“I like your style,” I tell the geese on this cold and blustery morning. “Even today, still looking for sun, and a good meal. And you hang together; that impresses me. Plus, I’m told you mate for life, with very low divorce rate. With my history, that gets my attention. Just sayin’.”
Our hearts have been through a lot this past year. I don’t know a family that hasn’t been tested or in some cases splintered. And I wish I lived in a world where that wasn’t so. And when I could travel and tell stories, I confess it was very difficult to ignore the temptation to say the right things. As if the compulsion to arrange or control the narrative was more important than the invitation to pause, and simply be present (even in times of uncertainty and anxiety).
With care the surgeon reiterates the essentials about the heart surgery to his patient, as the gurney is about to be rolled into the operating room. Regardless of how many times the surgeon has performed this procedure, he is aware that for each patient the anxiety is firsthand and not easily quelled. The patient’s mind feels thick (perhaps the drugs), and while the words are understandable, the meaning muddled. Seeing the patient’s fear, the surgeon takes a model heart from a nearby shelf, shows it to the patient and says, “You brought me your heart. I’m going to give you back your heart. And it will be in better shape than the way you brought it to me.”
But here’s the deal: It’s too easy to let the fracture (tinted with anxiety) be our only lens. Because we forget the invitation. Amanda Gormen’s wonderful reminder, “There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” (Thank you Amanda for that gift of hope.)
The heart is strong and has capacity; to give life. After all, we are hearts that touch. Which may sound too sentimental in a real and fractured world; a world where hearts touch and hearts hurt, hearts hope and hearts break, hearts heal and hearts splinter… and; from those splintered places hearts that give again, and again.
An invitation to “pay homage with our presence, and what we fight for from the ground of what we love.” (Thank you Krista Tippett)
A lesson I learned some years ago, while sitting in a barber’s chair.
“Hi, I’m Sharon. You ready?” Her accent Southern.
I follow her. “Can you make me look young, distinguished and handsome,” I say.
She cocks her head, glances back and says, “Well… I can do young.”
Whatever. I’m in downtown Atlanta with a conference for Spiritual Directors International, doing a presentation about how spiritual care is grounded in self-care. I have a window of time, and need a haircut.
So I take the recommendation of the concierge and find myself in a salon near the hotel, following a young hairdresser toward a chair in the back of the salon.
One of my philosophies is this: In a barber chair–an inevitability on par with airplanes and bank teller lines–conversation is a bother. Just cut my hair, and let me go. After all, I have important stuff to do.
Because she made me laugh, I break my rule about staying mute saying that maybe a buzz cut is in order, telling Sharon about my Father’s decision after cancer to enjoy his new hair-free care-free look.
“I’m a cancer survivor too,” she says. “Just finished my chemo.”
Okay. I wasn’t ready for that. Because if there is conversation, these chairs are for small talk only–no different than coffee hour after church.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “When did you learn about the cancer, and what kind of treatment did you go through?”
“I had the whole nine yards,” she laughs. “Surgery. And then more surgery and then chemo.”
We are quiet, except for the sound of scissors. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” she adds.
I’ve heard people say that–about tragedy or loss or heartbreak or misfortune–but am honestly unsure what to think. How can such a statement be true?
I do know that something inside us wants (needs) to find a silver lining, a way to make sense of what appears to be an utterly senseless invasion of our body, or life, or world. I watch her in the mirror. Sharon is young, mid-30s, petite, her facial features delicate and freckled, carrying a youthful innocence. There is no sign of any recent clash with the drug treatments that traumatize body and spirit, all in the name of health.
She looks into the mirror and holds my gaze. “It has made me softer,” she tells me. “And now, I love different.”
(Brave enough to see it. Brave enough to be it.)
A single mother, Sharon talks about her 15-year-old daughter, in a tenor both wistful and filled with pride. She describes a young girl whose life was turned upside down with the possibility of a mother’s death. And about a renewed relationship between mother and daughter. I nod. I understand. “We never know,” she continues. “A year ago if you had told me that this is where I’d be, I’d have told you you’re crazy. But not now. Now I look at people different.”
I compliment her hair. Quickly realizing my error, I try to apologize.
But Sharon shakes her head, tossing her hair, looking cute and sassy. “Thanks. I made it. It’s something I do now. It’s my calling. To make personal wigs for people going through chemo so they can look beautiful on the outside and feel beautiful on the inside.”
Go figure. I’m at a conference with spiritual directors from different faith traditions around the world, and my moment of enlightenment and grace is gifted to me in a beauty-salon-barber-chair. I was taught–in church–as a boy, that we should love one another. You know, practice kindness and compassion.
But here’s the deal: love can only spill from a heart that has been softened and in most cases broken. In these encounters–if I do give or offer my heart–it does come back to me in better shape. Because it comes back to me, softer.
There is no doubt that when faced with tragedy or chaos or uncertainty or misfortune, we want to have a “handle” on it, or fix it, or make it go away. But this is not about a way to figure life out. Nor is it about determining whether we have intentionally or unintentionally invited chaos or sickness into our world. It’s about the permission to see the world–this day–through the eyes of our heart.
Our heart made soft. It happens when…
…we allow ourselves to feel, fully and wholly; without a need to defend, justify or explain,
…we allow ourselves to receive love and kindness without suspicion,
…we are free to embrace a core of strength and courage that resides inside of us; and let it spill to those around us.
Again from Krista, “We can’t move forward without grieving all we’ve lost in the past year. Closer to the ground, this means we have to let in the fact of sadness — a precursor to pain and fear — with some reverence. If happiness is a skill, Katherine May says, so is unhappiness. Winter embodies the strange complexity of reality. It is the bitterest season, we blithely say. And all the while it manages not to be the death of the life cycle, as Katherine May reminds, but its crucible.”
After the conference in Atlanta, someone asked me, “What did you do there?”
“Well, I got a haircut. And felt my heart soften just a little.”
I can tell you that I’m loving my daily walks here, in my new neck of the woods. Surround by and nourished by the sounds of silence, as nature extends farther than my eyes can see.
Quote for the week:
It’s our insides that make us who we are, that allow us to dream and wonder and feel for others. That’s what’s essential. That’s what will always make the biggest difference in our world. Fred Rogers
Note: coming soon, the eCourse, Soul Gardening will be made available for anyone who wishes to sign up. There will be no fee. Stay tuned.
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In the mailbag…
–I love the story you shared of Sharon. As one who has sharp edges — armor, if you will — getting out of my over-thinking brain and into my heart and senses is my sanctuary. And it’s ‘ordinary’ things that help with that shift: the garden, nature, a letter in the mail, creativity, a good story. There is nothing ordinary about ‘the ordinary’ to me. That’s where I find myself, that’s where I connect to what is most vital, what makes me Real and centered. What makes me soft. Still working on all that armor. It’s as ancient as time and I know much of its source, but taking it off and hanging it up is no easy matter. I had my very young heart broken open so profoundly in suffering and loss that I never found firm ground again. Now I’m realizing that I never felt firm ground under my feet at all and that has had a deep impact on my life. Much to ponder and learn. Grateful for this space. SM Reader
POEMS AND PRAYERS
|Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to fell. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could. Louise Erdrich|
For A New Beginning
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
“To Bless the Space Between Us”
A Lesson from James Wright
If James Wright
could put in his book of poems
a blank page
dedicated to “the Horse David
Who Ate One of My Poems,” I am ready
to follow him along
the sweet path he cut
through the dryness
and suggest that you sit now
in some lovely wild place, and listen
to the silence.
And I say that this, too,
is a poem.