Category Archives: spiritual growth

Essential Bits

It’s happened to all of us. In conversation, someone makes a seemingly unimportant comment that suddenly, for us in that moment, becomes essentially important.

This happened to me recently and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The comment came at the tail-end of a session in a writer’s workshop that I was so fortunate to have attended in the south of France. One of the participants, a birder, mentioned her deep desire to travel with again her husband to Southeast Asia, in search of Bowerbirds.

“Bowerbirds?” I asked; having never heard of them.

She explained that there are eight types of Bowerbirds in the world; named for the colorful ‘bachelor pad’ nests – bowers — built by the males, to attract their mates. There is one species in particular, she described, that gathers only blue-colored items to add to its bower-weaving of twigs.

I had lived my life quite well, thank you very much, without ever hearing of or seeing a bowerbird before that day. Yet, something in her comment about the bits of blue stirred the edge of my soul, leaving me with a deep yearning to learn more.

Off we went to write for the afternoon. Trying to clear my head, and find inspiration for our writing assignment, I tried to write a few fledgling sentences, But I just couldn’t get my mind off of bowerbirds. Deciding to stop my self-imposed resistance, I soon found myself in my web browser, devouring myriad photos and articles; each tidbit piquing my interest to learn more. I even came across a link to a PBS Nature program entitled, “Bower Bird Blues.” “For God’s sake,” I thought, “does the whole world know about bowerbirds?” An avid nature program consumer, I wondered how I missed this. And I wondered why, suddenly, it seemed so urgently-essential for me to learn more about this species of bird.

In one particular photo, I marveled at the diversity of blue items had been woven into the nest of a male satin bowerbird. A scrap of fabric. A bottle cap. A blue berry. Even a piece of blue shell. Some items from nature. Others, man-made. Again, my soul stirred.

Still feeling unsettled, I decided to go outside to the terrace of the chateau where we were staying. As I gazed at the blue of the sky and of the sea, like camera lens being moved into focus, I slowly began to understand my need to know more about the blue gatherings of the bowerbird.

When I arrived in France for the workshop, all but one of the women was a complete stranger to me. As our week unfolded, the diversity of our group was apparent. We were eight very different women, with different life experiences, living in different cities, with different life styles. Yet, from each person, in the opening of themselves through our writing exercises and conversation, something essential was shared from their heart with mine that I didn’t realize I needed. Until then.

From one came the inspiration and courage to try new experiences. From another, a witness to the transformative power of a deeply immersive experience. Still another, finding humor in unexpected places. And from yet another, the encouragement to dream, after the age of fifty. And so on.

And there is was, in metaphor of blue fabric, bottle cap, berry and shell – a unique gift from each woman, as essential for my well-being as the blue of the sky and sea before me. Such potent reminders of the power of human connection and of the essential necessity of community.

Now, ten days later, and thousands of miles from that idyllic place, like the bowerbird, I find myself remembering eight special women, and gratefully weaving their essential and unique gifts, so generously shared, into the ever-changing bower that is my own life.

The Red Bridge

In the early days after my husband, Randy, died, I found myself checking a status box on a form, to indicate my marital status. There, for the first time since it happened, I saw the dreaded word: Widow. 

My reaction to the word was swift and visceral. It jarred me to my core. I felt the stab of the pointy “W’s” on either end, and the huge expanse of emptiness in its gaping holes in the “d” and the “o” in the middle. Widow? My head was spinning. What?! I am now a widow??

Today, I was going through the journal I’ve been keeping with some of my notes and scribblings that will someday be a book about my loss and journey in grief. At the end of the page with my most recent notes was the word, “Widow,” followed by the word, “Window.” I honestly don’t even remember writing this.

And I saw that all that differentiates these words from each other is the letter “n.”

As I considered this, an image of a red bridge immediately came to mind. Last week, when a dear friend who lives in another city came to visit, we went to a Japanese garden that is near my home. In the many years I’ve lived here, for one reason or another, I have never been there, but have always wanted to see it. The garden did not disappoint; resplendent in its early-spring bloomings; offering a place of beauty and tranquility in the middle of a not-so-safe neighborhood.

As in many Japanese (and Chinese) gardens, there were lovely ponds; two of which with arching red bridges carrying us from one side to the other. The first of the bridges was quite short, but also quite curved — so much so that, on the rainy day of our visit, I held on to its railings as I crossed it, so as not to slip on the steep arch.

The red bridge was shaped as an arch — like the one in the letter, “n.”

Widow. Window. The “n” smack-dab in the middle.

A red bridge in a Japanese garden is called a Guzei and is laden with symbolism. Bridges, in Japanese gardens, represent a crossing from the physical to the spiritual, and offer a way of transformation toward a place of wisdom.

The color red also represents a notion of the sacred, as well as wisdom and transformation.

A red bridge, then, offers a double-dose of these concepts; entwined with the Zen concept of preserving the life force, rejecting attachment to the physical and coming to a place of true discernment. A double-dose of positive growth and spiritual transformation.

In my journey as a widow, I realized, I’ve crossed many metaphorical red bridges; offering a window, an opening, into something far beyond the small borders of the box I checked on that form, indicating my new marital status.

A new identity, yes. And maybe in the process of crossing, I had to hang on for dear life. But in that often-steep and foreboding transformation, what I have ever-so-slowly discovered, is an opening to more of the garden that was, and is, my life. And, there is beauty on the other side.

I marvel at how God moves and works in our lives. It is no coincidence that we crossed that red, “n-shaped” bridge just days before I revisited my journal notes about the word, Widow.

Oh! The kind and gentle way that God safely carries us to the next beautiful vista of our own life when we can, even in pain and uncertainty, trust the process of transformation.

A Daisy a Day, Dear

There is a sacred place in, of all places, Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin. In a park there, on a memorial bench dedicated to his late wife, an elderly gentleman leaves one daisy every day in honor of her favorite song was:

“I’ll give you a daisy a day, dear

I’ll give you a daisy a day

I’ll love you until

The rivers run still

And the four winds we know blow away.”

With the deep snow and frigid temperatures of this winter, however, his daily practice was made very difficult.

Until one day.

Two strangers who worked for the local Parks Department noticed tracks in the deep snow leading to a bench bearing a plaque with a woman’s name and photo. In each of the holes drilled on the metal bench, there was a single daisy. This was clearly someone’s sacred place. For these employees, shoveling paths through the park is not part of their job in the dead of winter. But they decided to make an exception in this case. So, on their own time, every day, they shoveled a path from the parking lot to that bench so that the man could have easier access to his wife’s memorial bench.

When the man saw the cleared path, he reported that his knees nearly bucked in shock at this act of kindness from strangers.

Today’s Lenten reflection word is PLACE.

Where is your sacred place? And what are the obstacles, physical or spiritual, that make it difficult for you to reach it?

Today, I wonder, how can I identify and remove my own obstacles, to enter a sacred space in myself?

And, even more importantly, like those Parks Department employees, how can I open my self to observe the metaphorical footsteps in the deep snow that clue me in to how I can help someone else reach their own Sacred Place?

Spoiler Alert

We’ve all been hooked by it:  “Coming up next …” or “Stay tuned for scenes from next week’s show.”

As our favorite TV show transitions to yet another commercial, “Coming up next …” entices us with glimpses of upcoming scenes in hopes we will not change the channel. There’s something in our psyche that figuratively salivates at the allure of knowing what’s next; even if it’s just bits and pieces. “Stay tuned” in this context carries with it a sense that we will somehow be lacking if we don’t take a peek at what will happen next time. It’s like reading the last page of a book when we’ve barely begun to let the story unfold in Chapter 1.

Lately, these teasers have troubled me. Do I really need to see the preview of a contestant on Chopped  having an unfortunate run-in with an ill-behaving food processor after the commercial break, likely leading to the dreaded words, “You have been Chopped” before the scene even happens? Must I get a sneak peek at the finished kitchen while they are still tearing out the cabinets? Or, is it really necessary to know that by the end of this episode or season, one of the characters will die, while they are still alive in the story?

They try to warn us: “Spoiler Alert!”

There’s a reason why they are called spoiler alerts. Last week, in poking around the social media buzz about the U.S. debut of Downton Abbey’s much-awaited Season 5, I came across (sorry, Spoiler Alert!) a photo of my beloved Anna where clearly something terrible had happened to her. Again. Just when she and Mr. Bates were getting back to a semblance of normal after his imprisonment in Seasons 2 and 3 and her rape in Season 4. Now, instead of letting the story of Season 5 naturally unfold, every time I see Anna smile, I think, “Oh, but you don’t know what tragedy awaits you next!” For me at least, this out-of-context information about the future spoils the telling of the present story.

All of this reminded me of one of the best stories I know about Spoiler Alerts, or, shall I say, an Alert to that which Spoils. It is in the biblical story of the journey of the children of Israel from Egypt, through the wilderness, and ultimately into the Promised Land. When they left Egypt, fleeing across the Red Sea, there was neither fore-knowledge nor capacity to carry provisions for what turned out to be a journey of 40 long years. So, God introduced them to Manna. God promised to deliver each morning a new kind of bread in the proportionate measure for each household — exactly what was needed each day to consume in order to have the sustenance they needed. No more. No less. Abundance without excess. Pretty sweet, eh? (After all, the manna purportedly tasted like wafers with honey.)

This new manna arrived in the dew of the night and had to be collected each morning, before it was melted by the heat of the sun. Okay, maybe a little inconvenient — like actually waiting until the next episode to see what happens? Or, like not being privy to what might be “coming up next” in our lives?

But, alas, the children of Israel, like us, needed to know what’s “coming up next.” What if God didn’t provide manna for the next day? Wouldn’t it be wise to withhold a portion of today’s bread, and save it in the event that tomorrow’s bread did not come? Nothing wrong with planning for the future, right? A difficult, yet important lesson to be learned: Any manna that was stored from the previous day spoiled to the point of being inedible the next day (except in the case of preparing for the Sabbath — which I hope to explore in a future blog posting).

And haven’t we all learned that lesson the hard way, too, when we live our lives from a mindset of scarcity by not fully consuming what is present before us? When we miss the fullness of today because of fears about tomorrow? What life-sustenance do we miss in a conversation on the phone with a friend when we are glancing at our email while they are sharing with us?

In this new year, I’ve heard from more than one person of a longing to be more present in their lives. For me, this story of manna is the ultimate alert for us to that which can so easily spoil the goodness and gifts in whatever is happening in the present moment — whether in moments of joy or most especially in times that are not easy. Just as the manna was to be fully consumed each day, it helps me to see that I cannot possibly glean the full benefits from the event, conversation or feeling that is presently with me, if part of my attention is spent in looking for the next meal, so-to-speak.

I appreciate this encouragement to be Alert to that which Spoils the blessings of the present, and a call to Stay Tuned — to the scenes in the episode of our present life.

Still Unpacking

I’ve been unpacking for the past four weeks. While my dirty laundry is long-since washed and my suitcase, shoes and toiletries are all put back in their places, I am still in the process of unpacking from my experiences in recent weeks.  My soul, heart and mind are so full that I’ve found it difficult to write. But today, like finding a dresser drawer with a bit of room to put away clean laundry, I have found a bit of space in which to finally begin the process of unpacking.

I had the blessing and honor of traveling to Monaco, France and Italy with my sister — an incredible whirlwind of sights, smells, tastes and emotions over twelve jam-packed days. I witnessed firsthand the magnitude of history that is simply not possible in my west-coast US life. I stood in St. Peter’s Square with thousands of pilgrims and experienced a sense of joy, unity and community that transcended any differences in our understanding of God. I smelled and tasted exquisite food and drink — fish, pasta, coffee, wine and gallery-worthy displays of gelato; all created from a true passion for la dolce vita. I stood and sensed the vibration of the millions of souls (and soles) that had walked on the same centuries-old cobblestones that were now under my very own feet. I even went sailing, for goodness sake, on a racing boat on the Mediterranean Sea! My fingers actually touched the rich wood of a door that was hung hundreds of years ago, as well as stone walls and marble columns that were erected over many lifetimes. And oh, the art! Mind-numbing masterpieces in fresco, stone, bronze and oils on floors, walls, stories-high ceilings and even on bridges. All soul-moving, heart-filling and senses-exploding experiences! The question, almost haunting me: How can I really take this all in?

Upon arrival home, I felt transformed, as if something in these experiences fundamentally shifted something deep within myself. All of it just seemed too big, too grand, too much for this mere mortal. Over these weeks, I’ve felt some inexplicable need to do something with all of it. Not doing as in an action, but doing in terms of putting it all away — finding space someplace in my being for it. And, I’ve been stuck for weeks. How can I possibly assimilate these amazing, not-your-average-twenty-first century-Renton-Washington-United States experiences into the pre-trip version of Lisa? Like the shy introvert that I am, it’s been sort of like becoming acquainted, slowly, with a new friend, who, by the way, is now part of myself. She, whose heart had felt a split-second connection with the soul of the artist who painted or sculpted the masterpiece so long ago; who saw it through new eyes, like the groups of present-day school children who gathered into the churches and museums on field trips. It’s like I’ve needed these weeks to get to know her over tea, in long walks and in whispered heart-conversations while huddled under my covers in pre-dawn hours.

Then, it came to me: this process of ‘unpacking’ is much like the process of photosynthesis. The plant takes in the light and does something with it. According to Wikipedia, it’s a process used by plants and other organisms to convert light energy into chemical energy that can be later released ‘to fuel the organisms’ activities.’ The word itself, from the original Greek is φῶς, phōs, “light”, and σύνθεσις, synthesis, “putting together”. A constant process of putting together light. I read that the average rate of energy captured by photosynthesis in our world today is approximately six times larger than the current power consumption of our human civilization! Talk about transformation!

Photosynthesis

Eureka! That’s IT! In what I now know will be a long-term process, as I open myself like a plant in the garden to that which so moved me in my travels – that light – the energy of this can be assimilated first into myself, and then, miracle of miracles, when released, it can alter the very air around me.

And so, I share this with you in hopes that this putting together of the light that so stirred me, will also stir something in you, for your benefit. Is this not the calling for all of us? Whether our hearts are touched by experiences in Europe, or in our own back yard; in the grand display of the most spectacular of natural wonders, or in the tiny puckers as seen in the knuckles of a newborn baby — as we open ourselves to all of this, whatever this is for each of us, an energy of sorts is created and something actually happens. We, and those around us are transformed.

It is from this new realization that I ask an important question to you, and to myself today: What, in my own life, can I begin to unpack; to synthesize, for the essential benefit of my light-dependent self, and for those around me?

Oh, and while I’m at it, I’d love to share a small sampling of photos from my trip with you! Enjoy and be transformed, as I was.

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