VAST FORWARD

How Lilacs Can Save Your Life

The motto for this website is “Grabbing the Great Now from the tiny now.” That refers to my conviction that what makes life worth living is noticing the unexpected moments in which the world extends an invitation and we say Yes and grab it.

It’s especially important to grab the Great Now in times of stress and sorrow.

Today I want to thank a lilac bush for offering delight in a difficult moment.

On Friday morning, my husband had to go to the hospital for unexpected surgery on his bladder (he has bladder cancer). After only one hour’s sleep the night before, when we finally tumbled into our bed after returning from a local emergency room, I drove us two hours up to Ithaca, NY, where his urologist has his practice.

As we got out of the car and walked up to the hospital entrance on a cloudy early morning, we were frightened and sleep-deprived, and Andy was very uncomfortable. Just before entering the building, we passed a blooming lilac bush. I insisted we stop. I drew down one of the branches to our faces, took a whiff, and passed it to Andy.

That in-breath bore more than the fragrance of the flowers. It carried the assurance that, no matter what is going on in a human life, nature has a will of its own. That scent declared that lilacs don’t care if they’re in a royal garden or outside a hospital; when it’s time to bloom, they bloom with all their might. The lilacs told us that life is always going on—fiercely, wildly, indomitably.

Those lilacs gave us a moment of joy on a very difficult morning.

Thank you, lilacs.

Momentary Sanctuaries

Sanctuaries are places of refuge where a sense of the sacred emanates so powerfully that those who enter feel infused by that essence.

But occasionally we can experience sanctuary not as a place we enter but as a moment that enters us.

Last weekend, April 22, I had the privilege of co-leading a service with Stephen Blackmer at his Church of the Woods in Canterbury, New Hampshire. When Harper’s Magazine published an article about Steve, “Priest of the Woods,” a couple of years ago, about half a dozen of my friends sent it to me and urged me to get in touch with him.

I did, and he has been a friend of Radical Joy for Hard Times ever since. Recently, I decided to visit him and attend one of his services, and to my delight, he invited me to join him for the Earth Day service.

Several years ago, when Steve started hearing voices telling him he was to become a priest, he resisted mightily. He was an agnostic, a forester, an environmental activist, and  he was not interested. But the voice would not be still, and in the course of exploring where it led him, he has carved out a beautiful liturgy and worship affiliated with the Episcopal Church, yet centered on the natural world. The prayers and reflections are related to nature. Every service includes time for the congregants to spend alone in contemplation in the woods or by one of the deep, mossy pools, and when they regather, they can share what they discovered. (Jesus never went to the temple to pray, Steve points out, he went to the mountains and desert.)

As for me, I grew up in the Episcopal church, but I have not associated with that religion or any other for many years. Still, I am fascinated with the spiritual search in all its forms, with the quest—and the questers—for that which is beyond the ordinary, that which connects all beings, that which transcends reason.

I drove up to New Hampshire on Saturday, and Steve took me for a tour of his church. Truly, this church is not in the woods, it is the woods.

I love being shown a special place by a person who loves it, and this walk would have been a treat if we had just walked around and said nothing. But as Steve and I walked, we would stop occasionally and have these marvelous little dialogues:

Is nature sacred?
Or does it bear the sacred?
What was going on in your life when you started hearing those
voices?
What does it mean to say that nature is alive?
I think this pool tolerates, but does not invite.

In those moments, with ice still coating the black north-facing wetlands and wood frogs awakening in the warmer southern ponds, with sun dappling the hemlock woods, and periodic pauses to delve into questions like this, I thought, This moment is a sanctuary. It is a place of peace, beauty, and delight. Its depth is bottomless.

Momentary sanctuaries can pop up at any time. The trick is to catch them and marvel.

What are some recent Momentary Sanctuaries in your life?

(Photo above: Rev. Stephen Blackmer (center), Bishop Rob Hirschfeld, Bishop of New Hampshire (right), and me at the newly blessed Church of the Woods well, where the congregation made an act of beauty.

 

 

Imagining the Incognito Window

The other day, I was having trouble logging into the Radical Joy for Hard Times on-line Quickbooks account, so I called the support number. After helping me, the tech person suggested that the next time I logged on, I should use an “incognito window.”

An incognito window! Immediately I was intrigued. “What’s an incognito window?” I asked.

She told me it’s a way of logging in to a website that instantly erases your browsing history. It would be useful in this case, because my previous efforts to log in would be inaccessible, and I could start the process afresh. I tried it and it worked.

Still curious, I googled incognito window. Turns out it’s a useful tool if you’re sharing a computer with your partner and want to do some on-line birthday shopping without leaving a trail of the enticing presents you’ve been considering and hence giving away the surprise. With an incognito window you can check your social own media sites to see what other people see when they view your page. Or you can google yourself to find out what others see when they google you. Some people use it to look at porn without anyone finding out.

But the phrase “incognito window” is so evocative. What do you picture when you hear the term? I imagine myself staring out a special kind of window, perhaps from a second-story flat in Amsterdam or Brussels, and being invisible to those on the street. Or maybe a person who stands in an incognito window looks entirely different than they usually do. Maybe a  middle-aged white woman would look like a young Latino to anyone who happened to glance in. Maybe someone framed in an incognito window would turn into a superhero or a version of themselves in a different time period or their own avatar.

Or maybe it’s the world that looks different when I view it from an incognito window. At any rate, I think we all need at least one in our homes.

(Painting above: Woman at Window by Eastman Johnson)

 

 

Noticing Fathers and Their Children

Last Saturday I took the bus from my home in northeastern Pennsylvania into New York City to meet my friend Eugene Hughes, who was in town for a few days from London to teach a workshop. As I walked from the subway to the restaurant where we were meeting for brunch, my attention was drawn several times to fathers out and about with their children: a father and two little kids looking in the window of a toystore; a father and daughter, about 9 years old, having an animated conversation about their dog; a father pushing an infant in a stroller. My own father was a workaholic and alcoholic and I never got that kind of time with him, and I am always so touched when I see a father  and his daughter or son casually and comfortably enjoying each other’s company.

Eugene and I had brunch on the Upper West Side, then walked across the park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the David Hockney retrospective. On the way, even as Eugene and I talked intensely, I noticed and admired more fathers and children.

We arrived at the Met and made our way to the exhibition. And then, as I was looking at one of Hockney’s more recent paintings, a large Yorkshire landscape painted on six canvases, the subject of my attention boomeranged back to me! A father and his son, aged about 13, who had also been looking at the painting, approached me.

The father wanted to know if they could ask me a question. Of course, I said. He said that he and his son were having a discussion about whether Hockney had painted each of the six canvases separately and put them together, or whether he’d painted one whole canvas and then cut it up. The son was of the latter opinion.

Together the three of us studied the painting closely and in silence for a few minutes. I told the son that I thought was right, because the foliage from one panel to another didn’t quite match up. We all considered the painting again, more in unison this time, and agreed. They walked on in one direction and I in another.

All morning I had been touched by fathers and children and then a father and child reached out to touch me directly. Such synchronicity is so sweet.

Photo above: A Closer Wind Tunnel, February-March (2006), by David Hockney, now at th Metropolitan Museum, New York City.

Watching Nature Breathe

To me, one of the most engrossing things to get seduced by is what I call “watching nature breathe”. This practice simply entails sitting or standing still, focusing on a place where the stable and the temporal meet, and then just waiting to see what happens.

The possibilities for such enchantments exist all over the place—and not just in the countryside. For example: you can watch the morning sun gently sink over the face of a rock, through the trees in a woodland, or even down the side of your house. You can get absorbed in how a breeze riffles long grasses. You can gaze at a single bough on a tree on a spring day and see what birds and insects come to land in it. You can witness clouds and sky interacting in the windows of a skyscraper.

Here’s a little video I made the other day as I watched nature breathe in the form of water flowing over a patch of ice in a hemlock forest.

8 Tips to Survive Hard Times

I’m a member of the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Binghamton, New York. Once or twice a year, I lead the service. Last Sunday, I did a service called “Creative Endurance.” The sermon was based on the extraordinary voyage of Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 in the schooner Endurance.

The crew set out in August 1914 to sail to Antarctica and then cross the continent. However, their ship was trapped in pack ice and eventually sank. They then had to make their way overland on foot, sail 800 miles in lifeboats, and finally some of the crew hiked over glacial peaks to reach a remote island whaling station. They arrived home in England more than two years after they embarked—and every person survived. (A great book about the journey is The Endurance by Caroline Alexander, which also includes photos by the ship photographer, Frank Hurley.)

On Sunday I told the story about the voyage and then offered 8 Tips for Surviving the Hard Times that I made up from the story:

1. Persist—but not foolishly. The mistake many polar explorers made was pressing on even after they began to suspect it wasn’t safe to do so. Shackleton was determined to protect his crew. That was his first priority. He didn’t achieve his goal, but he lived to try again.

2. An open sea lane is not necessarily a path to freedom. The crew of the Endurance learned that a sea lane would open tantalizingly in the morning sun, only to slam shut again at night when the water froze. When we’re in desperate circumstances, we’re tempted to grab any possible avenue toward freedom. That’s not always a good idea.

3. “Look to the day ahead.” That was Shackleton’s motto. If today isn’t working out so well, start planning how you’ll respond tomorrow.

4. Stay busy—but with meaning. On the Endurance, Shackleton made sure each member of the crew was assigned to do the kinds of jobs best suited to him. Sometimes when we’re having trouble, our anxiety persuades us we’re capable of doing absolutely nothing—or that we have to stay busy every moment of the day. It’s important to do the things that have to be done, but also to do things that are important to do for our sanity—like weed the flower garden, meditate, go to an art exhibit, call a friend.

5. Look for what’s wonderful in others. Shackleton chose his crew not just for their seafaring skills and sense of adventure, but for some uncommon reasons as well. One man remembered how bewildered he was when he came for his interview and Shackleton asked him if he could sing. The captain wanted people on the journey who would bring the best of themselves out, in bad times as well as good ones, and he actively looked for those qualities.

6. Take smart risks. Shackleton made tough decisions that saved lives. He risked staying with the ship. He risked abandoning it. He risked marching ahead. He risked halting the march and setting up a camp. Each risk required a different kind of strategy.

7. Acknowledge when something isn’t working, abandon it, and immediately set a new goal. The day after they had to abandon the sinking Endurance, Shackleton said to the crew: “Ship and stores have gone—so now we’ll go home.” The original plan wasn’t going to be feasible, so they set their sights on a new one.

8. Know when it’s time for a treat. On February 29, 1916, in honor of Leap Year Day, the Endurance crew was treated to three full meals and a hot drink. When we’re suffering, we think we don’t deserve treats, but that’s when we need them most of all. They can be simple, spontaneous, inexpensive—but they can provide a few minutes of joy in a tough time.

Photo of ice: Steven Kazlowski / Barcroft

The difference between listening and hearing

I know a lot of people who are smart, funny, creative, and in many ways fascinating and who simply don’t know how to have a conversation. It’s a situation I find quite painful.

Here’s what happens: When I toss out a story, idea, or opinion to them, it seems simply to drop at their feet. They don’t even try to pick it up. Often, after I have tossed that conversational ball, there’s an awkward pause as the other person considers what to say next. Then, unless I fill the chasm of silence, they will just carry on with what they want to say, and it usually has nothing whatsoever to do with my offering.

These people are hearing, but not listening. Listening is a game of catch. I say something and then you respond. Then I respond to you. It’s actually pretty easy. Here are a few tips I myself have picked up over the years from the great listeners I know:

1—When the other person is talking, look for enticing little tidbits you’d like to know more about and then ask them about that. There’s always something.
2—Listen for a  point of view that you agree with or disagree with, then venture that.
3—Mirror back to the other person what you hear. This does not mean analyzing what they say or giving advice. It just means letting them know you’ve really heard them.
4—Pay attention to how something they say elides with something that arises in you… and when you speak, pointedly make the connection.

In a great conversation, the people engaged lose themselves in the ocean of topics and ideas. You hop on one and ride it for a while to see where it goes, and eventually it slides up close to another topic that you can ride for a while.

Where is the environment anyhow?

In my article, “You Are Now Entering the Environment,” just out in the new issue of Minding Nature, I question what, exactly that word—that massive, amorphous place—means to us:

Several years ago The New Yorker published a cartoon that showed two people in a car turning their heads in bewilderment toward a roadside sign that reads: “You are now entering the environment.” Now entering? Where were we before? Surely the environment is all around us. Or is it? Like any good joke, this one has a bite that’s sharp enough to leave an aftertaste. What is the environment anyway? Is it a synonym for nature? Are you more likely to find it where there’s plenty of nature to enjoy or where nature is under threat? Can you get out of the city and spend a Saturday hiking in the environment? Or is the environment that place over there, the one that’s having a lot of trouble nobody quite knows how to fix?

To explore these questions, I talk about the environment as predator and as prey… how looking out the back window of the car as a child taught me about the meaning of “environment”… the many environments we absorb and are absorbed by every day, and other conundrums!

To read the article, click here.

Love, Actually is in the hospital

I love the movie Love, Actually. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a British film made in 2003 that ties together about a dozen love stories. Some of the stories are sad, some fantastical, some funny. They all braid together with chance encounters, great music, and fabulous actors.

The beginning and end of the movie takes place in Heathrow airport. We watch people greeting one another in the arrivals hall. It’s touching enough to get you weeping before the actual story has even started—so many lovers and parents and friends embracing one another after an absence. The love is palpable.

Recently, I’ve noticed another place where love is palpable—the hospital. In the past six or seven months, I’ve spent entirely too much time in hospital waiting rooms, while my husband has been treated for a kidney infection, severe back pain, and bladder cancer (he’s doing much better now). And I’ve felt a lot of empathy with the other people waiting for news of their loves ones.

While they wait, family members talk softly together. Individuals scroll and tap their phones. Some people read. Almost no one watches the TV that’s on in all too many of these places. But the moments when you see the love is every time the door opens and a doctor comes in. Everyone in the room looks up, wondering—Is this for me? Is this about the one I love? Oh my god, what will be the news for us?

In an airport, you see people joyful in the moment of reconnecting with love. In the hospital waiting room, people are standing on the brink between a future of health and easy companionship with the one they love or sickness and perhaps onerous care-taking.  In an airport, what you await impatiently is the moment of joy. In a hospital, what you await impatiently is a message that could bring either great joy or great grief.

In the hospital, too, as they say in the movie, “Love, actually, really is all around.”

Try this in your own driveway

 

The next time you go out to your car on a freezing morning and you have a few extra minutes, try playing this little game with the elements.

Instead of scraping the ice off the windshield right away, while the car warms up, just sit inside the car and watch the spectacle of melting ice. Turn the heater on full blast, aim it toward the windshield, then sit back. You might want to sip a cup of coffee as you attend to this phenomenon. But do watch. Don’t be tempted to read or check your messages on your phone. This experiment is best when you’re paying full attention.

After what seems like an endless spell of waiting with nothing happening, when you’re just about to give up and slam back outside with your scraper and get this thing done right already… Just then you will notice that a slight shift is taking place in the ice barricade. It appears as a dim arc spreading across the bottom of the windshield. This arc slowly becomes lighter and thinner, and finally you will start to see the ice crystals melting in the path of the heat. They soften, they drip. Some of them catch hold of other ice particles and drift down the window like a collusion of raindrops. Others loosen their hold on the mass and float upward. You can watch the borders of the ice field slowly withdraw and the outside world slowly become known. Ice and heat, clarity and obfuscation, nature and technology.

It’s a visual concerto.