A Prayer for the Election

 

Here’s a meditation or prayer for the next few days: We hold a vision of light that shines brighter than fear, accusations or bitterness. It is possible that Wednesday morning will be good beyond any meaning of win or lose. Even though we don’t know exactly how it will happen, we want to leave hatred behind. We show hope by voting and by believing that good change is possible. New light can come to every one of us and to the world.

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

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

 

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.

 

 

 

A Tale of the Ghost of Christmas Past

“Come with me, my child.”

I glare at the shining spirit. “I’m old—not really a child any more.”

It shakes its gleaming head. “Just a figure of speech, my… er… friend. Come. We have things to see. Take my hand.”

I reach out and take its hand, but I’m shaking. Even a radiant spirit can be damned startling.

Everything around us melts. We seem to be flying low over a snowy landscape. There’s a city with bright lights. As we float to a stop, I gasp.

“But this is my old house, where I lived when I was five!”

The spirit lifts its ghostly arms and we pass through the walls into a living room. There’s a Christmas tree and a piano. And there I am, small me, coloring a picture. My mother is staring into the fire, and my father is watching football. My little brother is leaning against Mom’s side, and my grandmother’s lips are pressed into an angry line as she knits a sock.

I sigh. “I was very alone. Do you see how alone I was?”

It sounds strange but I can feel the spirit’s warmth reaching around me like an arm. “Yes,” it says. “That’s what you felt and it was real.”

“It wasn’t fair. My childhood should have been better.” I stick out my lower lip just a little bit.

“No doubt of that, my child… er… friend.”

“It’s why I’m angry sometimes.”

“I see. Yes. But of course, you’re not really that child any more.”

“Well, I am. My inner child is still there.”

Its laughter makes an odd echo, like a dolphin thumping its tail in a huge underwater cave. “Your inner child is a divine being, yes, and is eternal, a part of heaven to be sure. But…”

“What do you mean ‘but’? I got hurt!”

“But you’re an adult now. You’ve lived a bit of life. In fact you’ve lived a lot of life, and you know what happens in real life.”

I think it’s trapping me somehow, but I don’t see how, so I say nothing.

“Why do you think your mother is staring into the fire?” it says.

“Isn’t it obvious? She’d rather be in her thoughts than pay attention to me.”

“Ah. That’s what the child saw and felt. Try something else now—We’re both spirits here, and you’re a wise ghost. Try looking again, using your adult eyes. What do you know now about your mother’s life at that time?”

“Well… the marriage was bad. I know that. They never divorced but my dad had girlfriends. We found out after he died.”

The spirit nods. “Go on…”

I want to argue. “But look—Why is she cuddling with my brother? I was right there! I needed love too.”

“And what did you find out as an adult about your brother?”

“Oh… yeah. Well, none of us knew that he was sick yet. That came later.”

“You think your mom didn’t suspect anything? With the bruises and the nosebleeds?”

The lump in my throat makes it hard for me to talk. “Okay, but what about me? I mean, I get that my brother got sick later. But just because Mom’s life was hard doesn’t mean I didn’t deserve love.”

The spirit’s smile was incredibly sweet. “Of course not. Not at all. But your parents were real people, not storybook characters, not super heroes. Why do you think your dad had girlfriends?”

“Well, how should I know?”

“Let’s go back farther.” It wraps its cloak around me and we fly again, over the country, over the ocean itself. We finally stop in a small village in Scotland. The huge pit head of a mine looms nearby.

“Scotland? Wow… Is this where my grandfather grew up?”

“It is.”

A man stands in the glow of a doorway and pulls a woman to him.

“Hey, that’s my grandfather. But wait—That’s not my grandmother! What’s this about? Granddad had other women?”

“He did. It’s just how they did things in that family and in that time. Marriage was a business arrangement really.”

“But my grandmother was so sweet. It wasn’t fair!”

“What do you know now that you did not know as a child?”

“Ah.” I sigh. “My father had girlfriends just as his father had done. But my grandmother was lonely.”

“And?”

“…And that’s why she was so hard on us all. And her constant criticism made it harder for my mother to bear, especially when she was already so sad herself.”

I watch as my grandfather trudges home, pushes open the door and sets some coins on the table. My grandmother picks them up and puts them in a jar on the mantle.

“All right. Take me back to my own family, would you?”

The snow tickles my cheeks as we swirl back through time and come to rest in the somber living room.

“I see it now,” I say.

Its voice is very deep. “What is it that you see, dear one?”

“I see that they were doing the best they could….Yes, I was lonely. But there were things going on that I could never understand as a little child.”

“And now?”

“I see that it wasn’t that they didn’t love me, and it wasn’t that I didn’t deserve love. But life just happens, and people get hurt. Maybe they wanted to love me and didn’t know how. Maybe it was just the best they could manage.”

“Can you forgive them?”

I sigh again. “Yes… maybe. But why should I?”

Somewhere a bell chimes three times. “Because opening to love really matters. Because getting wiser always means getting kinder.” 

A kiss brushes my cheek. “Because your healing makes the world whole. That’s the lesson. That’s the essence of it all. Nothing else matters. Forgiving them heals you—and what heals you also heals the world. Opening to all love is the divine essence. In the end, all we have is each other.”

Overhead I hear the sound of wings, and the spirit’s voice melts away. “That’s all there is. That’s what’s holy. That’s the light in the darkness.” 

 

The Christmas Seed

It is dark and getting darker. Under the snow is bitter ice, and under that, brown earth. I remember standing by a grave 45 years ago—my baby boy’s grave. I had been in the hospital about a week, too sick to be there when they buried him. It was February in Wisconsin.

What came to me as I stood in the cemetery was that brown earth does well against the ice. Years later I know without a doubt that it’s true.

Yes, things end. Relationships end, jobs end, lives end. What I thought would work failed, and my mistakes could fill a warehouse.

But mother earth holds her own against the ice. A fallow field can overwhelm every dream of disaster.

Tonight the woods are growing darker, and I rest in the utter silence. I surrender. I give up what I thought I knew. The silence grows.

There is a magic deeper than time, stronger than any word or thought. None of my thoughts work in this quiet—none of my regrets, none of my plans. All I can do is surrender.  The earth’s safety deep under the ice holds me.

It turns out that I am a seed. I never knew it. The woods around me knew, but I didn’t. The leaves fell, the lakes froze. All the flower stalks bent and dropped their seed pods. The bears went to sleep.

I thought I was separate, but I was wrong again. I thought I knew what was happening, but I did not.

The Mystery that sings the darkness is a holy thing. I cannot understand, but I can trust it. There’s no point in planning or analyzing. If I try to grab it, it melts.

My shell softens as I wait. In the darkness, there’s a sense of Advent—not bright lights or trumpets, but the possibility of hope. There’s nothing to be seen yet. This is the longest night, after all.

Just as bulbs lie in the brown earth, I rest. There’s a sigh. Conception. Maybe. It comes out of nowhere, just a tickling touch. Grace. Just a breath.

A leaf falls from a tree into Oneness. A flower drops its seeds, trusting the brown earth.

Water turns to ice, proving Oneness. It knows that even as ice, it is water. It is always part of the whole. The only thing needed is a bit of warm light.

Years ago, as I looked at the grave’s fresh brown dirt, I was still whole—but my brain didn’t know it. I thought I was broken.

Even though the ice covers everything, the seed knows. Conception needs darkness and secrecy. Later there will be a stirring on the surface, but for now, the deep magic requires mystery. Oneness—love—holds me and you and my baby boy forever.

Tonight’s snow falls gently. I light my candle and wait. It’s just a few days now until the longest night. The seed knows that the light will come again.

—by Jean Gendreau


We will have a “Longest Night” service for people who feel quiet, thoughtful or sad at Christmas. The service will be in Ely, Minnesota, on December 21st, at the First Presbyterian Church at 6 pm. This will be a gentle, quiet, heart-energy service of love and remembrance. Everyone is welcome, whether or not you are Christian.
Starting on January 2nd at 5:30 pm, there will also be a free meditation class,  “Meditation: A Six-Week Journey” offered in Ely MN. All are welcome. To sign up click here.

 

A Healing Video for Advent

Here is a wonderful short teaching on Christmas in today’s bitter and difficult world. The teacher is James Finley, a psychotherapist who studied under Thomas Merton. What I love in this is that Finley himself had a truly horrific childhood and adolescence–and yet he has grown into peace. He can still tell the story in this video of trust and blessing. No matter what has happened, no matter how hopeless we feel, we can heal. To me, that is the healing and magic we all need today.

Finley says, “God is unexplainably born in our hearts moment by moment, breath by breath. In order to discover that, we must leave the noise and business of the inn, finding our way in the dark back to the stable. We have to enter into the humility, simplicity, patience, and delicate nature of what’s unfolding in our hearts to discover how God is being born in our lives. We are asked to bring this delicate simplicity out into the world.”

Click here to watch the video.