Christmas vs. Easter

Christmas comes as the darkness grows. Easter comes after the darkness is complete. At Christmas, we light candles in the blackness. At Easter the worst has happened. The blackness has won.

At Christmas we try to protect ourselves as blackness comes near. We strain to see any flicker of light. We hold a baby and dream of the future. But at Easter we admit our despair. Did the baby even matter? It’s over. There’s nothing left to hope for—The body is already cool.

This isn’t about religion, although people think it is. Think instead of a paddler in the wilderness. He’s a bit lost and he paddles hard. Storms come and go. He finds his way along rivers, portages through thick forest, discovers lake after lake and then gets lost again. He never knows the end. One day, he’s paddling along a rocky shoreline. There’s a point up ahead, but he can’t quite make it out. Working hard, he pulls close enough to see. Finally he can make out that it’s a point, a rocky point. There’s a corner to turn. The wind pushes at the canoe, and he has to paddle hard. His arms ache, but he’s got grit. He keeps going. Finally he makes it around the corner and gasps. Goosebumps ripple down his arms. Awe. Wonder. Mystery. It takes his breath away. This lake is flat and brilliant and easy. He’s never seen such light. And it has no end. It’s easy and it has no end.

Thirty-four years ago on Easter weekend, I was holding a baby. I was trying again. I had a new life after crawling out of the shame of my divorce and the griefs of my baby’s death and my husband’s alcoholism. For me, this laughing, easy-tempered, pretty baby proved rebirth. As mothers do, I had fallen deeply in love with her. She had a fairy-like quality, a magical way of moving softly through the days. My older girl had a sister, a family. And my husband’s surprise and wonder was holy. He loved my older daughter but had never held a baby of his own. When he held this little girl, you could feel his shock and joy at such tenderness. He had never imagined such love.

On that same Easter weekend, my little nephew died from neuroblastoma. None of us will ever forget the sound of my brother’s voice that day. A few days later, when everyone else went to the funeral, I chose to stay home.

What was real to me was Easter. It’s not that I wanted to avoid the pain of my nephew’s death. I had had a baby die. I knew that the light can disappear completely. Darkness sometimes wins.

But even after total defeat, after irreversible destruction, something happens that makes no sense at all.

On that Easter weekend, I held joy in my arms. This wasn’t Christmas. It wasn’t about the darkness that might come. This was Easter. This was after the darkness had won—And that was the whole point.

There are times when we have howled until we are empty.  We cannot cry harder or louder or longer—And still it isn’t enough. Nothing is enough. Then there is a quiet that comes. It’s a kind of peace, but you can’t call it easy because getting there is the most brutal road in all human experience. Yet finally we come to the silent place, the emptiness. It’s a terrible openness in which everything is possible.

Even though it makes no sense at all, there is something beyond the rocky point. The paddler turns the corner. My nephew let go of this body to open into the wonder.

I am not talking about heaven here. This is about a reality, a dimension, a quality of awareness that underlies everything we think is real life. It’s a veil, a sheer curtain, a wisp of breath right under our noses.

In the winter, a seed has no choice but to lie in the blackness deep under the ice. A caterpillar knits its chrysalis without hope. It has no idea how to make wings.

I can’t out-think this mystery. I have no choice but the next step, even though I have no idea what the next step is. I do not know the deep magic because thoughts and beliefs distract me. I worry, hope and fret. I do not trust what I cannot imagine.

The mystery requires utter blackness. Thinking doesn’t work. We cannot plan or understand. There has to be the release of giving up because that’s when we finally relax.

That’s when the deepest magic, the power, the tenderness can take us over, knowing us better than we know ourselves. It shatters the seed’s shell by trusting the softness of a seedling’s leaves. It tears the chrysalis open by loving the joy colors of wings.

On Easter, we raise our heads from the ground. We look up because we hear something, a wisp of song. We cannot know what it is. We do not understand. It makes no sense. But it is good.


Here’s the best book I have seen on death.

On Life after Death, by Elizabeth Kubler Ross.

This tiny book packs a huge wallop. I’ve read it many times and given it to dozens of friends. Kubler Ross was the world-famous psychologist who developed the famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Her speciality was dying children.  But late in her life, she realized through many experiences that death does not exist. She says, “My real job is… to tell people that death does not exist….You don’t have to do anything but learn to get in touch, in silence, within yourself. Get in touch with your own inner self and learn not to be afraid. One way not to be afraid is to know that death does not exist, that everything in this life has a positive purpose.

Getting to Joy

Last week a song made me cry. It threw me backwards into the thick sadness of 25 years ago. I had forgotten how bad that time was. Thank God I had forgotten.

The theme was from a dinosaur movie that I watched with my little girls. In the movie, the young dinos get separated from their families. As they search for the big herd, all they have is each other.

Don’t lose your way
With each passing day
You’ve come so far
Don’t throw it away.

People try so hard. At that time, my second marriage was crashing. My dream of happiness seemed impossible. I felt I had tried, but it seemed happiness simply could never happen for me. Maybe for others, but not for me.

Live believing
Dreams are for weaving
Wonders are waiting to start
Live your story
Faith, hope and glory
Hold to the truth in your heart.

Here’s what’s wonderful: What I know today is that happiness is possible. We can find our wholeness. Healing takes time, but it is possible.

How amazing. I had forgotten how bad it had been. I didn’t even remember how much I used to hurt.

To heal, to find happiness, I had to discover four things:

1. Respect

I had to strip away the “pretends” and see the real child I had been—and I had to respect that child for enduring in harsh surroundings. Mind you, it’s not that my life was worse than everyone else’s. It’s that as children we all endure pain that no one else sees. I had to respect the child in me and be honest about my own confusion and sadness. I did this in therapy. It’s what I needed.

And then, of course, I had to respect the same thing in others. In the end, we are all just walking each other home.

2. Tenderness

I had to accept tenderness for myself. This is hard because all of us feel shame over who we have been. Some of us say, “Stop whining.” Sure, stop it, don’t whine your whole adult life. But first, learn how to be tender to yourself. Tell the truth. Name the hurts. I had to touch my child self, my teenage self and my adult woman self with true kindness. This means throwing shame in the garbage. We all heard, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”  Many of us heard, “We are ashamed of you.” It’s time to stop the pain. We have punished and re-punished ourselves enough. The only thing we deserve now is tenderness, and I had to learn how to accept it.

And then, of course, I had to offer tenderness to others. In the end, all we have is each other.

Souls in the wind
Must learn how to bend,
Seek out a star,
Hold on to the end.

3. Courage

Healing takes work. It’s hard to expose ancient pain, and others often enjoy watching your struggles. They love to point their fingers and say, “Boy, does he have problems” or “I’m sure glad I’m not as screwed up as she is.”  Ignore them. Walk on. Everyone needs healing and therapy—everyone. Your only job is you. Keep your eyes on hope. It takes huge courage to tell the truth to yourself and to believe that you can heal, that things can change. Believe me: You can learn to be whole and happy.

And when you know it for yourself, it’s easy to see it for others too.

Valley, mountain
There is a fountain
Washes our tears all away
Words are swaying
Someone is praying
Please let us come home to stay.

4. Reverence

As you heal, you become holy beauty. You finally see yourself as an amazing, glowing thing. A star. A light. A tender, courageous, honorable warrior who has fought through it and come out the other side. And when you see it in yourself, you see it in the others around you.

The Divine hopes for your joy. Heaven pours out healing. Hope and wholeness seep into us and through us until finally, as we shine, we pour out our light for others.

Don’t lose your way
With each passing day
You’ve come so far
Don’t throw it away
Live believing
Dreams are for weaving
Wonders are waiting to start.

The song still brings tears to my eyes. I want to reach out to the younger me, look into her eyes and tell her that she’ll make it through.

Believe me. It’s possible. Hold on to the end. I made it through, and so can you. My life isn’t perfect but it is good, very good.

Happiness. Wholeness. Home. Just keep going. Keep trying. Wonders really are waiting to start. 


Here’s a video of the song

….and here are all the words.

Don’t lose your way
With each passing day
You’ve come so far
Don’t throw it away
Live believing
Dreams are for weaving
Wonders are waiting to start
Live your story
Faith, hope and glory
Hold to the truth in your heart

If we hold on together
I know our dreams will never die
Dreams see us through to forever
Where clouds roll by
For you and I

Souls in the wind
Must learn how to bend
Seek out a star
Hold on to the end
Valley, mountain
There is a fountain
Washes our tears all away
Words are swaying
Someone is praying
Please let us come home to stay

If we hold on together
I know our dreams will never die
Dreams see us through to forever
Where clouds roll by
For you and I

When we are out there in the dark
We’ll dream about the sun
In the dark we’ll feel the light
Warm our hearts, everyone

If we hold on together
I know our dreams will never die
Dreams see us through to forever
As high as souls can fly
The clouds roll by
For you and I

 

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.

 

 

 

The Christmas Seed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—by Jean Gendreau


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

 

A Video for the Worst Day of Your Life

How does the Divine touch us when all is lost?  Here’s a profound, moving 15-minute video by minister Rudy Harst about what happened when he was in a terrible car crash two weeks ago. We are never alone. Everything is known. We are safe, and we are One. Click here to watch it.