Friday, May 29, 2009

A Crane Came To Visit Today

When I was a freshman in college, decades ago, the professor of my biology class, which I took to fulfill the science requirement, asked me my major. "English," I said, and he replied, "Good." I not only got the message, I agreed with him. I did pass the class, but then grateful I never needed to take another science class again, I immersed myself in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Fitzgerald. I read poetry about skylarks and daffodils and mighty oaks, but could I recognize them? Did I really see them? Not so much.

In our years of living on our Ohio country property, however, I began making up for that lack in my education and developed an interest in flora and fauna and all things that flew. As I walked to the garage, I would glance over towards the barn to see if the Great Blue Heron was in the pond. Would I see the awkward lift-off and escape? I started noticing football-shaped red-tail hawks as I drove country roads or even along interstates on my frequent Ohio to Minnesota sojourns. In spring I welcomed the return of red-winged blackbirds and barn swallows, and in the winter I kept track of all the birds at the feeder outside my office window. The blue jays came first thing in the morning and then all other hungry feathered friends felt free to follow.

Soon I began accumulating guidebooks and other books about nature and the seasons and even went on guided bird walks hoping to appear somewhat practiced, even though I still felt awkward with my binoculars. Is birdwatching one of those signs of aging? I don't know, but I know I thrill when I identify a bird as something other than a robin, jay, cardinal or sparrow. I have much to learn, but I feel myself making room for a new passion. I feel "what I know" expanding. I am stretching, living the label of life-long learner.

Recently, I became a volunteer at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. No, I am not a guide--no one would learn much going on a nature walk with me. Instead I work in the --you guessed it--the bookstore. I am, in fact, one of their best customers. Watch my pile of books grow! Along with learning the stock and finding books for customers, I expand my knowledge base when I ask customers what they saw on their walk or when one of the naturalists stops in and shares information. "We have 300 kinds of lilacs and 150 varieties of crabapple trees in our gardens." A young woman, taking a break from studying for her university finals, reported excitedly that she had seen a scarlet tanager. "Think black-winged redbird." Who wouldn't smile at that!

The other day I was alone in the store and was engrossed in a book called Teaching the Trees, Lessons from the Forest by Joan Maloof. In an essay called "Tree Hugger" I read these words: "My students are not used to hearing someone speak with such tenderness, with such fiercely protective words, about the nonhuman things of this world. It makes them a bit uncomfortable; they wiggle in their seats. I know that each of them really longs to find something to care about deeply. But they are still wondering, waiting for the thing that will claim them, like this living world has so obviously claimed me, their teacher. I cannot teach them their place, define their passion. I can only assure them that they do have one."

Probably more than one. Hopefully, new passions will be discovered, as time goes one. That's the way I feel about this new learning I am doing. And as if to reward this thought, I heard a knocking on the office door. I went out into the hallway to see who was there. A sandhill crane was knocking on the glass of the door with her beak. I laughed out-loud, so amazed to see this bonus of my new life in Wisconsin, this symbol of new learning and new passion right outside the door.

Is there room in your life for a new passion? What new learning, new growth are you opening yourself to? Where are the spaces in your education and are they calling you now? I invite you to listen for the knocking of a crane in your life.

Note: The painting of the crane was done by a friend who, retired from teaching, has discovered a passion for painting. Contact her at

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Take Your Soul for a Walk: Labyrinth Experiences

The labyrinth is an ancient meditation tool, dating back to at least 2500 B.C. Unlike a maze, which is meant to confuse, the labyrinth is a single path, which always leads to the center. There are no tricks and no shortcuts. No forks in the road. As long as you persist, you will reach your destination, the center, although there may be surprises along the way.

As a spiritual tool, the labyrinth can be a path to prayer, meditation in motion, a soothing place to ease the anxious mind, and a container for reflection and creative problem-solving. As you walk, your mind quiets, breath slows, time stretches out, insights or new energy or peace emerges. The intentional activity of following a labyrinth path gives an opportunity for a heart-to heart talk with your body and with your spirit.

This is the description I wrote this morning for a labyrinth workshop I'll be facilitating for the Madison Gilda's Club in July. Gilda's Club is an organization that provides support and services for those touched by cancer. I've facilitated many labyrinth experiences over the years and walked labyrinths many times in a variety of locations, and each experience reminds me that all meaningful spiritual work begins with coming back to the body and becoming grounded. Walking a labyrinth is an incarnational experience.

One aspect of incarnation or embodiment is meeting God, the Ground of Being, in myself and in my experience. I bring myself and my experience to a labyrinth, a being full of questions and fears and hopes. I am on a quest to get to the center and the clarity I hope I will find there. The questions vary, but are always some form of "What's next?" "When?" "Where?" "Who?" and I confess, "Why?" Now the labyrinth is not a Ouija board, but in the intentional slowing down, feeling each step, becoming aware of where I am on the path, allowing myself to settle into the pilgrimage, I open to the wisdom I know is within. The gifts from such times have included the permission to rest, the recognition of my steadfastness, the opening to uncertainty, and the shadow and light of ambiguity. Sometimes there has been a "go forth," and I have known just what I need to do. Other times I have felt myself breathe a bit more steadily and that has been enough for that moment.

I have sat on the sidelines, my hands on my knees, palms up, holding the space for all who walk. I have watched tears form. I have seen steps falter and the steadiness return. I have seen pain in tight shoulders relax. I have seen light descend and wrap itself where there had been darkness. I have seen rejoicing and embracing. I have not known what has been in the hearts of those on the path, but I recognize God in them, as I hope they have known God in my presence.

The labyrinth is a spiritual tool I have turned to often over the years, for even if I have left the labyrinth not feeling any change, any movement, I know the sacred has been at work within me and around me and I have taken steps to become more of who I was created to be.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Two Stories, Many Lessons

We thought we were just taking a road trip. We thought we were just going to a couple garden nurseries--for inspiration along with plants for the garden at our new home --a garden in need of renovation after neglect and lack of interest on the part of the previous owners. Well, along with a trunkful of plants, we brought a heartful of lessons home with us.

The First Story. While browsing through a garden store chockful of unnecessary, but lovely embellishments for home and garden, we heard a woman say how burying a statue of St Joseph is supposed to help you sell your home. We both chuckled and said at the same time, "It doesn't work," and we engaged in a conversation with a couple about our age who have two properties to sell, both of which have been on the market for a year plus. In the meantime they have moved into their new home. We shared our similar situation, except they had just received their first offer ---$150,000 below the asking price. I asked the woman if they countered $10,000 less than the asking price just to get the ball rolling and see if the interest was real. She cut me off and said how insulting the offer was and how they told their realtor they were not interested. Etc. Her anger and bitterness was tangible. However, at the same time I found myself engaging in the usual distressing conversation about the economy and the state of the world and our poor timing.

As we spoke, I realized that I have worked through some of the issues she talked about, especially the awareness that our unsold home is not a personal statement against me. Our farm in Ohio no longer belongs to us even though we still pay its mortgage and make sure it is receiving ongoing, basic care. I welcome the idea of someone coming in and making changes and making it their own just as we did. This woman was not at that place yet, and I felt her sense of entitlement. Someone owes her, it seems, for her love of her former home.

Only later did I think about how I was so easily sucked into the "poor me, poor us" conversation. I entered into the anger and bitterness with my own force. I reinforced what she was saying. I chose casual interaction over my own integrity. At least I didn't offer the well-meaning platitudes, "It only takes one,"or "It will happen." I wish I had a quarter for every time I have heard those statements!

What I failed to do was to be a presence for her. What I failed to do was to step back and receive her pain. What I failed to do was be empathic only, saying "I am sorry," and wishing them luck.
What I failed to do was breathe gently from my heart. Guess I haven't progressed as much as I thought. More work to do.

The Second Story. At the next stop, a nursery where the plants were so neat and clean you could eat off them, we conversed with another woman who has been caught in the difficulties of these economic times. Her husband lost his construction business, letting go 30 employees, and now their house is in foreclosure. This all after their house had been flooded the year before. She told us this without bitterness, and I commented on her "good attitude." Her response was how the winter had been dark, but she knew she had to work through those feelings in order to come out on the other side. She also said that even though right now they were beginning to feel excited about future plans and to see this time as an adventure, she knows there will be more dark days, down days ahead, but that it is crucial to keep doing the work. Her husband says, "Life is a workshop."

My first inner response was to feel how much worse her situation was than ours and in that way to dismiss my own feelings of sadness and even occasional despair, but I reminded myself about conversations with participants in cancer groups I facilitated over the years. Each person's situation is her own. Each person's feelings are his own and need to be understood and confronted and responded to regardless of what anyone else is experiencing. That is not to say it is ok to wallow in what we each experience, and there is often just as much temptation to do that as there is to dismiss it. It is always important to be empathic and be with someone in their specific pain, but that doesn't deny one's own pain, except for a minute or two.

My other major lesson of the day was the reminder that we each need to do our own work-often over and over again. One of my core beliefs is that we have each been given certain work to do; work that may come through a variety of prompts during our lifetime. Sometimes I feel I have done the work and then another opportunity to do more work comes marching down the street. A drum beats, "Do it better, harder, deeper." If we don't do the work in this lifetime, it will be waiting for us in the next. Most days I choose to do it now.

How nice it would be to end this post by saying that on our way home we got a call from our realtor saying there was a good offer on our home and we can live happily ever after, but that did not happen--yet. Today I will write mortgage checks for both our homes and as I do that, I will offer a prayer of gratitude for the ability to do that, and I will also offer light blessings to each woman who delivered such powerful lessons.