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.




Burrowing into Darkness

Things seem a shambles. Outside, I question if democracy is worth it. Fire deaths, atrocities, shootings and massive hardship blare from every screen and hit me like gut punches. Inside, in my close life, the confusions, the missteps pile up and tear at me—Friends with harsh diagnoses, addicted family members, uncertainty, confusion. It feels like my heart, and the world’s, is just broken. A shambles.

Things are turning dark. Yet that’s as it should be. I know this about Fall. All the leaves let go. Hollyhock stalks bend and collapse. Pods open, seeds fall. Mist rises as the lake cools. The wind smells of a neighbor’s morning fire. With the leaves down, I can see the lake. The light is both brighter and darker.

Everything has given up. The broken stalks and bright skies have surrendered to change. Leaves jump in the wind and pile up in corners by stones and under bushes. When I meditate, mornings are black.

There is magic ahead. Rebirth doesn’t happen in April, just as conception doesn’t happen in the delivery room. Rebirth requires conception, and that miracle—and I use the word “miracle” on purpose—needs darkness.  In the womb, in the earth, in life, undreamed-of things burst out like those first tiny cells of an embryo—in darkness, in power, in hope.  

I trust the bare trees, the pumpkins, the chill and the darkness. The hummingbirds and robins left weeks ago. Nuthatches and chickadees peer in at me, wondering about suet. The longest night is coming. I think of bonfires, feasts, tombstones and candles. I think of shattered dreams, despair, tears and death.

I trust winter’s silence. It feels right. Seeds burrow into the earth mother. Conception needs utter darkness. I trust what is hidden, the things I cannot comprehend. There are Holy Secrets that come out of the Divine, and I can’t pretend to understand them. Grace is real.

My thoughts don’t work. I think I know what should or should not happen, but I am wrong. The bare trees and dancing leaves have surrendered to the coming darkness. I follow them and trust.

Every year, every century, dark magic happens again—A light in the darkness. Under the bitterness, seeds lie in the earth. One day their cells change. I’m too small and foolish to know exactly when or how, and that’s okay.

What I trust is the darkness itself—the presence, the awareness, the magic, the love. I am a bare tree branch, a fallow field. Emptiness and silence is what I need. I am a seed. I am potential. I burrow in and trust the holy life force. What’s needed is exactly the darkness. I have to be a seed, not knowing, not planning. I have to be the magic of what might come, the possibility of something I do not understand.

Hope happens. New life pops. The wind turns soft. There’s something new that only the universe could have dreamt up.  An exquisite crocus. Fresh grass. An easy breath. New life. Healing.

So I rest in the darkness and trust God. I am a seed and so are you. The light will come, but not in the ways we expect. All we need to know is that Love holds us close. The darkness is safe and right.


The Flash Up Ahead

Life hits hard. Death rips away what’s false, and all I can see is clear light. When someone dies, there’s a flash. I realize—again— that only love matters. I gasp as if lightning had sizzled and lit the night.

I remember being young, walking up the stairs of a red brick church with Mom and Dad. The parents of the dead teenager stand next to her coffin, hugging people, talking. Their eyes shine so that it hurts to look. It’s not the tears. It’s the flash, the clear love, that stuns me.

Her death was foolish. Who would sit on a light boat as it was being towed on a trailer? It was nothing, just a second. One bump.

The brilliance in the eyes of this mother and father blinds me. I look away because I’m young. I can’t look because it finds every crack in me. 

When I was young I hadn’t learned that love itself is bigger than happy or tragic, good or bad. It’s bigger than any label or word. It’s everything, like the sky beyond the clouds. It’s awareness itself, love calling to love, God outside of time.

Daily life and thoughts hide the sky, even though we yearn to see it. We want hope, but we don’t know how to find it.

Death’s work is so strange. It tears us open. It rips the clouds away so that the sky beyond, the awareness that is love, is just obvious. Undeniable. The flash, the vision of love, shocks us so completely that, even in our childishness and our denial, we fall to our knees.

When I was young, I didn’t know that being on my knees—knowing that I love and am loved—is the whole reason for life. It doesn’t matter if I’m on my knees to button someone’s coat or kneeling at a funeral.

I wish I could say that meditating taught me this, but it didn’t. Pain, loss and despair taught me, and they were harsh about it.

What meditation taught me was that what I thought was flashing off and on—the love, the light, forever, peace, kindness—shines as a beacon, steady, never flashing, never dimming. In silence as I meditated, I learned to sense the deeper reality that is God. I learned how to see the sky that the clouds hide.

Now, as an old woman, I’m always searching for those flashes, the moments when God is undeniable, when only love exists. Each one is priceless. I gather each one close and roll it in my fingers because I know this is the only thing that matters.

Here’s one when my baby sleeps on my chest and smiles in her sleep. Here’s another when my love holds me close and doesn’t let go. Here’s a tiny white coffin. Here’s a girl skating alone on a lagoon, a toddler singing in the bathtub, my grandmother combing her soft white hair, and a teenager practicing Shakespeare. “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”

What I know now is that in love, there is no time at all. There is no before and after. At this funeral, the brilliance in the parents’ eyes is the exact same instant as when they danced in the living room with that baby girl, when they combed out her snarls and braided her hair, when they daubed baking soda on her chicken pox, when they taught her to parallel park.

Victor Hugo said, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Yes, it’s a cliché. But above the sentiment is the open sky itself. No storm can touch it.

And so I gather my flashes and smile. This is my life. I look into your eyes, and it’s your life too. You reach for me.

It’s the movement between us that is sacred. It’s our dance, the flash of light on faces, the light of one kind glance, the shape of hands touching that is the divine spark.

I stay on my knees now, knowing there are flashes all around me. This is my holy place. This is how I worship. I gaze into the flashes and never look away.


Mrs. Stanley’s Lesson

It’s how these things so often happen. Early on a Monday morning in about 1979, after I had finished meditating, something came to me. It was Mrs. Stanley’s face or maybe her voice. It overwhelmed me.

These things come like a distant bell, a magical, haunting, beautiful sound that you cannot ignore. I hadn’t even thought of her in more than ten years, but there she was, my high school English teacher, calling me.

By then my life had gone seriously wrong. My first baby had died, my poor drunk husband had gone home to his own country, I was poor, and every so often depression crippled me.

The joys I had were my little girl and a new sense of hope and love. I had started to meditate.

On that Monday morning what I suddenly knew—out of nowhere, I thought—was that I had to tell Mrs. Stanley thank you. It was obvious. Looking back, heaven was prompting me, but at that time I hadn’t figured that out yet. I got a card, wrote a note and mailed it.

A week later the phone rang and there was a trembly fairy voice. “Jean, is that you? Is that you? Where are you? Where are you? Come and see me.”

She was in Madison General Hospital, dying. By now I knew a little bit about death, so I went right away.

She is lying on pillows, oxygen tubes in her nose, IVs in her arms—Of course, all her smoking. Lung cancer. The room smells bad, and it’s dim and grey. Her voice is still low, but she can barely whisper.

“Your little girl? I thought you’d bring her.”

“I was afraid to—I didn’t know how you would be.”

She nods. “What did I give you? Why did you write? Was it my teaching?”

This part I know. “No….The teaching was good. But it was never what you said. It was how you were.”


“Remember when that girl tried to kill herself and she came into your room?  And you climbed into the ambulance with her and went with her to the hospital?”

She sighs a little. “Poor girl. Yes…yes.”

“You cared so much. You would say anything, do anything…. We were so stupid. So immature. We laughed at you, and you just ignored us. It was how you were, not what you said, not who you were. You were there for us, for all of us, even when you weren’t supposed to be. Even when it was embarrassing. You told us the truth. You were strict but you cared. You always showed that passion, and damn everyone else.”

“How did you hear me? How?”

I shrug. “I just knew. I just knew—It just came one morning.”

She falls back onto her pillows. “So there is something….Oh God. Oh God.” Tears slide down her cheeks.

It was the only time I saw her. In a few days she died. She was one of my most important teachers.

Here is Mrs. Stanley’s lesson: It’s not who you are or what you are that lasts, that matters forever. It’s how you are. Kind. Tender. Caring—No matter who laughs at you. How you touch. How you speak.

Touch kindly. Be there for others. Let your eyes shine because that’s God’s joy. Tell others how precious they are so they know.

How you are is exactly how God happens in this world. How you are is the only thing that matters. That’s it—the whole thing. It’s not what to be, not who to be. It’s how to be.



My First Language Is Christian

Our secretary stormed into the office and slammed her textbook on the desk.

“This is so stupid! It doesn’t make sense!” She was just back from French class. At fifty years old, she was learning her first foreign language.

“It’s just a window! A stupid, stupid window!” Her voice shook. 

She said it again, louder.  “Window!”  She pointed at the glass. “Why would anyone say something different? Fenêtre!  What the hell is that about? Why can’t they see that it’s a window?  It’s so easy—Anyone can see that! Why use some stupid other word?”

I look at the window. In my head I remember a dark room’s lovely arched window looking out onto a courtyard throbbing with sun and magenta flowering vines. Khidki in the Hindi language. I think of a small opening in a dark thatched cottage. Fuinneog in the Gaelic language.  A huge plate glass window in a grey cement building. Okno in the Russian language.  

The light itself always shines—in every hut and prison cell. Without end or beginning, outside of time itself, the light is the very fabric of all existence

I know the light and so do you. It runs deeper than breath. Every time it touches me, I recognize it. I remember it. This is the instant of utter awe and joy. It might be the sound of the wind at night or one wildflower growing by a freeway or the smell of your child’s skin.

The opening into the light has thousands of names. Window. Fenêtre. Khidki. Okno. But the eternal light itself—the Divine, the awareness, God—is One. Oneness. The Mystery. The Source. Everything. All.

I say “God” because I speak Christian. As a tiny child sensing beauty and joy, the words of my family and culture were “pray” and “God” and “Christ.” Even though I know other words for the light, such as the Tibetan Dzogchen word Rigpa or the Hindu word Brahman, those words don’t give me goose bumps. 

What my heart knows is something deeper than any one language. My heart sings of the light itself.  The “zing” of existence. Utter joy. Sunrise. Hope.

But when I have to force that vast knowledge into a single word, I choose the words of my childhood because for me they brush my skin like the chords of an old hymn. Those words smell of the lilac bushes where I played with my dolls and my grandmother’s homemade rosewater and glycerin hand lotion. I hear the melody of a hymn on Sunday. Morning has broken like the first morning. 

My sisters sleep around me in our bedroom. At the foot of my bed is a big dormer window facing east. As the sun rises, birds start murmuring and light streams onto my bed.

Other children are waking up at this moment, in other places, in other families. A child waking in a yurt in the Altai mountains of Mongolia says Allah, and a child ringing a bell in a Hindu temple says Vishnu.

I speak Christian. I look at the light and call it God.

–by Jean Gendreau