Still at the center
Eco-system thinking aside, I cling to the hope that there’s one place, with my husband, where I could be at the center of someone’s universe. When I look at our joy-boys, Winston and Royce with their ever-wagging tails, I think there’s still a chance.
But when they look at us, it’s likely, from their perspective, that THEY are at the center of the universe, and we’re just a little, you know, slow to learn.
Here’s to partnership…with a little birdsong for theme music.
Next week, we enter a new decade. This week, as we move through the days between the years, it seems a good time to spend a few minutes exploring what is mysterious, beautiful or holy around us.
A Christmas Story
My Christmas was quiet this year, but on Christmas Eve, as I was consumed by the getting-ready-ness, rather than by the sacred, I saw an iconographic image by artist Kelly Latimore that blew me away. (Sorry I can’t show you, but you can see it here).
The backdrop to my surprise was the traditional story we’ve heard so often:
Two thousand plus years ago an itinerant couple, had to undergo a long journey by walking on foot to a distant town. Although they needed shelter, they were told “no room,” which was particularly inconvenient because the woman was about to give birth. Somehow, they were able to hide out in a manger, albeit with limited sanitation. The animals, not concerned at all that these people were “outsiders,” got very interested when the baby came. You probably know the rest.
In the painting by Latimore, a family is traveling light through the Mexican (I assume) brush country at night. The father, carrying only a backpack, looks worried as he hurries his family along. The mother is bearing the load of a young son strapped into a purple shawl she wears across her shoulder. Walking through the brush in flip flops, she looks tired.
Their story is probably similar to that of thousands of refugees today. But what strikes me are the halos behind the heads of the three travelers, the child’s containing a sacred symbol.
In the second image by Latimore, we see an ominous-looking chainlink fence dominating the canvas. Behind it stands a Madonna, probably Mexican, her head covered in a white shawl, carrying a baby. Her eyes haunt as she stares into the fence. Brilliant halos backlight both of their heads.
Latimore’s analogies were making were more than clear and brought to me a sacred wondering, thinking about the many refugee families that include a potential madonna, a harried father, and the sacred Child, in his or her many guises.
Their journeys, their escapes, and their struggles have been written into the great story of humankind. They are us.
It was heartbreaking to think, once again, about their suffering. But, what can we do as fellow humans, whether we’re Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindi, or…?
First, stop thinking of these people as “other.” Banish the word “alien,” (although I admit sometimes to feeling a little alien myself).
Send money, if you can, or help directly, if you’re called to do that. Telephone politicians. March and rage.
Then send love.
I’m not a scientist, but it appears that it’s finally possible to measure, if only in a preliminary way, how sending healing thoughts can impact others, even those far away. In a well-documented experiment, scientists recorded the brain patterns of my friend Dr. Joyce Hawkes by covering her head with brain sensors and measuring her brain activity while she sent specific healing energy to a client, himself similarly hooked up. Remarkable changes were seen in both of their brain patterns as she focused her thoughts on him. This was all the more notable because her client was 7,000 miles away from her in India.
What’s important to me is not just the healing power of our positive and loving thoughts on others, but what such thinking does to us.
Sitting in a little room, saddened by the state of the world, and yet uplifted, perhaps, by the season of light, I can send hope, healing, and love to the Madonnas waiting at the border, living in detainment camps, or crossing the Mediterranean in contraband ships.
Will my thoughts change the world? Perhaps a little, but there’s no guarantee. In this inning of life, we’re coming from behind.
Will it change me? I think so.
During this liminal week between the decades, why not send thoughts of light, love, compassion, and hope to those struggling with the weight of the world, either near you or miles away. Then, let me know how you feel.
Welcome to the season of light. Whatever your faith, the light, in the Northern Hemisphere, can shine in radiant contrast to the dark around us.
But during this fly-by-get-ready-for-the-holidays time of the year, do we take time to appreciate both the light and the darkness that surrounds it? Or do we just fume when a traffic light doesn’t change fast enough for us?
I had an opportunity to ponder this potential lack of appreciation when I took a few minutes to interview the Light during his once-a-year sabbatical. He takes a yearly break when the days are short north of the equator. (For the record, the Light increasingly self-identifies as non-binary and gender-neutral, but says “he” is OK for now.)
I was stunned to hear him say, “This year, I’m debating my return.”
He told me, “People expect me to come back and light up the world. But this year, they’ve been so busy creating darkness, it’s as if I don’t matter. Mass shootings, lies, separation, hostilities and greed. Hardly the welcome I deserve.”
“I get it,” I replied, “But what about the darkness? Is darkness necessarily bad?”
He went on, “No, the real darkness isn’t bad at all, just the dark stuff you create with unkindness.
The kind of darkness I travel with is astronomical, natural and necessary and can make me stand out and look distinguished, if I say so myself. Have you noticed how the moon glows when its light is set against a deep indigo sky? Or appreciated the beauty of a single candle glowing in a dark chapel? Or admired the red rays of dawn streaming across the dark blue backdrop?
Darkness and I can be quite a becoming pair.
This year, at the same time you keep creating man-made darkness, you believe you can make up for your excesses with the man-made light from your electricity and electronics. You keep your skyscrapers illuminated around the clock, put 1000 lights around Santa Claus and the reindeer on your lawns, and use those awful halogen lights when you’re camping.
The more you fill the world with artificial light, the more you seem to forget about me. I assure you that the Light of the World will not be found on your devices.”
I told him I hoped he was exaggerating about our neglect, and asked what would make him feel better about returning for the Solstice.
“Don’t take the Light for granted. You need to do your part and match my light with your inner light and goodness. The outer light and inner light are meant to be together. When you send light to each other, you dispel darkness, even that which you’ve created.
I can’t light the world without you.”
I asked him if he could give a few more specific suggestions.
“Take time during these December nights to appreciate the dark. Go outside and watch the fog, the stars, or a frosty moon. Spend time in darkness watching how a flame flickers. Greet the dawn with gratefulness, even if it is still shrouded in clouds. Honor the natural world. You’ll gain respect for the balance in the relationship that’s meant to exist between the light and the darkness.
Spend more time in reflection with yourself. Without judging, notice the parts of you that feel heavy, despairing, cynical or in need of illumination. Feel free to invite light into those places rather than trying to escape your inner darkness by projecting it on others.
Build a fire, and allow it to burn away your feelings of shame or your regrets. (You could write what you’re willing to let go of on a paper you then throw into the flames.)
Find the secret storeroom where you keep your light. It might be your soul–or your heart–anywhere you hold caring, compassion and concern for others. Pay attention to these and amplify your love for the world–it’s the wattage you need.
When I sense your light flowing to others, it will be my time to return.
Finally, don’t take me for granted. I start to come back on the Solstice but it takes me three days to get up and running before I can increase your light by one minute each day. During those three days, I suggest you contemplate the light: mine, yours, and ours, and celebrate what we can create when we work together.
We have a lot to do to brighten and heal this place in 2020.
Do your part, and I’d be delighted to return on December 21st.”
He paused, wincing,
“But, promise me this: no more children in cages next year. I’m not kidding.”
Did your mother ever tell you, “To give is to receive?” She was partly right. What she forgot to add was, “To give with an open heart, you must be able to receive.”
Giving and receiving belong together, like inhaling and exhaling. But giving typically gets more of our attention.
You might think that’s only fair, given that our culture seems so full of “takers” interested only in amassing more for themselves. Note: receivers are not takers.
Receiving expands connection. Taking can deplete it.
Picture this. You give a compliment to someone, who doesn’t fully receive it. “What a beautiful dress,” you say. She replies, “This? It’s so old.” Or, you thank someone for his volunteer work at an event, and he says, “Oh, I didn’t really do anything.” In each case, someone thinks they’re humble when, in fact, they’ve taken your words without receiving the gift in them.
Giving to someone who can’t receive can leave us feeling empty.
In contrast, we can receive a gift, support, compliment, or love, by pausing and feeling the spirit behind what we’ve been offered. In receiving deeply and gratefully, we feel held and whole. Perhaps the places inside of us that have known lack can begin to heal and we will trust, if but for a moment, that the universe has our backs.
Why receiving can be hard
You’d think receiving would be a joy, but here’s a dirty secret: much of life gets built around lack.
In the United States, many of us (especially if white) were born to advantages that much of the world would love to enjoy. So why aren’t we overflowing with a spirit of abundance, gratitude, and desire to share?
I think it’s because many of us were wounded in our early lives when we didn’t get what we needed or wanted.
Maybe it was that pony under the tree at Christmas, or an acknowledgment of something we did. Perhaps we needed a hug when we felt shaky, someone to comfort our tears, or a bigger serving of unconditional love. We may have craved assurance that we mattered, an affirmation of our worthiness no matter what.
In such moments of great disappointment, our little hearts were bruised or broken, and we were left wondering, “Why didn’t they see me? Or care? Why wasn’t I sufficiently loveable to be worthy of their recognition, acknowledgment, or support?”
We coped with our losses, but didn’t forget. A sense of lack was driven into our bones.
Often it became part of who we were, our identity.
Even if this sense of lack caused us pain, it became part of our known world. In some ways, it provided an anchor (“That’s the way things are,”) we could depend upon and protection from being disappointed again. (“I’ll never be so stupid to expect a pony,” or “I didn’t really want it, anyway.“)
We created an invisible story that deflects data that could contradict it. We hold on to lack. We prep ourselves to be disappointed, decide that we can only count on ourselves, or perhaps, in a counter-narrative, we become super-givers, using our giving as another way to shield ourselves from what we can’t bear to feel.
Lacking and wanting can be huge motivators. Entrepreneurs have built companies and amassed fortunes while striving for what they didn’t have, such as respect, money, privilege, or recognition.
The trouble is that success and achievement built on a foundation of lack rarely lead to peace or satisfaction.
How to increase our receiving
Takers pull energy from others. Receivers share out of the gratitude that they feel. Someone who can receive and feel gratitude automatically wants to share.
Reading the top news today, I’d say that the mood is hardly generous. We see examples of affluent people who hold tightly to what they have and grasp for more, ignoring the opportunities to give more to others. In the United States, there’s talk of restricting access to the food stamps offered the neediest. When we curtail generosity, we don’t build wealth; we amplify our sense of lack.
I’m in remedial receiving myself. Receiving is an archetypically “feminine” power in a world that favors action and forward thrust. I have to reclaim that natural part of myself.
But with some work, I think we can recover. Here’s what I’m trying; I’d love to know if any of these work for you:
Attend to the good. Focus on a time when you felt (or are feeling) overfilled with the goodness of life. Maybe it was while you were meditating, hearing great music, seeing your child’s smile, falling in love–any significant moment of wonder that warmed your life will work. Allow the memory of plenitude and abundance to swell in you. (You might bookmark this feeling to return to when you sense lack creeping towards you.)
Raise your arms to receive. Put your arms out and stand, like Leonardo’s man, as if you’re saying “Yes!” to the wholeness of life. Feel the earth with your feet and the stars with your arms. Breath it all in.
Practice more deeply accepting a gift, compliment, or idea by pausing, taking a big breath and seeing if you can draw the essence of the gift into you.
Amplify gratitude. Look at all the places where you’ve received so much. Linger on those thoughts.
Don’t try to think your way into receiving. It’s an experience that you must feel with your body as well as your mind. And don’t judge yourself if disappointments linger. Maybe our very human sense of lack never completely goes away. So be it. Be kind to yourself. Hurting and lacking can co-exist with a deeper place in our souls that knows abundance and gratitude.
Fueling our connection
We can’t heal our feelings of lack at the level of life where we feel that lack. (Thank you, Einstein.) Instead, we can discover, either through meditation, prayer, or wonder, places within us where “enoughness” and abundance reign. That’s where we can tank up and fill the holes that past lack etched in our guts.
The needy child within us may be crying but we aren’t going to appease her with more stuff. Stuff might buy her some momentary pleasure, but pretty soon she’ll be whining again. Better to rock her gently, cooing “You are safe, wanted, loved, and whole,” until she can begin to relax.
When we appreciate how full and blessed we are, our cup runneth over into our giving.
Giving is a way to feel our hearts’ abundance. By dropping into our joy in giving, we open the door wider to gratitude and receiving. We don’t need anything back as part of the deal (although thank-yous are always nice).
We give because that allows us to feel how much we’ve received. We receive because that allows us to give more.
Giving with a full heart turns the holidays from transactional (“I have to get something for…”) into sacred.
I hope you enjoy your giving. “Stay away from malls” is my mantra, but do whatever is pleasurable to you.
And receive a lot. Wonder is everywhere and so is love, when we open our hearts.
Many of us in the United States are preparing for the November marathon known as Thanksgiving. While not as intensive as Christmas, it still involves (assuming you’ve invited people over): inviting guests, scanning recipes, cleaning the house, buying and preparing food, and of course, the big clean-up–among other tasks.
If you’re going out for dinner, the burden might be a little less. In any case, you still have to ready your stomach for the big day when you’ll eat more at one meal than would feed a small village in Somalia.
Normally, doing a marathon requires training in advance. Nobody I know goes out and says, “I haven’t been running at all recently, but maybe I’ll run 26 miles today.”
Don’t wait to train! With under a week to go, you can start your Thanksgiving training NOW. Because at the heart of the day (I hope!) is the act of giving thanks.
I love the T-day ritual of inviting guests at the dining table to share one thing they are grateful for. Usually, it’s big stuff: “I am grateful we’re all together,” or medically-related happy news – “I’m grateful that Emily’s knee has healed,” or “Mom has recovered from her stroke,” or the almost-too-personal, “I’m grateful that I met Ted last year.” (Spoken with suitably dewy eyes.)
Then, it’s your turn to share–which is why you should go into training today. You don’t want to panic, go brain-dead, and resort to saying the only thing you can think of: “The brussels sprouts?”
Or, perhaps worse, you let loose a flood of appreciations that you’ve been meaning to say but haven’t:
“I’d like to thank Rob, the produce guy at the Thriftway for teaching me how to recognize a ripe mango, and for Don (name changed to protect the innocent) for always having a pun-in-need, and for that woman on the bus who gave me the biggest smile when I sat down and seemed to know that I was having a terrible day, and for the fact that Winston’s limp did not require a trip to the vet and for…”
Unfortunately, at this point guests will be staring at their plates, discovering, with less than delight, how gravy congeals as it cools and how mashed potatoes harden. The smiles on their faces are melting faster than an ice-cream cone on a hot August day. The person waiting her turn next to you has gone to sleep.
The point is: you need practice at finding and expressing your thanks.
Gratitude is a muscle that needs development, like any other.
To get you on a roll, I’m offering three unusual but crazy-easy ways that you can use today to start developing that muscle.
Appreciate and thank a service worker.
Service workers are often found at the bottom rung of the pay ladder in our culture and deserve a lot more respect than they typically receive. The Somalian and Filipina aides at my mother’s assisted living center were my heroes, regularly touching me with their kindness. Paid barely minimum wage, they provided the care that allowed the facility to run. (I’m teary-eyed thinking about them).
Appreciating a service worker puts you in touch with the eco-system that was created to enable you to have or buy the things you need.
We may give thanks for the turkey on our plates, but do we really consider what farmers put into buying, raising, vaccinating, feeding and delivering livestock? (Not to mention the turkey’s contribution.) Or the chain of marketers, distributors, planners, grocery stockers, and cashiers whose work is essential for us to have our feasts or any other meals we might choose? They all deserve our thanks.
As you advance in thanks-training, more and more eco-systems will be revealed, and you will discover how thousands of people are working for you. Time to appreciate them.
But today, keep it simple. Just thank someone on the service frontline who may not receive adequate thanks for the hard work he or she does.
2) Thank your food and play with it.
Yes, your mother probably wouldn’t approve. But play isn’t just kids’ stuff. Play gets us out of our heads, into our senses and opens our imaginations. Play can increase our appreciation for what we might otherwise take for granted. Touch your food, move it around on your plate, roll it around in your mouth, and then taste it VERY slowly. Imagine alternative uses for your food, like becoming a projectile missile, although you don’t need to activate that one.
Explore the delight of slurping your noodles, best done in private unless you’re in Japan, where you’ll be welcomed like one of the gang. Enjoy the feeling of drops of broth running off your lips or a wayward noodle stuck to the edges of your chin. Your senses will be grateful for the extra attention.
Why play? It slooooows me down and invites me to notice what is before me with more appreciation. Instead of sit-cut-talk-eat or other forms of fueling while on auto-pilot, I activate my senses of touch, taste, smell, and sight when I play. A world awaits me as I roll my pea. My plate becomes a playground. What a pleasure that is!
Now you can give thanks, both for the magic of your food and because you may have rediscovered what it is to eat with child-like imagination.
3) Appreciate you being you.
If you’re like me, you may have a two-column chart in your mind: left column–failings; right column–what you appreciate about yourself. I bet the results are skewed. Today, dump the left column. Because you’re in gratitude-training, your job is to acknowledge and appreciate how much you have given, tried, failed but tried again, learned, offered the world, etc.
Although this practice might seem self-indulgent, I assure you that the larger the reservoir of self-gratitude we have, the more gratitude we can share with others.
This exercise can be surprisingly hard because we often fail to acknowledge what we do naturally well. My husband forgets that his kindness, generosity towards others, ability to really listen, and concern for the world are amazing gifts. He tends to write them off by saying “That’s just what I do,” as if only banner-worthy accomplishments matter.
Whereas accomplishments in the newspaper headlines quickly fade away, simple, often unseen, acts of kindness warm our hearts and make the world go round.
Please take a moment to note and appreciate any small, even seemingly mundane parts of the greatness that goes into “you-being-you.”
I could keep going with the list–and offer you lots more training opportunities. But I’ll hold for now (Check out the very fun e-book The Game of Thanks by Lynda Tourloukis–part of the inspiration for this blog.)
Just one more thanks. I’m so grateful for you. You read this blog. I can’t tell you enough how much that means to me.
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