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

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

 

Words for a Bad Day

 

I can’t make it stop hurting. You’ll have to do that yourself, and you’ll get it done. I know you.

Eventually there’ll be that stubborn look. Scowling, grunting and swearing, you’ll push the stones off your body. The bleeding doesn’t really matter because once you push past the cave-in, you begin to feel some light on your skin, and some of it starts to heal up.

What I know for sure is that I am singing for you, to you. It’s safe. It’s lovely, easy, gentle. Nothing will ever hurt you this way again. You won’t get caught out again, dancing in light clothes, laughing, when wrongness cuts out your heart.

Sure, making a hard shell works for a while. There’s nothing wrong with shutting out the world at first.

But we’re all just seeds. Inside our stiff casings there’s soft stuff that none of us understands.

Eventually the cells begin to stretch. The scar tissue makes our hearts new. Legs and wings sprout, even though we swore it would never never happen.

The wings come from the Divine, and we float on a holy wind. We think we can run again. We try dancing.  A voice starts low and scratchy but quivers, grows and sings.  

There is terrible wrongness in life. Injury. Illness. Grief. Shame. No one deserves pain.  No one wants this to happen. But it does.

That hard seed, the scarred heart, is holy. When pain tears the heart open, it hurts. What grows afterwards is so beautiful that pilgrims light candles, kneel to it and chant.

So keep digging out, a little bit every day. Just keep going. Come here, to where there’s a beach and gleaming waves. It will be a gentle evening, and I made this bonfire just for you.