The Wisdom of Gratitude

At the site of a friend’s silent retreat this fall, a ginkgo tree happened to shed its leaves on the same weekend. She was drawn to the gentle drama unfolding over the course of a day, the air so thick with fluttering yellow fans they sounded like rain as they pooled on the ground. Had the retreat not offered the kind of presence that happens through silence, she might have seen them drop but missed the sound, the music, of falling leaves.

Loretto Retreat, et al 071

It’s a mystery how life can hold such beauty at the same time it holds so much pain. The world is hurting. Each of us is injured from violence inflicted far and near. Wrenching scenes repeat on our screens as we attempt to grapple with unfolding events and respond to the world we live in. As the news cycle continues, fear and hate seem quickest to find their voice, filling the world with noise and making it harder to listen for wisdom.

Yet reminders of wisdom rise up like seedlings through concrete. Teachings on compassion become part of the conversation as people share those scriptures that serve as compass points for their lives. Discussions of the values that shape the identity of our nation are held in earnest. People are sharing and responding to heartbreak in a way that compels action for the sake of justice.

I am grateful for those giving voice to generous and searching hearts. I am grateful for models of resolve shaped by wisdom, strength, and love. They remind us of what is good in this world, and help show us the way forward.

Into this milieu, with perfect timing, comes Thanksgiving.

It is literally good for the heart to be thankful. A daily practice of naming two or three things for which we are thankful actually improves our physical health—this report on those findings is not only fascinating, but encouraging. In a previous post I talked about making space in our lives, giving ourselves breathing room by easing up on our expectations and allowing something new. Gratitude helps to do that.

In remembering to be thankful we make space for something more than the worries that beset us. We open ourselves to other possibilities, and perhaps to seeing new ways to meet the concerns and challenges of our world.

Centuries ago the Sufi poet Rumi wrote:

But listen to me. For one moment
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you.

May this Thanksgiving be an invitation to wisdom. May we listen from the quiet center of the heart, and rest for a moment in gratitude.

A Stealth Version of Lent

The season of Lent slipped in quietly last week while folks around here were distracted by monumental snows and plummeting temperatures. Ash Wednesday was cancelled—the whole week was cancelled. Snow and ice along the streets are now the color of the ashes we didn’t wear. Surviving the weather felt like enough of a Lenten practice, and people joked about wanting to give up winter for Lent. This week the snow has melted enough to reveal the tips of daffodil fronds, but Easter still feels a long way away.

 

Maple Shadow and Robin on Snow 2015-02-28

 

But in spite of this stealth version of Lent, somehow a Lenten practice found me. Or rather, a constellation of practices both inner- and outer-directed. They balance each other. Some fill the well for me. Some are ways for me bring water to others.

I’ve been reading some excellent books, practicing meditation and doing “morning pages.” Complementing those inward disciplines are some outer commitments I’ve made. Through them I’ve been meeting some wonderful people, doing meaningful work at my church, and leading a group through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

I can’t take credit for arranging this rare balance; I’m simply grateful for it. Lately I’ve been trying to notice and respond to what life/God/the universe is putting in front of me, and what is arising within. “Synchronicity” is another way of describing this sense of things coming together. I think Paul refers to the same experience in Romans, when he talks about all things working together for good. Being open to the question of how God is working in and through my life seems to be leading to a place of balance and wholeness. At least for now.

There is much to be concerned about in the wider world. But in the midst of it all, my hope is to continue paying attention to the work that is mine to do.

What are you noticing these days?

 

 

 

The Wakefulness of Autumn

A couple of weeks ago Kentucky sweltered through a summer that had far overstayed its welcome, as a string of 90-plus degree days begun in August disregarded the beginning of fall entirely. Then last week everything changed: I put an extra blanket on the bed, huddled with a cup of tea against damp gray air and wondered how much longer we could get by without turning on the furnace. But now the warm, golden afternoons of the past few glorious days remind me of why October is my favorite month.

There is no lull of sameness to these days. When the world we move through shifts so dramatically, it claims our attention. A changing environment heightens awareness of what’s going on around us. Especially when the haze and humidity of late summer gives way to the bright blue skies of autumn, the shift in seasons is like waking up.

Fall is a gift—a powerful reminder to live wakefully. A lot is happening. I hear it from the raucous crows convening in the tops of the ash trees. I see it in the spiders looking for shelter indoors, the plants going to seed. I feel it in the new wind picking up.

The urgency of the transitions teaches us to notice. And to appreciate. The season’s end offers a sense of the great effort behind its growth. As the energy that infused blossom, fruit, and harvest withdraws, the withered vines mark with startling contrast a place where life has been. It also signals the necessary rest before a new cycle of growth will begin.

The force of life in a growing season is a marvel, and the efforts we make during our own periods of growth can be fairly miraculous, too. Often it is only at the completion of some phase of life that we can take a breath and see how much we’ve accomplished, even as we wonder how we managed to do it. In the thick of things we are rarely able to see how much is happening. Yet something within continues to strengthen us, helping us grow green and supple enough to rise and meet the next challenge, too.

I don’t know how much of the credit is ours for times of growth and moving forward. There are periods I can look back on with a sense of satisfaction at the hard work accomplished. But when I consider those times it’s also with a sense of awe at the life that has moved through me. I feel grateful to have served as a vessel for something good, and I hope it might happen again.

What are you noticing this fall?

Libations

I love the word libation. It suggests an experience set apart, invoking the spirits as well as mixing them. It acknowledges the fine complexity of ingredients from aged and distilled essences to juices squeezed fresh from the fruit. It captures the sense of ritual in measuring and pouring, selecting the particular gleaming glassware, and finishing with a fresh garnish.

The alchemy of a shaker is a powerful magic to wield, a container within which texture, temperature, and flavor combine to yield something altogether new, a frosted elixir poured from its mysterious depths. The visible process of a blender is more transparent, almost hypnotic, as colors and textures roil until they are transformed under its power. The musical swirl of a swizzle stick and ice mesmerizes in its own way, yielding the luxurious simplicity of a potion clear as crystal.

It’s one thing to pour a drink, but quite another to prepare a libation. It’s an offering for all the senses, an experience to savor, and a privilege to imbibe.

The word libation comes to us from the Greeks. It was originally a drink offering made to the gods, and came to mean both the drink and the act of offering it. It was poured out as a sacrifice—language that permeates Christianity through the description of Christ’s life as poured out for others.

To prepare a libation is to prepare an offering, even if we no longer make its presentation to a deity part of the ritual. For us, to partake of a libation is to participate in the goodness of life. To share a libation is to acknowledge together what has been poured out to create a world capable of yielding what is beautiful and good.

Alcohol may be an ingredient in a special drink, but not always. In ancient days a libation was sometimes water—especially in the desert where it was appreciated as a precious liquid necessary to sustain life. Today we may use sparkling water and add fresh juices, or blend our ingredients into a smoothie. But a beautiful drink in a sparkling glass retains a breath of awe.

Rituals of pouring an offering upon the ground are rare these days. But the loveliness of a drink specially prepared, and the privilege of sharing it with people we love, is a moment worth noticing. Even in these overfull days, centuries removed from the drink offerings to the gods, a libation still captures our attention. It leads us to pause, to appreciate, and perhaps even to pour out our thanks.

The drink in the photo is a Sea Breeze, a pleasure to have at the beach last week. What counts as a libation for you?

Love Letter to Leonard Cohen

Dear Leonard,

If I may call you Leonard—I don’t want to presume. It’s hard to know how to address you, of whom I am in awe. But “Mr. Cohen” seems terribly distant for someone who has touched me deeply, though we’ve never met.

The part of me that navigates everyday life feels silly about this endeavor, as if what I wrote about you in Responding to Beauty should have been enough. But the self that finds this letter necessary is driving. I’ve lived well into my forties without writing a fan letter to anyone, but apparently it’s time.

Yesterday I sat behind the wheel on Chinoe Drive waiting for the light to turn. I was listening to your Live in London recording, as I’ve been doing for many days now. But in that moment, as you spoke the words to “If It Be Your Will” I felt a piece of the great puzzle slip into place, easily and exactly. When the tears came, I had to find some way to respond, though it’s hard to know what to say. A connection, with another person, with the divine, is a gift that goes beyond words.

The crowd in London enjoyed your turn of phrase in “The Tower of Song” about being born with this golden voice. I take pleasure in the laughter and the line, and in how they turn back on themselves. Because your voice is truly golden: black gold, like coal. It lies beneath mountains to the east of here worn smooth by the passing of eons; it’s brought forth at great risk to the miners who work those underground seams. A chunk of coal is beautiful—dark and shining—with edges that cut the skin, and dust that marks a blue tattoo when the wound is healed. It yields heat beyond most anything else that burns. Not unlike art, sometimes. Like yours.

Your voice rumbles up from deep within, where the soul lies longing to rise. Your songs walk the earth with an ear attuned to the whispers of angels. They draw me in, break me open, and give me a heart of flesh.

I can’t help but wish I’d known you years ago, but won’t complain because I’ve found you now. What better time exists, for anything at all?

I don’t expect these words to reach you, but nonetheless I will say I’m grateful for the gifts you share. And if some sense of my heartfelt thanks were caught by the breeze to carry a blessing for you, an echo of the blessing you have been for me, I would be glad.

Thank you for your beautiful work. May you be well.

Yours sincerely,

Susan Christerson Brown

Meeting Beauty Halfway

It doesn’t seem hard to find beauty in springtime. The world is woozy with blossom-scented air; flowering branches shower the earth with petals. The breeze carries birdsong and life is abundant again.

But I keep thinking about your thoughtful responses to my previous post. The insights there remind me that it’s a gift to be able to appreciate these things, and that there have been times when the capacity to enjoy them has been beyond me.

I know what it’s like to miss out on spring, worried about something going on, or not going on, in my life, or even how I’ll look in summer clothes. Being blinded by those concerns, large or small, is a kind of imprisonment. Life can be hard, and even harder when the restorative experience of beauty is beyond our reach. The view is oppressive when we can’t see past ourselves.

It’s good to do what we can to be open to beauty, to try to meet it halfway. But when our own efforts aren’t enough to haul us out of a dark place, the possibility remains of being seized by something beautiful. It can break through walls we didn’t realize were there, and reveal something wonderful about this world. Beauty seeks us out, calls to something within us, urging us to open our eyes and see.

When I watch the light recede from the landscape and gather in the sky before dark, nothing seems more important than the changing color on the horizon. I don’t know what allows me to be caught by the scene. Maybe I’ve learned something about getting beyond myself, or maybe the patient presence of beauty through all these years has finally permeated my distracted mind.

At least I understand enough now to be grateful for the light, and also for the ability to notice it. I try to pay attention, but I don’t know whether appreciating a glorious sky is a reward for my efforts or simply the creation shaking me awake. In either case it’s an unearned gift. In either case I’m grateful.

Have you experienced something beautiful lately?

The Taste of Chartreuse

In this season of almost spring (a time described beautifully by Amy Oscar at her blog: Story, Spirit, Seed), I find myself thinking about the taste of Chartreuse. The flavor suggests the greening of the earth, the scent of mown grass and fresh herbs, the return of the sun in spring. Even its luminous yellow-green color speaks of new life.

It’s still a bit early to retrieve the bottle from the dark recesses of the kitchen cabinet. But for the first time in months I remember it’s there, waiting. Its distillation of past growing seasons holds the memory and anticipation of spring.

Chartreuse and its secret recipe have a fascinating history, which lends a delicious mystique to the experience of drinking it. I first tasted the liqueur in the company of dear friends after we watched Into Great Silence together. The film shows the passing of a year in the Carthusian monastery of La Grande Chartreuse, where Chartreuse has been made for centuries.

To watch the film is to experience something of the monastic life, with its beauty and tradition, as well as its constriction and mundaneity. The film evokes both yearning for the spare beauty of the monastery and claustrophobia at its repeated routines. It has no speaking, no soundtrack, only a few frames containing a word or two of French. Sounds such as the creak of a monk’s kneeling bench are heightened, enveloped in profound silence. It’s a beautiful film of changing light and unchanging ritual. I was glad to share its silence with friends, and also glad to speak with them about it afterwards.

The elixir made by the monks is lovely to sip on its own. Mixing it with the clear, cold effervescence of club soda makes a wonderful drink as well, something like the taste of winter giving way to spring.

That transition is a process happening now, at least for those of us in the Northern hemisphere. But how do we know when to celebrate?

In the Wake of a Natural Disaster

The photos and reports from Haiti show a scale of suffering that is painful merely to absorb, much less live through. What can we do? Send money. Pray. Help weave a web of compassion to hold the people there.

I’m supporting the efforts to help through donations to Week of Compassion and Church World Service, who are experienced and effective agents for responding to disasters around the world. Even a dollar helps. For a more tangible means of giving, Church World Service is also in need of hygiene and baby supply kits.

What else can we do?

Perhaps, as in the wake of any disaster, we can practice seeing our own lives more clearly.

  • I’m reminded that my life rests on the relative luxury of counting on water, food, and shelter
  • I’m thankful for the health and safety of my loved ones
  • I’m mindful that it’s having my basic needs met that allows me the privilege of working towards a fuller and more meaningful life
  • I’m grateful for the ability to share the journey of body and spirit with others, and to offer help
  • I’m appreciative of the organizations in place to deliver assistance to people in need

Life is fragile, and we are missing out if we don’t try to make it as rich and good as possible.

The outpouring of concern and support from around the world is a reminder of the human connection that binds us all together. My heart goes out to the people of Haiti, those who have lost loved ones, those who cannot feed and shelter those they love, those who are injured and suffering, those who need some reason to hope.

Sometimes it’s hard to see that we’re all in this together. Sometimes it’s easy.

What’s on your mind as the news reports continue?