A Real Mother

It’s not conception, not pregnancy, not nursing, not even wiping snotty little noses. After all, dogs and cats give birth and lick their kittens and pups clean.

Real motherhood is a banner we raise for the young…real fatherhood too. Real motherhood is about dancing where the young can see us. My birth mother always ran outside to stand in thunderstorms, and she gave me that. But my music mother—who never bore any child—conducted her own sinfonia and gave me the passion of music itself. Real fatherhood means being consistent, strong and gentle. It means touching with kind hands, even though we have the strength to hit.

But it’s not male or female. This has nothing to do with what sex organs are between our legs.

What do caring adults mean to a child? Think back to being tiny.  Things don’t make sense. Grownups loom over us, cooking, feeding, driving, going away and coming back. They are powerful, and we are small. Some grownups—maybe even our mothers and fathers— hit us and tell us we’re worthless. But there are others—teachers at school, the man who sells bikes, our brownie troop leader—who look deep into our eyes and see us as we really are. They are big too and have wonderful power. They bind the hurt places and tell us the things no one else has said: “You are awesome just the way you are. You don’t deserve to be hit. Here’s a different way to dance. I am here for you.” Little people need safety and a big person who sees them as important.

Making sperm, getting pregnant and giving birth mean almost nothing. Instead, it’s the fidelity, the daily caring that tells true motherhood and fatherhood. My violin teacher nudged me through years of difficult technique practice. She loved a gorgeous tone. She used to lean close as I played, whispering “play, play!” When I played well, her highest praise was “not bad.” I had a Hindi teacher who praised me and always served up more challenges. In his class the fun was seeing what twisted little grammar assignment he would give me next. These were the people who were there for me, year after year. They raised me just as much as my birth parents, and every child needs such adults.

Often people talk about a child’s “real” mother or father as if giving birth or making someone pregnant—often by mistake—was a sacrament. A holy thing. That adult is then labeled as the “real” mother or father.  This is nonsense, and it is cruel.

Here’s what holy: My violin teacher welcoming me back as an adult. After a disastrous divorce I needed to find my true self again. With no comment, she smiled wryly and handed me Sevcik’s book on bowing technique.  “Let’s get to work!” Later that year I was playing better than ever in my life. That’s true motherhood. She showed me a way to dance through the shame and come out better.

In our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our circles of friends, small people need safe adults. A real mother or father—not just a biological parent—comes back day after day. Small people need someone faithful and safe who bends close and says, “I see you. You can make it through this. Let’s get to work!”  

That’s our work. Children need all the help they can get. It’s the fidelity of daily caring and the utter safety of an adult who only touches kindly. It has nothing to do with genetics or childbirth.

We big people need to dance in the open, show our own work, show how we found our joy. We bend down, take the hand of a child and say, “I see who you really are, and you are wonderful.” It’s a holy moment, and the answer is the soft smile of hope.

by Jean Gendreau

 

Why Do I Go to Church?

I go to church because I like holding hands while we walk forward. We’re all lost, but we’re all walking. “We’re all just walking each other home.” It’s a good quote, and it might be right. But we’ve forgotten where home is.

Where is the Divine? Is anything sacred? Where is hope?

Terrible signposts hang on the trees around us—Our climate is ruined, and whole species are dying out. Children practice hiding from gunmen at school. Cancer is everywhere, and most of us go bankrupt because we can’t even pay to get treated. Our democracy no longer works. Our country has put children in prisons. Addiction is everywhere, and more people die from opioids than from heart attacks. And on and on.

What I know for sure is that we can only find a path if we believe there might be a path. If we think despair is safer, if we think that no path is possible, we surely will never find one. And we won’t figure it out through logic and thought. I can’t do the calculations on paper; no one can figure it out in advance. No one can outthink despair. No one can use logic and analysis to prove hope.

I know there is a path because I’ve wandered onto it several times. Not on purpose, not with planning. In my life—and I’m an old woman now—I’ve usually been lost. Like everybody else, I never really knew where I was going.

Then suddenly, out of nowhere, something would tell me that God is. Not “God is… fill-in-the-blank.” Not “God is real,” not “God is Love,” or anything that defines the Divine in complete sentences. Not “This prayer will always get what you want.” Not “Say these words and you’ll get saved.”

Think instead of the mist rising at dawn and the very first murmuring of a bird. Think of the smell of stew when you’ve worked all day. Think of the sweaty, sticky kiss of a toddler in summertime. Think of looking into my eyes. Think of a surprise gift, something you never expected. These are the proofs, and they are real. Think of the joy in my mom’s eyes a few days before she died. All are signposts hanging in the trees around us, and they are as real as the signposts about despair.

Joy is as real as despair, and we get to choose. Wayne Dyer said, “When you believe it, you will see it.” We have to choose. With all the world’s negativity, we have to consciously choose joy over despair. It takes practice. It’s not easy or automatic. When we catch sight of joy, we have to shout it out so others on the path can hear us.

I go to church because I like holding hands as we walk forward. For all the brutal mistakes—and there are thousands— that churches have made, when we sit in church, we’re choosing hope. Many of my church friends are different from me, from all sorts of families and beliefs. That’s okay. Our families didn’t protect us and neither did our beliefs. We’re all equally lost.

But if we hold hands, somehow things get better.

Maybe following a gentle teacher helps us all forgive. Maybe singing old songs reminds us of the joy of childhood. Maybe just not hating for an hour every week eases our tired hearts.

Life presses down on all of us. We try to pay our bills, raise our children, fight temptations and face illness and death. Holding hands really helps.

Holding hands is an act of hope, and that is why I go to church.  I like being able to sing “God is” as loudly as I can. Beauty is. Love is. Trust is. There is a path and we can choose to step onto it. Church certainly isn’t the only path, but I like the part where you and I hold hands.

I’m singing at dawn, just like the smallest bird. All of us are singing as we walk forward. It’s a simple song:  “There is a path. We are all right. We’re not alone, we’re never alone. Love matters. We’re almost home. Hold my hand, hold me close, and don’t be afraid.”

by Jean Gendreau

 

Walking the Plank

It’s never as fun as in Peter Pan. It’s murder—A public execution. Peter Pan flew, but I don’t know how. I’d drown.

Being forced to jump backwards into blackness, being pushed off the place where I’m barely balancing, falling into terror, into no control, into the death of all I know is what I dread more than the misery of staying where I am.

When I fall backwards, I let go. I’m forced into it. I would never choose this. The things that push me off the edge are so cruel—drugs, shame, addiction, humiliation. Pain. Illness. A broken heart. Despair.

I can’t plan this, and neither can you. It’s foolish to even think so. Who would choose such fear and pain?

Instead I have to fall backwards into space I can’t even imagine.  Something forces transformation over my head and holds it there. I can’t breathe. I have no idea what’s possible. All I can feel is the far edge of despair. I cannot comprehend the openness of surrender, of giving up.  

But for some, something good is possible— even though it makes no sense and seems impossible. Just thinking this offends me. How dare anyone suggest that there can be goodness in rape and torture? In despair and suicide? In the starvation of innocents? In horror?

The answer is I don’t know. I have no idea.  But on the other side of horror some people come to know a reality of love, courage, help and hope. No one can deny this.

I can never understand this healing, this new life. It’s just not of this realm. It’s not sewn from my thoughts.

What I know for sure is this: There is a mystery, a power, a touch that is overwhelming. Goodness is possible after despair.

Life is possible after all hope dies. I am not talking about heaven and angels. Even when I fail utterly, even when there seems no hope at all, things happen beyond it.

Think of the Ravensbruck prayer. Ravensbruck was a Nazi concentration camp for women and children.  When the Allies finally freed the camp in the spring of 1945, the soldiers discovered a prayer written on a scrap of paper next to a body.  On that ugly little scrap, written in the horror that drove good people insane were words of courage. Words of God. Words of love.

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.

How did this happen? I have no idea. But it did. Can we comprehend how this warmth was possible in a place of utter cruelty? No. And that is the point.

No one planned this.  And neither did some fantasy, omnipotent God, sitting on a throne, point a finger and say, “Now that woman can suffer so much that she writes a great prayer.”  This is too childish. It’s like a high school student trying to explain aging to a 90 year old.

I’m not saying we’re silly or small.  We are not. But there are enormous realities that lie beyond my ability to sense anything at all. Science isn’t enough, and neither is faith. We just do not know, and that’s okay.

The Divine Flow is much stronger, deeper and more loving than any facile explanation. Thinking it’s a person planning is like thinking that because I baked the cookies, I also made eggs and chickens. Butter and cows. Wheat plants in the sunshine.

Death often eases great pain. Often, as someone floats free in death, their spirit shines. Ask a hospice nurse. She has seen it many times, but she cannot explain it.

It has happened that people who have suffered unimagined torture and pain somehow claw a way to acceptance and joy.They may even become able to hold out a hand to the next person.

Should they have been forced to grow in this way? Of course not. There is no excuse or reason for the pain. And we should do everything we can to prevent any such injury.

But if we fail to prevent it, then afterwards, after the girl has been raped and tortured, after the child has been starved, after the man has put the gun into his mouth, that is the moment when we fall backwards into “I don’t know what is possible.”

In this place we discover miracles. Real ones, daily ones. Some people heal out of despair and then they help others. It is possible. We never intend it, and neither does God. It just happens, even though it seems impossible. I will never understand it, and neither will you.

That’s the point. That’s the touch of God. It’s real. It’s what we fall into when we fall off the end of the plank.

In the space beyond the end, in the opening of impossible possibility, I realize that I am safe, always. It’s the instant you look in my eyes. It’s the instant of caring, of love.

We are never alone—never. The Divine Awareness always holds us close. We may have grown hard and cold, we may have blocked out its touch, but God is always in us, with us, for us.

Death is not real. What we think is death is transformation of the shell. Our bodies give us pain and pleasure and the chance to love. But our essence, our “me-ness” is not the body. We’re spirits having a physical experience. We’re God-flakes that float into a physical experience of thoughts, confusion, pleasure and joy. And then we melt back into the Divine Flow.

Everything is known. Because we are all the One, the Divine Awareness links me and you and them and all existence. Usually though, we’re too armored to sense this. Yet even though it’s hard to sense, and much of it most people never sense, God knows every thought because God is every thought. Right here, right now, I am in God and God is in me and in you.

There is no judgment in the Oneness. There’s only unspeakable tenderness, gentler and sweeter than anything you or I have ever known. Even for the drunk who killed a whole family when he drove home last night.  Even for the man who rapes children. I don’t understand this in any way, and there’s no point in trying.

But what matters is that I must love myself because God is in me and God understands. The Awareness, the Christ Consciousness, the Universe knows and loves and keeps on loving without any hesitation at all, and so must I. Once I see it, I have no choice because this is the flow that feeds every part of existence, including me and you.

There is only one answer: Reach out.  Touch me. Kiss my cheek. Feed the ones you hate. Hold up the ones who smell of urine and feces. Touch someone. Listen. Honor not only the pain people go through but honor the unexpected, holy growth that might start in hell.  And believe in impossible healing.

I do not know, and neither do you. We don’t know what’s possible. We don’t know what is kindest.

That’s why, when something forces us backwards off the plank, we grab something bigger, something stronger than anything in our little stable of prayers.

We have to choose a much bigger, broader horse, one where we are not the master at all.  “May whatever happens next be for my higher good.” “May I grow in forgiveness and love, whatever that means.” “May I heal.” “May I open to God’s love in new ways.”   “May I accept transformation that I do not understand.”

We have to allow transformation. Think of the big horse we landed on. This is power that we never imagined. It canters to places that we never even knew existed. It carries us.

What guides the power, what’s holding the reins of transformation is possibility itself. Openness to change that we have dreaded or wished for or never even imagined.

We cannot take the reins, just as a high school student cannot teach how to be ancient. It simply is not possible. We are not that big, and that is okay.

And so instead, falling off the plank, we surrender. We trust. That does not mean giving in to a cruel God who is looking for a way to punish us.

It means allowing the possibility—just the “maybe,” just the “okay”—that we do not know, but that there are solutions, blessings, joy, hope, healing that none of us—none of us— can imagine.

That’s exactly God. We can surrender into Divine Love. We can rest in the Mystery itself. It’s too big to be named, too exquisite to paint, too powerful to rein in, too loving to deny. God is safe. God carries us home—but not by any road we know. There is no prayer, no technique that makes God obey our small wishes.

Instead, after a while, we discover that we can stand up. We squeezed our eyes shut but now maybe we are willing to open them just a little bit. From here we can lean further back, we can look eagerly into the openness, into forever.

Try this image:  Something forces us backwards, step by step. We feel anger and terror. Finally we fall backwards off the end. We fall and fall, falling, floating, floating…. This is what we cannot plan or imagine because it is not of this realm. It’s not my little plans or hopes. It seems that something is here. We can rest in it. We can breathe. It’s easy. We’re not alone. Around are others. I hear someone gasp in joy–—It’s me. This is easy. This is light.

For some it is time to join Love itself. It’s time to melt like an ice cube. How lovely to be the Love itself. I am the Ocean itself. I am the Oneness.

But if I am still in this body, I come back into a day that I don’t recognize. Maybe my arm moves and I think maybe I can move both arms. My foot moves. Maybe I can move my foot, my leg. I try some movement. I try changing because I must. We have to. We have fallen backwards into ourselves.  We have died to our old selves and now here we are, right here, right now, moving a finger. Moving a leg. Whatever we were doing before did not work. We cannot claw our way back up the plank.

From nowhere, from everywhere comes a tender touch. A wisp of a whisper. Right here, right now, in the openness, something, someone touches us. Goosebumps rise, we gasp as we realize that we are not alone at all.

There’s a nudge.  We try something. We wake up just a little bit.

One day, knowing what we know now, maybe we will call God by name. What we see now, as clear as a new mirror, is that I am the soft touch of God’s fingertip for you. You are the shining in God’s eye for me, for the world.

God is happening right here, right now. It’s me as I love you; it’s you as you love them; it’s them as they love that child; it’s that child as he loves the prisoner.

The plank was just a birth canal. The new air, the tiny body is me in God and you in God, which is all existence.

We are dancing, right here, right now, to a love song. The plank, the terror, the selfishness, the confusion are long past. I touch your finger. With one hand you caress my cheek, with another you reach for the one who is falling right now. My eyes are God’s eyes, your hand is God’s hand, their lips are God’s lips.

As you walk the plank, take a soft breath. We can step lightly. We have no idea what’s beyond, but we can dance right here, right now, holding hands. Hope itself is singing.

Let me pull you close. That’s right, gently. And now it’s your turn to reach out to me. Here is my heart, here is my hand.

by Jean Gendreau

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.