The Road Ahead

He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
By being far too busy looking for it.
Searching the distance, he often turned to find
That he had passed some milestone unaware…

The path grew easier with each passing day,
Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill.
The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom.
Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom?
~Dana Gioia from “The Road” from 99 Poems: New and Selected

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Still ’round the corner there may wait
A new road or secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
~J.R.R Tolkien from “Roads Go Ever On”

Like many others, I have experienced the disconcerting feeling of traveling a familiar route with my mind completely disengaged. Suddenly I find myself at my destination without a conscious realization of how I even got there or what I saw along the way. Or maybe I was doing a routine daily task and later couldn’t remember having done it (did I shut off the barn faucet or are the water barrels flooding over all day?) because my head was somewhere else.

We describe this as “auto-pilot” or “body memory” or more distressingly “dissociation” — most therapists prescribe “mindfulness” to reengage us in our daily lives and thoughts. I’m not sure it is mindfulness that I practice, but I do force regular “brain check-ins” to anchor me to a time and place and task. (“yes, I have just passed that intersection where that truck and trailer almost hit me years ago and I am grateful to still be alive” or “I am now shutting off the barn faucet and won’t have to think about it again until tomorrow, thank you very much!”)

I regret “missing out” on experiencing my journey because I was so busy scanning the horizon for what is to come or looking back at where I’ve been, or watching where my feet will land or thinking about anywhere but where I was in the moment.

I need to acknowledge the milestones and not pass them by unawares — stopping at the view points, reading the historical markers, taking a breather at the rest stops. I seek to find the hidden paths and explore them rather than be solely destination-driven.

I must pay attention to who is alongside me and be ready to steady them if they trip or stumble, and pray they’ll catch me if I start to fall.

And most importantly, may I stay pointed toward the lighted inn that is awaiting all of us.

Standing Still as Stone

Broad August burns in milky skies,
The world is blanched with hazy heat;
The vast green pasture, even, lies
Too hot and bright for eyes and feet.

Amid the grassy levels rears
The sycamore against the sun
The dark boughs of a hundred years,
The emerald foliage of one.

Lulled in a dream of shade and sheen,
Within the clement twilight thrown
By that great cloud of floating green,
A horse is standing, still as stone.

He stirs nor head nor hoof, although
The grass is fresh beneath the branch;
His tail alone swings to and fro
In graceful curves from haunch to haunch.

He stands quite lost, indifferent
To rack or pasture, trace or rein;
He feels the vaguely sweet content
Of perfect sloth in limb and brain.
~William Canton “Standing Still”

Sweet contentment is a horse dozing in the summer field, completely sated by grass and clover, tail switching and skin rippling automatically to discourage flies.

I too wish at times for that stillness of mind and body, allowing myself to simply “be” without concern about yesterday’s travails, or what duties await me tomorrow. Sloth and indifference sounds almost inviting. I’m an utter failure at both.

The closest I come to this kind of stillness is my first moments of waking from an afternoon nap. As I slowly surface out of the depths of a few minutes of sound sleep, I lie still as a stone, my eyes open but not yet focused, my brain not yet working overtime.

I simply am.

It doesn’t stay simple for long. But it is good to remember the feeling of becoming aware of living and breathing.

I want to use my days well.
I want to be worthy.
I want to know there is a reason to be here beyond just warning the flies away.

It is absolutely enough to enjoy the glory of it all.

Foggy and Fine Days Within Me

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And so you have a life that you are living only now,
now and now and now,
gone before you can speak of it,
and you must be thankful for living day by day,
moment by moment …
a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present…

~Wendell Berry from Hannah Coulter

 

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~Lustravit lampade terras~
(He has illumined the world with a lamp)
The weather and my mood have little connection.
I have my foggy and my fine days within me;
my prosperity or misfortune has little to do with the matter.
– Blaise Pascal from “Miscellaneous Writings”

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand,
outstretched caressingly?

~Francis Thompson from “The Hound of Heaven”

 

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My days are filled with anxious and sad patients, one after another after another.  They sit at the edge of their seat, struggling to hold back the flood from brimming eyes, fingers gripping the arms of the chair.   Each moment, each breath, each heart beat overwhelmed by questions:  will there be another breath?  must there be another breath?   Must life go on like this in fear of what the next moment will bring?

The only thing more frightening than the unknown is the knowledge that the next moment will be just like the last or perhaps worse.  There is no recognition of a moment just passed that can never be retrieved and relived.   There is only fear of the next and the next so that the now and now and now is lost forever.

Worry and sorrow and angst are contagious as the flu.
I mask up and wash my hands of it throughout the day.
I wish we could be vaccinated to protect us all from these unnamed fears.

I want to say to them and myself:
Stop this moment in time. Stop and stop and stop.
Stop expecting someone or some thing must fix this feeling.
Stop wanting to be numb to all discomfort.
Stop resenting the gift of each breath.
Just stop.
Instead, simply be.

I want to say:
this moment, foggy or fine, is yours alone,
this moment of weeping and sharing
and breath and pulse and light.
Shout for joy in it.
Celebrate it.
Be thankful for tears that can flow over grateful lips
and stop holding them back.

Stop me before I write,
out of my own anxiety,
yet another prescription
you don’t really need.

Just be–
and be blessed–
in the now and now and now.

 

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To Labor and Not Seek Reward

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And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
~Seamus Heaney “St. Kevin and the Blackbird”

 

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Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God,
Teach me true generosity.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give without counting the cost,
To fight heedless of wounds,
To labor without seeking rest,
To sacrifice myself without thought of any reward
Save the knowledge that I have done your will.
Amen.

~St. Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity

 

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Heaney shifts from the literal (if “imagined”) physical world to the metaphysical and symbolic. In the midst of burnout and mental detachment, Kevin is somehow returned to and reconnected with his calling at a level deeper than conscious thought. Indeed, in the span of one brief line break, it is as though he has become indistinguishable from his life’s mission itself: he is “mirrored clear” in the pure, deep waters of an empathetic love for the “network of eternal life” into which he is presently and vitally “linked.”

The way Heaney constructs the next two lines calls attention to the paradox of mindfulness he illuminates. Kevin “prays,” which perhaps most immediately suggests that he entreats God to help him “labour and not to seek reward.” But after the stanza break, Heaney reveals that this prayer is not at all what the reader might have expected; Kevin’s prayer is not conscious because he is no longer conscious in the workaday-world way. Rather, Kevin’s is

“A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

When he can no longer muster the energy to think of the life entrusted to him, his own delights and discomforts in fostering that life, or even the original life force (here, the “river”) that led to his vocation, it is as if a kind of autonomic spirituality kicks in to complement the compassionate detachment with which—or in which—he holds the blackbird. Body and soul and work are one.
~Kimberly R. Myers, PhD, MA from “Mindfulness and Seamus Heaney” from JAMA’s
A Piece of My Mind, Aug.1, 2017

 

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…we have tried to do too much, pretending to be in such control of things that we are indispensible…

…if you’re like me, you take a kind of comfort in being busy. The danger is that we will come to feel too useful, so full of purpose and the necessity of fulfilling obligations that we lose sight of God’s play with creation, and with ourselves.
~Kathleen Norris from The Quotidian Mysteries

 

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Turn Aside and Look: On Holy Ground

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The present is holy ground.
— Alfred North Whitehead

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It matters less what has happened or what will happen.  What matters is happening right this very moment.

We are sentient creatures with a proclivity to bypass the present to dwell on the past or fret about the future.   This has been true of humans since our creation.   Those observing Buddhist tradition and New Age believers of the “Eternal Now” call our attention to the present moment through the teaching of “mindfulness” to bring a sense of peacefulness and fulfillment.

Yet I don’t believe the present is about our minds, or how well we dwell in the moment.  It is not about us at all.

The present is holy ground where we are allowed to tread.  We are asked to remove our shoes in an attitude of respect to a loving God who gives us life, and we approach each sacred moment with humility.  We turn aside from the dailiness of our lives to look at what He has promised.

There will be no other moment just like this one.  There may be no other beyond this one.  Right now, this moment barefoot, I am simply grateful to be here.

 

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My Favorite Day

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“‘What day is it?’, asked Winnie the Pooh.
‘It’s today,’ squeaked Piglet.
‘My favorite day,’ said Pooh.”
~A.A. Milne from The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

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Saturday is usually everyone’s favorite day of the week: it’s usually sleep-in day, catch-up day, play-hard day, enjoy-everything-about-it day.

Yup, me too.

A day to meander, gaze off into the horizon, acknowledge one’s blessings and then fall asleep blissful in the food bowl.

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Saturday is the one day of the week I keep unplanned from start to finish with no particular choreography or have-to places to go.

Just a day to be.

I know Pooh and Piglet are right.  Any day is our favorite day simply because it is Today: a new start, a time to celebrate, an undeserved gift of time to be unwrapped the moment our eyes open in the morning.

Today. A time to be.

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Now and Now and Now

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And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment … a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present…
~Wendell Berry from Hannah Coulter

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My clinic days are filled with anxious people, one after another after another.  They sit at the edge of their seat, eyes brimming, voice shaky. fingers gripping the arms of the chair.

Each moment, each breath, each rapid heart beat overwhelmed by fear-filled questions:  will there be another breath?  must there be another breath?   Must this life go on like this in panic of not knowing what the next moment will bring?

The only thing more frightening than the unknown is the known that the next moment will be just like the last.

It seems a serious deficit of acknowledgment of NOW, no recognition of a moment just passed that can never be retrieved and relived.  There is only fear of the next and the next so that the now and the now is lost forever.

Such worry and angst is more contagious than the flu virus rampant in the waiting room.
I mask up and wash my hands of it throughout the day.
I wish a vaccination could protect us all from our unnamed fears.

I want to say to them and myself:
Stop wishing away your life.
Stop wanting this moment, this feeling, to vanish.
Stop expecting some one, some thing or some drug must fix it.
Stop being blind and deaf to the gift of each breath.

Just stop this moment in time
And simply be.

I want to say to them and myself:
this moment is ours,
this moment of weeping and sharing
and breath and pulse and light
and yes, sometimes despair.

Shout for joy in it.
Celebrate it for what it is.
Be thankful for tears that can flow over grateful lips.

Stop me before I write
out of my own anxiety,
yet another prescription
you probably do not need.

Just be–
and be blessed–
in the now and now and now.

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