The Space Only God Can Fill

When I’m not singing in the choir,  I like to sit right over there. In years past Barb R. usually sat right behind me, and we chatted.  About two years ago, Barb was sitting behind me and she leaned forward and said, “You know, they’re talking about some meditation class in the bulletin. I just don’t get it. What does meditation have to do with us? Why would anyone in this church be talking about meditation?”  Today I’d like to answer Barb’s question.

A secret about me that almost none of you knows is that I make really great buttermilk biscuits. When people come to dinner, they eat 3 or 4. It’s a skill I have. I don’t use a recipe at all because I’ve done it for so long. My grandma taught me to make biscuits when I was about 10. My first attempts were lousy. Hard, chewy.  Sometimes raw inside. But I’ve been practicing more than 55 years. Practice makes perfect.

How about someone who can really shoot well?  Here in Ely many of you started learning how to shoot a gun when you were kids.  Maybe your grandpa or your dad taught you. In the beginning you couldn’t hit the garage wall.  But you practiced for years. You went hunting with your family. You went to shooting ranges. And after all that practice, you got really good. In the Fall, when you see that  8 point buck , you get him on the first shot.

Meditation is just a skill like making biscuits or shooting a gun. It’s just a skill. We learn how to do it by practicing. In the beginning we’re lousy at it so we practice. Eventually we get really good at it. I’ve been meditating about 40 years so I’m pretty good at it.

Meditation is a tool. Nobody has to meditate. But it’s a way to see beyond our everyday thoughts. It’s a tool that helps us stop focussing on our thoughts and see something new.  We see a space that is not thought at all.

Let’s think about our gardens. We love to garden.  We start reading seed catalogs in January when it’s thirty below! We make plans and buy seeds. In May we plant. And then we watch. But the weeds come and the hail and the bugs and the deer. It freezes in June. Last year I planted dozens of hollyhocks. Last week the deer ate the tops off all of them.

Our lives are exactly like our gardens.  We make our plans. “I’ll get a degree in Engineering.”  “I’ll marry someone I love.” “My children will be smart and happy.”   There’s nothing wrong with that at all except that real life happens instead.  “Life is what happens when we’re making other plans.” Right?

The important thing is to see that both the plans and the obstacles are just thoughts.  There’s nothing wrong with that except that our thoughts are always small and limited because they come out of our egos.

Let’s stand in our gardens again. Under our feet is what supports it all. The soil. The earth. Everything in the garden comes out of the soil.  The soil is the source of everything. The soil is like God. The soil is like Divine Love.The soil is neither the good things nor the bad things—it’s much bigger than that.  It is the base, the source of all existence. The soil holds all possibility. It carries potential—all the things we did NOT think of, all the things we simply cannot imagine.

What’s possible? Maybe there’s  a whole apple orchard that can feed everyone in town—Never thought of that! Maybe there’s an oil well—Never thought of that!  The real fruit of the soil is transformation itself.  It is the growth from God, transformation so astonishing that we absolutely cannot imagine it.  

Learning the skill of meditation, practicing meditating again and again makes it easier to focus on the soil instead of obsessing about our thoughts. So this is my answer to Barb R.: When I meditate, it’s easier for me to hear what God wants instead of what I want.  But meditation is a skill. It’s like making biscuits or shooting a gun. You have to practice.

I started teaching meditation here at the church about two or three years ago.  Karen L. was in one of the first classes I taught. Most of you knew Karen. She was not at all an airy-fairy hippie type. She loved this church and she was a Protestant through and through.  But about two weeks after the first meditation class, she got a very tough diagnosis, a terminal diagnosis. Even then, even in the beginning of her illness, she had started using the meditation breathing techniques, and she said they really helped her. A year or two later, in the time just before she died, she had some bad falls.  But she would just shrug and say, “Well, yes, I was down on the ground for a while but I could just do my meditation.” Wow. It really worked for her. I was so grateful that it helped her.

Some of the fruits from the garden soil are easy and beautiful.  And some are very very hard.

Let’s start with easy: Imagine you’re paddling out in the Boundary Waters.  It’s windy and a little rough and you’re paddling along the shore. You’re paddling hard.  You can’t see what’s up ahead. You keep going and there’s a rocky point. You paddle hard to get around that point.  Finally you make it around. You look up and goose bumps rise all over your body. The water here is flat. The sun gleams. It is impossibly beautiful. This is real and it’s perfect. We feel utter joy.  Utter peace.

We created space by going out into the wilderness… and God filled it.  Our deep hearts know God in the beauty of that moment. Meditation is a way to paddle out into the wilderness. Meditation makes these moments come more easily.

What about when you hold a new baby? That deep sense of peace, that profound love.  

What about if you go to Normandy and there’s a cemetery with thousands of white crosses. Tears come to your eyes. You choke up and get goose bumps.  You see the enormity of the sacrifice, the truth that every one of those young men died to stop the Nazis.

These are easy, wonderful moments when we know God is real. But sometimes there’s heavier lifting. It still comes out of the soil but it’s just much harder.

Here is a very personal story about me.  When I was 23, I had been married about 2 years and I got pregnant by surprise.  I had used an IUD that was later recalled. About 6 or 7 months into my pregnancy, I got very sick. When I went into labor and went into the hospital, they said the infection was so bad that  the hospital took away my clothes and burned them. The doctor had me sign the papers for a hysterectomy because they believed that was the only way to save my life. I was only 23. My little boy was born too early. In those days there were no NICUs. 26 or 27 week babies did not usually survive. My little guy lived one day in an incubator and then died.  I never held him. I was too sick to go to his funeral. It was a terrible, terrible experience. But it turned out that I didn’t die and I did not need a hysterectomy.

Life goes on. Day follows day. Two years later I had a gorgeous baby girl.  She was born with black hair this long. Later I had two more gorgeous healthy babies.  Beyond that, the terrible experience of losing my baby was exactly what put me on the spiritual path all those years ago.

The empty garden soil holds the things we cannot possibly imagine.  I am sorry my little guy died. But I am so grateful for the fruit that God brought out of that soil. I surely didn’t do it. It was way beyond anything I could imagine.

Think of this:  On the day Jesus was killed, no one could imagine past that Friday.  At first they thought he would win, be the king… and then instead he was killed. They didn’t know the end of the story. They had no idea Easter was possible. Sunday came. Resurrection was real… but it was completely different than anything they had ever imagined.

One of our hardest challenges is forgiveness. How do we forgive the really terrible things? It’s written right here on the communion table:  “Love one another as I have loved you.” Today’s scripture says, “Love your neighbor and pray for your enemies.” But how? This is really heavy lifting.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells the story of a woman named Kia Scherr. While her husband and her 13-year-old daughter were visiting India, they were eating lunch in a restaurant, and terrorists shot and killed them. After the attack, one lone terrorist survived. Here’s what Kia says:   

As I looked at this man’s photo on the television screen I knew what I had to do.  The words of Jesus Christ came to me: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ I wasn’t a religious person, but those were the words I heard. I turned to my family and said, ‘We must forgive them.’ Everyone was shocked. They thought I had lost my mind.  But at that moment, I just said what I knew to be true. I felt a ray of peace enter my heart….I knew that forgiveness was essential so I forgave. I knew that to respond with love to an act of terrorism was the only way to triumph over terrorism.  

Kia says that she had to accept the reality of the incident because it could not be changed. And she also says that her acceptance and forgiveness did NOT mean that justice could not be served.  The young man, the terrorist, was hanged by the Indian government. But we’re talking about the miracle in Kia’s heart. We are talking about how God filled the terrible space in her heart—the fruit far beyond anything she could imagine.

One more story … about World War II. The Ravensbruck concentration camp was the largest camp for women in the Nazi system. 92,000 women and children died there. D-Day was June 6th, 1944. Think of the cemeteries at Normandy– all those soldiers fighting their way across Europe and finally getting to the camps and freeing the prisoners. It took 10 months after D-Day for the Allied soldiers to finally make it to Ravensbruck camp. On April 30, 1945, the Allied soldiers liberated Ravensbruck. Lying on the ground next to a child’s body, the soldiers found a piece of wrapping paper.  Somehow a prisoner had scrawled a prayer on that scrap of paper. Here is that prayer:

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will

but also those of evil will.

But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us;

remember the fruits we have borne thanks to this suffering—

our comradeship,

our loyalty,

our humility,

our courage,

our generosity,

the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this;

and when they come to the judgement,

let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.

Amen.

In your bulletins  is a prayer by Thomas Merton. Please pray along with me:

My Lord God,

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think I am following your will

does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you

does in fact please you.

And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though

I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me,

and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen.

[This is a sermon I gave on on July 15th, 2018, at the Presbyterian Church]

 

Christmas vs. Easter

Christmas comes as the darkness grows. Easter comes after the darkness is complete. At Christmas, we light candles in the blackness. At Easter the worst has happened. The blackness has won.

At Christmas we try to protect ourselves as blackness comes near. We strain to see any flicker of light. We hold a baby and dream of the future. But at Easter we admit our despair. Did the baby even matter? It’s over. There’s nothing left to hope for—The body is already cool.

This isn’t about religion, although people think it is. Think instead of a paddler in the wilderness. He’s a bit lost and he paddles hard. Storms come and go. He finds his way along rivers, portages through thick forest, discovers lake after lake and then gets lost again. He never knows the end. One day, he’s paddling along a rocky shoreline. There’s a point up ahead, but he can’t quite make it out. Working hard, he pulls close enough to see. Finally he can make out that it’s a point, a rocky point. There’s a corner to turn. The wind pushes at the canoe, and he has to paddle hard. His arms ache, but he’s got grit. He keeps going. Finally he makes it around the corner and gasps. Goosebumps ripple down his arms. Awe. Wonder. Mystery. It takes his breath away. This lake is flat and brilliant and easy. He’s never seen such light. And it has no end. It’s easy and it has no end.

Thirty-four years ago on Easter weekend, I was holding a baby. I was trying again. I had a new life after crawling out of the shame of my divorce and the griefs of my baby’s death and my husband’s alcoholism. For me, this laughing, easy-tempered, pretty baby proved rebirth. As mothers do, I had fallen deeply in love with her. She had a fairy-like quality, a magical way of moving softly through the days. My older girl had a sister, a family. And my husband’s surprise and wonder was holy. He loved my older daughter but had never held a baby of his own. When he held this little girl, you could feel his shock and joy at such tenderness. He had never imagined such love.

On that same Easter weekend, my little nephew died from neuroblastoma. None of us will ever forget the sound of my brother’s voice that day. A few days later, when everyone else went to the funeral, I chose to stay home.

What was real to me was Easter. It’s not that I wanted to avoid the pain of my nephew’s death. I had had a baby die. I knew that the light can disappear completely. Darkness sometimes wins.

But even after total defeat, after irreversible destruction, something happens that makes no sense at all.

On that Easter weekend, I held joy in my arms. This wasn’t Christmas. It wasn’t about the darkness that might come. This was Easter. This was after the darkness had won—And that was the whole point.

There are times when we have howled until we are empty.  We cannot cry harder or louder or longer—And still it isn’t enough. Nothing is enough. Then there is a quiet that comes. It’s a kind of peace, but you can’t call it easy because getting there is the most brutal road in all human experience. Yet finally we come to the silent place, the emptiness. It’s a terrible openness in which everything is possible.

Even though it makes no sense at all, there is something beyond the rocky point. The paddler turns the corner. My nephew let go of this body to open into the wonder.

I am not talking about heaven here. This is about a reality, a dimension, a quality of awareness that underlies everything we think is real life. It’s a veil, a sheer curtain, a wisp of breath right under our noses.

In the winter, a seed has no choice but to lie in the blackness deep under the ice. A caterpillar knits its chrysalis without hope. It has no idea how to make wings.

I can’t out-think this mystery. I have no choice but the next step, even though I have no idea what the next step is. I do not know the deep magic because thoughts and beliefs distract me. I worry, hope and fret. I do not trust what I cannot imagine.

The mystery requires utter blackness. Thinking doesn’t work. We cannot plan or understand. There has to be the release of giving up because that’s when we finally relax.

That’s when the deepest magic, the power, the tenderness can take us over, knowing us better than we know ourselves. It shatters the seed’s shell by trusting the softness of a seedling’s leaves. It tears the chrysalis open by loving the joy colors of wings.

On Easter, we raise our heads from the ground. We look up because we hear something, a wisp of song. We cannot know what it is. We do not understand. It makes no sense. But it is good.


Here’s the best book I have seen on death.

On Life after Death, by Elizabeth Kubler Ross.

This tiny book packs a huge wallop. I’ve read it many times and given it to dozens of friends. Kubler Ross was the world-famous psychologist who developed the famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Her speciality was dying children.  But late in her life, she realized through many experiences that death does not exist. She says, “My real job is… to tell people that death does not exist….You don’t have to do anything but learn to get in touch, in silence, within yourself. Get in touch with your own inner self and learn not to be afraid. One way not to be afraid is to know that death does not exist, that everything in this life has a positive purpose.

What Women Know

Every evening, a nurse’s aide helps the old man eat. She knows that he cries because they’ve put him in diapers. On morning rounds, a surgeon checks the patient’s incision but knows nothing of his shame and despair. The aide is a woman; the doctor is a man.

A minister stands at the front of the church preaching about how to love. His wife sits in the back with a woman in a wheelchair. The older woman leans against the young wife, clutching her hand and talking about the son she hasn’t seen in ten years. Who has touched the parishioner with more caring—the minister or his wife?

Throughout the centuries, no matter what the ministers, priests and imams said in their sermons, it was women who spent hours of every day washing the weak and wiping away their tears.

It’s a cliché to say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But it’s true—as long as you survive the struggle. Because women had so little power in past centuries, they’ve been forced to learn some terrible and wonderful lessons.

Women know comforting. They’ve washed skinned knees and held feverish children through the night. They’ve encouraged and comforted each other in labor, and they’ve held sobbing sisters when a baby is lost. They’ve tended ill and dying men who barely spoke to them. And they’ve done it for years on end.

Women know intimacy. They know about bleeding and loose stools. The nurse’s aide who washes the old man’s body knows that his fortune doesn’t matter because there are oozing sores on his hips and heels that never heal.

Women know about powerlessness. They know about kind sex and cruel sex. They know that babies come even after rape, and that miscarriages come even when you’ve prayed for a baby for years. They know that when two people have sex, only one ever pays the price—and it’s always the same one. A woman knows that if another man comes into the room, her husband may ignore her and mock any comment she makes, even though her new ideas excited him earlier. A woman knows that a younger, prettier woman may take her place, even as her husband gets jealous when she speaks to kind men at work.

Women know about intuition. Even when others call their ideas silly or illogical, women often trust their gut. They know only heart knowledge can explain some of life’s most important experiences. Because they believed they could not lead others, they were free to deeply know the experience of daily life. They learned to trust things that seemed unexplainable, that did not make sense. Women have learned to follow the inner voice that says “Don’t try to cross the river” or “Get him to the ER now, no matter what anyone says.”

Finally, women know to cherish the shimmering flashes when God appears—a bee sleeping in a hollyhock, the touch of a sick child’s fingertip, the utter peace of a cooling body. They know they can’t command joy, but they trust the surprise of God’s caress.

It’s not that men cannot know these things. It’s that society herds them down chutes that lead to leadership positions—even though those positions force distance between the leader and the flock. Society forces men to compete in every interaction, making friendship and kindness dangerous.

Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed all taught the same truths:

  • God loves the small and weak.
  • God speaks to the heart, not the mind.
  • Love and kindness matter more than anything.

And this is exactly why women matter so much in ministry. We know comforting, intimacy, powerlessness and intuition because it’s the stuff of our lives. It’s what we have practiced for centuries.

It’s no coincidence that the first person to see Jesus after He rose was a woman. His outer form had changed. The words “alive” and “dead” no longer made sense—None of it made any sense. But Mary Magdalene accepted the shining new reality.

Women know the truths that matter. And that’s why we must offer ourselves in service to the world. Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed have spoken. To us, their words make sense. Serving them, we reach out now to comfort and lead. Our work is to create a new world.

 

By Jean Gendreau

Getting to Joy

Last week a song made me cry. It threw me backwards into the thick sadness of 25 years ago. I had forgotten how bad that time was. Thank God I had forgotten.

The theme was from a dinosaur movie that I watched with my little girls. In the movie, the young dinos get separated from their families. As they search for the big herd, all they have is each other.

Don’t lose your way
With each passing day
You’ve come so far
Don’t throw it away.

People try so hard. At that time, my second marriage was crashing. My dream of happiness seemed impossible. I felt I had tried, but it seemed happiness simply could never happen for me. Maybe for others, but not for me.

Live believing
Dreams are for weaving
Wonders are waiting to start
Live your story
Faith, hope and glory
Hold to the truth in your heart.

Here’s what’s wonderful: What I know today is that happiness is possible. We can find our wholeness. Healing takes time, but it is possible.

How amazing. I had forgotten how bad it had been. I didn’t even remember how much I used to hurt.

To heal, to find happiness, I had to discover four things:

1. Respect

I had to strip away the “pretends” and see the real child I had been—and I had to respect that child for enduring in harsh surroundings. Mind you, it’s not that my life was worse than everyone else’s. It’s that as children we all endure pain that no one else sees. I had to respect the child in me and be honest about my own confusion and sadness. I did this in therapy. It’s what I needed.

And then, of course, I had to respect the same thing in others. In the end, we are all just walking each other home.

2. Tenderness

I had to accept tenderness for myself. This is hard because all of us feel shame over who we have been. Some of us say, “Stop whining.” Sure, stop it, don’t whine your whole adult life. But first, learn how to be tender to yourself. Tell the truth. Name the hurts. I had to touch my child self, my teenage self and my adult woman self with true kindness. This means throwing shame in the garbage. We all heard, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”  Many of us heard, “We are ashamed of you.” It’s time to stop the pain. We have punished and re-punished ourselves enough. The only thing we deserve now is tenderness, and I had to learn how to accept it.

And then, of course, I had to offer tenderness to others. In the end, all we have is each other.

Souls in the wind
Must learn how to bend,
Seek out a star,
Hold on to the end.

3. Courage

Healing takes work. It’s hard to expose ancient pain, and others often enjoy watching your struggles. They love to point their fingers and say, “Boy, does he have problems” or “I’m sure glad I’m not as screwed up as she is.”  Ignore them. Walk on. Everyone needs healing and therapy—everyone. Your only job is you. Keep your eyes on hope. It takes huge courage to tell the truth to yourself and to believe that you can heal, that things can change. Believe me: You can learn to be whole and happy.

And when you know it for yourself, it’s easy to see it for others too.

Valley, mountain
There is a fountain
Washes our tears all away
Words are swaying
Someone is praying
Please let us come home to stay.

4. Reverence

As you heal, you become holy beauty. You finally see yourself as an amazing, glowing thing. A star. A light. A tender, courageous, honorable warrior who has fought through it and come out the other side. And when you see it in yourself, you see it in the others around you.

The Divine hopes for your joy. Heaven pours out healing. Hope and wholeness seep into us and through us until finally, as we shine, we pour out our light for others.

Don’t lose your way
With each passing day
You’ve come so far
Don’t throw it away
Live believing
Dreams are for weaving
Wonders are waiting to start.

The song still brings tears to my eyes. I want to reach out to the younger me, look into her eyes and tell her that she’ll make it through.

Believe me. It’s possible. Hold on to the end. I made it through, and so can you. My life isn’t perfect but it is good, very good.

Happiness. Wholeness. Home. Just keep going. Keep trying. Wonders really are waiting to start. 


Here’s a video of the song

….and here are all the words.

Don’t lose your way
With each passing day
You’ve come so far
Don’t throw it away
Live believing
Dreams are for weaving
Wonders are waiting to start
Live your story
Faith, hope and glory
Hold to the truth in your heart

If we hold on together
I know our dreams will never die
Dreams see us through to forever
Where clouds roll by
For you and I

Souls in the wind
Must learn how to bend
Seek out a star
Hold on to the end
Valley, mountain
There is a fountain
Washes our tears all away
Words are swaying
Someone is praying
Please let us come home to stay

If we hold on together
I know our dreams will never die
Dreams see us through to forever
Where clouds roll by
For you and I

When we are out there in the dark
We’ll dream about the sun
In the dark we’ll feel the light
Warm our hearts, everyone

If we hold on together
I know our dreams will never die
Dreams see us through to forever
As high as souls can fly
The clouds roll by
For you and I

 

Wilderness Love

As Mom came around the corner and saw it, she gasped, stumbled against me and started to cry.  “There are no words,” she said. “No words.” Touching that beauty, knowing it was real made her weep. It was the Taj Mahal. We had pushed our way through Agra’s appalling tourist bazaars, paid rupees for our tickets and stepped around the corner to see this. My eighty-year-old mother’s tears made it a holy moment. 

The wilderness where I live is like the Taj Mahal. It’s so magical, so enchanting that when people here describe a campfire or a misty dawn, they often choke up. When I first moved to the north woods, this surprised me, but now I expect it. People’s eyes change. Their voices get husky. “It’s the place where I see God,” a big man tells me. “It’s my church.”

Ten years after we visited the Taj Mahal, Mom died. Dad had died just a few months before, and she went from diagnosis to death in about 20 days. And then, a few weeks later, my ex-husband’s body was found. For me even meditation and church couldn’t touch the edges of this grief. It seemed hundreds of miles across with no roads through. I couldn’t grasp where the pain started and stopped.

We decided to paddle out into the wilderness. There were long days of paddling on rivers and lakes with only the sky for company. The lakes led one into another, day after day, and we camped on rocky islands with only red squirrels and grey jays to talk to. It felt like the rivers, lakes and trees had no beginning or ending. The trees rose high around us and the water shone. 

The sky never faltered. As I paddled, the sky wrapped itself over me, over all of it. Finally I felt I could almost breathe. It’s not that the deaths were okay. It’s that awe and silence became common for me. Every day the massive presence of shining water and kind trees held me with a power so huge that even a grief as terrible as mine could soak into the earth like rain.

We live next to that wilderness in a house in the woods on a hill. At night, it’s mostly silent. The  lake across the road opens into a million acres of lakes, islands and forest without roads or people. Right now, it’s -26 F here, but every day in the summer, campers paddle by on their way into the silence.

Now, in February when it’s often -20 or -30 F at night, all we hear is one car spinning its wheels on the icy hill. Our neighborhood follows a one-lane dirt road through the woods, and only two other houses have fires going and lights on. Sometimes packs of coyotes wake us, yipping as they run by. Every now and then we hear wolves. But living here we see how wrong the fairy tales are. The wolves melt in and out of the woods like ghosts, avoiding people. To see one trotting down the road feels like a blessing because they vanish like a dream.

Sometimes we hear a logging truck on the highway a mile away. There is no traffic at all. Sirens are so rare that everyone stops talking and looks around because it can only be for a neighbor or for someone lost in the wilderness.

I moved here from a big university town. I needed to rest and leave behind the scandals and the competition. Mostly I needed to see if I could ever have a happy relationship. So I came here with a man to try it out.

Only a few people move here to stay. After all, there’s a massive filter. In the city, people come to get training, degrees and great jobs. The pay is so good that they ignore the traffic and cement. But Ely is a small town far from everything. No one moves here for ambition. People move here to get close to the wilderness—which pays little.

There are locals here who have stayed, but they stay for tradition and family. There used to be mines here that paid well, and there are still a few. But iron mining has changed, and without that security, families struggle.

People here know how to stay warm. They form book groups, go fishing together, ski on the lakes, practice yoga, play music, paint, quilt and write. They meet for breakfasts and dinners. The place is crowded with brilliant, gifted people. Among the people who came here from outside, I know a music therapist who sells canoes, a psychologist who preaches every few weeks and a veteran union organizer who can catch walleyes while he’s sleeping. Among the locals, I know a quiet stay-at-home mom who writes brilliant blogs, a crack mechanic who can resurrect a truck with 200,000 miles on it and a nurse who can sweetly change the mind of the most arrogant doctor.

People here have the time to be friends. My church is small but warm. When I walk in the door, people smile and call my name. The young Presbyterian pastor guides by listening and encouraging. In city churches, there are semi-pro musicians who sing and play. Here we have a few, but mostly in the choir we have the fun of just singing together, joining together. We can’t be ambitious, but we can sing together, week after week, for fun and beauty.

I came to the woods to become. I’ve learned how to trust and how to have fun. Of course I miss the city, especially the thrilling array of people, cultures and food. But maybe I’ve unlearned the worst of my city lessons. There is no race to be won.

The wilderness surrounds us. The silence holds us all.

Mom came here once just before she died, and she loved it. It was right after Dad’s death. She didn’t know yet how sick she was. Mom could always sense enchantment. She often lost herself in the moment. The Taj Mahal made her cry because it holds the same untouchable essence as a thunderstorm.

When she visited that summer, every day she lay for hours on our sun porch. When she came in, her eyes had changed. “Did you sleep, Mom?” I’d ask. She shrugged. “I don’t know. I couldn’t really tell if I was asleep or awake.” She shook her head in wonder. “The sky here…The trees….There’s just something about these woods.”  

by Jean Gendreau

 

Deep Winter

As I drive, snow stretches from the road across an open space to dense balsams. Beyond the road’s grey crust, strong white spreads across bogs, hillocks, rocks and little frozen creeks to the black-green woods. Nothing moves.

The shadows in the dark balsam boughs look deep enough to lose a family. From tree to tree, branches make a cruel thicket that scratches your face and cuts your arms, and the rocks under the snow trip you.

This isn’t an easy forest where Hansel and Gretel could wander. Evergreens and bushes push back hard. Everyone here knows stories of veteran hikers who got lost a few feet off the trail. People have to know what they’re doing. There are men and women here who know how to live far off the electric grid, who hike miles alone with no GPS and paddle canoes miles into the wilderness.

Even close to town, the road is empty. Northerners have been driving in snow since they were young, and there’s often snow six months of the year. In the city when a snowstorm hits, you wonder if the car next to you will be able to stop. Here you wonder if there’s hidden ice on a curve and how long it would take a tow truck to arrive.

Ahead on the right, big black birds bend and hop by a carcass at the side of the road. It’s a fresh kill, a young deer’s body next to tire tracks that run off the road where the car hit him. As I draw close, a bald eagle tugs the deer’s flesh while the ravens stand in a circle, coming as close as they dare. Further ahead, a snowmobile’s headlight shines as it crosses an open spot.

In deep winter we wake up to darkness in a cold house. I smell coffee while I build a morning fire. The forecasters were off by quite a bit—It’s -20 F and windy. The huge moon feels low enough to bend the trees. At night, pine martens often steal suet from the feeders, but the chickadees, woodpeckers, snowshoe hares and deer won’t come looking for food until it’s light.

All night long we heard the wind. This morning the house is at 52 degrees. The fire’s hot, and by the time I finish meditating, the sky is a light lavender blue.

This morning I have cookies and bread to bake. The butter’s been on the countertop all night but the house is so chilly that I have to warm the butter to cream it. The bread can rise on the warm stovetop while the cookies bake.

I smell the brown sugar, butter and vanilla. Around me there’s the breath of magic. This moment in this kitchen holds my whole life, hundreds of times in many places but always this silence and joy. I’m making noodles and white sauce as a young girl in the fifties, holding my little girl while she learns to stir a pan on the stove, watching my grandmother separate eggs for angel food cake, making pie crust with my grandson, rolling out the dough for naan while my Indian husband smokes as he watches.

Time pauses. A holy moment. God draws in a breath and never lets go. I touch home, and God breathes out forever.

I found charms in these woods. Enchantment. A raven bigger than a cat watches me from the maple next to the house. It’s so cold that the snow is crunchy. My partner comes in with a big basket of kindling he split. He laughs that the wood’s so cold that it just pops apart when he taps it with the axe. He put hay on the snow this morning. A buck bends to eat and then lifts his head. Behind him are two does and some yearlings, their faces and backs white with frost. The buck watches the house, his elaborate antlers brown against the black-green woods, like the old drawings of stags in medieval England. I think of enchantment, of men and women dancing by a fire in the greenwood, of the wild hunt.  

There’s a presence here. When the wind is high, snow beats the windows like a quick drum and the aspens’ high bare boughs bend like wild hips. But usually nothing moves. The silence stands immense and solemn, offering peace and power so huge and ancient that I smile like a child.

Late in the afternoon I stand by the window playing the violin. Three deer lift their heads and look toward me. In the wood stove, a big log flares up, and I start another scale. The room smells of wood fire and fish. My partner is cooking dinner. Darkness falls and the cold closes in. For me, the enchantments in these woods are real, and this night is kind and deep.

The Song I Hear

Wake up and listen. There are sounds you’ve been taught not to hear: Joy is as real as despair. Love is as real as loneliness. So-called life lessons are often lies.

At birth we slip into confusion. As infants we can only learn what surrounds us, and many baby lessons are harsh. My mother’s depressed face says, “You only get hugs when I can handle it.” My father’s angry face says, “Don’t be a sissy. Boys should never cry.” Like tiny puppets, we start performing. We don’t even know words yet, but we’ve already learned cruel things.

A few lessons are lovely. My mother felt the ecstasy of a thunderstorm. She’d run out into the storm laughing when other mothers were pulling the shutters closed. Nature was her bliss.

As tiny children, we sense what’s true but don’t know the words. We sense that “Grandma wants to cry.” But then a grownup tells us, “Grandma likes sitting alone” and we adjust to the untrue grownup version. We see the little girl next door dancing on the porch, and we laugh and clap our hands. But a grownup says, “You see that? They don’t know how to work. It’s just the way they are—lazy.” It’s two lessons in one: how to judge others and how to shut out joy.

Mind you, we have no choice. Little children must get along. Tiny people need to fit in because they need food, shelter and protection. They comply because they have no choice. And certainly the adults around them are not being cruel on purpose. They’re doing their best to protect the child, teaching the old ways, the so-called safe ways. A father who whips his little boy for putting on lipstick and perfume wants his son to be safe from bullies and from society’s ridicule. It never occurs to him that maybe showing femininity is okay—because he got this same whipping when he was a four year old.

There are sounds you’ve been taught not to hear. There are sights you’ve been taught not to see.

One morning when I’m playing in the yard, there’s a sound, an undeniable touch, something that makes me gasp in wonder and laugh at pure beauty, joy that overwhelms me and gives me goosebumps. But Dad shakes his head. His eyes are sad. “Nothing like that is real, sweetheart. It’s just pretend. You’ll have to grow up someday.”

As a teenager paddling on a river early one morning, I see stunning light in the sky and shivers go through me. I’ve touched something true and I know it. But when I try to tell my friends about it, there’s contempt in their eyes.

I get older, and painful things happen. My boyfriend dumps me, and I label love as hurtful. My career goes sour; I want to help others but the system twists my work into boring, useless hours that hurt me and help no one.

I try to protect myself, curling my arms over my head, bending over, whispering to myself, “That was bad. That hurt.” I lower my hopes as far as I can. “If I expect less, it’ll hurt less. That’s a safe truth.” I turn bitter. “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” “If I hide who I am, life can’t hurt me anymore.“ “I’ll never believe in anything again.” “I’m safe now.”

We learn to limit what we see and hear, and as we get older, we sense less and less. Like babies who grew up hearing the language of pain, we speak pain. The dawn could be breaking and we would say, “That’s not light because last night was dark.”

Right now there are sounds you cannot hear, no matter how hard you try.  All of us hear only what society thinks is important—Power, prestige, life story, shame, guilt. It happens to everyone.

Even when I think I am listening as hard as I can, I simply cannot hear the other sounds. I want you to know that this can change. It’s possible to learn to hear joy. It’s just like learning a language you’ve never heard.

In college, I learned the Hindi language. While English has one “t” sound, Hindi has four. And there’s more—Hindi has at least twelve other consonants that simply do not exist in English. No matter how gifted a student I am, no matter how carefully I listen, I cannot hear these sounds. Sitting in the college language lab, trying as hard as I could, all I could hear was the one English “t.”  Trying harder did not help. It took me months of listening and learning to be able to hear all four Hindi “t”s.

When joy sings, I miss it because no one taught me that language. I need to ask myself what sounds made up my family’s language? What sights did my culture say were real? We learn to hear despair instead of joy and judgment instead of love.

There is a song that sings all life. There is light that shines in every prison. There is touch that holds us close in the night. Joy is as real as despair. Love is as real as loneliness.

But I have to believe it is possible. I must loosen my consciousness and reach for it. I have to choose to hope and then act on it in some way.

One way is to meditate. Another is to spend long, silent days in nature. Another is to work among the addicted, poor and dying.

I can start now, sitting by a window, sitting in silence. Just breathing. Letting go of the safety and smartness. Letting go of mind chatter. Opening to the maybe.

Trying to be safe from pain doesn’t work. When I only believe the negative, what I’m really doing is making my prison bars thicker. Instead, somehow I must say, “It’s possible….”  It’s possible that joy is as strong as despair. It’s possible that love is as strong as loneliness.

It is possible that there are sounds all around me that I have never heard. When I let go of what I think is true—that my despair is too strong to overcome, that I’m alone and so are you, that my life story means I will always be unhappy—my chains start to melt.

It’s not what the world does to me. It’s what sounds I choose to hear and make real.

Here’s the real song:

Awe, beauty, love and light are real.

None of us is ever alone. The holy awareness holds me and you and every part of existence in its arms all the time. Every breath. Every instant. I can trust this. I can rest in it.

The divine awareness sings me a sacred song, a lullaby, a tender dance that never ends. It’s a sound that’s always there, a light that never fades, a touch that never lets go. It is the scent of water in a drought.

I let the sky hold me. Dawn’s silence turns out to be louder than all despair and loneliness. Joy thrums around me, and the wind chants love. Once I hear it, all I can do is sing along.

You have to be willing to listen in a new way, in a way that society rejects.

Take my hand. Dance with me. Morning is calling out a wild tune. The melody is love, joy and kindness, and the beat is my heart and yours. There’s only the song.  This is forever. This is now.