This primal threshold

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We are always on a journey from darkness into light. At first, we are children of the darkness. Your body and your face were formed first in the kind darkness of your mother’s womb. Your birth was a first journey from darkness into light. All your life, your mind lives within the darkness of your body. Every thought that you have is a flint moment, a spark of light from your inner darkness. The miracle of thought is its presence in the night side of your soul; the brilliance of thought is born in darkness. Each day is a journey. We come out of the night into the day. All creativity awakens at this primal threshold where light and darkness test and bless each other. You only discover balance in your life when you learn to trust the flow of this ancient rhythm.   ~John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

Keeping company with the possible

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Wishing you a year ahead that brings opportunities for taking quiet delight in the presence of your own company. May you notice inklings of interest and curiosity that could only spring from the heart of your own interiority and may you find the wherewithal to follow them. May you feel sufficiently rewarded by this process to repeat it over and over and, in so doing, may you find that you’ve once again stumbled upon the sustaining force, the inoculating force, for living a creative life, an authentic life, one that’s rooted in the wellspring of immense resources that reside, and will always reside, within you.

The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, who died just two days after his 52nd birthday, on January 4, 2008, wrote this poem for his mother on the occasion of his father’s death. I offer it here, for whatever the year ahead may hold.

Beannacht 

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green,
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

 

Wild heart

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Closing paragraph from Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone:

I’ll leave you with this. There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone, somewhere, will say, “Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.” This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, “I am the wilderness.”

Get out now

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GET OUT NOW. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run. Instead, pay attention to everything that abuts the rural road, the city street, the suburban boulevard. Walk. Stroll. Saunter. Ride a bike, and coast along a lot. Explore. Abandon, even momentarily, the sleek modern technology that consumes so much time and money now. Go outside and walk a bit, long enough to forget programming, long enough to take in and record new surroundings. Flex the mind, a little at first, then a lot. Savor something special. Enjoy the best-kept secret around–the ordinary, everyday landscape that rewards any explorer, that touches any explorer with magic…all of it is free for the taking, for the taking in. Take it. Take it in, take in more every weekend, every day, and quickly it becomes the theater that intrigues, relaxes, fascinates, seduces, and above all expands any mind focused on it. Outside lies utterly ordinary space open to any casual explorer willing to find the extraordinary. Outside lies unprogrammed awareness that at times becomes directed serendipity. Outside lies magic.”  ~ John Stilgoe, Outside Lies Magic

Thanks, Austin, for this one.

Bright Field

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I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

~ in Later Poems 1972-1982
by R.S. Thomas

Note: This poem was the June 16 entry in Almanac for the Soul: Anthology of Hope by Marv and Nancy Hiles. I so appreciate the generosity embedded in this self-published collection of life-giving poems and passages, providing my mornings for almost 10 years now with an anchor, a beacon and a beckoning for deeper reflection.

Refuge in troubled times

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At a local cafe with tables too close for privacy, two women are deep in conversation, one sharing with the other her concerns about her husband since the election. “He’s angry all the time. Our dinner hour’s been overtaken by non-stop cable news. He goes to sleep angry and wakes up angry. I tell him I’m worried about him. He says, ‘Where IS your anger? What kind of American ARE you?’

“I love my country,” she continues. “I’m prepared to do all I can to be part of the solution. I just can’t live like that.”

Neither can the rest of us.

The acute stress response that seems to be engulfing our nation would be necessary and even desirable if we were four-legged creatures roaming the Serengeti in search of a meal (or refusing to become one). Within that framework, we’d be grateful for our central nervous system’s DEFCON 1 activation—accelerated heart rate, fuel-injected muscles, dilated pupils with laser-beam focus, adrenaline, epinephrine and cortisol coursing through the veins, all in a miraculous choreography designed to ensure survival.

Here at home, though, acute stress reactions do the opposite. They threaten survival in scientifically-substantiated ways. Chronic stress can never be part of any solution for its corrosiveness to mind, body and spirit. Vitriolic fervor says more about our reptilian ancestry than it’ll ever say about our level of patriotism.

We’re hard-wired for the acute stress response by that 100-million-year-old part of the brain that sits like a clenched fist on top of the spine and knows exactly three songs—fight, flee or freeze. Fortunately, we’ve also been bequeathed a newer arrival, the 40,000-year-old neocortex, a veritable cerebral iPod capable of working in concert with other parts of the brain to offer countless songs, to say nothing of poems, paintings and performances.

This evolutionary cortical inheritance can provide a reliable refuge in these troubled times, but only when we invest in it, develop it and cultivate practices for harnessing the energy and power of the “lower” brain and all its percolating fear and fury in the service of effective action, problem-solving and creativity.

How can we do this? In his book, Just One Thing, neuropsychologist and mindfulness expert Rick Hanson, Ph.D. offers a collection of brain-training practices that promote resilience, effectiveness, and inner peace, predicated on the principle that the mind can be engaged in the service of changing the brain.

Practice #28 suggests that we Take Refuge:

Refuges include people, places, memories, and ideas—anyone or anything that provides reliable sanctuary and protection, that’s reassuring, comforting, and supportive, so you can let down your guard and gather strength and wisdom.

A refuge could be curling up in bed with a good book, having a meal with friends, or making a To Do list to organize your day. Or remembering your grandmother, feeling strength in your body, trusting the findings of science, talking with a trusted friend or counselor, having faith, or reminding yourself that although you’re not rich, you’re financially okay.

The world’s religions also have refuges that may speak to you, such as sacred settings, texts, individuals, teachings, rituals, objects and congregations.

Art-making is a refuge with an illustrious history. In The Three Marriages, David Whyte details the challenging, at-times deplorable conditions under which Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and others wrote their finest works. Marc Chagall survived two world wars, famine, antisemitism resulting in the complete destruction of his entire body of work in Berlin and the death of his beloved wife. His response was always the same—he painted. Mary Oliver’s Upstream highlights two refuges which, against the backdrop of a childhood marked by traumatic privation and abuse, were instrumental in setting the course of the future poet’s creative life:

In the first of these—the natural world—I felt at ease; nature was full of beauty and interest and mystery, also good and bad luck, but never misuse. The second world—the world of literature—offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy…and I ran for it. I relaxed in it. I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything—other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.

Where is your refuge? Do you commit to spending time there? In these challenging times, are you managing to reserve enough time and attention for those people, places and things that buoy the human spirit, sustain you and make it possible for you to be part of the solution in meaningful and rewarding ways?

So?

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So you aren’t Tolstoy or St. Francis

or even a well-known singer

of popular songs and will never read Greek

or speak French fluently,

will never see something no one else

has seen before through a lens

or with the naked eye.
You’ve been given just the one life

in this world that matters

and upon which every other life

somehow depends as long as you live,

and also given the costly gifts of hunger,

choice, and pain with which to raise

a modest shrine to meaning.

                                                    ~Leonard Nathan
Wishing you celebrations that feel manageable and meaningful along with plenty of peace and quiet. And may your New Year and mine arrive with an abiding sense of purpose and possibility for what could be. Thank you so much for your support and readership.