I had a super fun reality check today. After all my years and careers in what might be considered “professional professions”, I got a job posting notification supposedly “matching my profile” that I am qualified for the job opening at a hospital of “Cook / Grill – Evening Shift”. I love it! I have no idea how any of my known rubrics could have led them to think this, but it completely tickled my strange little self. Perhaps they sensed I am my Grandma Gladys Cook’s current incarnation? (She spent years cooking for a nursing care home after years of cooking for her four boys and many grandchildren.) Or maybe the hospital algorithm robot finally grew a heart and knew that my heart was always happiest when preparing food for people I care about and love? Either way — maybe it’s a sign I should apply? Reinventing myself is one of my favorite parlor tricks.
So, even though I have not only been around the block a few times but have been around long before quite a few of the new blocks were even a gleam in a city-planner’s eye, something can still pop-up out of the blue and tickle me pink. Sometimes the randomness of the universe can get me down, but the randomness of a comment can make my day.
We go through life not always listening to the signals and signs that appear to guide us to a better vision of what our “True Self” has been, is today, and perhaps with nurturing and a little luck, can be tomorrow. But now and then, like a sudden sound that wakes you from a deep sleep, something tickles, or jars, or lands like a bolt from the sky on your understanding of Self, and Life, and All. Sometimes the “bolting upright” is a result of a comment about oneself from a friend or family member. My daughters have been more often than I like to admit very good at making a comment that, like it or not, shakes my view of who I am. Daughters can be good at that if you let them. Good friends can, too. Or maybe you get a serious invitation to apply for a job that really thrills you with the possibility of who you might become, but you are afraid of leaving who you are comfortable being. Maybe instead it is an offer of some kind that slightly unbalances you with an insight of what you have already become. I have found I can be caught unawares by a side note from a coworker I barely know or even a complete stranger who assumes something about me that makes me take another look at my grocery cart or my bad attitude.
But for us privileged folks who live above the poverty line and not under the threat of bodily harm or mental abuse, we can develop an attitude of listening for signals from beyond one’s self-centeredness. This is not to imply all of us struggle with selfishness but we do all tend to keep our focus on the self that is only a “partial” self. Listening, really, honestly developing an aptitude for quick and deep listening, enables us to hear, even in the seemingly random or silly or anger-making conversations. Hearing past the surface, can allow me to hear the signals from beyond, calling me to a fuller, truer, more open and whole Self. Some of us call this attitude of listening intuition, or consciousness, or mindfulness, and some of us just call it God.
But then it comes to the hard part. The words we read or the comment we hear, just like the sudden sound in the night, may break through our un-listening barriers we have built against the mundane or may scale the walls of the self-defensive attack-mode we adopt as a protection for our vulnerabilities, or it may lift us from the stuck-in-a-rut-ness most of have fallen into, but just hearing something doesn’t mean we choose to listen to it. The noise may wake me from my spiritual slumber, but I can choose to go back to sleep.
Sometimes it may seem that we are only offered negative perspective choices – like a choice between eating over-cooked limpid broccoli or slime-encrusted crunchy lima beans. No thank you, to both! Rarely, but sometimes a choice may be hard because you have to choose between the chocolate soufflé or the slice of cherry pie with whipped cream. But hearing something and truly listening to something are such very different things, that we can confuse the positive nutrients with a negative presentation. I remember reading once that sour cherries are just as good for you as the sweet ones. Doesn’t mean I prefer them, but I can still get the health-impacting goodness from them. When I hear something, truly hear it, I far too seldom take the time to calm my mind, steady my will, and open my heart to really listen to it. And that is true whether it appears yummy or yucky at first. When my daughter says something that opens my eyes, I can choose to open my heart to that (and her) or not. When I read an email from or have a discussion with someone who is asking for something by adopting an attitude of superiority, I can choose to figuratively step away, take some time for silent meditation, and then see through the persons’ posing to the person’s real need for attention or their desperation to feel in control, and then I can choose to sympathize or even empathize. Because we all misspeak sometimes, even if we think we don’t. We all project onto others our needs and fears and hopes and confuse them and ourselves into thinking that we want to be more powerful or smarter or better, when what we always really only want is to feel loved.
If I really listen to what is murmuring beyond someone’s posture of grandiosity or anxiety or anger; listen for the tick-tock of the human heart that we who are all lucky enough to still be alive have beating within us, even in those who have covered it over with lots of ego-armor; if I walk in the shoes of someone before I try to rip the carpet out from under them, or dismiss what they have said, then that kind of listening opens up a cosmos of possibility of who they are, and who I am, and who we both might be becoming. In a world that pays little attention to the best of us, too much attention to the worst of us, and no attention at all to the Whole of Us, as that iconic little salesman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, once said, we are all just trying to make the others understand, “Attention must be paid.” And on a planet which we have tragically lost control of, to let go of needing to control things, is the first step toward healing ourselves – and possibly the planet as well.
Being made aware of something and choosing to use it for Good are different things. And I have found that I can often choose whether I am going to allow something meant for evil to grow roots in me, or, instead, I will let even the manure of life be used to grow something beautiful. As that amazing Hebrew, Joseph of Egypt told his conniving, lying, cheating, murdering own brothers! – “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for the good of me and many others.” (Genesis 50:20). Think of any hero you greatly admire, and you will probably find that the words and actions that others used against them for evil, were often the very ones the Greats turn into a great good.
And now, as Monty Python, might approve (and I think Jesus would as well), onto the secret weapon of using something for the good of me and others – the underrated weapon of Humor. I have found if I put my overly serious self aside, that I can have some fun with something, hopefully not at anyone’s expense but the “anyone” of my False Self, the self that I usually let take things far too seriously. I can, if I listen to the True heartbeat of the world, hear the magic that undergirds Creation, and that is the magical gift of holding things lightly. Learn to listen for the lightness. Listen for the giggles of elves or fairies, the chuckles of God, and the deep rumbling laughter of a universe that knows how small and puny we humans are but delights in us anyway. A comment can make me wiser and a better human but it can also make me simply happier or sillier. Too often I allow things to wriggle, slug-like and anxiously on my life’s plate like a slimy lima bean or I take it in, but I keep rolling it around in my mind like a chokingly bitter hunk of kale on my tongue. It reminds me of seeing people turning-up their noses at food served them, as if it isn’t good enough. But what it feels like to the server is that he is not good enough. Let’s not miss the point of what keeps us truly living. It’s just food, folks, don’t mistake it for meaning. The meaning is in the person who is giving it to you. Psalm 34:8 has a fascinating precursor to the later words of Jesus who asks us to “eat” him. The Psalmist writes, “Taste and see that the Lord is good, how blessed are those who shelter in God.” Think about it: eating God and sheltering in God. That’s an incredible, glorious strange mixed metaphor, even for me. God in us, nourishing our True Self, and God outside of us, sheltering us, serving us, with His Love.
How often do we gag down a day’s unique moments without ever tasting them? How often do we “take our medicine” like a grown-up but never wash away the bitter aftertaste of a comment or a memory or a mistake? Why do I not take the antacid of peace and joy when Nature or a friend or God offers it to me? Why do I hang on to the stomach-churning anxiety of something I am trying to digest before I have even finished what is on today’s plate of responsibilities or concerns? Sometimes I just have to say to my mind and heart and fledgling soul, “Jane, ole girl, choose to listen for the Good that is inside everything and the Good that is nurturing the world outside. Get out the chocolate syrup hidden in the pantry of your soul and pour that stuff all over life’s liver and onions!”
So, I was offered to apply to be a “Cook/Grill – Evening Shift”.
My first job when I was twelve was working at a sort of Christian camp dining hall cafeteria line. I was paid $1.25 per hour – (yeah, we won’t go there right now, ok?) I later was upgraded to work in the snack bar, making $1.75 an hour, where I served ice cream, soft pretzels, and what back then we called “Californians”. A Californian was a drink that had all the different soda pops– Coke, Root beer, Orange, Sprite, Mountain Dew–everything in the soda fountain machine, and they were all mixed together. It was never an exact science in terms of quantities of each and if I had to drink one now, I would probably gag, but back in the day and back in the small town of Indiana where I served sodas and floats and ice cream cones, a Californian was a fun drink, and a “secret” menu item not listed on the overhead menu board with the straight lines of slotted black lettering. I didn’t know then that someday I would live in the Magical Land of California, the number one place in the world for diversity, a land where the greatest mix of peoples, nations, tribes, and beliefs (and probably soda pop types too) are all gathered together in one giant oblong of pieced-together hopes and dreams.
Most people wouldn’t know this part, but the job offer I received is especially ironic because my maiden name was Cook. Think about it. I was born a Cook and then became a lot of different things with different names; names like nursing home assistant and personal assistant and assistant to the director and executive assistant (My goodness, I am the “always a bridesmaid, never bride” sort of person – always an assistant?! Oh, the metaphors I could murder in that one.) For a time, I even had a stage name and now my name is Tawel. Sadly, my husband doesn’t find it funny when people pronounce it Towel, but then that is his choice. I find it hilarious. And so once upon a time this Jane was a Cook, and she was now being offered a look back? a way back? symbolically at least, to being a…. Cook. Or was it a way to circle back around but arrive at a different Cook-Me? It has brought to mind one of my all-time favorite Joni Mitchell songs, one I sang a lot to my kiddos in The Big Bed, and years earlier, sang with my dearest bestest childhood and survivor-in-arms of the yearning pre-teen years, my pal, Lisa. Mitchell calls it “The Circle Game”, and in this Westernized into straight, marching lines world, I long for a world that returns us to the truth of circles. The well-known refrain, in case you have forgotten goes like this:
And the seasons, they go round and round And the painted ponies go up and down We’re captive on the carousel of time We can’t return, we can only look Behind, from where we came And go round and round and round, in the circle game
Oh, it is lovely to still be going round and round on this wonderful carousel of time. It is a privilege to have one more day – one more moment–on this circular conveyor belt of choices. As Mitchel sings, looking at where we have come from can be a fruitful endeavor, as long as we look back ourselves with the Eyes of Love. We don’t have to think all apples have a worm inside (or a snake offering them.) If you get an apple with a worm, eat around it and gently return the worm to the earth. If there really is a Satan behind something someone did to you or does or says today, destroy its power over you by refusing to take it into yourself. There really is evil in the world, just as there is Goodness, but when you sense it, do your best to spit it out. Whenever necessary, use the emetic agent of humor or self-centering self-care or deep breathing, or prayer, or the greatest emetic of all to help vomit out bad things you have swallowed – the cleansing, restorative, health-sharing agent of sharing Love.
Remember that old song – “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries”? The first part goes like this:
Life is just a bowl of cherries Don’t take it serious Life’s too mysterious You work, you save, you worry so But you can’t take your dough When you go, go, go Keep repeating, it’s the berries
You never know when you might be offered a job for a “Cook/Grill – Evening Shift”. Of course, on the flip side (get it? Flip it – like a Grill Cook would do? I think I’ve got this job nailed.) – on the flip side, you never know when today might be the day you get offered a job as an angel. And the only thing you can take with you to that job is all the Love you gave away in your last job.
Bottom line? Choose to live. Live as if there is a surprise, like the perfect center in a piece of chocolate, a joyful response inside you, just waiting for what you are given in your Inbox, in your desk drawer, in your yard, on the sidewalk, or in the words of the person you have just met or the one you have known all your life. Live as if today could be the last day – or it could be the first. Live large. Live free. Live well. Live in all the love you gather up and then share it.
My first job was serving food and I had many waitressing jobs through the years (I grew up in very gender specific times, so… ) and I did a lot of waiting on tables and taking people’s orders and some jobs in which I was preparing food. (At a deli I used the giant meat slicer thingy which still makes me tremble to think about whenever I look at my intact fingers. Especially because I still call it a “thingy”.). And I had no idea through all the years of food service, as I dreamt of what I really thought I wanted to be which was either a famous movie star or a famous writer, or a famous professor at some big-deal college, that all along I really had this “thing” waiting to be born within me. I had that seed we all have, that longs to grow to a ripe maturity. And mine would never make me famous or rich but would give me the love I had craved since before the beginning of time. And it would not just be a job but a calling; a purpose that was waiting and one that would allow me to give the love that I had had ready to share — ready to burst out of my heart-seams. That job waiting for me to be ready for it, was being a parent. But whether your calling is to be a parent or not, your purpose is to find that place in the world where there is Real Love and your True Self.
As I mixed the Californians, or took the orders for pastrami on rye, I was being “ripened” for the very most wonderful bestest job I would ever have. And this job would also involve food prep and service, because the best job I ever, ever had was being a mother, in my very own home, with my children, and my children’s father, and our dogs and rabbits and guinea pigs and lizards and hamsters and serving them all the breakfasts and lunches and dinners and snacks and left-overs and first tastings of books to read, and sights and sounds of new and old places to be in, and imbibings of music to hear, and encompassing, centering, heart-warming snuggles to snuggle, and all the partakings in together of all the love. All the love. All the love.
When you dream of all the Love—when you hold in your heart and mind’s eye, your own True Self –who are you? Who and what are standing by, ready and willing to serve you your Meaning?
I am an assistant to The Chef, The One Who has made the whole Banquet. I am merely a “Cook/ Grill – Evening Shift”. And God said, “it is good. It is very good”.
I am not a gourmet chef like my husband and some of my friends. I am a cook. Thankfully I am not yet past my sell-by date. Sometimes I still get to do the job I have loved most in the world, and sometimes that job involves my making and serving food for my adult children and my hubby. Sometimes it involves making or serving food to friends, the people who become that family you are allowed to choose, or making baked goods for coworkers or neighbors. And all these folks, family and friends, people I work with or for, give my cooking and my life a greater purpose than merely feeding myself. And because some of these people are the people who are the people I love most of all while riding this whole crazy merry-go-round we call life, I am made better for having opportunities to sometimes be their maker and server of food. Because loving someone with an action to it, is the most wonderful thing in the world. It is, in fact, the only thing that makes everything in the world, better. Even broccoli.
Every moment I get to be the new and evolving me with the new and evolving people I love and who sometimes bring the people they love and who make me feel both loved and yes, often unsettled, challenged, smarter and wiser, stupider and more needy, comforted, uncertain, yearning and complete, curious and sated — and oh, oh, oh so hopeful—then no matter what job I have at that moment or task finished or left unfinished, or role in other people’s lives, then I am both full and hungry, serving and served, centered, whole, and loved. This is God, isn’t it? God is hungry and sated, serving and served, and the Maker and Preparer of all the world and all the life and all the Love.
God is the Meaning behind all portions.
If you are searching for a higher purpose or higher calling or Higher Being, you need look no further than the table in front of you. Taste, eat, for it is good.
When life’s smorgasbord brings bitterness or rottenness, I don’t have to choose it. And sometimes I need to swallow my pride or hurt and say, hey, this can be digested and then used for the good of me. I will also allow myself to enjoy the chocolate crepes and warm apple crisps of being loved by someone. Love bestows on us the nourishment we need. Yes, we really do live in a world of a giant mix of often mixed-up people. But aren’t we all looking down the length of our own life’s table hoping that the Good stuff will be passed around and shared? Isn’t every one of us hoping that someone else will want to share in what we made and declare it, “good”? We can look at our full plates and find better ways of serving others. We can find pleasure in what is on offer in the Now. And we can taste and eat all God has prepared and provided, take it in for our growth, nourishment, and enjoyment.
Whatever the Banquet of Life offers me today, whether I am serving it up myself, or being offered some insight or slaving over the grilling, hard work of a relationship or just getting a taste of my own medicine from someone else, whenever possible, I will “taste, eat and see” that the Spirit Who not only made and provides the Banquet, but Is the Banquet is Good. And God said, “it is all Very Good. Eat it. Eat Me.”
Today I shall attempt to cover my broccoli with sprinkles of Goodness and the sweet honey of Love. I may far too often, need the reality checks of things that are hard to swallow, but that doesn’t mean I can’t sweeten them up with some healing self-reflection, some joy in the journey, some giggles and smiles, and sometimes, let’s be honest, just some literal chocolate. I may not always get to choose my life’s ingredients, but I can choose how to use them and how to dish them up. As Psalm 81:16 assures us, that just as I love to give my loved ones, good things to eat, The Universe, The One Who Is, God, if you will, also longs to give us good things: “But God would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock, She would satisfy you.”
I haven’t the faintest inkling as to why I got a request to apply for a job of Cook/Grill- Evening Shift. “Life’s too mysterious”, as the song goes. But I’m so glad I did. Finding meaning in every ingredient of my life’s own strange casserole is what makes it fun. . Well, that, and the occasional chocolate cupcake.
Life is just a bowl of cherries Don’t take it serious Life’s too mysterious You work, you save, you worry so But you can’t take your dough When you go, go, go Keep repeating, it’s the berries The strongest oak must fall The best things in life to you were just loaned So how can you lose what you never owned Life is just a bowl of cherries So live and laugh at it all Keep repeating, it’s the berries You know the strongest oak has got to fall The sweet things in life to you were just loaned So how can you lose what you never owned Life is just a bowl of cherries So live it, love it, wriggle your ears And think nothing of it, you can’t do without it There’s no two ways about it You live and you laugh at it all
Live your life today – it’s the best offer you are ever going to get. – Shalom, Jane
I have never made nor contemplated making a bucket list. I have absolutely nothing against making one, and I love to hear about other folks’ items on their bucket lists. I find them incredibly revelatory and hopeful. And of course, like everyone, I play the game of “someday, I would like to….” or “before I die, I want to….”. When a person’s dreams die, they aren’t just old, they are dead, no matter if a physical body indicates otherwise. As The Bard says, “we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep” – all too soon that sleep comes, so have at it with those Bucket Lists while ye may!
So, when I kick it, you won’t find a hidden Bucket List among my many pieces of revelatory, self-incriminating written logs. Then yesterday, something happened; and though I never went in search of greatness from a list of To Do’s Before Doom’s Day, a Bucket List item was thrust upon me. Shakespeare once more, said it first: “Some are born with Bucket Lists, some achieve their Bucket Lists, and some have Bucket Lists thrust upon them.”
I am visiting the beautiful (there is just no other word for the topography here) State of North Carolina where one of my darling daughters works and lives with my grand-furbies, Artemis and Apollo. Apollo is up and awake with me right now, being the young whippersnapper that he is, and he is bouncing all over the house waiting for his mistress to get up and feed him. I am forbidden to feed him, and if he bites my finger in hunger or starts chewing on the cord of my laptop, I am supposed to somehow catch him and shove him in his little time-out cage until said darling daughter arises to give him his breakfast. It’s hard being a Grand-meow who can’t spoil her dear grand-furby, but, the wrath of an adult child is nothing to mess around with I have found, being four adult-children down at the count. I love them more than my own life, but I miss them when they were little tykes and all I had to do was hold them tight when they were upset or kiss them when they were sad or laugh along with them at some silly thing that never made sense in hindsight but was just a way to joy in the moment. Now I am a helpless old thing against the tides and times that they have inherited from me personally and from my generation in general and from all the good and bad we try to control in the world and in ourselves with various degrees of success and failure. May the sins of my children’s mother not be carried on to the third and fourth generation*, but may I be forgiven the consequences of my mea culpas in their lovely, much-loved lives and futures.
My children all have Bucket Lists. They don’t share a lot of the items with me and that is as it should be. Bucket Lists should not be made into common currency or YouTubes, Tik-Toks or even movies with famous actors filling in for real people. Bucket lists should have a few sharable items: I would like to visit New Zealand. I would like to finish a Marathon. Stuff like that. But mostly Bucket Lists should be those hidden, cherished, held-close desires of the heart that let us dream of what might be in a perfect world, personal and public. They should be full of items that let us imagine being something other than what we are today, with a hope and prayer of doing at least some of those things. Most importantly, Bucket List dreams should be about being all that we imagine the Human Being is capable of doing and being, whatever that might mean to me, or you, or my child, or your friend. And the lovely thing about a Bucket List is mine doesn’t have to be at all like yours to be valid and important. Bucket Lists just might be the most uncompromised by cultural, national, or religious symbol of the most personal / communal Dream-Worlds of Endless Life Possibilities ideas in existence. I mean, isn’t Heaven really, just another word for Bucket List? Isn’t Heaven is also just another symbol for that endless eternal ability to be and do everything that the human divine soul was created to be and do? Isn’t the ultimate Bucket List really just another form of desiring a glorious, godly, divine, and endlessly available and possibility-enhanced Eternal Life?
A Bucket List is not just about creating an amazing future though, as I found yesterday. It is also about our deepest selves’ broken pieces being a little bit patched up; our short-circuits reconnected. The items on a list about things we want to do before we kick the bucket, reveal what got broken, or subverted, or short-circuited or stopped just that little bit short of realization. A Bucket List is not just about what may happen but what should have happened. We like to imagine a better future when we can’t deal with the bad stuff in the past or the present, (another reason so many religions got the underprivileged, non-wielding Bucket List folks, like slaves or minorities, living for Heaven, instead of focusing on what could be done about the present problems in their lives). Thinking about the fact that we are still alive enough to have hopes, dreams and desires – big ones, like the ones on a Bucket List – return us to the possibilities we imagined when we were children; when we still had dreams, when as children we envisioned an eternal future without any limitations. Our Bucket Lists are about finally going skydiving, because we dreamt of flying like Peter Pan, when we were children; or we want to check off a safari, and riding an elephant, because we imagined as children that we were wild animals roaming the jungles. When we were young, we romped together in our imagined worlds of play and in our freedom from soul-sucking jobs, or relationships that were hard, or physical ailments that meant we were unable to walk or move without pain, let alone check off our list the desire to surf Maui. Bucket Lists return us to not just hope for the future, or a belief we can fix something in the past, but also to at least for one minute, a joy in the fact, that “where there is life now, there is hope”. Bucket Lists are really about suddenly being present to ourselves as valuable, worth-while, dreaming, hoping, believing beings.
Yesterday my daughter and husband and I took a ferry to an island in North Carolina with a lighthouse. Seeing lighthouses is literally on my husband’s Bucket List, and we were able to check that off his personal list, with the help of his beloved daughter, by seeing two of the beautiful lighthouses that still operate today. Lighthouses were created to keep sailors and ships safe from the world’s dangerous waters and unforeseen shoals. Maybe Bucket Lists do the same for people.
On our way to the island yesterday, we passed Shackelford Banks. And as our captain, slowly passed by the banks, there they were — my eyes are tearing up as I write this, and remember it now– just as yesterday without anticipation, I found myself silently crying as I saw something that I immediately knew had been on my Bucket List without my ever understanding it was there. There in front of me were three wild Shackelford ponies, one a foal still gangly and unsure in the shallows.
When I was about eight years old, and my parents were a mess and going through a divorce that they never told their four kids about, and at a time I didn’t realize how what another relative was doing to me wasn’t appropriate, and my childhood seemed to be getting snatched away from me but I didn’t know it, my father, gave me a book called “Misty of Chincoteague”. It’s a famous children’s book by Marguerite Henry. You should read it if you still have a bit of child in your heart, or at least get it for a child you know and love. Later, when my dad let me choose a pinto pony for my own, he let me call it “Misty”. After a few years of my broken family being in a strange existence that isn’t about Bucket Lists at all, my mom remarried and moved us away and I rarely saw my dad and never saw Misty again. I guess she must have died, along with my own childhood.
Yesterday I saw those wild ponies, not on the Chincoteague of my youthful book-inspired dreams, but on Shackelford Island, while I sat next to the dreams I never knew I had – a husband of thirty-three years and one of my own dear, beloved children, grown to adulthood with her own shared and private dreams and Bucket List items. And the little girl I was, Janie Karen, came rushing up to meet me in the sight of those horses, and I realized: “I made it. I made it here to see this – to see them – to see Misty—after all these years. I did it. I made the dreams I never knew I had come true.”
And I checked off an item from the Bucket List I have never made:
#1: I will keep my childlike faith. I will continue to imagine and dream and look for the wild ponies in life, where ever they may appear.
“And it shall come to pass, that your young ones shall be divinely inspired; and your old ones shall dream dreams; and all will have the ability to plan the future with imagination and wisdom.” **
A long, long time ago and only yesterday, the materials for making my little life’s boat, were gathered in secret by the DNA of my Scottish, Irish, American Indian ancestors. But the real craft, the trued and tried boat itself, was crafted by the Great Crafter in the secrets that stretch back to the Beginning and stretch forward to the End of Time which never is. Like all carrying agents, large and small, puny and mighty, all that sail on this Ocean we call Life, or The World, my boat is unique and also it is exactly like every other little boat as well. My little boat, so small compared to others, yet just as specially made, will sail, in spurts and starts, or travel full-steam ahead, and go and go until the boat is moored someday as it was meant to be in the Eternal or until it crashes on the rocky shores of Ego or Despair. This is the truth about all sailing crafts, though many never know it because we either tie our boats up on shore, or we create a false shore in the water. But all true Truths try to teach us that our boats were made for motion in the ocean.
I am a little sailboat, who has long had the need for The Wind in my sails. I am lucky that quite early, I was taught what sails are for and what they are not for. I was as unlucky as many when my sails were brutally torn or holes were punched in the hull, the very soul of my ship. But I was not as unlucky as many, and I have managed. So, I have rebuilt my little boat many times with the help of others and that thing that true sailors call luck and that saints call grace. I have kept my faith in The Wind, which no one can control, and yet it exists. I have often sailed in the right direction with the North Star and Morning Star as guides. I have often sailed in the wrong direction and lost my way. Mostly though, I regret to confess, I have mistaken a mirage of my safety while moored to the dock for what I was meant to live as life on a boat.
There are many great ships that have sailed The Ocean, and sail it still, mighty and amazing in their superiority to most of our little folks’ small crafts. There are great ships with names like Caesar, or Pharaoh, or Titan of Industry, and many of these boats become enormous, powerfully engine-ed ships, making their way through The Ocean without need of The Wind, barely feeling the waves, never fearing the storms, and barely knowing they are moving at all, more like stagnant cities in the water than moving vessels. They put aside their sails and have no more need of The Wind. They take what they need from the Lands they conquer and leave behind. They take oil and slaves and buy more life vests than they could ever use; they sail their gigantic boats, boats that could house whole nations but only have enough room for one’s self. These have stopped being boats at all, and we look at those ships and we all want to have one of those ships, too. We want to be safe and saved and unafraid with everything we will ever need forever and ever, amen. And we look at our little tiny battered, torn-sailed little boats and we hate them and we hate us and we want to be them, the big safe ships. We look at the great steady cruisers and we long to have no need of The Wind; and we yearn to be in the Ocean but to control the way the Ocean takes us, like the great shipbuilders seem to do. And we forget that we are all created to be working sailors, not passengers. And we ignore what our heart tries to tell us, that even those with the biggest ships, will one day too find that The Ocean is bigger than they are. Perhaps when The Wind has wrecked the big ships upon the shoals of shallowness, or the sandbars of Eternal Truths, they too will long to once more sail a little boat.
Perhaps we will all, large and small, no matter how safe or how broken we think our boats are, someday find that The Ocean sends us an unlooked for buoy or a suddenly appearing piece of the Mast’s Wood; and we will each have one more chance to leave shore, and grab on to what The Ocean provides, and we will once more, like children, relearn a love of sending our little crafts out into The Ocean.
My boat’s sails have been tattered and torn so many times. I was not born a good sailor, and perhaps that has saved me. I have had to rely on The Wind’s benevolent appearing and disappearing, on the Ocean’s grace in storms and dead calm. I have had to depend on the help of fellow travelers who sailed alongside me, sometimes just keeping me company in the loneliness of Ocean life, sometimes teaching me something vital about how to sail, sometimes showing me what not to do by their own foolish choices at sea, sometimes sharing a compass that helped me navigate. And sometimes there have been those fellow sailors who, with great love, have helped me pick up the pieces of my little boat that I had allowed to break apart when I hit some shoals, or had left to rot in dock. And every once in a while, there was no one to help me, but only Someone to whisper across the waves:
“Fear not. Be still. Have faith. And know what you think you do not know. Don’t look at the waves. Keep your eyes on Me.”
I would like to say that I have been sailing The Ocean for six decades now, but I have mostly left my little boat docked uselessly in port. I kept thinking I was safer on shore, tied up to the Pier, with those I thought were peers and I felt already the salvation of knowledge of the things I had read about on “How to Sail” without ever needing to do the things it takes to set sail. I could tell you how to sail, but I rarely have experienced the thrill and dangers of sailing. So, I have spent a lifetime mostly feeling I should be happy that I had a little boat but never really knowing the purpose of my boat or why life seemed mostly rudderless and my sails sagged depressedly, longing for A Wind I would never risk meeting head-on. I have mostly lived by peering out, rather than journeying out. I have stayed on shore with all the best charts and maps but rarely finding the courage to launch my craft again and again, failure after failure, frightening success after frightening success, prophetically, mysteriously, in weakness and in strength, in death first and then life, baptized again and again by misadventure and death at Sea, and by setting my course, going into the Deeps, into the Pontus, into the waves left by The Wake of He who first Crafted and Who crafted the Sailor in me.
Last night there was a Red Sky and so I awoke today hoping for a sailor’s delight. But this morning the sky is still red- Warning! Warning! This morning the Ocean is covered over by Heavens which are a shade of red, red the color of shed blood; blood like the blood from two huge hands mangled by the nails of working His Boat and sailing The Ocean like no One has ever sailed it before or since, though we who know are supposed to have tried. And I am afraid. And I am uncertain I even know which direction to go. And The Great Sailor and all those before me who have managed to sail in His Wake are calling me to set out, while the sirens of safety in the numbers docked on shore make more and more knots in the ropes that tie me down.
What will my story’s end be? People call that a legacy, but most of us just leave with an unfinished story. I will not be leaving a beautiful houseboat, or massive warship, or richly outfitted yacht behind for those who carry on in The Ocean, those few who sailed close enough to my little craft to say, “I knew her” “My boat sailed for a time with hers” “I saw her boat on the shore”. I will have no lasting control over what becomes of those who carry on my boat’s DNA or those who may have learned something about their own boats by the teachings I have done or failed to do on “How to Sail”. But one thing I am learning. If I leave my little boat safely moored to this shore; if I am tethered to the sandbars of cares and needs and self and greeds; if I keep setting sail only to turn back again to dock my fears and doubts and insecurities and failings, instead of facing them head on, sailing into The Wind; if I do not daily, moment by moment, cure and polish and then test the seaworthiness of my little boat, I will never actually be in the boat. I will spend my Time, looking at my boat from outside of it. I will spend my Life, looking at my Life, from outside of it. If do not let the Winds fill its sails, my boat will never be what it was crafted to be. If I don’t let The Wind fill me, I will never be what I was Crafted to Truly Be.
A boat that is moored to the cares of the shore, can’t leave a wake. A boat leaves a wake when it is moving through The Ocean. We are each uniquely created by The Great Ship-Crafter to live life in the Ocean. We are given the ability to calm the waves and quell the storms, if we only have enough faith to start sailing, and once we start, to not look back at the sirens, and not look ahead at things that are mere mirages, but to point our little boats Due North, and let The Wind sail us towards what we were meant to call “Home”. Because if you are sailing The Ocean, one day you will wake up and realize that all along, you have been carrying your true home with you. Your little life’s boat has always been your Home.
Despite what any of us try to tell ourselves, none of us has ever seen the Far Shore from this shore. It is only when we are in The Ocean, that we understand that we were neither created to stay safely on this shore, nor were we created to try to reach the other Shore. We were created to row as hard as we need, to crew alongside those who sail within our latitudes and longitudes, to drift when we can’t feel The Wind and wait for Her to fill us again, to float and enjoy the beauty that is above us, below us, and all around us as we travel; to navigate with both honest fear and wise courage, and above all to be at Home when we Move and keep Moving within in and upon The Great Ocean.
What will I leave in the wake of my life? I pray that the flotsam and jetsam of my poorer decisions and weaknesses in sailing, will be carried away by The Great Ocean’s grace. I pray that my wake will leave a clearer sense of direction for those who sail behind me. I pray that there will be a small wake from my life’s little boat; a wake that leads others Due North, a wake that I leave when my boat is no longer seen by any but those on the Far Shore. I pray that above all, my wake will send waves to both near and far shores that swoosh with something that sounds faintly like something The Ocean would breathe, something like a person who had dipped her hands into the water and made small little circles of waves, something that sounds like what water would sound like if it were breathing in and out, ebbing and flowing. I hope that I will set sail enough times that my life-boat will leave a small little wake that sends waves gently lapping towards the world’s shores, and the children’s little life boats; a sound of waves in my wake that whispers something like this:
Shhhheeeeeee loooooved. Sheeeeeee whoosshhhh, llllllloved whiiiisssssh. She loved. She loved. She loves. She loves. Love….. Love……Love……..
The idea of a creed tends to bring up religious connotations and perhaps because of that, the idea of having a creed tends to imply a status quo, a static belief system, and a do-or-die pact between like-minded people who join together over ideas that determine an “in-status” and “out-status” for anyone who does not adhere to the CREED (in capital letters).
A creed is defined as “a set of beliefs or aims that guide someone’s actions”. Sadly, to look at many of the religious or national creeds today you would have to assume that the last part of the definition has been irrevocably deleted, so that a creed is merely a “set of beliefs or aims”. No action required. On the other hand, many groups, communities, and religious or political entities, have creeds that imply definite action without the members of said group having any idea what those actions really and truly say about what they must believe to act in said ways. For instance, patriots who storm the capital are, to those who do not claim to be following the same creed, foolishly and blindly or willfully and grievously, acting on a belief system that is in fact quite the opposite of patriotic beliefs in a true democracy. Or take the example of someone who joins what is recognizably a religious cult. While all religions have cult-like attributes, the victim of a person or personages who create creeds around themselves in order to control and manipulate the actions of others for personal or group gain reveals the “clear and present danger” of man-made creeds. Because while we may belong to a church, mosque, or rotary or mason’s club, full of a membership that sincerely believes that our creeds are inspired, divine, good for the common good of the group, beneficent, helpful, unifying, heave-bound, or even “God-breathed”– the plain truth is, every creed is simply a human-made attempt to put into words their “beliefs and aims”. The supposed God-inspired or patriotically-sound attributes are by default, then, at risk of misuse, misinterpretation, and mistakes as all humanly-created ideas can be. It is good when looking at religious or national creeds to keep in mind that if there is a God, no one has ever completely understood or known the “mind” of said God. And secondly, no one, and this means No One, can take an historical creed, nationalistic or religious, or otherwise, and apply it perfectly, or even realistically and practically, throughout time and place.
So, what is my point, you ask? What is my “aim” in this focus on the idea of creeds? I have grown up in a world of specific groups of people, each of which group believes that we memorize and recite our creed or pledge in order to prove what we believe forever, and forever, in God we trust, America the Beautiful, and blah,blah,blah grace, liberty, and justice for all, amen. Hands on heart, or folded before us in prayer, we worship the idea of the words, without having to follow through with the actions required by saying we believe those words are guides to our “purposes, actions, and aims”.
Let me give you a simple reflection on two popular creeds in groups of people that I have belonged to. They come from creeds I have memorized and recited in front of groups of other people, solemnly and faithfully pronouncing the words and by doing so, implying with the rest of the people with me that I plan on living a life that adheres to the principles in that creed. The first example, for me, would be the “Pledge of Allegiance”, which I have memorized and which I used to recite (often under the duress of group-think begun in elementary school). (Disclaimer here: I no longer choose to recite the pledge of allegiance, finding its meaning opaque and faulty. You can read elsewhere in this blog, why long ago, for religious and spiritual reasons, I began to choose to stand respectfully during the Pledge of Allegiance, but not mouth these words of allegiance to what for me, had become an icon or an idol.)
America has some really excellent creeds, like our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, but our pledge to a flag, which is tragically for most people, the only American creed they have any real knowledge of, is not-creed worthy. And if you look closely, it more resembles a “bait and switch” than an important set of beliefs. To simplify this thought for now, if I am pledging my loyalty to a symbol, then I should understand what that symbol stands for, because of course a symbol is a GIANT container for BIG IDEAS. Tragically, I know more than many, as someone who has tried to teach symbols, metaphors, and other mind-expanding literary devices for years, the average person, whether a high-school drop-out or a Harvard grad, have little clue about the immense importance of and very real truths inherent in symbols, word-symbols and image symbols alike. Let me put it another way, when the American Revolutionaries were fighting for what they believed to be their freedom, the symbol of a flag and a pledge to support this flag were profoundly meaningful to give credence to their actions. For soldiers in any country who are fighting for their country’s ideals, a pledge said around the symbolic icon of said country can be an incredibly important and unifying way to more deeply and subconsciously understand the meaning of the actions of war. But that brings us to a different problem – when a flag represents merely a nation’s rights at any cost to other nations or people-groups, then we have put the horse before the cart, and we are acting first, and re-forming the intentions of the creed to justify the actions. This is the opposite of what a creed is meant to do. A creed is meant to provide borders around as well as guidance for actions
Of course, even sillier than thinking that a creed only needs to be about a piece of cloth we fly for national identification purposes, are those who have come to believe that singing a song before a sports event is creed material. And to make matters worse, most people don’t know the words to this “creed song”. And if they do in fact know the words, as I do, can they hit the high notes that are meant to soar our belief system into a heavenly realm? As a matter of fact, what has become known as the American national anthem, is merely an historical story-song, a hind-sight perspective, of how and when and who won our independence; an event that happened way, way back when. (Although in terms of keeping an historical perspective, compared to other nations and countries, America’s young hold on life should have given us a little more humility, but alas that has never seemed to be first and foremost among our brash, young nation’s traits.) The creed-song of our country in fact, holds no creed-worthy tenets and again, if one were led to believe that one should act on the belief system of said anthem, then once more we are reduced to believing that all Americans should care about is a piece of red, white and blue cloth and a song that we sing to worship sporting events.
From a true perspective of belief systems, if a person really knew what they were pledging allegiance to when pledging to the flag of America or singing the song of American freedoms, they would applaud those who take a knee rather than mouth some words, and join them on their knees in a fight for the “justice for all”. After all, that is what Americans say that we have pledged to uphold. And furthermore, rather than punish protestors, if we believed our national creeds, we would prosecute anyone – ANYONE—who incited people to storm the building that is the epicenter of those flag-creed beliefs; and we would remove from office those people who pledged allegiance to grant “liberty for all”. Because creeds can only take so much self-centered, ego-driven, or greed-tainted abuse and still have any rational meaning at all. Funny, how two people can claim to believe in and uphold the very same creed, and have such different aims and actions as a result of said belief. To see this even more clearly, one must look at religious creeds, which have become so written in stone over the centuries as to become the worshipped, rather than the worshipful. One only has to look at the recent abuse of creeds in both Catholic and evangelical institutions to see that our creeds can all too easily take the place of our God. After all a dead creed is so much easier to live by and with than a living God.
Just like everything ever written or orally transmitted to people and people groups, all communication has two important elements: Audience and Purpose. In creed-creating, one can see that one problem that is to be addressed is that an audience never remains the same. It doesn’t take a rocket-scientist or linguist, a founding father or theologian to understand, that if one accepts the changing hue, temperament, needs, and make-up of the audience, then a creed needs to be either flexible, or changeable. It needs to evolve, just like people and nations and religions need to evolve. If a creed is written for one audience, like a fledgling nation made up of other nation-groups, or a young religion made of up Jews and Gentiles, or for metaphoric purposes, let’s just say, if the audience was once a bunch of five-year olds, but now are a vast throng of twenty-somethings, or sixty-somethings, well, the creed you are asking everyone to base their beliefs and actions on, either needs to morph and transform and evolve, or you need to throw it out and start over.
The second example of creed-following for me comes from not my national identity but my religious upbringing. Now, take care here, because in my own beloved country of America, far, far too many people seem to have confused the nationalistic with the religious, making both the creedal tenants of a separate church and state ideologies, both tragically abused and ridiculously meaningless. But, as another example of creed-use and abuse, one particular religious creed that I have recited in unison quite a few times in a long, long life of church going, is called The Nicene Creed. This is a religious set of beliefs that was written (and rewritten) in around the mid 300’s A.D. by the religious leaders of the Christian Church; and it has ever since been accepted by all forms of Christianity, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. This creed helps not only with understanding the interplay of intended Audience with belief systems, but the dangerous power behind Purpose in writing out a set belief system intended to inform actions.
The Nicene Creed is an excellent example of why, in order to understand the meaning of any creed or written set of beliefs, one must understand its purpose. In other words, to understand the WHAT, one must understand the WHO, but most important of all, one must understand and keep grappling with the WHY.
The Nicene Creed was written with the express purpose of “weeding out” and “gathering in”. It was written 300 years after the death of the supposed leader of Christianity, Jesus Christ, in order that the now powerful arms of the ruling class of bishops and “theologians” and paid professionals of the Church, could have a yardstick by which to measure if a congregant had a correct belief system or not. While the American documents of nation formation were written as a reaction to what had come before, they were also written with a great hope in what would and would not come after. The Nicene Creed, conversely, was written, not with a “hope and a dream” for a better world, like the American Declaration of Independence was, but the Nicene Creed was written expressly as a reaction AGAINST those who were questioning what had already become the status quo of a new religion. The Nicene Creed was written, as sadly, especially religious creeds often are, to protect the people who were in powerful positions and who “liked things the way they were”, in order that nothing would change what those in power had already determined the set-in-stone tenets of this new religion would follow. The Nicene Creed was written with the aim of ammunition against the threats that had arisen to the religion that had morphed out of the life, teachings, and hope of Jesus Christ, who never wrote a single document for us to use in the future, let alone a creed. One only has to look to the current year of 2021 to see how often we use creeds of national and religious institutions not to bring about meaningful and hopeful, productive change for all, but rather to prevent change and keep the status quo for those who benefit from the past, not those who need a foundation in the present, or a dream for the future.
It came as a shock for me to revisit the so-called standard bearer of creeds of the Christian religion and realize, that just like the American national anthem, The Nicene Creed, is not at all a creed – it is a written account of a group of beliefs about the history of the planet, the history of a man called Jesus, and the history of God. And like a crack over the head, I realized that all these centuries of reciting this creed and taking it as “gospel” has in fact, only led to one discernible aim and one obvious purpose – to believe this creed is to be “in”, “chosen”, part of “the correct group”; and to veer in any part of this creed, is to be “out” , a heretic, not one of the chosen group. And it doesn’t matter one bit, how those who recite this creed as a founding and important and even “Godly” document—it doesn’t matter at all how we act or live. We have reduced belief to intellectual assent and nothing more. We have reduced creeds to the level of secret handshakes or long-lasting party games (“party” has two meanings here). We have taken the meaning of what we call “faith” and reduced it not to a relationship with a living God or a relationship with the people we live with, but to a stagnant set of tenents, that barely effect our knowledge base, let alone affect our hearts, souls, or actions.
A creed can imply, for some brave and intrepid souls, an aim or an action. So, let’s say I still want to cling to my religious creed as something that should influence my actions. Let’s take some of the words of The Nicene Creed for example. If I actually believe for instance that “God is the maker of heaven and earth”, as my creed proclaims; then consequently, I should treat the earth as if it is God’s. If the whole earth, planet, people, trees, plants, animals, air, water – if all were made by a Supernatural Being that exists somewhere beyond the Earth but also within our World, and Who loves the whole planet as something She/He/They created, then how should I and my fellow creed-followers ACT? How should we, based on our creed, treat the Whole World, the created essence of Our God? Well, if actions speak louder than words, one would have to conclude as the inspired words found in James 2:14-26 does, that “faith without works is dead”.
To take a simplistic approach to deducing what I might mean when I say I believe in the ideas that have been written down in the Nicene Creed, let’s pretend I really did believe that when my group of fellow Nicene Creed believers recited this, we were joining together to commit to actions implied by the “beliefs or aims” presented in the words, and that by committing to the beliefs that would lead to actions we were also saying that we would hold ourselves and each other RESPONSIBLE for following through on how best to act on those beliefs and to LIVE OUT those beliefs in our community and in the world at large. If that were the case, what would it mean for me to say with others: “I look for the life of the world to come” and how would I act in order to live into a world that I prefer to the one we are making now?
A creed, to be any use or any good at all must be open to change, and in constant evolution, just like any group, or church, or nation, or club, or human being, should be. The ironic thing is that for a creed to be consistent, it must be open to new interpretations and new ways of living into the truths supposedly inherent in the written words. To be not only deeply true, but critically useful, a belief system must be a kind of oxymoronic foundation, that is both bedrock and solidly based in eternal truths, and also completely and eternally changing with the deeper understanding amidst the new realities and new responsibilities of the place and time in which humans live. A creed should be as evolutionary as every living thing in the created world actually is. What a person believes should be as grounded in what a person should be as nature is grounded to the Earth. To Be-lieve is to let my Be-ing, Live.
I have begun to look more intensely and intentionally, at the many sources of my own belief system and I have been humbled by the great writers, teachers, radicals, and most of all the “Do-ers” who have created the creeds that aim to guide us, both as citizens of the world and for some us, perhaps and hopefully, as “citizens of heaven”. And as I look and read, and reread, meditate, and grapple and struggle with these creeds, and find new creeds from other places, times, nations, and religions to wrestle with, I am trying to turn my telescope around the other way. I am trying to observe my actions, both current and past, and ask myself this:
What is my Purpose? What do my actions tell me and others about what I really believe?
What do I actually do to support the nation and community I live in, to the best of my ability in my understanding of what it means to be a good citizen with care and caring, and “freedom and justice” for all?
What do I honestly believe about my spiritual identity and the spiritual identity of my “audience”? What parts of my faith are “dead” and inactive? And how strong and true is the faith of my works? How much of what I say I believe is Alive, in connection with A Living God? Is the “Why” of who I am, leading me “further up and further in”, to bring Life and Be Life?
So I am, in effect, as all of us are, whether we know it or not, daily writing our own creed. We are either consciously or subconsciously, allowing new creeds to help us change for something that can simply be described as “better”; or we are allowing our fears and stubborn foolishness to keep us moored to the shoals of dead creeds, useful only for self-importance or a false sense of security and power. I began a little exercise, which I may write about later, but now is just a rambling musing and jotting down of ideas that I think I could look at as “My Current (but maybe not Forever, depending on revelations to come) Life Creed”.
I encourage you to try writing out what you think you believe to be foundational to your worldview, your creed. Then write out as many of your life’s actions that you can match-up to prove you have lived according to these beliefs. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is for those who desire a little humility with their hope today. I am finding as I meditate on this exercise more of the who of myself, more of the who and who not of my audience, and more of the Who of The One Who Is. I am also finding more of what the true connection is between my imagined purpose and my true purpose. I am finding that I really have never had much of an idea of what it all means in light of eternity, but that it is enough for me not to know some great purpose, as creeds would lead us to believe. It is enough for my purpose to Be me and to act in a way that I would like all humans to act towards each other. My faith can still be “the essence of things unseen but hoped for”; and my life creed can be the “peace that passes understanding”, the wholeness that means simply that I want to be active in whatever Goodness and Love are doing in the world, no matter whose creed is behind it.
I don’t know much, but I do seek for much more, and in that is, with a lot of grace, I believe, my salvation; for as that brilliant creed-buster, St. Paul wrote:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (I Corinthians 13).
And any creed without Love at the center is no creed worth following. And Love is always the Ultimate Creed.
One Thousand and One Things I Should Be Doing to Make My Life More Meaningful
(But For Now, Here are Five)
By Jane Tawel
March 31, 2021
Now that I am of an age, there are regrets, of course about wasted time and wasted energy, wasted dreams, and wasted relationships. But of course, looking back on regrets is worthless if I can not use them to make myself, or at least just my day better. With hope and a bit of luck, maybe I can even make my “Tomorrow Me” much better. You know the one I’m talking about; that Person that Tomorrow will be all those things She is meant to be.
Yep — hope springs eternal that with a little elbow grease and grace there may be within my life a confluence of context; a critical combination of conveyances to convey more meaning to my existential essence. Ah, that “thing with feathers”, that beats within, giving meaning even to the falling of a sparrow or the timely chirp of a chirpy-bird, that excruciatingly human attitude we call, “hope” shows up “asking nothing at all” but to remind me that The Greatest Meaning of All has created my being to seek and live out and unto others, a life of meaning.
Of course, maybe you are not like I am, always wanting to add more, je ne sais quoi? Maybe you are a girl who just wants to have fun*, or a just an ordinary average guy* (*song allusions intentional). But I am that “sort” — one of the ones who desire more sense, connotation and denotation, elucidation, substance, significance, more purport and implication. As Francois Rabelais might say, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps”.
I think when you get to be my age, you want to find more meaning than you are used to because maybe you are more sorta kinda okay with the uncomfortable pauses and the untidy questions. That seems silly maybe? Maybe it is the young who are truly seeking, searching, defying, rebelling, hating, loving, and jumping into life to find true meaning, big meaning, small meanings, ultimate meaning, and just the meaning of choosing to make sustainably-grown-coffee-at-home meaning. I don’t know but I fear the young ones have been led astray that finding meaning is a waste of time if it takes them away from working towards success. I hope I’m wrong.
I fear the young ones, my own dear adulting children included, are a little afraid of using the best time of their lives wisely, not by being smart, but by being curious. I know I didn’t know how important that was when energy was in excess. And that word “use”– goodness what a horrible word “use” can be. I talk about how we “use” time but that is the Great Lie, the fallacy perpetrated by bosses and kings and a chimera of meaninglessness, followed like a mirage, like a Pied Piper — just up ahead — almost there –keep marching — one-two, one-two, one-two –struggling on scraped and banged up hands and knees towards an idea of Time we never reach. Meanwhile all there is to be seen on the road, all the glory that hides in bushes in weeds along The Way, that we speed by or plan to come back to someday, is ignored. But as Robert Frost reminds us, whatever road we take, whether the one less taken or the one equally fair, we can’t keep the time we spend for another day.
Time is not useful. Time is the dream. Time is not to be pulled and pushed like putty, nor molded like play-dough, soon to be flattened and reshaped in a new Monday, a new Tuesday, a new Wednesday and on and on and on. No, Time is to be coddled like the new-born infant it is each time we awake to it and each night when we put Time to bed. Time is to be caressed like the Lover we dare not take for granted, or it will leave us, deadened and dried up, longing for that first love of Time when we were young and thought we had all of it we could ever desire. Time is not a hive where we all, like worker bees, continue to stay busy, busy, busy, buzz, buzz, buzz, making honey-money for someone else, some other day, some storage unit dripping with nectar we never take the moment to taste and enjoy. Time is the thing that separates us from the birds and the bees, the essence, not the effect, the hint that our humanity is not created to be a slave to time but a partaker of The Dance of Timelessness. My search for meaning is, at heart, a search for how to give Time its due, to return to Time my love and to honor it for the precious gift it is.
Now that I am old(er), I hate how much time I wasted but more than that, I hate how much time I waste on a daily basis. I don’t mean I hate having to work a job; I mean I hate thinking about how much I hate having to work a job when I am working at my job or even when I am not working my job. I don’t mean wasting time watching a show or reading a book; I mean wasting time watching something or reading something that isn’t edifying or inspiring or at least just plain darn well-done or good-fun. I don’t mean I hate wasting time talking with other people or doing stuff for other people; I mean I hate wasting time not really listening to people I care about; I hate doing stuff for other people because I “have to”, not because I love the fact that where there is life, there is still the ability to do things, to give something, to share or sacrifice, or even just to plain do the darn dishes for someone else. I hate wasting time thinking about politics and everything wrong in the world; instead of skimming the headlines and then thinking about what I can do to make the world a better place.
So though I wish every day I could expand time to do one thousand and one things more to give my life meaning; here are at least five things I am becoming, no I am committing to make myself, more aware of in order to try to make my life more meaningful. Just five to start with out of a thousand and one to seek and find, learn and love, and hold and share. They are little tiny things, and you don’t have to agree with my choices here, but I hope it will inspire you to find those small things in your own life that you can look and tend to, cherish or change, and give more meaning to who you are and where you are journeying in life today.
As the Ecclesiast says, “there is nothing new under the sun”, but that is also the amazing thing about time and the search for meaning — we share the passage of one and the search for the other with our ancestors. I hope we can learn to better preserve the preciousness of Time and impart the purposefulness of meaning for our future children.
Five Little Meaningful Things on My To-Do List Today
1. See, hear, touch, taste, smell. In other words, although words can not truly describe the quality of our five senses, I tend to think Fritz Perls had a point when he said, “lose your mind, come to your senses”. I just plain think too much. Life would have so much more little special moments of meaning if I just enjoyed whatever sense I happen to be using at the time.
Look and wonder or discover. Listen and take the sound into your heart, whether it is the sound of a friend speaking or the sound of a cricket or a bird singing. Enjoy the amazing ability to taste food from the time it touches your lips until it reaches your belly. Inhale a scent and let it settle in, making itself a mysterious acquaintance. Perls, the psychotherapist who discovered Gestalt Therapy believed that humans are a wholistic entity, consisting of body, mind, and soul. He was a great one for understanding that when we view ourselves in the moment, through our own eyes, and not by looking back into the past but by bringing the past into the present, we become more whole. Focusing on using our senses goes along way toward reviving the mind and soothing the soul.
2. Do it with purpose but not always purposefully. There doesn’t always have to be a goal to achieve when we do something. In fact, we need to do more things more often with no other goal than joy in the moment’s journey. For me, the example would be humming or singing. I find I am one of those people who just hums all the time, like a crazy person. But I hum, well frankly, just dopey sounds that do comfort me, I guess, and activate that old Vagus nerve, but I am trying to make this a more meaningful meaningless exercise in my life. So, whenever I find myself humming some stupid syllabic scales, I try to “change my tune”.
Sometimes now when I catch myself humming nonsensical garbage, I make myself focus on the fact that I believe all of life is spiritual and that the Divine is present; so I’ll hum something like “Be Still My Soul” or “For the Beauty of the Earth”. Sometimes however, I will hum something that just makes me happy, like Mr. Roger’s “Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” or “Feeling Groovy”. Sometimes I make myself hum something that is fun and has the added advantage of bringing to mind a memory of someone dear to me like when I hum or sing my dad’s old stand-by “You Get a Line and I’ll Get a Pole” or I sing something I used to sing to the kids in our big bed at night like “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” or “On Top of Spaghetti”.
If you are not a hummer, I highly recommend it, but if it’s not for you, find that thing you do that maybe seems meaningless, but could do with a little attitude change directing it towards meaning. For instance, do you, as I have always done, play with your hair? This habit drove my mom crazy for some reason, but I realize now that it was a comforting technique. Do you have a habit you do that comforts you and doesn’t hurt anyone else? Then do it with meaning. If you are a hair-stroker, stroke with contentment and really feel the silky strands or crunchy curls or just be glad you still have hair to fondle! Maybe you are a “tapper”. I taught a lot of students, especially boys and young men, who were “tappers”. If you are a person who taps with a pen when stressed about a test or taps when you are working on a project or taps mindlessly when you are trying to keep your cool or patiently wait or someone who just enjoys the sound of drumming, then — tap with meaning! Do a drum beat and make your own rhythmic music. Mix it up a bit and see what happens if you use your other hand to tap out some beats. Let yourself feel primal and connect to the age-old and ancient art of beating. Whatever you do, tap to the beat of your own self-be-true.
We should remember when it comes to these habits or seemingly meaningless activities that we can give them meaning if we recognize they reveal something about how we are created and how we exist between the natural and the sublime. As animals we often unconsciously make sounds or fluff our feathers, but as humans we can consciously create and we can imbue with a greater meaning, those instinctual or habitual actions. We don’t have to be consciously purposeful all the time, but finding more meaning even in the instinctual or habitual can bring us unexpected enjoyment in random creative acts. We are those beings who can create our own delight or pleasure or calm, even in the boring, mundane or stressful.
3. Breathe. How many times do we have to say it? hear it? preach it? I am so sick of people telling me to breathe and breathe deeply, but the fact remains, we have just stopped breathing deeply. At least in my Western, uber-get-ahead culture, we decided as a species we no longer could waste time breathing deeply, feeling our chests rise and fall with the intake and out-take of air, enjoying being alive because our lungs work or our lungs are healthy. Ain’t nobody got time for that, man! Breathing is such a waste of time. So, we will do the minimum to stay alive and leave the deep breathing to babies and monks.
If you didn’t have Covid issues this past year, thank God or your lucky stars, but for those who did or suffered with someone who did and who had trouble breathing, it is one of the things this pandemic should make us grateful to be able to do. Instead of just shallowly breathing the way I have gotten used to doing it, as a rote bodily function for merely staying alive, breathing with attention, with a bit of meaning in it, is my goal to do at least as often as I can.
I breathe deeply for the sheer enjoyment of being able to do it, and for any of you spiritual folks, like I try to be, we should remember: there is a divinity in breath and breathing. The Divine is often pictured as revealing to us a holy spirit encountered through our breath. Without breath, no life; and without life, no meaning.
4. Stop complaining; Start Maintaining. This poem by Gunilla Norris is about the paradox of maintaining and her words and thoughts are more eloquent than I could ever express.
Paradox of Noise by Gunilla Norris
It is a paradox that we encounter so much internal noise when we first try to sit in silence.
It is a paradox that experiencing pain releases pain.
It is a paradox that keeping still can lead us
so fully into life and being.
Our minds do not like paradoxes. We want things
To be clear, so we can maintain our illusions of safety.
Certainty breeds tremendous smugness.
We each possess a deeper level of being, however,
which loves paradox. It knows that summer is already
Growing like a seed in the depth of winter. It knows
that the moment we are born, we begin to die. It knows
that all of life shimmers, in shades of becoming —
that shadow and light are always together,
the visible mingled with the invisible.
When we sit in stillness we are profoundly active.
Keeping silent, we hear the roar of existence.
Through our willingness to be the one we are,
We become one with everything.
— Gunilla Norris
People used to use phrases like “maintain your purity” or “maintain your integrity”, but now we don’t have much use it seems for maintaining things any more, in our easily disposable world of everything from disposable fast food containers to disposable relationships. The title of Norris’ poem reminds me that we too often let our inner lives become as distractingly, irritatingly noisy as is the constant noise we have to endure in our outer lives. But we have a choice about letting so much noise rule our inner beings. Stopping negative thoughts is one good way to begin to make a courtship with silence and to nurture a peaceful inner environment.
The Norris poem coaches us to see through the charade of complaining and to recognize that maintaining illusions of safety by needing things to be clear or black or white even just wanting to understand a thing or a person, are just that — not quite what they seem — illusory. We humans are the greatest paradox the world has ever known; demonic and angelic, foolish and brilliant and wise; fearful and brave; selfish and sacrificial; hateful and loving; anxious and peaceful; greedy and generous — we are paradoxes alone and a paradoxical community of beings and all of us are everything and nothing and it is rarely if ever as clear-cut as we make it out to be.
To stop complaining means to understand that the mystery of anything is much more holy and desirable than the knowing and owning of something or someone. To maintain an even keel through life’s ups and downs, is to keep balancing the teeter totter of one’s existence daily; flowing back and forth; swinging in the pendulum of the glorious idea and ideal of being fully and incredibly human. “For we are fearsomely and awesomely made”. Human maintenance requires a great degree of bravery in the face of all we do not know. Complaining is an unworthy shield to hide our fears behind, fears of sallying forth into the battle and possibly being victorious. We will never know until we put away the things of a childish attitude, and take up the things of an adult. Giving up grumbling leaves a pretty large, wide open field for all the things we can take up instead to do with our feelings and thoughts.
5. Be Yourself. And yes — here one must add the old standby — because everyone else is already taken. And isn’t that wonderful! Think about how many “everyone elses” there are for each of us to get to know! And seize hold of the idea that you are unique and that that it is not only just “okay” to be who you are, but it is wonderous and inspiring and you are so very, very needed in the world because there isn’t another You.
No one else can connect the same dots of a life to make a “me” in the same way I can — it is exponentially impossible. Like a pointillism painting, my own specks of a life come together to make something uniquely lovely and meaningful.
So today, I will try not to let anyone, including myself be unhappy with who I am. I will accept I am not perfect, that I need to make changes, and that there are some things that need work. But I will find meaning in the fact that I am Wholly Me. And that is a Me-aning worth living and worth loving.
As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life”. The Great Perhaps becomes the Great Purpose when we choose to make meaning however, whenever, with whomever and whatever we can. It is our great Why and all meaningful moments make the Why the raison d’etre. What is the reason for my being today? The answer is simply and profoundly complicatedly — my life.
To get more meaning out of life, we don’t need a thousand and one ways. Starting with one or two will do. Again, I must turn to poetry to distill the important “stuff” about life. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the following about the meaning of our lives and the title alone gives me joy in the journey and meaning for The Way. May it be a Psalm for your life today as well.
A Psalm of Life
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, — act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
May we learn to love “acting in the living Present, heart within, God overhead” and may we each find joy in our own very unique journeys towards a more meaningful, wonderful life. Yes, we can make our lives sublime.