The True Substance of Our Lives

Dear Friends,

This morning after my spouse and kids left in a flurry of bags, jackets, and hurried kisses, I left the dishes on the counter and sunk back into my chair at the breakfast table. Promising myself a few minutes of meditation before jumping into my own day, I poured myself a cup of luke-warm tea. Then, before I fully knew what I was doing, I reached for my phone. Four minutes later, I realized that my quiet time had been filled with work emails and instructional texts to my kids about after-school activities. The essential task – spending five minutes in intentional silence – had been sacrificed for a whole load of frenetic to-do’s. 

I imagine many of you can easily relate to this scenario. With so much clamoring for our attention, it is almost impossible not to lose sight of what is truly important.    

In my work in spiritual formation at an Episcopal church, I am privileged to spend many hours with folks in the second half of their lives. Unlike many of the elders I knew when I was younger, who tended to veil their vulnerability in the language of triumphant salvation or sugarcoat their struggles in a wash of sparkling sentiment, these elders are not afraid to talk openly and without judgment of a lifetime of twists and turns, sorrows and joys.Their lives are still a work in process, a testimony to the idea that one lifetime is not long enough to whittle down love, faith, and the art of seeing, to a perfect point.

I’ve learned so much from watching these folks in their 70s, 80s, and 90s sift through their lives.  They are actively paring back, letting go of many of the things they once counted vital to success and survival. Franciscan friar Richard Rohr writes, “All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not.” This work of spiritual decluttering is what so many of the elders in my community are actively leaning into. And it’s not easy work. This open-hearted re-ordering requires humility, honesty, imagination and faith. When we’ve done the work of stripping away all the nonessential layers that feel so important and pressing, Rohr says we’ll ultimately find that “the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and is all that you need. . . .that place is called freedom.”

More than enough. All that you need. Freedom. These things feel far away this morning. At work, half-finished tasks seem to slap my face for attention. At home, the house, the dog, the girls, all need my loving presence to thrive. What about my own health and appointments I need to schedule? And did I mention that my oldest daughter is off to a college interview this afternoon?  What my elders teach me about this moment is that while the one hundred things commanding my attention this morning are fine in themselves, I should not mistake them for the true substance of my life. That true substance lies underneath all the busyness and urgent tasks that populate my mind and calendar. Far more intrinsic and essential is my identity as a child of God, a listener to the still, small voice that tells me what is deeply true about today. And what is deeply true is this: We are loved, and no matter what we check off our list by the end of the day, all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

Peace,

Kim

P.S. I am indebted to a virtual “cloud of saints” for these ideas; this month, I’ve been sitting at the virtual feet of Richard Rohr and Parker Palmer.  Of course, so many writers and poets address these ideas–who are your favorites?  Please leave a message and share them with us!

Consider: Solitude Invites Us

Dear Friends,

They are here again: the arrowleaf balsamroots.

I’ve been watching closely these last months, since the deep snow of this past winter finally allowed itself to be whittled away. It was a relief when open ground emerged then tentatively greened. Along the trail, silvery nodes extricated themselves from mud, then shot up, unfurling silver broad leaves. Now, sun-yellow flowers stud the whole hillside above my house. The dogs and I take our morning constitutional. A slight breeze stirs. The yellow heads of the balsamroot bob and nod, agreeing it seems with the goodness of the morning, of springtime, of life itself.

I tell you all this because for months things have been hard.

In Western Montana, our February, averaging just 16 degrees, was the coldest since 1898.  It snowed Every. Single. Day. Not heaps and heaps. Just enough to require substantial shovel work. Under an unvaried, cheerless sky, I cleared the driveway and sidewalks, re-doing work I had toiled over the day before. And the day before that. And the day before that. In the midst of those seemingly interminable February days, my husband had knee surgery, my daughter the flu, my son switched middle schools, my puppy chewed holes in the carpet, my novel got rejected – again. And while these small, private emotional debits compiled, the insane gale of the world-at-large kept churning out new debasements to our civic life. Unmoored from thoughtful, robust discourse, from the guiding lights of ethics and empathy, and even from the self-imposed railings of honesty and norms, our politics has degenerated into a grotesque caricature of public life.

Frankly, it’s wearying. After the winter – or perhaps after these forty-one years of sentience – I’m a little care-worn, a little buffeted.

“Most people,” Rilke writes, “have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult…it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult.”

If these last months have proven anything, it’s that I want to shy away from the difficult, take the handiest exit distraction provides. Rilke’s words feel like a chance to consider the ways in which I behave like “most people.” What unexamined conventions have I adopted? What habits of mind do I rely upon, not because they enrich my life, but precisely because they shield and divert me from the wonder and, let’s be frank, terror of being alive? It’s easier, so much easier, to duck one’s head and scroll Instagram than it is to keep one’s face to the wind of our deepest questions, our mortality, our hopes, our loneliness, our longings.

Solitude invites us to an interior expansiveness. I find that just inside solitude’s gate the way is populated with advertising jingles and grocery lists, political diatribes, frustration at my son for losing his soccer jersey, my sense of failure because I didn’t make it to the gym today, the comeback I should have used on that bully back in eighth grade. But that’s just the first mile. Once I’ve passed this by, who knows what vastness I’ll find.

“But listen to the voice of the wind/ and the ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence,” Rilke writes in his first Duino Elegy.  The wind is in the balsamroots now, nodding their heads, shaking their silver leaves. It’s in me, if I have ears to hear it. It’s in this busy, hard, beautiful, passing, poignant life. What I actually long for is to listen for that ceaseless message wrought from silence. Everything good tells me it’s worth the difficult journey.

Peace,

Lindsay