Recently I spent a week with a group of like-minded souls–Hearts on Fire, Spiritual Directors from the United Methodist Church (to the uninitiated, that’s Episcopalian-Lite)–at a retreat center one hour northwest of Minneapolis. Our theme: tending the tension between doing and being.
The metaphor was dirt (or soil, if you want to sound well-bred). Everyone was asked to bring a Ziploc baggie filled with dirt from his or her backyard. Some looked dark and fertile, others sandy and rocky. Regardless, count me in. Because when you’re talking dirt, you’re talking my language.
Whenever I visit anyone’s home, I wander around the yard or land or patio, looking for plants and surprises. And I always plunge my hands into the dirt to smell it, squeeze it; drawing puzzled and mystified stares.
“What in the hell are you doing?” One friend asked, embarrassed, when he found me digging around at the home where we had gone for a social gathering.
“Talking to the dirt,” I told him.
“How many drinks have we had?” He asked with a smile reserved for unmanageable children.
Then it occurred to me: you have to be a little looped to be a good gardener. You see the world askew from most folks. But it’s an advantage. And besides, the alternative–to be at the mercy of public opinion–doesn’t work out so good.
One of my favorite stories is James Dittes’ account of getting a part in his grade school Christmas nativity play.
“You get to be Joseph,” the teacher told him.
James was proud what with his friends having to be sheep and cows and such. “What are my lines?” he asked his teacher.
“You don’t have any,” the teacher answered.
But what do I do?’ he asked.
“You just stand there,” the teacher said, “and make sure Mary doesn’t look bad.”
Have you been to a grade school nativity play? What does Joseph do? Other than stand at attention until his balance starts to give out…
After the play all the adults patted him on the head and said, “You were such a marvelous Joseph!”
“And I was so proud,” he recalls. And then it occurs to him, “Wait a minute. If I’m such a great Joseph, how come I never once talked with Mary? If I’m such a great Joseph, how come I never once picked up the baby Jesus and sang him a song? If I’m such a great Joseph, how come I never offered coffee to the shepherds? I was only a great Joseph because I did what everyone said I should do. I was great because I was frozen.“
I understand what that feels like.
While looking for ways to keep score we suffer from an excessive dose of self-consciousness. Feeling the glare of that third party in our heads demanding that we dance to one particular tune, or else. Some of us capitulate and dance. Some of us snap and kill the music, all the while looking over our shoulders just to see if they noticed.
Like it or not, it is our spirituality at stake. That part of us that makes us fully human (the gardener in us with the capacity to revel in the wonder of life), takes a turn for the awkward when we invite any third party on our journey. We miss the point that our spiritual nature is enhanced when it pushes us deeper and deeper into our existence, genuinely intoxicated; precisely when, for precious moments, we are able to shake that voice and find ourselves knee deep in the colors, smells, and emotions of the day.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The only true gift is a portion of yourself.”
American poet, May Sarton was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“To be human,” she answered, simply.
To be human is about regaining what has been lost in the shuffle when life has been relegated to keeping score and making waves.
Not every one of us wants to be famous; but every one of us wants to be human. To be at home in our own skin.
Even so… there is one taste, deep down, that seems unsatisfied. And sometimes, I can’t even name it. But I know it is there. However, in order to be human–in order to be my “self”–I must move past this insistence on arrival or closure. It seems that no matter what it is–whether our identity, our faith, our calling–we feel compelled to nail it down.
There’s the rub. It’s not authenticity I want. It’s certainty (or security) that I’m after.
Fred Rogers–from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood–once said that his version of graciousness and meeting the deeper needs of others is “loving someone into existence.” Yes. And here’s the deal: that “someone” you love into existence, may be yourself.
What makes this journey (process) messy or confusing or derailing is this: it is not easy to trust a place of not knowing.
A place of uncertainty.
A place without closure.
A place of risk and discomfort.
(“I do so want to be my authentic self, but can we get on with it!!!”) Perhaps we could all benefit from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s reminder, “To live is to be slooowly born.”
You see, as long as closure is essential to me, I give in to the expectation that somewhere around the corner, God is waiting to bail me out.
I asked one young friend, “So what’s next for you?”
She replied, “I’m just waiting for God to show me what he wants from me.”
But in the meantime, you know, until you have your life and self figured out, I have a suggestion: Live today. Live this day, with this self, without holding back. Today… savor, doubt, embrace, question, wrestle, give, risk, love, fall down, get up, accept your incomplete and fractured self, know that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, speak from your whole heart, and whenever you can, lavish excessive compassion and mercy on anyone who crosses your path. Who knows, you may even love someone “into existence.”
If you practice all of this while you’re still waiting for God’s instructions, I’m sure God won’t mind.
With this picture of the hunger in our soul, let’s hang on to what David Whyte describes as “that small, bright and indescribable wedge of freedom” in our heart. Today, I can live with that. And today, I hope, I can make choices from that place.
The Minnesota retreat included a day of silence. My ADD kicks in and I think of all the ways I can make the time productive, and catch up. I start my day early, making my mental list while walking the pathway that winds along Buffalo Lake. Here’s the cool part; the pathway takes you from one musical instrument to another–literally. Installed along the pathway are a variety of percussive instruments including drums, xylophone (several types and sizes), marimba, bells, and one really large wind chime. Something to bring out the child within, or to invite you to stop and pay attention, I’m guessing. I stop; and try my hand with the mallets available, Amazing Grace vibrating across the gunmetal gray water.
I’m back in my garden–Rudbeckia (Black Eyed Susan, the photo at the top is from my garden) has begun its exhibition–buoyant and jubilant. There is a bird feeder ten feet from where I sit on the back patio writing these words. The chickadees don’t mind my intrusion. A summer breeze brushes the wind chimes, playing my own little version of Buffalo Lake.