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The Gift of Solitude

Winter morning at GCPark

Winter morning at my home in Virginia

In less than one week I’ll be on a plane to Cochabamba. Off to immerse myself in language school and get better prepared for the next step on my journey. Whatever that may be.

It’s crazy that I’m sitting here writing in the midst of all that I have to do before leaving, but this post feels important. Important to the journey that I am on. Because it keeps me honest. And vulnerable. And humble. All qualities I need.

I’ve had a lot of alone time over these past several months since returning home from El Paso. Lots of quiet time for reflection. And, as a result, for some painful stuff to show up too. Recently even more so when we had a foot and a half of snow and I really felt isolated in my house in the woods.

One thing about living in the midst of all this quiet — my shadow’s bound to show up. All those painful voices of my lower self that try to keep me small, hidden, and defended. Voices that try to make me believe that what my mind is telling me is true. That this is who I really am. Then my pride chimes in and says, I can’t believe you’re still dealing with these issues. They should be gone by now. Over and done with, thank you very much.

But that’s not how it goes.

I know from my years of studying with the Pathwork Transformation Program and with spiritual teachers of the past and present, like Teresa of Avila (14th century Carmelite nun and mystic) and Pema Chodron (contemporary Buddhist nun), that the secret is not to reject these parts of myself, but to embrace them. Yes, embrace them. And in doing so, find the gift they offer.

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I’m still learning how to do this. That’s why I’m exactly where I’ve needed to be. In the silence and the solitude.

Joan Chittister says that “Silence is the gift that throws us back on ourselves. Which is exactly why there are so many who cannot bear the thought of it. Without external distractions, we are left vulnerable to the voices within that demand that we come to grips with all the pieces of the self we have so carefully concealed.” (Between the Dark and the Daylight)

That’s definitely been true for me. I’ve certainly been vulnerable to these voices, and some days it’s pretty challenging. But if I don’t jump up to turn on the TV, call someone, or dash out the door to go see a friend, if I can sit with the feelings and stay with the pain, I finally surrender. In this place of pain and helplessness, I surrender to my absolute need for God.

John Welwood writes in his book Journey of the Heart, which coincidentally is the same title as my blog:

“The profound question love poses is, ‘Can you face your life as it is; can you look at all the pain and darkness as well as the power and light in the human soul, and still say yes?’”

I know that if I am to promote love and compassion “out there,” I must first have them for myself. That means being able to say ‘yes’ to all the pain and darkness. Yes to embracing and loving all the parts of myself.

But in those tough moments, without an awareness of God’s loving Presence, I simply can’t do it. That’s when solitude is a gift.  Because in the absolute silence, Love makes me aware that there is nothing I need change or reject. I am the Beloved. I am already healed and whole. And everything is gift.
 

 

 

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With Hearts Broken Open

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Davis arrived from France a little over a week ago. Looking more like a man than ever. If that’s possible.

On the long car ride home from Dulles Airport, he chatted away. About the friends he’d made. His love for the language. How he missed speaking French already. And the food. He went on and on about the food.

You’d think he’d be exhausted after traveling for two days. But he was on fire. I could hear the passion in his voice.  Already he talked about going back. About the offers of places to stay whenever he chose to return.

He reminded me of myself and what I’ve been feeling after returning from my recent adventures in Bolivia and at the border.  Like me he’s expanding his outlook on life. Opening his heart to more people. And making exciting choices that can be both painful and risky.

Recently a friend sent me a link to Parker Palmer’s May 2015 commencement address on the six pillars of the wholehearted life. So much of it resonated with me. But in these lines in particular, I recognized myself and Davis:

“The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death. It happens every day. I’m 76 years old, I now know many people who have suffered the loss of the dearest person in their lives. At first they go into deep grief, certain that their lives will never again be worth living. But then they slowly awaken to the fact that not in spite of their loss, but because of it, they’ve become bigger, more compassionate people, with more capacity of heart to take in other people’s sorrows and joys. These are broken-hearted people, but their hearts have been broken open, rather than broken apart.”

Hearts broken open. That’s what Davis and I have. Hearts broken when we lost the best husband and father we could have had. But hearts that remain open. Because we’ve chosen to keep them open. To not close ourselves off to the pain. To let ourselves be vulnerable and loving to those we don’t yet know. And that has made all the difference.

And there’s something else that Palmer said about brokenness. About being willing to go down into the tough, painful dark shadows within ourselves.

“Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself. Let your altruism meet your egotism, let your generosity meet your greed, let your joy meet your grief. Everyone has a shadow… But when you are able to say, “I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light,” the shadow’s power is put in service of the good. Wholeness is the goal, but wholeness does not mean perfection, it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of your life.

Davis is learning to embrace his brokenness. So am I.

Still.

And in doing so, I’ll be better able to be present to someone else facing her own darkness.

As  Joan Chittister explains:

Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others whose journey into the dark spots of life is only just beginning. It’s then that our own taste of darkness qualifies us to be an illuminating part of the human expedition. Without that, we are only words, only false witnesses to the truth of what it means to be pressed to the ground and rise again.

So, on this eve of the winter solstice when we will face the longest night of the year, I celebrate my choice to embrace the darkness. With a heart broken open.parker_palmer_on light and dark

Why Should I Care?

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I scrub toilets, mop floors, disinfect cots, and breathe in a mixture of bleach and water that’s giving me a slight headache.

moppingI’m helping Sr. Mary Beth, another volunteer at the Nazareth Hospitality Center, clean the rooms our guests have vacated. Guests, as in the immigrant families who have passed through our doors, staying for one night, maybe two, before heading to relatives elsewhere in the states.

As I heave the wet mop across the linoleum, I feel some resistance. Cleaning bathrooms is not my favorite way to be of service. So, why am I doing this? Why am I cleaning up after these strangers? People I will never see again. People who might not even be grateful for what I’m doing. And, some might be quick to add, haven’t played by the rules.

I remember the angry faces in the news last summer protesting all the families and kids streaming over the border. And, more recently, the disheartening comments I read online with  messages like,  “Send them back!”  How appalled they’d be if they knew what I was doing here. “Why?!!” they’d surely ask.

I ask myself that question, too, as I carry a trash bag of shitty-smelling diapers out to the dumpster.

But then ICE calls, promising 20 new guests this afternoon. And I’m too busy to think about my answer.

The government van pulls up around lunch time and deposits some families at our door. A father with his little girl, wisps of her pigtails loosening from their crooked elastics. A couple carrying a baby and shepherding in a daughter about 5 years old. Another young couple with three little girls under 6 in tow.

Dirty faces, tangled hair, smelly clothes. All of them.

After doing the intake and settling the families into their rooms, I ask the mom with the three little girls, “Necesita ropa limpia?” Do you need clean clothes?

An obvious question, but the mother hesitates, then nods apprehensively. We search the clothing room for shoes and warm sweaters, tops and pants. Plenty of selections for the adults, but it’s slim pickings for the girls.

Next I help the father with his little girl. She’s wearing lavender crocks with no socks. Her feet are darker than the rest of her. She needs socks and a pair of pants. They’re headed to Delaware. But I can’t find any girl’s jeans. Or any pants at all to fit her. Her little legs are bare beneath her skirt and I think of the long, cold bus ride ahead and the freezing temps up north. I suddenly have this urge to run out and buy several pairs of girls’ size 5-6 jeans, but I can’t leave the center at the moment.
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We’re out of girls’ jackets and sweaters, too. There’s not much I can offer in the way of clothing. But there is something I can offer. Something fun.

We’ve got these precious gift bags that were prepared and donated to the center by schoolchildren last summer. The kids made tons of them, and we still have some in storage. Simple Ziploc bags, they’re loaded with crayons, a pair of socks, a soft huggable toy or doll, a few quarters, blank notepad with colored pencils, and a handwritten note saying “welcome, friend, to my country.”

I go to the storage room to grab a few bags for the pantless, sweaterless girls. But I’m in for a surprise.

The bags are stored in their original mailing box, so, out of curiosity I check out the return address. Brewster, Massachusetts! So the bags weren’t prepared by local schoolchildren after all, as I had thought. They actually come from the children of First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church.

This warms my  heart — not only because Massachusetts is my native state — but because it’s so far away from the border! The children of Brewster remind me it’s not only the people in El Paso who care about these migrant families.

And they also remind me of why I care. It’s not about what anybody else thinks of what I’m doing. And I’m not doing it for the thanks. I’m doing it because they are human beings. And they matter. They matter to me.

When I hand two of these gift bags to the sweet little sisters from Guatemala, they squeal their thank you’s. I give their younger sister’s bag to the mother. Mom looks it over and points to the children’s hand-printed message alongside their picture.

Message the children of Brewster, MA, included in gift bags. "Welcome, my friend, to my country."

Message the children of Brewster, MA, included in gift bags. “Welcome, friends, to my country.”

“Yes,” I say. “It’s a gift from these children.”

A gift to all of us.

 To belong to a community is to begin to be about more than myself…No work is enough to satisfy the human soul. Only the satisfaction of having touched another life and been touched by one ourselves can possibly suffice. Whatever we do, however noble, however small, must be done for the sake of the other. Otherwise, we ourselves have no claim on the human race.

~ from LISTEN WITH THE HEART by Joan Chittister