Demanding Questions

The deepest vocational question is not “What ought I to do with my life?” It is the more elemental and demanding “Who am I? What is my nature?”

Parker J. Palmer

 

This past Saturday I spectated one day of a weekend horse training clinic. A friend was attending with her horse and I was interested in learning more. Over the past year, time with my horse has dwindled. I struggle to get out to the farm more than once or twice a week and when I do, I battle to find the energy to ride or work with him. I have not been able to maintain any kind of proper training, go to clinics or have lessons. There are many reasons for this, and they are valid, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

I’ve spent the past year working at my writing, and over the past few months I’ve taken on some tutoring work. I’ve run workshops. All of this has been good, but it has meant that I have less time and energy for other things, especially for my horse. I feel torn about this, and have tried to shut down the piece of my heart that feels so strongly about this horsey journey. Opening myself up to the reality of how much it matters is too hard.

On Saturday that door was opened again. I let myself delight in the opportunity to learn and be part of a community of people who love horses as much as I do.

All of this was a powerful reminder to me of how deeply rooted this desire to be with horses is in me. But I realised something else during the course of the day. I felt at home, and not only with the people themselves. I felt at home in myself. I was quiet inwardly, and had a rare sense of calm and groundedness. I spoke when I wanted to and was quiet when I wanted to be quiet. The restlessness I usually feel in social settings was gone.

It didn’t take long for this zen like state to dissipate, once I arrived home and headed into the rest of the weekend. But those few hours of presence have left their mark. They’ve reminded me that there is a core, an essential ‘me-ness’, and that I can access it, if I create the opportunities for it to emerge.

I have been reading Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak. I was intrigued after listening to a podcast in which he spoke of his journey into and out of depression. It’s an easy book to read, in one sense, because its language and easy style is very accessible. But I am finding myself challenged. Asking questions like those in the quote above is proving to be more demanding than I’d have thought.

I’ve spent my life asking what I should do, what the ‘right thing’ is. I still think those are important and helpful questions. I have a family and a home; there are responsibilities to honour and they are a privilege. But I often find myself feeling drained and stretched beyond my ability to sustain those responsibilities with joy. I have given my life to good things, but have sometimes closed the door on what I love, what I want to do. I’ve told myself that doing what I want is selfish. I know it can be, but doing what I love, what feeds me, can also be life giving, not only for me but for the people who share my life.

There’s a lot of talk today about self-care, and about what it means. People argue back and forth about the need for self-care, versus living lives given over to love and care for others. In my faith we are often ambivalent about talk of caring for ourselves. It seems to fly in the face of all the teaching about putting others ahead of yourself; it seems to contradict the example of Jesus, who gave his very life.

I don’t know how to put it all together, to tie the arguments into a neat formula for living. I have tried. My mind has worked overtime, battling to pull all the threads into a coherent whole that I can follow like  blueprint. But I’ve never managed to find the clarity I seek. What I do know is that I’m tired. I know that when I take time to drink from the wells that replenish me, when I live in harmony with my essential nature (and that includes time spent with my horse) I am better at everything else, especially at reaching generously into the lives of those I love and want to honour.

(At WordPlay this week, I share some thoughts from Rilke. Although they are about writing, I find them helpful for thinking about this question of vocation, and how that shapes our life. I also share another question from Let Your Life Speak.)

 

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Simple Strength

Complex life is delicate and rare. But most life is simple, abundant, and incredibly strong.

Kevin Carey

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Last week, I noticed moss growing amongst the stones in one of the pots on my patio. It was wet with dew, the colour alive and vibrant in the early morning sun. The sporophytes were tipped with little droplets that captured the light, tiny crystals on slender spires.

I close my eyes now and think of the fragrance of soil after rain, the scent of heliotrope on a summer morning, the way water pearls in the centre of an Echeveria. I picture gooseberries hiding in their filigreed bells, imagine the burst of tartness in my mouth.

Perhaps it is the ever increasing complexity of my days, of the world around me, that makes these simple things so precious. Trees and flowers and mosses are rooted to place; and are completely themselves. In their simplicity, their unity of purpose and existence, they remind me that little is needed to make a life strong and beautiful.

I love what Kevin Carey says about simple life being abundant. I know that he was speaking in terms of the reality that simple life forms far outnumber the complex ones. But I think it’s true in another way too. Simplicity can be abundant and lavish. It’s not more (time, activity, stuff) that creates fullness. It’s entering more fully into the one or two things that matter most to me that bring a sense of wholeness, presence and contentment. I am reminded again of Mary Oliver’s question, ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’

It’s that word: one. I have one life, and I am only one. Can I close myself to the whip cracking incessantly in my ears, to the voice saying, ‘Do more. Be more. Chase this. Chase that!’ Can I learn from the moss to be quiet in place and capture the light that is given me?

 

(The poetry page features a poem by David Whyte this week.)

Soul Words

When I was growing up, there was a tree fort in the rain tree in our backyard. The tree fort had a rope ladder and a trap door, and I would climb the rope ladder with one hand and cradle a book in my other hand. And when I got up to the tree fort, I would slam the trap door shut and sit on the sun warmed wood under that great canopy of green, and read and read and read.

I could feel the stories I read pushing against the walls of my heart.

I could feel myself expanding.

I did not, then, know the word capacious. But I did know, I could feel , that my heart was being opened by the words I was reading. 

Kate DiCamillo

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Kate DiCamillo’s Newberry Medal acceptance speech is a beautiful tribute to the word capacious. It’s also a powerful reminder of the ways in which books form and shape us. As I read it, I found myself saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ and thinking about the stories that have lodged in my own heart and been soul-shaping for me.

How can I find the words to talk about what books have meant? Sometimes, as a child, late at night when everyone else was asleep and the house was at last quiet, I would imagine that only I existed, in the circle of light which illuminated the page. The words soothed me, made me feel that I was not alone in the world. It was as though someone was shining a light on something I had known, but never quite been able to articulate, making some as yet unplayed note sing through me.

Books have given me permission to acknowledge the buried things lying below the surface of my life. They’ve opened doors to new awareness and made way for grief to do its cleansing work. They’ve given me hope and reminded me of those things worth despairing about. In Equal Rites (by Terry Pratchett) one of the characters notices that ‘There were times when a little detail could expand and fill the whole world’. Stories are whole worlds made of little things; one letter at a time a kind of parallel reality emerges, one that makes sense and stirs in us resonant echoes of of our own experience. Sometimes those words have filled my whole world, opening me to a fresh apprehension of the way things really are.

Like the sound of a bell, or a teaspoon against a glass, words are a call to let the clutter of voices competing for my attention to settle into silence, so that I can hear that one voice speak.

 

(Have a look at this week’s poem in the poetry corner, for some beautiful words that landed in my heart this morning.)

 

The Preaching of Pine Trees

Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts.

Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.

As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can. 

All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms, everywhere and always we are in God’s eternal beauty and love.

 

John Muir

 

 

I have always loved pine trees. I love their scent, their magnificent height and the way their needles carpet the ground. Most of all, I love the sound of the wind through their branches. Anywhere that pine trees grow is a thin place.

I’ve been reading Wilderness Essays by John Muir, and I find myself full of longing for wild places. He speaks of mountains, glaciers and valleys, the sun setting over the ice floes of Alaska, the grandeur of lofty peaks and the gentle beauty of wildflowers scattered across a field. He lived a life full to the brim with adventure (and danger at times), yet his writing conveys not the sense of a man captivated by his own exploits, but of one who held a deep and abiding love for and intimacy with the places he explored. He cared deeply about all living things, and wrote much about our need for taking ourselves into the wild spaces of the world. He once said, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

Robert Macfarlane speaks of this in his book, The Old Ways, in which he muses on walking across old pathways and remote places as a journey inwards, to our interior landscapes. There is not enough stillness I find, even in my home, with the television off and my phone on silent. There is the sound of traffic and lawnmowers. And at night there is no true darkness; the streetlamps and security lights outside my bedroom keep it at bay. I stay up late; electric lights making it possible to lengthen my day well into the hours of night.

I’ve taken to walking my dogs at sunset. I love the opportunity to pay attention to the way the light fades, the way the colours shift and melt into darkness. After immersion in the noise of my life, I find my mind settling into quiet; I can hear my heart begin to speak. I can ‘go in’ and take the time to ponder on what I find there. I arrive home feeling soothed.

Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” In September 2014, I took a picture of a stone at Glen Nevis, with this quote engraved onto it. That afternoon I was feeling sad; my aunt and I were almost at the end of the Scotland leg of a journey across the United Kingdom, and I didn’t want to go. We’d been walking the highlands for several days and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Muir said that going to the mountains was going home (he said the same thing about forests). Anyone who loves mountains and forests and wild places will know what he meant. We’re never quite at home until we’re there, where the sun is our timekeeper and the trees and caves are our shelter.