Leaving a Mark

Admittedly, I am not the most graceful person on my feet. “You’re like a bull in a china shop” was a exasperated phrase uttered frequently by my mom when I was growing up. Last week, I bumped my shin into the side of my dresser. As someone who bruises easily, I thought, “Well, that’s going to leave a mark.” Last night, as I was getting ready for bed, I noticed a nasty bruise on my shin. It took me a minute, but I remembered my recent not-so-pleasant encounter with a piece of furniture. Sure enough, it leave a mark.

“REMEMBER.” That’s today’s word in the continuing Lenten-practice. It’s about leaving a mark.

On my silent, contemplative walk today, I saw a tree that had been burned at one time. I wondered how it happened. Was a child, a teen-ager or an adult to blame? Was it accidental? Was it as a result of a childish dare, or of adolescent rebellion? All I know is that whatever happened, whenever it happened, left a mark on this tree’s trunk for all to see. And, if the perpetrators still live in the neighborhood, I can imagine that they remember what happened, every time they see this tree.

Because it left a mark.

Today’s encounter with the burned tree deepened my awareness of the mark that the words and actions of others left on my life. Like, the day in sixth grade when my teacher told me that I had a beautiful voice after my first-ever (nerve-racking) public solo of “Streets of Loredo.” Mr. Dunn’s words left a mark. I also remember the sting of shame I felt when my first grade teacher held up my ditto homework paper (Note: those of you who are younger than 50 might need to look up what a ditto is) and announced to the entire class that I had gotten every one of the problems wrong. “I can’t believe it,” Mrs. Paul said, “because the assignment was as easy as pie.” At the time, I didn’t understand whether making a pie was easy or hard, but I can tell you that those words also left a mark. Another vivid memory, all of these years later.

Today’s encounter with the burned tree also deepened my awareness of the mark that my own words and actions have left on someone else. I remember the look of delight on a friend’s face when something I’ve said or done left behind a mark of love. I also remember hearing the catch of hurt in another’s voice when something I’ve said or done left behind a mark of judgment or pain.

Our minds are filled a lifetime of memories that are added-unto every day, as our life continues to unfold. We remember a fun day, a caring hug. We remember an unkind word, a shove on the playground. Each of these experiences leaves its mark on how we see ourselves.

Please, God, I pray, help me remember the crucial lesson of the burned tree trunk as I move through my days.

Our Perfectly Imperfect Path

“… there are no wrong turns, only unexpected paths.”

Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

I was reminded today of an old story, recounted by Mark Nepo in The Book of Awakening. This story offers rich insight and thought-provoking questions about today’s Lenten-focus word: “PATH.”

A young man in Alaska is stranding in the bitter cold on the side of a road, holding a handmade sign reading, “MIAMI.” He has been standing there for such a long time that his frigid fingers can barely hold his sign, and he is swiftly losing hope of hitching a ride to this warm destination. After many hours, a friendly trucker stops and says, “Well, I’m not going to Miami, but I am going as far as Fort Lauderdale. Dejected, the young man says, “Oh,” and sends the trucker on his way.

My chuckle over this story is short-lived, as I realize how many times I have turned down an opportunity because it wasn’t exactly what my metaphoric handmade sign stated. How often do I lose sight of the possibilities, right where I am because I insist on all or nothing?

I am reminded of the old saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Like an ancient labyrinth, I see the winding turns of my life – paths that sometimes make unexpected hair-pin turns, and then end up, after lengthy travel, in a spot that is closer to where I began than I’d like to admit. Was I looking for my own “Miami?” And, when I think about it, aside from my self-imposed cold from standing outside with my sign, wasn’t my “Alaska” a beautiful place in its own right?

And then I read Nepo’s reminder that in our lives, there are really no wrong turns. The unexpected path, when honored and journeyed, often brings us to a place that we could not have imagined. Like our young hitchhiker, perhaps our life’s purpose, or our soulmate is found someplace other than Miami.

Maybe what we need today is found right here in the path, where “X” marks the spot?

Covenant

COVENANT. That is the focus-word for the 6th day of Lent in this year’s word-a-day practice. As I entered the day with this word in mind, my thoughts went first to the obvious: the covenant-sign of a rainbow that God placed in the sky as a covenant to Noah after the story of the flood. A visual reminder of the covenant of life between God and humankind.

“Okay,” I thought, “that’s that. Today’s word is pretty easy.” That is, until I decided to look up its origin in the dictionary. That’s when my preconceived notion was put on its on its metaphorical ear. The word, covenant, has its origins in the Old French word, convenīre, which means to come together or to agree.

Come together? Agree? Those are two-sided concepts; not one-sided. Somehow, I always thought of this particular covenant as something God promised to us. That beautiful rainbow after the rain, there in the sky just to remind us to receive the promise of life. An open-my-arms-wide-and-recieve kind of covenant. Nothing required on my end except to just receive — right?

Wrong. I really did know better. I worked with legal documents for many years in my job with a major technology corporation. An agreement always included two parties and two signatures. There was always reciprocal terms – Party A does this and Party B does that.

I thought of the vows that Randy and I wrote to each other for our wedding day. I lovingly spoke my vows to Randy, and he, equally-lovingly, spoke his vows to me. It was a public declaration of our commitment to, and compromises for the other. Can you imagine a wedding where vows were spoken by only one spouse?

This realization stopped me in my tracks. If God entered into a life-focused covenant with Noah and all humankind, what is our part in this covenant – not only to God, but to each other as human beings, as well as to our own selves? How often have I failed to live up to my end of the agreement? What is it that I covenant with God each day? With other human beings? With this planet? With myself?

These questions; so close to my heart as I went through my day. I can tell you that it changed how I viewed the other person in the elevator, in the parking lot, walking in my neighborhood. It changed how I looked at the beauty of the natural world around me. It changed how I view myself. And it changed my conversation and communion with God.

Each of these, an entity to whom I make a love-filled vow every single day – and open wide my heart to hear its echo back to me.

Cyclamen in February

Today’s Lent-practice word is JOY. Finally, an easier word! Snippets of joy from my day included:

  • The extra-creamy smoothness of my morning smoothie
  • Planting cyclamen on a February day
  • The comfort of warm water flowing over my shoulders as I showered
  • The anticipation of sharing a coffee conversation with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in weeks
  • The over-the-top, from-the-toes joy of the coffee shop cashier as he delightedly took our drink orders; so glad that this shift was in a new Tully’s location away from the one he normally works, serving “grumpy” (his words, not mine!) Boeing workers
  • The warmth of the light-lines being off-and-on painted across the right side of my face as the late-afternoon sun danced between passing trees as I drove (nearly the speed limit!) down Interstate 405
  • The clink-clink of my cat’s collar tag as it clanked against his food bowl, as he happily ate after a few weeks of unexplained lack of appetite
  • Amongst the bills and unwanted catalogs, receiving an actual card from someone I love in my mail today
  • Daylight at 5:20 pm!

And being reminded of this lovely quote from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:

“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God”

And you, friend? What brought joy to your soul today?

Alone

Today is the third day of Lent — the forty non-Sunday days before Easter. For me, it is a period of intentional time dedicated to introspection and reflection. Like the silent, contemplative walks that I’ve recently enjoyed with my companion, I find a surprising amplification of this seemingly solitary practice when I am aware of the millions of people around the world who are similarly-focused.

This year, the United Methodist Church that I attend invited us to a Lenten practice of focusing together on one pre-determined word for each of the forty days. We were encouraged to share a photograph on social media each day that speaks to us of the word for that day. Eureka!  As someone who has struggled for months trying to develop a daily discipline and rhythm of writing, this is exactly what I’ve been looking for. I welcomed this opportunity to not only think about a visual image to represent the ‘word of the day’ but to also form a daily practice of writing about it. .

Today’s word is: ALONE. Admittedly, my first, visceral reaction was, well, “Yuck.” As someone who has been alone for nearly 2 1/2 years after being widowed, I winced at the word. Sure, I have a plethora of family, friends and a faith community that often fills my days. And I also spend a good portion of my time alone. ALONE. It carries a certain sadness in its five combined letters, doesn’t it? I can think of plenty of other words that I’d much rather focus on.

But here it is. ALONE. Okay, let’s give this a go.

As I sit in ALONE, reflect on ALONE, let ALONE wash over and seep into myself, I feel an unexpected lighten-ing within. I’m alone as I write this post. And, aside from the whirling sound of my washing machine as it enters the spin cycle downstairs, it is quiet. I am dry. I am warm. I am neither hungry nor thirsty. My heartbeat and breathing slow. I am calm.

I begin to wonder how many people at this very moment are in a place that is not at all quiet? How many people right now are not dry nor warm? How many are both hungry and thirsty? How many in a state of turmoil? How many would love to have a washing machine with a spin cycle? I feel them. Somehow, in this moment, I see them. I sense oneness with them, though our present circumstances couldn’t be more different.

In the confines of this house, with its roof and walls, sure, I’m alone. And yet, I can hear my next-door neighbor’s dog barking. I know that there are other people who are home right now in my neighborhood.

I wonder: Is there some arbitrarily-defined distance between one living being and another that somehow constitutes aloneness?

I often visualize a metaphorical river that runs beneath all things. A river of life. And all of us – people, animals, plants, insects, sea creatures, and organisms – have metaphorical roots that tap into the very same water source. I look up the word origin of ALONE on Dictionary.com and am stunned by the obvious. ALONE comes from the Middle English ‘al – one’; all (wholly) one.

Suddenly, my initial reaction of “Yuck” to the word, ALONE has been turned on its head. I am really not ALONE. You are really not ALONE. And yet, we are all (wholly) one – connected by the same river-waters into which our roots plunge. ALONE. It’s a great word!

“Then how can it be said I am alone

When all the world is here to look on me?”

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

And a Worm on the Sidewalk

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been walking in the mornings – not at all something unusual. Except that it is Wonderfully Unusual.

A friend recently invited me to join her in her new practice of intentional, silent, contemplative walking. Together. While this seemed to be a practice more suited for solitude, I was intrigued, and agreed to join her.

At first, it felt strange to walk silently next to someone with whom I actually wanted to be better acquainted. I have questions I want to ask her. I want to engage in one-one-one dialogue; of listening and sharing. Yet, in the thud-thud rhythm of our feet on the sidewalk and synchronized swish-swish of our rain-jacketed arms, I’ve noticed something completely unexpected. As we walk in silence I am keenly aware of a deep-calling-to-deep connection — a sacred journey of sorts — smack-dab in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. How profoundly powerful, to walk side-by-side with another person who, for those moments, has the same intention of being fully present.

As a spiritual seeker, I’ve developed a level of observation that often allows me to see the sacred, not only in nature, but in ordinary and often man-made things. Yet, I’ve noticed an accelerated deepening of my senses as I journey with my silent companion. Somehow, in this joint activity, I become more fully myself, with a heightened sense of awareness and ability to notice things that seem to be wanting to show themselves to me:

  • A plethora of well-chewed gum, stuck to a sign post at a neighborhood bus stop – a youthful statement of rebellion, as well as a desire to be noticed.
  • A bright red rocking chair in a garden clearing near the sidewalk – a sign of welcome and of radical hospitality.
  • A broken sidewalk – a powerful testament to the man-made concrete conceding to the God-made roots beneath it.
  • Three cherry trees, planted in a row, at the same time, in the same soil and light conditions. One of them in nearly-full bloom, another beginning to bud and the third still deep in its winter dormancy – each a reflection of the perfect balance of the wisdom found in diverse reactions to the same situation.
  • A child’s pedal-powered, 1950’s-era red metal car now parked in a garden and reimagined as a planter – embodying the passing of time and the sometimes-unwanted truth of the consistent presence of change in our lives.
  • And, a worm on the sidewalk – a tender reminder of the very moment I fell in love with my husband over 20 years ago when he rescued such a humble creature from a hot sidewalk and placed it carefully in someone’s garden.

Would I have noticed these things, had I been walking alone? I have no way of knowing. Perhaps so, yet I am quite sure that their message to me would have been more muddled, more abstract, less substantial.

And so we journey on. In this contemplative, companionable just-short-of-power-walking pace, the miracle of our need for each other plays itself out. Like the glorious frog-concert that was part of our recent walk past a neighborhood pond, we each sing in our silence a song of harmony and oneness.

Shhhhhh — listen – can you hear it?

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.

Tending Toward

I delight in finding clever gifts. And for Christmas this year, I found one for my avid-hiker and good-humored brother: a t-shirt with a stick-figure picture of a man in the woods with a tent and the words, ‘Good In Tent’. Ha, Ha — get it?!  Aside from being clever and funny, the message of that shirt kept lingering about my heart and mind for days. What a ‘sticky’ phrase: Good Intent.

Then this morning, on New Years Day, my Facebook news feed included a link to a post entitled One Word. It was written by a woman who had chosen the word “Rise” as her one-word daily intention for 2015 (www.oneword.com). I was inspired. What  would be my one word for this brand-new year? After a moment of quiet, I knew. My word is ‘POSSIBLE.’ I fell in love with the idea of keeping this word in my heart and letting it greet me each day. My daily intention: to open myself to what is POSSIBLE. Yet something within me bristled with anything that smacked of a Resolution — something that is destined to fail after a few well-meaning days.

Smack-dab in the middle of this consideration — a full-circle moment. I could see in my mind’s eye that stick-figure man on my brother’s t-shirt and those sticky words: Good Intent.

Word-lover that I am, I decided to look up the definition of the word, intention, and found all of the expected phrases like ‘aim or purpose’ and ‘a determination to act in a certain way.’ But as I scrolled down the page a bit, I found what I had been seeking:

“In knowing, the mind is said to “intend” or “tend toward” its object.”

A new sticky, yet grace-laden phrase: Tending Toward. Leaning In. Feeding, nurturing and watering. Some days perhaps more than others. My gardening experience has taught me the forgiving nature of most plants. If you miss a day of water, or forget to fertilize, more often than not, the beautiful flower still emerges.

Tending toward. I like that gentle phrase; so free of the rigidity baggage that comes with a Resolution.

This new year, like the stick-figure man on my brother’s new t-shirt, may you discover the Good Intent in your life; perfectly imperfectly tending toward it; leaning in to your own possibilities.

That’s my kind of camping!

‘Tis the Season for … Waiting

A former manager at work put it well when she said that “WAIT” is a four-letter word. I hate to wait. I don’t know anyone who likes to wait. Yet, it seems that (darn it!) we spend much of our lives waiting. Waiting in line. Waiting for that promotion. Waiting for healing. Waiting for that big break. Waiting for vacation. Waiting for spring. Waiting for morning during a sleepless night. Waiting for just a moment to breathe. Waiting in traffic.

It feels like all my loved ones are waiting for something right now: To be able to walk after shattering the bones in a leg for one person, and after foot surgery for another. For a much-needed job. For blood test results that will allow for another round of needed chemotherapy. For a baby to be born. For love.

And, in this season, for many of us, we are waiting in the season of Advent for Christmas. Waiting for peace on earth. Waiting for Santa. Waiting for that perfect gift to be opened. Waiting for hope.

Waiting, waiting and more waiting.

With all this waiting, it seemed like a good time to ask myself what good can come from waiting? If I’m going to spend a large chunk of my life doing it, shouldn’t I find some meaning in it? If ‘waiting’ is a verb, what do I want it to DO for me? How can it be for me more than simply something to endure?

So, lately, I’ve been experimenting with a new way of waiting. I look at the people in the cars around me, also stuck in gridlock, and I wonder about them and their lives. Where are they going? I look at the person in front of me in the grocery store line, and I pray a blessing over them. I try to be present with my friend who is many weeks away from being able to put weight on her leg so she can begin the process of walking. I try not to offer solutions or make things something that they are not (as much as I’d love to!). I’m trying to just BE in whatever I’m in, and to look for what it is there to teach me.

Lofting ambitions, yes. And while I’m only successful at doing this approximately 4% of the time, I must say that when I can quiet my mind from only longing for the desired future state (my loved one’s healing, MY turn with the cashier at the store), I do find that there can be gifts in the waiting. Gifts of presence, strength, and unexpected connectedness with a stranger.

The prophet Isaiah had some wise things to say about waiting. When I read these words today, it seemed to me that some very powerful, and seemingly contrary verbs were associated with waiting.

“Yet those who wait for the Lord
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary.”   — Isaiah 40:31

Gaining strength, flying, running, walking … found in the midst of waiting?!  Sounds like this kind of waiting is active and much more beneficial than I had thought!

I, for one am going to keep learning how to wait. And to find blessings before they are expected.

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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