I am going to take a one-day break from the poetry of David Whyte to honor one of his best friends, the Irish writer and poet, John O’Donohue. Many grieved the early death of O’Donohue at the age of fifty-two, Whyte among them. They were anam cara, the Celtic word for “soul friend,” someone who accompanies you on your life’s journey, not just hand in hand, but heart and soul as well.
Whyte’s call to personal accountability has always felt like a challenge to me, direct and unambiguous, rigorous almost. I appreciate that, because that is often what is needed to make changes in our lives and habits, especially the big ones that ask us to go against our religious and cultural upbringing. But John O’Donohue had a different approach. His words are so loving, so soft and gentle, that even the most vulnerable part of you feels safe enough to speak up. O’Donohue’s work invites you to dance, not to discipline. Instead of “the questions that have no right to go away,” he simply holds up a mirror and asks you what you see.
At the End of the Day: A Mirror of Questions
What dreams did I create last night?
Where did my eyes linger today?
Where was I blind?
Where was I hurt without anyone noticing?
What did I learn today?
What did I read?
What new thoughts visited me?
What differences did I notice in those closest to me?
Whom did I neglect?
Where did I neglect myself?
What did I begin today that might endure?
How were my conversations?
What did I do today for the poor and the excluded?
Did I remember the dead today?
When could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different?
Where did I allow myself to receive love?
With whom today did I feel most myself?
What reached me today? How did it imprint?
Who saw me today?
What visitations had I from the past and from the future?
What did I avoid today?
From the evidence – why was I given this day?
For O’Donahue, that final question is the one that has no right to go away. He wanted his life to have meaning and purpose and that was the question that helped hold him accountable.
*This poem is a reinterpretation of the centuries-old Ignatian Examen, which asks its participants to reflect on the presence of God in their daily lives. O’Donohue was a Catholic priest for nearly two decades, before leaving the position to devote himself to his writing.
On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.
And when your eyes
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.
John O’Donohue, an Irish poet, theologian, philosopher and author, passed away in 2008 at the age of 58.
“Beannacht” is the Irish word for “blessing,” but it can also mean goodbye, which is fitting. One would offer a “beannacht” to a loved one as they headed out the door. Our “Bon voyage,” and “Safe travels” pale in comparison to this farewell, but they carry the same sentiment. Unlike our current understanding of a “blessing” as a gift bestowed by God on some and not on others, this is the more ancient practice of offering a “blessing” as a prayer and a sending forth. I’m sorry we’ve lost that tradition, but grateful O’Donohue reclaimed it.
Like any good poet, he uses images, taken from the reality of his daily life and that of his readers, one for each stanza. For whatever befalls you, O’Donohue paints a picture of something in the natural world arising as a corrective to it: clay earth dancing, bright colors flying, yellow moonlight leading. Who wouldn’t feel safer in the world with these hopes wrapped around you? And he rewrites the Irish blessing so many of us are familiar with: “May the road rise up to meet you/ May the wind always be at your back… “, so we can hear anew how the power of the natural world is always at hand to help us on our journey.
It is all beautiful to me, but of course, the end is my favorite part. The true magic of any blessing is the love with which it is given and the open-heartedness with which it is received. Without love, they are empty words; with love, every goodbye is a blessing and every hello, a reunion of hearts.
I have a thing for Irish poets, especially their lilting, lyrical voices, so all the Irish poets I include this month will include a link to the poets reading their poems. I highly encourage a listen! You can listen to John here.
I had dinner with my darling (birth) daughter Sarah last night. She is heading off to graduate school at LMU next month, on a full scholarship. She also just rented her first solo apartment in Manhattan Beach. She’s excited and terrified about beginning to build her life as an independent adult. We both brought a book to the bar, because what else would you do if you had to wait ten minutes? She brought crosswords; I brought The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh. She looked at my book and laughed.
Sitting across the table from her, the beautiful difference in our age and stage was clear. “I’m looking forward to the day when I want to work on my spiritual progress,” she said, making some sort of flapping gesture with her hands over her heart, “That’s great. I’m really happy for you.”
And I think she meant it, but it’s always hard to tell with Millennials.
But I took the opportunity to share my favorite Buddhist metaphor with her – well, I think it’s Buddhist, but since Thich Nhat Hanh is pretty much the only Buddhist I’ve read, it might just be “Hanhist.” It’s a metaphor that works on me all the time, or at least when I remember it. I just wish I remembered it every day.
Imagine a wave in the ocean as it approaches the shore. That wave has existed for miles and miles. It began across the sea, perhaps even across the world, but as it finally becomes visible, it becomes conscious of itself and it begins to worry. How good am I? Am I the biggest? The prettiest? The strongest? Are they taking pictures of me? Am I surrounded by other waves? Will I always be alone? Am I useful to people? Do they find me fun? Terrifying? Are they mad at me for washing away their sandcastles? How much longer do I have to live? Can I be all the wave I was meant to be in these too brief moments of time? What will happen to me when I’m gone? I…must…hold…on. All of this chatter is the wave suffering, because it thinks it is separate from the water.
But if the wave could just recognize that it is water, that it came from water and will return to water and never stopped being water, then its suffering would cease. It will stop over-identifying with its wave-ness. It can simply enjoy its temporary form, knowing that all along, it is still the water.
“Okay…,” Sarah said, nodding her head, “I can see that…” And she moved on.
She totally could not see that, which is why she said, with great honesty, that spiritual growth was for someday, down the road for her. Like Keara, her younger half-sister, honesty is one of their strongest policies. But because the girls love me, they also do it kindly, which I deeply appreciate. Kind people are some of my favorites.
But the wave/water metaphor is something that is working on me deeply. As a writer and teacher, it is so easy to get caught up in how my “wave” is being received. It feels especially true in this time of social media-driven audiences. Each opportunity for a like, a share, a repost, a retweet, or a positive review is an affirmation of your “wave-ness.” It’s practically the only game in town for artists like me, but I think it’s true for everyone. From eight-year-olds to octogenarians, we all want to be affirmed. But we try so hard to be waves that we forget we are water.
I love writing this blog, but there are so many successful bloggers out there, so many writers and authors and vloggers, pastors and preachers, speakers and teachers that I admire and who seem to make a difference in the world that when I look at the scope of my work, I feel like the tiniest little toe-lapper on the banks of Mission Bay. Not only am I not even a real wave; I’m made of polluted water that most local residents won’t even touch. And I look at all the other waves and want to be like them and make a powerful, beautiful, and useful splash.
And so after another disappointment, I collapse into a puddle of tears, ironically still forgetting that I’m water.
I have my coping mechanisms, the first of which is to look for Tim, my husband, the surf-shop owner. As a life-long surfer, he’s good at judging the waves and he thinks the world of me, so his answer’s a sure thing. He builds me up, tells me what a good wave I am, how smart, how kind, how talented and loving, and how much my kids benefit from riding in my wake. He reminds me that even if my wave never gets any bigger, it’s okay. I’m the perfect wave for him and the people I love.
Okay, so he doesn’t actually talk in similes, but you get the picture. After several of these pep talks, I can begin to feel my wave-ness again and I am ready to hit the shore. But you’ve been to the beach. You know what happens.
I don’t need my Buddhist buddy to point out that this “I’m a wave” thing is unsustainable. The pattern repeats itself and I crash and disappear, over and over again, in a big frothy mess of self-doubt, snot and tears.
The reality is: I don’t need a coping mechanism. I need the truth.
I am water, not just a wave.
And as an ocean girl, I like the idea.
Practicing it, however, is awful.
Giving up finding my worth in my own self-identity is really difficult. If I really believe that the wave is always water then it involves disassembling a lifetime of culturally-constructed images and measurements of success. It means gracefully accepting the disintegration of my physical self. I am not the tall, thin, blonde that was sitting across the table from me last night. I resemble her; I used to be her, but now there are wrinkles and sunspots and saggy bits when I wear a bikini. My body doesn’t work the way I want it to. I can’t swim, or play, or even throw a football without paying for it the next day and I know that’s just beginning. It means dissolving my standards for achievement, including being rewarded, financially or otherwise, for what I do. I always thought that I would do something important, but I can’t even figure out what I want to be when I grow up and I’m well past that point. My teenagers seem closer to figuring it out than I do! I find myself randomly searching Craigslist for a job that requires my strange grab bag of skills – well-read, conceptual organizer, multi-tasker, strong oral and written communication skills, no professional references. The Starbucks barista listing seems like the safest bet. Finally, it means allowing my own agenda to disappear as the driving force for my life in the world and interactions with others. I have to let the water take me where it will, and use me as it may. I used to think it was easy to “go with the flow,” but in this case, it entails the painful erosion of my ego and false self-confidence.
Upon reflection, I can see why Sarah is putting off this spiritual journey. It sucks, but I can’t see any other way forward, only back.
Do you remember when Jesus gave the teaching in the Gospel of John that his followers had to eat of his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life and virtually everyone left and he looked at Peter and the twelve and said, What about you? Are you leaving too? And Peter looked back at him and said, “To whom shall we go?” What other options did they have? I can just picture Peter looking balefully at Jesus and shrugging. They weren’t looking forward to the feast, but when the Truth is before you, what can you do?
I am reading The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching as part of my Living School curriculum. Though in different language, Hanh’s metaphor says virtually the same thing as every Christian mystic: We have to let go of our separate identity, and fall into the Love of God from which we came and to which we will return. In a dance of cosmic coincidence, I read these lines from John of the Cross just this morning during my meditative reading. He wrote “Beloved, please remind me again and again that I am nothing…Plunge me into the darkness where I cannot rely on any of my old tricks for maintaining my separation.”
The wave calls out to the water in the voice of a 16th century Spanish mystic.
I don’t know about you, but I am much more comfortable with the 21st century, natural language of wave and water. In fact, I think it’s only by understanding the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh that I can approach John of the Cross with an open heart and mind. Reading the great mystics of all the religious traditions has brought me to a deeper understanding and appreciation of those in my own spiritual home.
Tim and I have a date planned for tonight after work. We are going to the beach. We will surf with our bodies, and on our boards. We will play in the waves. I will ride down their faces and let them tumble me head over heels for the sheer joy of it. I will honor their beginnings as I float over their swells and their endings, as they dissolve one by one at my feet, becoming indistinguishable from that which they always were. I will mourn for them, like I mourn for myself, for clinging to all that I think I need to be worthy and worth noticing. And when we are done with the waves, we will swim past them and float in the expansive water. I will lie on my back, with my face to the setting sun and I will remember that I am both.
I am a wave and I can cherish and love the ride, but I’m not just a wave. I have always been and will always be part of the water, God’s creative, generative, and never-ending Love. And I know the pattern is not over, that my waves of desire will never cease to rise and fall, sending me head over heels, back down to my knees. But tonight at least, I will try to remember I am water.