While I’ve been caught up in work and the busyness of life these past six months, I’ve also been reading, writing, and contemplating the commitments I want to make to #Signs of Love in 2020. But in the meantime I have some good news for you – another Kirkpatrick is finding the time to wander and write, read and meditate, AND he is writing a blog about it!
In the spring of this year, my son Finn got some tough news. He wasn’t accepted to the university he had expected to transfer to this past fall. We didn’t think his expectation was unreasonable since he had been admitted to the school as a freshman and had completed all the requirements. He had improved as a student and photographer over those two years; he knew himself to be ten times the candidate at 20 than he was at 18. After appealing the decision, the university revealed that they took only 10% of the transfer students who applied. While it didn’t change the circumstances, it took the edge off the decision.
Though it hurt, Finn took the disruption in stride and got busy planning his unintended year off from school. (He was finally getting that gap year he wanted at 18.) He worked hard, saved his money, and dreamt big. In August he backpacked the John Muir Trail, over 200 miles from the Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in North America. Carrying everything he needed for three weeks on the trail, he his food was resupplied by his grandad at point and a pack mule at another. He lived on a consistent diet of tuna fish, protein powder and power bars, rice, dried mashed potatoes and leftovers from buddies on the trail. He lost ten pounds and gained a new perspective on life. He took thousands of photographs, which you can check out here.
After a quick month at home, he left in October for a two-month adventure in Europe with one of his oldest friends. He and Ben have known each other since preschool and share a similar desire to cultivate their own way of being in the world. As far as I can tell, they spend their days in museums and parks, walking the streets of cities most of us will never visit. They read and write, meditate and meet people. I am sure they also spend plenty of time drinking in pubs (Dublin) and dancing in nightclubs (Spain). And along the way Finn has found that he likes to share his thoughts almost as much as his photographs.
So with his permission, I am sharing his most recent post here on #Signs of Love, but you can always check it out on his website, www.FinnKirkpatrick.com. Enjoy!
A New Earth, The Alchemist and the Little Things
Or, since he’s writing from Spain,
“Una Nueva Tierra, El Alquimista y las Pequeñas Cosas”
“I’m back! I apologize to all my loyal followers, all twelve of you, you’ve probably been wondering what’s been going on. I just got a little caught up in life and all the traveling.
3 week recap:
Spent the end of Oct- beginning of Nov. in Bergen, Norway
Did some incredible hiking, ate some delicious pastries, and froze my Southern Califronian butt off
Headed south to the warm coastal climate of Barcelona, Spain
Capitalized on fresh fruits and juices, the ocean, and conversations with the city’s characters
Took a bus to Madrid, where I spent a few days exploring the city’s massive parks, world class museums, and ate loads of jamon iberico
Took a bus to Bilbao, where I am currently visiting some friends, enjoying their toddler’s energy, and planning on getting a surf in tomorrow (20ft swell forecast!)
I recently watched a photography documentary called “Everybody Street,” which is about some of the most famous street photographers and their photos, style, and method of shooting street. This type of photography has a very authentic and documentarian feel, with lots of cultural commentary woven in. The differentiating variable in the photographers’ style was whether or not they interacted with their subjects. Some felt that in order to capture a moment, in its purest form, they could not intervene, while others felt it was not appropriate to capture someone’s image without their knowledge. This is something I have gone back and forth on throughout the trip. When shooting, I don’t normally ask permission, because if you don’t act on impulse, the moment you want to capture is gone. When you are behind the camera, you feel as if you are an observer of the whole, not a part of it. This can be comforting if you think there is some insanity with all the peoples’ vanity, phone usage, and way of life. And I’m sure they think I’m insane walking around taking photos of them. However, a camera is also an incredible tool that can allow you to meet strangers, and I have had some life-changing conversations when I interact with my subjects. One afternoon in Barcelona, I approached a man in authentic African attire and asked if I could take his photo. I ended up sitting on the bench next to him for two and a half hours, and left wiser man. Since then have been trying to approach more people, however, the language barrier has made having in-depth conversations difficult.
Early this week, I finished A New Earth and listened to The Alchemist on tape twice. The last half of A New Earth was equally as inspiring as the first half. The Alchemist has been and will continue to be one of my favorite books ever. I’ve chosen to write on the part where they seamlessly overlapped as I read one and listened to the other. Both authors talk about the little things and their ability to bring great joy into our lives. I’ve been aware of this phenomenon since I was introduced to Mary Oliver’s poem “Mindfulness” a couple years ago. An excerpt from the poem…
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
The practice of finding a few things every day that “kill me with delight” has helped me create stillness in my life. In A New Earth, Tolle talks in depth about our inner space, or the part of us that exists outside of form. He says, “The thing or event is so subtle, so unobtrusive, that it takes up only a small part of your consciousness- and the rest is inner space, consciousness itself unobstructed by form… In other words, the form of little things leaves room for inner space.” I now notice in myself, that when walking around, if I can enjoy the little things, I am filled with that inner space and a feeling of gratitude. In The Alchemist the boy is told, “You don’t have to understand the desert: all you have to do is contemplate a simple grain of sand, and you will see in it all the marvels of creation.” A simple grain of sand, the finer details of a leaf, a child’s laugh, the wind blowing through the trees, and so on, can leave you in awe when you’re able to appreciate them as they are, simply contemplating their beauty.
I’ve had a few profound moments over the last year where I feel incredibly content, complete, and connected. I now understand those moments occurred when I was fully present, not lost in any thoughts about what could be different. In fact I wasn’t even thinking of me or my own life, I was simply a part of life as a whole. I had one of those moments in El Retiro park in Madrid a few days ago, and it dawned upon me that these magical moments were not rare. It’s all one neverending moment, the eternal “now,” and it is always accessible to you, as long as “you” or your life isn’t the priority. It’s quite hard to stay in that moment, but I am trying, and using the little things to bring me back when my monkey mind wanders off.
T– This week I have been filling out college apps for next fall. Although this is my third time going through the process, it’s always a little stressful. I am trusting that it’ll all work out and I’ll get in somewhere, but if I don’t… that means I can probably travel some more, so it’ll work out regardless.
G– I am grateful for the convenience of traveling. The “Hero’s Journey” is as old as time and is a very common theme in literature, movies, paintings, and other mediums. For years, the youth would set out to discover their life’s purpose, follow their dreams, or slay metaphorical dragons, and would not return. Many characters in my novels, like Siddartha, Santiago, and Parsifal, said goodbye to their families forever. So I am grateful that I can take my own journey and at the end of the day return to the warm embrace of those I know and love.
I– I was inspired this week by a quote from Jim Carrey. When I asked for the things that inspired all of you last blog, my dear friend Matt Maude, that loud london local I mentioned earlier, gave me this one from the Netflix documentary “Jim & Andy.” In the doc, Carrey says
“At some point when you create yourself to make it, you’re going to have to either let that creation go and take a chance on being loved or hated for who you really are, or you’re going to have to kill who you really are and fall into your grave grasping a character you never were.”
Wow. What a call out. It reminds me of when Emerson makes the bold claim: “Imitation is suicide.” So on this journey, I’ve been trying to answer the question of “Who am I?” and I’ve been inspired by these men to not really worry about it, and just be and do whatever comes to me.
F– My fun for the week has been playing with my new buddy Noah. I came to Bilbao to stay with our family friends Scott and Katie Lyons, and their toddler Noah. After traveling with just Ben, for a month, I was ready for some new, crazy and wild energy, and there’s been no short supply here.
busy all the time with its dark and bright wanderings?
“No. I’m quite used to it. Busy, busy
all the time.”
And you don’t mind living with those questions,
I mean the hard ones, that no one can answer.
“Actually, they’re the most interesting.”
And you have a person in your life whose hand
you like to hold?
“Yes, I do.”
It must surely, then, be very happy down there
in your heart.
“Yes,” I said. “It is.”
Mary Oliver, “Moliver,” from Felicity
On the first day of National Poetry Month, I knew this would be the poem I offered on the last day. Though there are other favorites from other poets, this was the note I wanted to end on. It is the last poem in Moliver’s collection, Felicity, as well, so I’d like to think I’m using it as the author intended, as a final summation and quiet reflection on her life. It’s a subtle poem, a simple series of questions and responses, but that’s what I like about it.
One of my favorite things about poetry is how gems like this one can slip by unnoticed on a first, second, or even tenth reading. Though I try not to collect books, (Tim may disagree), I tend to keep poetry around me. What I pass by one day, can bring me to tears on another. So if you find a poet, or a collection you like, keep it. Read it over a period of time: months, years, or decades even. It will always be new, because you are always new. One of my habits is to scribble the date on which I “fell in love” with a poem in the margin. I may not always be “in love” with it, but it honors the part of me that was and what I learned from it at the time.
I’ve heard from many of you that poetry is not your favorite, that you “don’t get it,” but that over the past month, these little reflections have helped you engage with it in a new way. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me! Poetry can be challenging to read and difficult to understand, but most things worth our time are also challenging and difficult, and ultimately enrich our lives.
Marriage, parenting, family, community-building, spirituality, engineering, physics, politics – they matter and most of the time, we “don’t get it” right the first or second time, but we try again and again. Poetry is something I’ve added to that list of “worth my time,” as a meditative practice and calming influence at the end, or beginning of a busy day. Here are some tips.
When I read it, I try not to get frustrated; I let it wash over me, once, twice, a third time.
What do I notice? What line do I like? What pushed me away? Is there even one thing I can understand?
And then I let it go. I will be drawn back to it, or not. No problem either way.
My favorite moment is when I realize that a poet, (though not every poet,) writing five years, decades, or even centuries ago, had access to my heart, which is of course the universal heart. Their hopes are my hopes; their fears my own. We are asking the same questions, celebrating the same joys and suffering the same losses. We are not so different after all and if nothing else, I hope this month of poetry showed you that.
This is the third in a series of poems about meditation and mindfulness by Moliver that I wanted to share this month, which included “Drifting” and “On Meditating, Sort of.” In some ways, I think it is the simplest of the three. The direction is right in the title: “Mindful.” Moliver seems to be saying, “This is what it’s like to actually see the world. When we rush on by, we miss it all. But when we are ‘mindful,’ the beauty of the world will kill us with delight.”
I shared this poem a while ago with someone I love dearly. I read it and instantly thought of them, because I knew they would get it. Like Mary Oliver, they were born “to look, to listen,/ to lose” themselves in the natural world and they teach me by example to see the extraordinary in “the ordinary,/ the common, the very drab.” That’s the true gift I think, the one most of us leave unopened, when we prefer big and beautiful things and dismiss the “daily presentations” of grass and water and light. But it’s those little things that can save us every hour. I love how Moliver inverts our educational paradigm – claiming for herself the title of “good scholar” – who grows wise through her observance of nature, not simply through classes and books.
This beloved of mine, the one with whom I shared this poem, is going through a rough patch these days, struggling to be mindful, lost instead in a sea of sea-doubt and fear. I don’t blame them; what they are going through is hard. I can listen, offer my love, a little practical advice, but mostly, I want to whisper in their ear: “Be mindful! Go find something to kill you with delight!” It won’t make their problems go away, but for that moment, it might make them smile and help them remember the gift they bring to the world – their ability to see and capture the magic so many of us pass by.
So, to my beloved friend and to all of you,
Be a good scholar today. Go be delighted by something – in the sky or on the ground, in a bird’s call, or a baby’s laughter. Slow down enough to see it, hear it, fall in love with it, even if for just one moment. It won’t change anything, but it might change everything – eventually.
Nature has wisdom for us all: the cycles of light and dark, new and old, death and rebirth, silence and noise, diversity is health; change is growth; imperfection is inherent, but so too is beauty and abundance. Watch and wait. It will come.
P.S. For some of my readers, my use of the third person plural (they/their) for an individual, instead of the 3rd person singular (he/she/his/hers) may be bothersome. Sorry about that!
thought not the usual intention to reach an answer
but merely drifting.
Like clouds that only seem weightless
but of course are not.
Are really important.
I mean, terribly important.
Not decoration by any means.
By next week the violets will be blooming.
Anyway, this was my delicious walk in the rain.
What was it actually about?
Think about what it is that music is trying to say.
It was something like that.
Mary Oliver from Blue Horses, 2014.
This is the second of Oliver’s poems on the subject of meditation that I wanted to share, but if you missed the first, here’s it is.
Few people have a dedicated meditation practice, but many have experienced the “drift” that “Moliver” describes in this poem, a stream of thoughts that wander from where we are to somewhere else, for better, or worse. Meditation, at least the type I practice, is not so different from that. According to the teaching I have received, thoughts will come and the practice is to let them go, allowing them to pass by, like clouds in the sky. They may be stormy thoughts, full of rain and rage, or wispy ones that tempt you to linger and imagine all sorts of good things. It doesn’t matter that they come; don’t judge them (or yourself); just let them drift away, so you can return to the entirely visible holiness of the present moment. Remain there, until you find find you’ve drifted away again, “watching the clouds.” Then, just come back to the “invisible” Presence of God.
This past weekend was a whirlwind of activity for Molly and me: 48 hours of flights and field hockey games, shared hotel rooms and food-on-the-go, lots of time for laughter, but little for silence. However, in the midst of it all, there was the inevitable “drift” towards holiness and gratitude.
Clear, blue sky after a rainy night
Bright yellow mustard fields blooming roadside
Smell of sweet white alyssum, catching me by surprise on a morning walk
Wild turkey in a field
Cow in a pasture next to a parking lot
Hugs from a sweaty girl, sometimes in triumph, sometimes in defeat
Girls of every size, shape and color on the field, playing their hearts out
Yes, indeed, Mary Oliver, “God, or the gods” may be invisible, “But holiness is visible, entirely./ It’s wonderful to walk along like that.”
even better place – half-asleep – where the world,
spring, summer, autumn, winter –
flies through my mind in its
hardy ascent and its uncompromising descent.
So I just lie like that, while distance and time
reveal their true attitudes: they never
heard of me, and never will, or ever need to.
Of course, I wake up finally
thinking, how wonderful to be who I am,
made out of earth and water,
my own thoughts, my own fingerprints –
all that glorious, temporary stuff.
The poet Mary Oliver, or “Moliver” as she is affectionately referred to around our house, is someone you will see pop up a few times this month. She is one of my favorites and there is a theme in her writing I’d like to explore with all of you: the sacrament of Nature, of being present in the moment however it arises and recognizing it for the holy gift it is.
I think this poem is a great start. Meditation and its companion, mindfulness, are buzzwords these days. They are offered as a remedy for everything from stress to chronic pain, as relief from anxiety and exhaustion. They will help us lose weight, sleep well, and even become better “team players” at work and home! Ugh! It kind of drives me crazy, because developing a meditation practice for those things is like taking a prescription drug for its “off-label” side effects. We might experience a relief of our symptoms, but it’s not what it was made for and it’s definitely not going to cure the underlying cause.
But I think Mary’s version of meditation might be just what the doctor ordered, in its gentle and holistic approach.
Lie down somewhere beautiful and let your mind drift. Don’t cling to what you think you’re supposed to do, or feel, or experience. Let life pass you by for a moment, or two and see yourself in the midst of things, where “distance and time” have “never heard of me, and never will, or ever need to.” From that place, we might wake refreshed and perhaps even “cured” of what ailed us in the first place. We might even find ourselves grateful to be in our own bodies and a part of this beautiful world.
Let this poem inspire you! It’s Spring! Go find a tree, a little patch of sunlight, a place where the breeze can kiss your face. Close your eyes and in the words of Rumi, allow yourself “to be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love,” which I hope is yourself and this beautiful, suffering world we live in.
Post Script: I recently acquired a copy of “Moliver’s” newest book, Devotions, as a gift from Tim. I had been on the waiting list at the library for so long and when I finally got my hands on a copy, the weeks just flew by. On the last day it was in my possession, he caught me taking pictures of page after page on my cell phone. (Desperate times call for desperate measures! It took me months to get my hands on it the first time and I didn’t know how long I’d have to wait again.) However, two days later, it was in my mailbox. Though Tim generally supports my book-buying restraint, in this case, it deserved an exception. I highly recommend you put your name on the waiting list at your local library, or maybe even treat yourself to a copy!
Last week, I had the privilege of attending an all day creativity conference led by authors Elizabeth Gilbert and Rob Bell, two of the most lively, original and creative people I’ve ever met. The joy and enthusiasm they bring to their work is remarkable and for me, it is their most unique and significant contributions to the arts. For too long, our culture has ascribed to one narrative about what it means to be an artist and it’s a dark one. To be an artist is to struggle – depressed, anxious, alcoholic, and anti-social. Rob and Liz blow up that stereotype, not only by their own natural tendency towards optimism, but also by their insistence that your life is your work of art, which means we are all in the game. You are the medium. What you create (externally) is secondary to how you live.
In essence, the creative journey is anything you are doing that is creating YOU – a new you, a better you, a more vibrant, powerful, lively you.
Rather than ascribing significance to some arbitrary metrics of talent, production, or economic reward, the true measure of your work as an artist, or an individual is how you choose to live.
If you want to be more creative, here are some questions you might ask yourself to see where you might step up your game.
Are you creating something new within yourself? Are you getting out of your comfort zone once in a while, mentally, emotionally, physically?
If you don’t know where to start, read a non-fiction book and apply that knowledge to your life. Get therapy; have that hard conversation with a loved one you’ve been avoiding. Go on a hike; get out in nature; head somewhere new for vacation, or even just for dinner. One of the most important habits we should be in is breaking our old habits! We’ve all heard, “Life’s too short; take chances!” My take is that life is waaaay too long to just keep doing the same old thing. Do you really want to be the same person at 50 that you were at 30, in any way? (Please, don’t even consider your physical image! Honestly, it freaks people out when someone doesn’t age and too much plastic surgery is NOT a good look!)
Are you pushing at the boundaries of what you were told your life should look like, or are you simply following all the rules handed down to you?
So many of us were taught exactly who we should be, how we should behave and what we should want. Our careers were mapped out for us, as were our aspirations in terms of relationship, material success and values. Are you still striving for those same goals, even as you’ve meet them and find them unsatisfying? Have you discovered even one new thing about who you are, or what you want that has nothing to do with what your family, or culture expects? If you are still playing by all the rules, dig deeper! You are more than just your mother’s child, the teacher’s pet, or a coach’s dream. Explore your own soul and see where it might be calling you.
Are you living with integrity and authenticity?
We all like to think we are people of integrity, living by the high standards we profess to believe in. Even the politicians who are working so hard to get our votes this election year claim personal integrity, despite the many public examples to the contrary! Even though we are loathe to admit it, we all fall short – very, very short – from time to time. For me, living with integrity has come to mean (as the root word, integer, suggests) living as a WHOLE. Am I embracing the whole of who I am? Are my head, heart and gut integrated, especially in response to difficult circumstances? Artists are not often known for their personal integrity, but if my life is my medium, I’ve got to step up.
I love these messages about creativity, even as I struggle to embrace them. I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as an artist. In fact, artistry was pretty much dismissed in my Catholic, Anglo-Saxon upbringing. Artists were self-indulgent, while productivity and achievement reigned supreme. I might have been a talented writer, but I never thought of being “a writer.” I thought I would use my skills in service of my job, or a family. Even as I gravitated to a more creative way of living, I couldn’t even acknowledge the movement within myself.
Just a couple years ago, when Keara first started shaving her head and decided to pursue a theater degree, I asked my friend Jen, “Where did she come from? How did I end up with this artist?” She looked at me incredulously, like I was joking and said, “What are you talking about? Where else would she come from? She is you!” I was dumbstruck. In my mind, there was nothing creative about me. I was still a good, Catholic girl, grown up to become just a plain, old mom.
In the course of the conference, Rob Bell told a story about an ancient Jewish rabbi named Akiva. One evening, Akiva was walking home by a Roman fort and the guard on duty called out, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” Akiva walked on and again the man shouted, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” Akiva stopped and called out, “How much do they pay you to ask those questions?” The guard gave him a number. Akiva replied, “I will pay you twice that much to come to my house each morning and ask me those questions.”
Who are you? What are you doing here?
My goodness, we’d love to know the answer to those questions, but we rarely do the work to figure it out. Most often, we put our head down and keep going. And even if we want to live just a little bit differently, so many things work against us. Some of the most powerful (but really sneaky) blockages are the family histories that are embedded in our DNA – generations-worth of messages about who “we” are and what “we” do. Compound that with our actual upbringing, our cultural milieu, our own inner critic and our paths are pretty much set. We think we are free, but unless we are pushing hard enough to feel the chain at our neck, we are merely being good dogs on a long leash.
For better or for worse, I have never been a pet person – neither keeping, nor being one.
Growing up, my family went through several dogs. (I was told they went to better homes.) My kids begged for a puppy, a kitten, a fur-covered mammal, but all they ever managed to get through the front door were goldfishes won at fair games and a cold-blooded, hand-me-down snake, which I adored, but accidentally killed with kindness.
I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the most I can keep alive is the wild, little animal inside me and the most I can offer to my children is a big, safe yard and a leash made of the thinnest chain possible, so that when they are ready to run, the inevitable backward tug, doesn’t actually stop them from going. For all the ways I’m raising them to be good citizens of our culture – to aspire, to work hard, to have discipline, to save and to serve – I’m also trying to raise them to be creatives.
The poet Mary Oliver has given me the perfect question to ask them:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
In other words, who are you and what are you doing here?
Don’t be afraid to ask the question – of yourself, or your children. Start old if you have to, but start young if you can. Give the people you love, including yourself, permission to find the fullest expression of who they are.
Over the next couple months I plan to unpack the six words that Liz and Rob offered us at the conference to lean into our creativity and help us answer those questions. Look for the series: Fear, Enchantment, Persistence, Permission, Trust, and Divinity.
I found this photo on Facebook this morning and it inspired a little year-end review. I decided it summed up what I discovered about myself in 2015.
In 2015, a few external things changed. Keara graduated from high school and went off to college. Finn got his driver’s license and stepped into the serious college hustle of AP classes, varsity sports and a job. Molly, our baby, became a teenager and is winding up jr. high, ready to launch into the next phase of her life. I am in the stretch run of having a house full of kids, and all the care that involves. Nowhere is this transition captured more poignantly than in the Team Kirks 2015 Christmas card. You can click on the link to watch it here. In the words of REM, it’s “The End of the World as We Know It.” Despite all the changes, we feel fine.
But what I have noticed even more than the external changes in my life are the internal ones, which the quote above captured so beautifully. In 2015, through the Living School and the people I have met there, through raising teenagers and meeting their friends, through reading, writing, teaching and everyday life, I have fallen in Love over and over again. Obviously, I am not talking about romantic love here, the heart-pounding flush of infatuation and the inevitable crush that follows. I am talking about Love – the Love that says Yes to all that is. The Love that can only be discovered when people reveal something vulnerable and true about themselves.
Dostoyevsky describes this Love beautifully in The Brothers Karamazov. It’s been twenty-plus years since I last read the book, but it has been mentioned three times in the last week by people I respect, and so it goes on the top of my reading list for 2016. Here’s is Fyodor’s commandment to Love:
Love people even in their sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand of it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.
This Love is a gift, though most of us treat it as a burden. We’d rather have a facsimile, projection, or image of Love than the real thing. I know for most of my life, this has been true, with few exceptions. But in 2015, I began to see my own preferences for what they were: fear and self-preservation and this is not the kind of Love Dostoyevsky, the mystics, prophets and even Jesus talk about.
This year I fell in Love with all sorts of people who showed me a piece of their soul. I fell in Love with authors: Glennon Melton, Liz Gilbert, Parker Palmer, and Omid Safi. I fell in Love with poets: Rumi, Hafiz, David Whyte and Mary Oliver. I fell in Love with mystics, musicians and artists. I fell in Love with my own friends and family. I even began to fall in Love with strangers, the refugees and homeless and victims of all the “isms” of the world, though I am not yet sure how to show that Love appropriately. I have a feeling that will be the journey of 2016 and beyond. I have a feeling that is the journey of a lifetime. How do I serve those I Love? How do I meet them where they are?
We know that real Love changes us. Once experienced, we cannot forget the joy Love brings; we cannot un-know the secrets it reveals; we cannot re-harden our hearts. We are different on the other side of Love’s door.
My resolution for 2016 is to keep stepping over the threshold.
P.S. If anyone wants to read The Brothers Karamazov with me, comment below. I’d love to get a little virtual discussion group going!
This past week, our family was at the Happiest Place on Earth: Family Camp at La Casa de Maria in Montecito, CA. We’ve been back for three days, but I’m just now coming home to Gabacho Drive, here in sunny San Diego. I’ve been working and cooking and cleaning, but until this afternoon, I was just going through the motions. My head was in the clouds and my heart was broken, with pieces of it scattered across the state, carried off by the people I love. Some of them I’ve known since the day they (or I) were born, some I met just last week.
Heartbreak is a funny thing, because it can happen by Love or sorrow, with tears of joy, or pain. But both kinds take time to heal and regardless of the cause, you are never the same again. After three days of centering prayer and reading, after seeing and talking to my people back home, most of my heart is back in my chest, but not all of of it. That’s one of my favorite things about camp; if your heart is open and you are willing, you never know how you will be put back together again.
I’ve written a few times about Family Camp- you can catch up here and here – but to be clear, here are a few more things you should know.
My family goes to Family Camp, but Family Camp isn’t just for my family. Some of us share a name, or DNA, but most of us don’t.
It is called a Christian family retreat, but that doesn’t mean it’s denominational, evangelical, or fundamentalist. Our “fundamentals” are Love, forgiveness, inclusion, acceptance and healing, as exemplified by Jesus the Christ, but our “good news” is that we’re all in, baby!
Unlike retreats put on by industry professionals, Family Camp is run by a team of volunteer families who draw on their own gifts, experiences, faith and forty years of tradition to create a safe place for families to draw closer to each other and God.
I had two opportunities to speak and share my ideas this past week, and many opportunities to listen and learn and since you weren’t all at Family Camp with me, I thought I’d share a few of these moments with you. Today will just be something I shared, but I hope to gather a few more thoughts from my friends who also spoke.
The theme for this past week was Seasons: the seasons of the year and the seasons of our life, what they offer us and how we might approach them. We began with Summer, worked our way through Autumn, and Winter before being reborn in Spring. The artwork and presentations were beautiful in really creative and non-professional ways and I don’t mean that as a dis to our team, as much as a reminder that we aren’t putting on a show, so much as creating a loving, but imperfect home.
Our family, along with my brother and his wife, was in charge of talking about Summer, which was perfect. Summer is our season, our jam, our raison d’etre. We are surfers, swimmers, lifeguards. We love water and waves, the sandier and saltier the better. As you can imagine, we talked about Joy; we talked about Abundance; we talked about Sabbath and Gratitude. But we kept it real; we also talked about all the less pleasant seasons that come before summer, the winters when you are frozen by disappointment and fear, and the springs that melt your heart just a little bit. We also admitted the downside of clinging to the summer season and resenting anything that darkens our days. (Mea Culpa!)
For my own growth and benefit, that’s what I tried to focus on in my talk – how to be grateful, everyday, for every moment, and every season, no matter what kind of weather I’m in. It’s a practice I’m working on, all the time, and I thought I’d share it with all of you.
Gratitude for Seasons 2015
This past year, I began studying the mystics from the 17th century Spain – John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila – and while they are beloved by many in the Catholic Church and everyone raves about them, I don’t think most people have actually read them. I think they love the idea of them, the quotes that have been pulled out and put on holy cards, or the saint’s lives they heard about them growing up. I think this is true, because when I actually read John and Theresa’s work, I really struggled with them, especially with their depictions of God. This God they loved so much was a God who would come and then go, who loved them and then left them, who seemed to punish and then reward them. I just didn’t get it. While I understand that is what we feel like God is doing sometimes, it isn’t what I actually believe is true about our unchangeable, all-loving God and so I brought my questions to my spiritual director and after we talked about them for while, she said, “If you want to know what God is actually like, look at nature. If you can find a parallel there, it will be true.”
Now, I don’t know if that is entirely accurate, but I started looking and it did help me see God in a new way, in the joyful nurturing of the small, wild animals in my yard, in the majesty of the NASA photos I follow on Instagram, in the vastness of the ocean I float in, but especially through the seasons. There are times in our year when the sun is closer and there is warmth and abundance and seemingly never-ending days. The nights come, but they are moderate in temperature and short in length. But there are also times when the earth has moved away from the sun and darkness seems to be prevalent, and it is uncomfortably cold, and nothing grows and we struggle to survive and we feel like it’s the end of the line for us and sometimes we feel abandoned and angry, or scared.
But it isn’t the sun (or God) that has changed positions, but the earth (or us) who moved. And it isn’t like the earth moved away because it was bad, or mad, or mistaken, or sinful. It just did; it’s the natural, cosmic pattern; it’s the way the universe works. You can count on it and this pattern is actually the very thing that allows life to exist, for our world and for our own selves to grow and evolve and thrive. Perpetual summer would lead to death, just like a perpetual ice age.
And of course, in addition to summers and winters, there are all the in-between times – the falls and springs that have their own beauty and their own pain, but whatever season we are in, we know that it is not the last season; there is another one right on it’s heels, as soon as we get comfortable and used to the one we’re in, or right when we think we can’t stand it for another day, for better and for worse, the season will change; life will move on.
At the very beginning of our day, we talked about the fact that summer time for a lot of people is about JOY. It’s about moments of unbridled laughter and bare feet and sweet, cold ice cream and family reunions. It’s also about ABUNDANCE – the sense of the “enoughness” of life that comes about in this season – that all the things we really need are actually right here, even if it’s just taking a deep breath standing outside with your feet in the grass and the setting sun on your face. Tim talked a lot about the concept of Sabbath – of learning to take a break and protect your down time, so that each day is filled with the things that really matter. (I’ll catch up on that part later.)
And so if we are in a SUMMER time of abundance and joy and we have the sabbath space and time to reflect, then the natural response of our heart is going to be gratitude. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
Gratitude is one of those words and concepts that has been talked about so much and is so overused that I was tempted to chuck the whole concept.
Kids- How many times have you been told by your parents, “How about a little gratitude? Quit being so ungrateful! Who has a grateful heart?”
Parents – How many times, in your hardest parenting moments, have you heard the voice in your head reminding you how LUCKY you are to have kids, even when they are screaming at the top of their lungs and leaking fluids from every orifice? How grateful you should be for every moment of their young lives, because time flies by? And how you will never get these days back to be grateful for every one of them?
Sometimes, we hear the word and we just go, “ugh.” But Gratitude is so important that I thought I’d try to bring a fresh perspective to it, because it is going to be a theme of the week- finding something to be grateful for, something to appreciate about each season of life we are in – no matter what it is, or what’s going on.
So I went where I always go for good ideas and found a TED talk by David Steindl-Rast, an Austrian Benedictine monk and he asked a really good question of his audience and I’m going to ask it of all of you.
He asked, “Are happy people grateful, or are grateful people happy?”
The answer is YES. They are both true, but not in the way we might originally think. Our default setting, our instincts tell us that if you are happy, you will be grateful. And if you are happy, it’s because you probably have a lot of things going right for you, but that is dead wrong. Some of the most miserable people in the world are the ones who seem to have the most to be happy about! They have all the money, the opportunity, all the privilege, all the connections and fame in the world. Everything the media tells us will make us happy doesn’t move the needle a bit.
And sometimes the happiest people in the world have almost nothing.
Gratitude is the X factor. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you have. If you have gratitude, you can be happy.
You can’t choose to be happy, but you can choose to be grateful and if you start with gratitude, and live in a space of gratefulness, you will be happy.
And summer is a time when it’s easier to be grateful, for many of us anyway and especially most of us under the age of 18, who get to be on summer vacation, or those of us who live in California.
Because gratitude comes in two forms –
Sometimes gratitude happens spontaneously and we call these – Gratitude Events.
A gratitude event is when we receive a gift – something we value – freely. We didn’t earn it, expect it, work for it; it just showed up. So that might be a really generous birthday gift from our parents, or an invitation to the movies and a sleepover from a new friend, or flowers from our spouse, but a Gratitude Event could also be a beautiful sunset, the smile of a newborn baby, or a spontaneous hug and kiss from our normally reserved kid. In those moments, gratitude just springs from our souls. Out of nowhere, a gift was given and our natural response is an upwelling of gratitude.
For me, summer is full of those Gratitude Events. I won’t even list them all here, but you saw a lot of them in Tim’s video. Readers, you don’t have to watch the video, but it does capture some of my very favorite moments of being a part of Team Kirks.
Whatever your internal thermometer is that tells you “your special season” – mine is set to summer. How many of you know what I am talking about? It’s like your Gratitude Event Meter is just pinging over and over again, all day long. How many of you have your gratitude event meter going off the charts in summer? How about Christmas time? Fall? The riot of color in a garden in spring? We all have a season, in the year and in our lives, when it’s easy to be grateful and that’s awesome.
A sharp spike in our Gratitude Meter makes it so easy to be grateful and happy, but it’s unsustainable and so when the events aren’t rolling in, we can tend to get sad, feel deprived, or depressed and that’s a problem. And when it takes more and more to surprise us and make us feel grateful, that’s a problem too. How many of you have friends who seem to have everything they could want, certainly everything you want, and yet, they aren’t happy? They’re Gratitude Event setting is way too high.
That’s why the other type of gratitude is even more important. According to every religion, every spiritual authority, every faith tradition, every positive psychologist,
We need to learn Grateful Living – which is realizing that EVERY moment of our lives is a gift from the Universe, a gift from God.
It’s something we didn’t earn. Every breath we take is a gift, and if we can learn to be grateful for that breath and then move even beyond that, we realize that in every moment we have the opportunity to find something more to be grateful for.
Paul Williams – the guy who wrote “Rainbow Connection,” Kermit’s theme song – is a recovering addict – who’s been sober for 24 years now and he wrote a whole book called Gratitude and Trust and he said that apart from his children, his sobriety – just waking up and breathing and existing on his own, without any assistance from drugs and alcohol – is what he is most proud of. After hitting rock bottom, he said,
“I’m grateful for everything that has happened in my life – the good and the bad.” And that’s the way he lives his life. “If you’re in a car wreck, you’re grateful no one got hurt. If someone got hurt, you’re grateful they didn’t die; if they die, you’re grateful for the chance to know them. It’s expandable – gratitude – one size fits all, so put it in your heart and use it.”
That’s the thing about gratitude. You only need to start with one small ounce of it and it immediately begins to build on itself. If you can find one thing to be grateful for, you can find another and another.
I want to share this poem by Carrie Newcomer with you. Though I read the poem during my talk, click on the link here to hear Carrie read it herself. Seriously, watch the video below. Hit start, close your eyes and enjoy ninety seconds of her beautiful voice, reminding you of all the simple, precious things in a life.
And after the poem, look at this.
People who wonder if the glass is half full or half empty miss the point. The glass is refillable.
Whatever you want in your glass – you’ve got it and if you want more of it, it’s on the way. If it’s Joy or Gratitude, or Resentment, or Anger, or Envy, you’ve got it. It’s your glass. Each of us get to decide what gets poured in our glass.
As the mystic, Theresa of Avila, said, “It’s heaven all the way to heaven and hell all the way to hell.” (And yes, that’s the mystic who drove me crazy just last year!)
You want more happiness, gratitude, abundance in your life? Just fill it up! It may sound stupid, but it is a proven psychological phenomenon. Gratitude is an ever-expanding emotion. If you can find just one thing to focus on and be grateful for, then you will find another and another and another. Like Carrie Newcomer’s poem, it builds from just one simple deep breath when you can say, ”I am grateful for this breath, for the fact that I am alive and in this moment, I am not suffering. There is nothing I need.” Richard Rohr defines suffering as “anytime you are not in control.” We can all think of a dozen ways we are “suffering” right now, but we can also close our eyes, take a deep breath and realize that right here, in this moment, we have an abundance of everything we need – warmth, air, food, hydration, companionship, rest. We might not be suffering at all.
David Steindl-Rast said the practice of Grateful Living can be taught, just like we were taught to cross the street when we were kids –What do you do when you get to the curb? You STOP, and then what? You LOOK both ways and then you GO.
The reason we don’t all live gratefully and therefore happily is that most of us – not necessarily most of us here, but maybe some of us here- forget to stop. Just like it said on the Time
magazine cover – we GO GO GO. All the world is go go go. And to be truly happy, which is to be grateful, we need to stop, instead of rushing through everything, trying to get to the next thing on our list, on our way to our goals. Steindl-Rast suggested we make stop signs for ourselves to remind us to take a deep breath. They can be mental ones – like prayers – when we wake, or at dinner, or bed time – when we can find, not just a general thank you, but a specific thank you. But they can be actual stop signs too. When he came back from living in Africa, he didn’t want to forget what a miracle it was to have clean, running water again, so he put a hand-written stop sign on his water faucet and on his light switch to remind him of the miracles of his life. We could put one on our mirror – dirty clothes hamper – steering wheel – computer screen at work. Once we have stopped and taken that first breath in front of the very thing that we take for granted, for which we can be grateful, even if it aggravates us, we can look around and find something else to be grateful for – the clean water, the electricity, the semi- healthy body that gets us around, even if it has wrinkles, the too many clothes we have to get dirty, and the washing machine we have to clean them, the car, the job, all of it and finally we GO; we embrace the moment and find JOY in it. When we enjoy it for that moment, it’s possible to have that gratitude inform and affect the rest of our day.
One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, says it beautifully and simply:
In virtually every moment, there is something to be grateful for. That does not mean we have to be grateful for the bad things, the evil and tragic things. I don’t believe that. And if we find gratitude in the midst of bad things, it doesn’t mean we are glad they happened, or that the good outweighs the bad. It just means that even in this tragedy, in the midst of this hate, I can find some glimmer of Love, some glimpse of God. I think that’s what Jesus did on the cross when he asked God to forgive his murderers. Forgive them God. He found something to overcome the negative, even in his last breath, so that he could say in trust – Into your hands I commend my spirit.
That is how I want to go, gratefully, free of hatred and resentment, and if that is the way I want to go, then that is the way I want to live.
A line from recovery that I’ve heard is that you get to keep the gift by giving it away. And believe it or not, that is true of joy and gratitude, and love and kindness too. It’s been proven that it is almost impossible to sustain positive feelings if you keep them to yourself. You can keep your anger, your hatred, your resentment and doubts, all to yourself, all day, every day and they will grow and fester and flourish, but that’s because they are burdens. Gifts – love, joy, happiness – multiply if they are shared, given away and the more abundantly you share them, the more you have, until you finally realize there is more than enough.
So I have one final thought. and as a mother, I know it’s true: we protect what we love.
And I would just like us to think about the fact that if we aren’t consciously grateful and aware of the preciousness of the things we love, then our love can become habitual, and possibly even taken for granted, like a favorite old sweater, or stuffed animal, or favorite childhood story. You love it, but from distance, in your memory, or the image of what that thing is. And so staying actively grateful – conscious of the specific, ever-evolving nature of the people we love and the things that bring us joy, the people and things that make us feel whole, alive, excited – is so important. If we forget to love them actively, then we will forget to protect them in our hearts and minds, and even especially with our time. We want to Love well, protect well, enjoy and appreciate our lives and our relationships well, because we know what can happen if we don’t. We see it everywhere, all over – in families, neighborhoods and nations and across the world.
I want to end with this song, “Grateful,” by a man named Nimo Patel, who has devoted his life to sharing a message of Love, service and gratitude. I especially love the chorus, which goes like this: All that I am/ All that I see/ All that I’ve ever been and all I’ll ever be/ Is a blessing/ It’s so amazing/ And I’m grateful for it all.
I’m grateful for it all.
For all of you: for old friends and new, for the family we are and the family we will become, for the life I have and the life I have yet to live, I am grateful. I have failed and will fail a million more times, but “There’s a million things to be grateful for,” and I don’t want to miss a moment, caught in fear, or self-pity, or resentment. So, every day, I will try to stop and breathe, look and go, hopefully, in gratitude.
Remember that broken heart I talked about at the beginning of this blog? More than anything else at Family Camp this year, my heart was broken open by gratitude for the people I met, the Love I experienced, the stories and laughter and tears we shared. I was fully me, fully alive and aware of every gift: every baby’s smile, every toddler’s tears, every teen’s presence and every friend’s fierce hug and I thank you for it all.
If you are interested in learning more about Family Camp at La Casa de Maria, you can go to the website here.