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 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.” 


Home for the Holidays: 4 Steps to Forgiving the Unforgivable

Forgiving often seems impossible. We get badly hurt in life. Family may feel like an intimate enemy. Going home feels upsetting and hopeless.

My mother used to say, “There are some things that simply can never be forgiven.”  Mom was wrong—but I didn’t realize how wrong until I was past middle age.

By the time we’re 30, we all know the down sides of adulthood: addiction, debt, infidelity, abandonment, just to name a few. And beyond these are the unspeakables such as genocide and rape. Our lives get ruined. People die. How can we forgive that?

Jesus’s command to forgive feels so unrealistic: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.” (Luke 17:3)  Do we just close our eyes, grit our teeth and somehow obey? “Just do it” doesn’t work, no matter how hard we try.

And what about forgiving ourselves? Can we ever forgive ourselves for the things we regret? We hear that God forgives us—but can we ever love ourselves enough to forgive and be forgiven? 

Is such forgiving even possible?

I would like to share with you two simple truths: there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness,” says Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the great Christian scholar in his book, The Book of Forgiving  (page 3).  

This is amazing.

If Tutu says it can be done, we can trust him. After all, he worked in South Africa to help people heal from genocide, racism and unspeakable violence, and he won the Nobel Peace prize.  

But even if we accept that it’s possible in some pie-in-the-sky world, how do we do it? Can an ordinary person ever do it? And should we do it? What about the pain that was caused? Does forgiving mean that was okay?

Tutu’s book changed my life. He showed me how to touch my very worst wounds, the things it seemed would never heal, and instead find a way to love others and love myself. I used his process and changed my life. The things that used to hurt just don’t any more. 

This is the healing we all deserve. This is the Divine plan.

But Tutu says it’s not easy or automatic. There is a process that must be followed. He’s not talking about blind obedience to God. He’s talking about deep healing for ourselves and for the world. When we forgive, we become free, he says. We do it for ourselves, to heal as the Divine wants us to heal. He says this:

Forgiveness is not dependent on the acts of others. Yes, it is certainly easier to offer forgiveness when the perpetrator expresses remorse and offers some sort of reparation or restitution. Then you can feel as if you have been paid back in some way….In this understanding, forgiveness is something we offer to another, a gift we bestow on someone, but it is a gift with strings attached.

The problem is that the strings we attach to the gift of forgiveness become the chains that bind us to the person who harmed us. Those are the chains to which the perpetrator holds the key. We may set the conditions for granting our forgiveness, but the person who harmed us decides whether or not the conditions are too onerous to fulfill. We continue to be that person’s victim. (p. 20)

Instead Tutu talks about unconditional forgiveness. He says this:

Unconditional forgiveness is a different model of forgiveness than the gift with strings. This is forgiveness as grace, a free gift freely given….When you forgive, you slip the yoke, and your future is unshackled from your past. (p. 21)

When we forgive, we become the heroes instead of the victims in our own life stories. We change our own life story and discover that healing and freedom are possible—but we must choose them.

Doesn’t that mean that the wounding was okay? Tutu says not at all.

Forgiveness is not some airy-fairy thing. It has to do with the real world. Healing and reconciliation are not magic spells. They do not erase the reality of an injury. To forgive is not to pretend that what happened did not happen. Healing does not draw a veil over the hurt. Rather, healing and reconciliation demand an honest reckoning….Behavior that is hurtful, shameful, abusive or demeaning must be brought into the fierce light of truth. And truth can be brutal. In fact, truth may exacerbate the hurt; it might make things worse. But if we want real forgiveness and real healing, we must face the real injury. (p. 24)

Tutu gently leads us through the steps we need:
  1. Telling the story;
  2. Naming the hurt;
  3. Granting forgiveness;
  4. Renewing or releasing the relationship.

He sorts through the worst, most hateful injuries. He walks with us through confusion and feelings of unworthiness. In every chapter he offers wonderful rituals, meditations, prayers and journal writing to help people do the real work of forgiving. He says, “Peace is built with small and large acts of forgiveness.” (page 59)  The Christian meditation techniques in his book help us open to the Divine and grow closer in love.

So this time, when we go home for the holidays, when we feel the ancient wounds again, we finally have a choice. We don’t sweep everything under the carpet or stay locked in our anger.

Instead we have a healing process that works. It doesn’t matter if those who hurt us keep thinking that nothing wrong happened. Even then, we can choose peace and wholeness. Tutu tells us how to do this.

We choose to become the heroes of our own stories. And we choose this for ourselves, for our own healing and for the healing of the world. We set ourselves free. That’s how love comes again and again into the world.

Let’s end with one of Tutu’s poems:

I will forgive you

The words are so small

But there is a universe hidden in them

When I forgive you

All those cords of resentment, pain and sadness that had wrapped

Themselves around my heart will be gone

When I forgive you

You will no longer define me

You measured me and assessed me and

decided that you could hurt me

I didn’t count

But I will forgive you

Because I do count

I do matter

I am bigger than the image you have of me

I am stronger

I am more beautiful

And I am infinitely more precious than you thought me

I will forgive you

My forgiveness is not a gift that I am giving to you

When I forgive you

My forgiveness will be a gift that gives itself to me

(p. 26)

Click here to buy Tutu’s book