I’ve been feeling it again lately.
On December 2nd, David’s birthday, I found myself crying. That’s unusual. Several birthdays have passed since his death and they haven’t caused such a reaction in me.
But that day I missed him.
I was feeling particularly tender and vulnerable. Continuing to live in this uncertain, “in-between” place was affecting me.
And there was something more.
A little over three months ago, in the predawn hours, I awoke to a message on my phone from a good friend from the past. Lisa had reached out to me because her husband had just died. Shocked out of my groggy half-awake state, I texted back that I was here if she wanted to talk.
Lisa and her husband Kevin had been good friends of ours in the early years of our marriages when we lived in Connecticut. We’d stayed in touch after moving away and even wound up living in the neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina. Occasionally we’d meet halfway for family camping trips.
We had this history together. We’d begun our marriages around the same time. Had both experienced the years of longing for a child and waiting and hoping and waiting some more. Finally rejoicing in each other’s gift — a son for me, a daughter for Lisa. Our friendship was comfortable and comforting.
Listening to Lisa that morning, my own grief came back to me just as clearly as if I were reliving it with her. I remembered how I’d felt as if a hole had been ripped through my heart. How else can you describe losing your best friend and most intimate partner? The person you tell everything to, share everything with. The one who knows you better than anyone. The love of your life.
Yes, I understood that pain. I could empathize. But what surprised me is how easily I felt this grief again. I remembered how bottomless and debilitating it had felt. How at times I’d thought I couldn’t possibly heal.
More than anything in that moment, I wanted to take that pain from my friend. Even if it meant I had to relive it for her.
Because I have crossed over this threshold, I know I can survive it. And much more than that — I know that joy and love and fullness of life exist even in the midst of such pain. I already know this.
But Lisa doesn’t. At least not yet.
I got off the phone that morning asking, why so much pain? Why must we experience so much pain?
I don’t really know the answer to that question.
But I do know that if I close my heart off to feeling as a result of my deep loss, I will close myself off from the greatest adventure and fulfillment of my life.
Here’s what is clear to me:
That grief and the healing power of transformation are connected.
That compassion has grown in me because of my own grief.
That grieving is not a singular event . The door to my heart has been broken open; I can’t go back to allowing myself not to feel.
That all of it is sacred and trustworthy. Even the painful stuff.
And I can trust the One who remained with me through the deepest darkness of my grief.
Many of us are grieving at this time of year. Some of it is due to the upcoming Christmas holiday, which can magnify our loneliness and pain, especially when we’ve lost loved ones.
Some of the grief, I believe, is due to this recent presidential election. I know I have felt anxiety and a real sadness for those who are vulnerable, including Mother Earth. There’s a collective grieving happening. I’ve heard this from others as well.
For me, the call is to live with greater compassion. Even, and especially, if it means feeling the pain of the other.
As insight meditation teacher Tara Brach explained in a recent talk on Bodhisattva for Our Times, going through your personal grief brings you to the universal.
She says, “Let grief transform you. Then make a conscious choice to be a light.”
That in itself is reason enough for me to allow myself to feel the pain of grieving. I want, and I choose, to be a light in the darkness.
“We’re all in it together and we can trust that even in the long, dark nights of winter our hearts are turning toward the light.” (Tara Brach)
Three-year-old Ana smacks a kiss on my mouth. I’ve just handed her a baby doll, complete with pacifier. Something to keep her company on her days-long bus ride to Florida.
Whatever pleasure I got out of finding that doll in our used toy bin at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center just got magnified a hundredfold.
Juana is 13. Too old for a doll.
Or so I thought.
But her eyes widen when she sees the one I’ve given Ana.
“Do you like dolls?” I ask in Spanish.
“Si.” She smiles. Off I go to locate another.
I have the perfect one in mind. Eyes as big as half dollars. Strawberry-colored plastic hair. The kind you can’t comb. But her face is more mature. Just right for a girl who’s probably never owned a doll in her life.
Why do I love packing a toy in these children’s travel bags? Why do I take pleasure in seeing their delight?
The answer, I think, lies somewhere in understanding the gift of pleasure.
If you’re a parent, you know the absolute pleasure of seeing your child delight in receiving a longed-for gift or special surprise.
I believe that the One who loved us into being takes that kind of pleasure in us.
And that God longs for us to take pleasure in the abundance of life. A life gifted to us. Created for us to enjoy. As fully alive beings.
Sometimes, in between running around getting care packages ready for the migrants, answering their needs, calling for volunteer drivers, I have to step outside to get food in the walk-in fridge next door. And sometimes I pause and stand there in the sunlight. Look up into that constantly blue sky.
And give thanks. Aware of the pleasure I am receiving as well as giving.
Whether it’s in giving a special gift to a child. Preparing a meal for someone who’s hungry.
Receiving expressions of affection.
Or taking in the beauty of a golden full moon on a Friday night. Like I did tonight.
An abundance of opportunities to experience the pleasures of an abundant life.
But I have to say, I’m not always aware of them.
As Jesus said, it is God’s good pleasure “to give you the kingdom.” That kingdom is already alive in you. Alive in me.
Can I keep giving myself over to it? Can I fully accept this gift?
Have you ever been surprised by joy? Felt it come out of nowhere and suddenly overtake you? Yet you can’t fully explain it?
That’s been happening to me since returning to this desert border town. I’ve been experiencing a mysterious joy.
Despite not knowing for sure what I’m doing here. Not knowing where I’ll settle. Still trying to sell a house in Virginia. Looking for a paying job. Aware that my temporary living arrangement will soon expire.
So many unknowns. Enough to send anyone into a panic. Or at least an anxious spin.
But surprisingly I feel peaceful. And happy.
Maybe it’s because I’ve done this so many times now. Uprooted myself. Leapt off into the unknown. Taken risks. And come out the other side, assured once again that I have everything I need as I listen and trust my inner guidance.
But I know it’s more than that.
“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God,” said Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest who wrote The Divine Milieu.
God has been showing up a lot lately.
Just two days after arriving in El Paso, I returned to volunteer at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center where I’d served over a year ago. As soon as I walked through the door, took in the familiar surroundings, saw the people, I felt this inexplicable happiness spread inside of me.
Nothing had precipitated it. Other than being in this place.
It was the presence of joy.
A Presence letting me know that I was exactly where I needed to be.
Then last Sunday, I attended a Spanish Mass. A joyous celebration, the walls reverberating with lively music and handclapping. Pews packed with Hispanics. Many others standing along the side and back walls. And this was only one of six masses held every Sunday!
I went because I love being among the people. Saying the prayers in Spanish along with them. Celebrating the combination of their rich spirituality and connection to the earth. Seeing their faith in action both delights and humbles me. I can’t explain it, but they possess something special.
I was standing there, silently taking everything in, when suddenly I recognized something. I recognized the Presence of what it is they possess. And it filled me. This unnamed Presence.
Tears sprang to my eyes. Joyful tears.
And I knew. This is God. This is the Presence of God.
In these people. In these tears I’m shedding.
In this overwhelming joy that has taken me by surprise.
In this awareness that I am standing in the midst of grace.
In the knowledge that every leap I’ve taken — even when it didn’t feel “right” at the time — has been a perfect piece of the process of my life. Taking me where I needed to go. Helping me to heal.
In that moment of recognition, a Scripture verse came back to me:
“Count it all joy when you are involved in every sort of trial.” (James 1:2)
Two years ago I was struggling in San Antonio. Trying to make a go of a promise I’d made to serve there. Feeling very alone and uncertain, I’d written a blog post about the “life in abundance” God wanted for me. The promise of joy. Knowing it was possible, but feeling a million miles from anything close to joy.
Now I understand.
My heart knows why I am here.
“That my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.”
La alegrίa. That’s Spanish for joy. Now I understand. A joy no one can take from you.
Cultivate your inner garden.
Maybe you’re wondering what the heck that means.
I know ever since I was given that directive on a recent retreat in Ruidoso, NM, I’ve been walking around with the phrase in my head. Thanks to our very spiritual and wise retreat director, Sr. Margarita, who just happens to have indigenous grandparents and a real connection to nature.
Our first night there she had us all sitting in silence in the middle of a green meadow surrounded by lovely green trees (that in itself was a gift for someone like me who’s been missing greenery since I arrived in El Paso).
“Listen to nature welcoming us,” she said as we settled into our plastic lawn chairs.
Sure enough, within moments, trees swayed in unison, leaves rustled, crows cawed. Even the setting sun slowly lit up clouds drifting overhead.
I felt at home.
Not because the place reminded me of Virginia. Although it did. But because I realized, in that moment, that I am always home.
That was just the beginning. The gifts kept coming.
And Sr. Margarita, with her awareness of the presence of Spirit in everything, helped foster that awareness in me.
She seemed to love using metaphors. Something I also love as a writer.
The most powerful metaphor was that of a garden – a place where resurrection happens. (Think of a seed falling to the ground. Or Jesus falling to the ground at Gethsemane.)
A place, she said, that we need to cultivate. A place that represents our inner selves.
She told us how, like Mary in the children’s story, The Secret Garden, we have to go into the attic – or the basement – and take the risk of delving into our dark, mysterious selves, in order to find the key to our secret garden.
I don’t have any problem with that idea. I’ve been to some pretty dark places in myself. But the idea of cultivating and discovering a “secret garden” intrigued me.
So, one afternoon I stepped into the middle of this huge garden at the retreat center, hoping I’d get some insight. I sat in the sun taking in the scent and beauty of red and peach roses — a childhood favorite.
All of a sudden I noticed them.
First one weed. Then another. Pretty soon I was completely focused on those weeds.
The thing is, they weren’t even that large. Or tall. Or overgrown. They seemed so miniscule standing beside the expansive rose bushes that only minutes ago had captured my attention.
But I just couldn’t leave those weeds alone.
Before I realized it, I’d grabbed hold of one and plucked it out of the ground. It lay there limp and lifeless, the sun beaming down on it.
And then it came to me. How that sun is always present. How it warms both the roses and the weeds. How it doesn’t judge whether one is more worthy than the other. It simply shines. And nurtures. And warms and loves everything.
What about me? Can I do the same for myself? Can I let go of focusing on the weeds?
Allow my inner garden to flourish? And accept and love the whole beautiful mess that is me?
Maybe that’s the real secret to gardening.
A new baby arrived last week at the orphanage. When I got there on Wednesday, I found her sleeping in a crib — a tiny dark-haired bundle wrapped in a yellow blanket. She was less than one week old.
Her name was printed in black magic marker on the placard above her crib. The women who work at the Salomon Klein orphanage named her. Abandoned, she came with nothing. No first or last name. No birth date. They think she was born on Easter Sunday.
When I changed Adriana’s diaper, I noticed the brown remains of her umbilical cord. What a way for this precious new life to begin.
But the sad truth is, Adriana’s situation is not unusual. During the four weeks I volunteered, three new babies appeared. Either they’d been abandoned or removed from an unsafe home. Now their home is a room lined with cribs filled with babies and toddlers under 2. There aren’t enough arms to cradle these children. Not enough voices to coo their names and let them believe, even for a little while, that the world revolves around them.
That’s what I normally try to do. But, for whatever reason, this day was different.
I changed more diapers than usual. Rubbed ointment onto red, raw bottoms and wondered how many more little ones lay in their cribs or sat in the play yard with wet, coarse cloth wrapped around their behinds waiting for someone to discover their need. But I couldn’t keep up while tending to tears and keeping toddlers from crawling on top of each other.
The mood was anything but tranquilo.
Babies who normally lay quietly in their cribs cried uncontrollably. I picked them up, one after another, cooing, cradling, calling their names, but the crying didn’t stop. My friend and fellow volunteer noticed the reason first.
“Look at the time,” she said. “They’re hungry.”
It was nearly 5:30 p.m. Well past the time for their second bottle. We mentioned it to one of the staff and she said the bottles were coming. But not soon enough.
During the next 15 to 20 minutes, my friend and I tried to console inconsolable babies. We carried them around the room, rocked them, sang to them. Feeling helpless all the while. We both remarked that this must be what it’s like for migrant and refugee mothers who can’t feed their hungry children. The experience was short-lived, but very vivid. It has stayed with me.
And, it brought another insight. Something even more powerful.
As I held little Pablo, his tiny mouth quivered, he was crying so hard. He couldn’t hear my voice calling his name so sweetly. With his eyelids squeezed shut, his face tight with the pangs of hunger, he couldn’t possibly take in the love I was offering him. His hunger and pain were too great.
Now I understand.
This is how it must be for a loving God who is trying to get through to me when I am hurting. Because I was hurting and crying out in Cochabamba. I’d experienced some painful challenges, and I felt abandoned and alone. But like these children, my hunger and pain kept me from recognizing the presence of the love that’s been holding me through all of it. I couldn’t see it with my eyes squeezed shut.
And like I did for these children, the One who longs for me simply held me in my spiritual blindness.
This love is so patient. It is kind and compassionate. It is willing to wait with me. Until I finally take in what I need. What it’s been offering all along.
This is not my room in Cochabamba. But, it is basically all I have: a window with a desk lamp, a desk, and, of course, a bed. I wish I could say the view was this spectacular — and it certainly is from the street – but not from my bedroom. My room overlooks a walled-in area of housetops that allow me to spy down through curtainless windows into the imagined lives of my neighbors. If I step out onto the tiny balcony off my room, I can see the sky. But only if I look up.
Many times over these past two years all I’ve had to call my own is one room — that, and the familiar touchstones I’d brought along with me. You’d think it would get easier. But each time, I have to find my grounding, get centered in remembering who I am underneath any doubts, insecurities, or concerns that arise. And remember to trust what brought me here.
This time I’m adjusting not only to living in a stranger’s house, but to a different culture and country that speaks a language I know barely enough to get by. It feels huge.
And it also feels right.
The Bolivian culture is beautiful, alive, spiritual; the people warm and friendly. My host family lives in a middle-class neighborhood that boasts several parks with flowering plants, huge trees, and lush lawns. Yet I also witness much poverty around me as I walk to the Maryknoll language school every day.
All that I am witnessing reminds me that I have so much back home. Many more choices for a healthy diet. Much more space — and gorgeous space at that — to move around in than just one small and simple room. Yet each time I leave my home, I become more aware of how much I need to let go of that physical space in order to be free to fully live this calling on my heart.
Do I know what I’m doing? Not really. Or where I’m going? Heck no.
Do I trust what I’m doing, and where I’m going? Yes!
Let the adventure unfold.
The fall foliage is crazy gorgeous this year. Vibrant oranges, golden yellows, and ruby reds shimmer in the morning sunlight. Whether I’m doing Tai Chi on my deck surrounded by breathtaking multicolored trees or driving along rural Rte. 810, with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance, I regularly find myself breaking out into spontaneous smiles and giggles.
Maybe it’s because I missed fall completely last year. Or maybe I’m just paying closer attention. Because who knows where I’ll be next year.
I really love fall in Virginia.
And I love my peaceful home in the woods. It’s a place of refuge and reflection. A place of beauty and blessing, for myself and for anyone who’s visited. It’s a place I can come to rejuvenate and reflect. To write and to find solitude. A sacred place.
And yet, I hear an inner voice asking, “Can you let it go?”
That’s the question I’m faced with now. And it’s a tough one. But there’s something I love more than my home in Virginia.
I love the possibility of fulfilling my heart’s calling. And I love the God within who urges me to fulfill that calling. In the process, I realize my True Self.
Every spiritual journey deepens when you’re willing to let go of the attempt to eliminate risks. This means you have to be willing to pay the price. To give up attachments to anything that might hold you back.
All that happens in our lives prepares us for our calling. I believe this. I believe that all the pieces of the events of our lives—the sorrows as well as the joys, the roadblocks and the unexpected detours, even the things that have previously held us back—all of it fits together like the pieces of a puzzle that leads to our true calling. This house has been part of that. So has my husband. Had I been unwilling to let him go, I never would have come to this threshold.
Now the key is being willing to let go even further.
Am I willing to trust the voice that says, “Do it for love”?
I try to listen more deeply. I want to know exactly what next step I should take. Where I’ll wind up next. But all I hear is:
Don’t think your way through the journey. Trust what you hear in the silence where I dwell. You will land when it’s time.
I spent the weekend at Sevenoaks Retreat Center in Madison for a reunion with some very dear friends. Sevenoaks has special meaning for me. It’s the place where I dived deeper into the courageous and challenging spiritual journey of knowledge of self and God through the Pathwork program. It’s also where I began to trust the overpowering and overwhelming experiences of God’s love flowing through me. And Sevenoaks is where I first made a serious commitment to use my gifts and talents to serve community.
Being there again this weekend only affirmed that commitment.
I know I have a mission. Or, I should say, the mission has me. That’s what I was told during my missionary service orientation in Mexico City last August. And I know these words are truth.
I also know this passion for my mission did not come from my ego mind. It came from what I would call the Spirit of divine love. A love that has awakened my heart to the needs and the pain of the “other.”
I hear friends — good and caring people — voice concerns about how the influx of Hispanic immigrants is affecting our economy, affecting our lives, and I wonder, how can I explain what I’ve experienced? What I’ve seen in the Other? What I know about how our country has contributed to the economic situation in Latin America? How our economy would falter without the contributions of these hardworking immigrants? About what it really means to be hungry and in danger?
Mostly, how can I explain that when we look at the other and feel fearful or lacking, we are in illusion?
Yes, my heart has awakened.
Sometimes it feels impossible to hold it all. To know the pain of others in my heart. But this weekend at Sevenoaks I was reassured that I am not holding it alone. All I need do is listen and follow the call. Take the next right step. But it’s not easy.
The question I must ask myself time and again is this: In whatever I am doing, thinking, or expressing, am I in love’s flow? Or am I in my fear? Will I spend my life worrying about whether there will be enough? Or will I trust the transformative Love of God to support me and give me what I need as I listen and follow as best as I can? The kind of trust I witnessed in those I served.
I choose to trust.
I trust that if enter the flow of seeing the divine in the other and open my heart, I will in turn receive much more than I have given. I’ve already experienced this. Especially in Texas and Mexico. Why wouldn’t it continue?
How about you?
Will your soul be enriched by the other?
How will your heart respond?
Will you allow yourself to look into another’s eyes, listen to their story, feel their pain, and recognize your Self?
This weekend I was reminded of the Prayer of St. Francis. It’s a tough one to live by. But I say it anyway, trusting that it’s quietly transforming me. Along with those whose lives I touch.