Advent 18: Be Astonished

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All day, I didn’t know what I was going to write here.

A few hours ago, we settled into the bleachers for Wyatt’s basketball game. A couple rows behind us, the two team managers sat manning the video camera. I always love team managers. Afficionados of the sport but maybe not hardwired to play it, they usually model the kind of behind-the-scenes servant leadership that puts most of us to shame.

As the varsity players came out of the locker room, one of the managers said, with unbridled enthusiasm, “There’s Stephen! Dude—Stephen’s playing varsity!” They they both let out a raucous whoop and high-fived one another. Stephen, dedicated C team and JV player for the last two seasons, had been asked to suit up since varsity had two injured players. He didn’t see any minutes on the court, but the two managers had it right—total joy.

I smiled the rest of the night and thought of Mary’s Oliver’s instructions for life:

Pay attention
Be astonished
Tell about it

Sometimes life leaves us no choice but to fall in love with it.

Advent 17: Sacred Trimester

Favorite Sunday of the year yesterday with all the little shepherds and angels and adorable pageant mistakes. This is the first year I didn’t have a child in it. Sigh.

The whole tableau is so human, and reminds me of another Christmas poem of mine from the archives. It’s about a pregnant Mary going to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who’s also pregnant. Both are visited by angels who say, “Do not be afraid.” Both will have baby boys who show others the Way of Love.

Sacred Trimester

Mary set out to visit Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea. When Mary entered her home, Elizabeth ran to greet her. (Luke 1)

They make tea,
clear out the spare room,
take afternoon naps.

Eat popcorn,
sew little garments,
compare angelic visits:

And what does the angel say to you?

The angel says old women give birth,
fatherless children show the way,
the lonely and wandering are closest to God.

Like a grapefruit heavy with juice,
you are taut with blessing.

History will call you holy,
lowly, or brave.

But don’t forget—you are a body,
arms, legs, collarbone, earlobes, womb,
veins, fingernails, spine, uterus.

A body spilling its juices,
a heroine leaving home
so she can return to it,
a woman born again and again
into her total carnal goodness.

Advent 16: A Voice Through the Door

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Just something from Rumi today, whose poetry has been like food and water to me for several years. This is from Daily Readings, translated by Coleman Barks:

A Voice through the Door

Sometimes you hear a voice through the door
calling you, as fish out of water
hear the waves, or a hunting falcon
hears the drum’s Come back. Come back.

This turning toward what you deeply love
saves you. Read the book of your life,
which has been given you.

A voice comes to your soul saying,
Lift your foot. Cross over.

Move into the emptiness
of question and answer and question.

Advent 15: Lost in the Woods

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Parker Palmer had a beautiful Facebook post this morning, referencing David Wagoner’s poem Lost :

I thought of [getting lost in the woods] when I woke up this morning feeling a bit lost in the wilds of my own life—lost because, for the moment, I’m without a strong sense of purpose. My temptation is to run madly toward something, anything, that feels like it might fill that void.

But that’s the way to become even more lost! So I need remember what happened on that mountain trail. I didn't keep running trying to find what I'd lost. I stopped until it found me.

Right now, my job is to wait out this feeling of being lost, to open myself to life and trust that it will find me—if I keep my eyes and ears open and am willing to follow the clues.

As David Wagoner says in this marvelous poem, "Stand still. The forest knows / Where you are. You must let it find you."

I love his phrase, “Getting lost in the wilds of my own life.” And how honest he is about being without a strong sense of purpose. (After the many books he’s written and non-profits he’s started, I want to tell him to take a breath! But that’s probably why this time in his life feels so uncertain.)

In the last week, I’ve felt lost in the wilds of my parenting life. It turns out that adolescence is a real phenomenon wherein one’s child might lose his way and wonder who he is. And it turns out that is painful for everyone and can’t be totally mitigated by a mother, no matter how enlightened or emotionally intelligent she may imagine herself to be.

I have such an urge to FIX things, to treat this whole season as a technical challenge with a technical solution. But I know it’s an adaptive challenge for all of us, and that relaxing into who we are is a journey that may start in adolescence, but continues throughout our whole lives.

This morning I went to a cycling class at the YMCA. Those 75 year-olds kick my butt every time. The instructor played rock-n-roll Christmas hits. The man on the bike to my right sang every word to Bruce Springsteen’s Merry Christmas Baby, and the senior in the back of the room wore a t-shirt that said “Yeah” in glitter letters. I said to myself, “Everything is going to be alright.”

And then I had breakfast with my friend Janel and cried all over my toast. She said, “I will leave my phone on. You can call me in the middle of the night if you need to.”

Okay, Parker. Okay, God—“Right now, my job is to wait out this feeling of being lost, to open myself to life and trust that it will find me.” At least for today, I was found.

Advent 14: Remembering to Notice

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When I was 18, Denise Levertov’s book Evening Train was assigned to me in my Modern Poetry class with Dr. Delaney. I remember the splurge of buying all those books at the campus bookstore, and I remember the decision not to sell them back—R.S. Thomas, Seamus Heaney, Dylan Thomas. What wonderful gluttony that was!

Levertov moved to Seattle for the last 8 years of her life and wrote many poems about Mt. Rainier. Not climbing it or conquering it, but letting glimpses of it inspire her everyday life and writing. Her poetry has always helped me notice what’s around me.

Here’s a favorite about noticing. I hope your day is full of it.

Witness

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils in inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.

Advent 13: It's Good to Be Human

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Had some driving time today, and heard Rob Bell, emphatic as ever, say, “It’s good to be human!”

My faith has had a lot of twists and turns over the years, and my experience of the Divine is always changing. I’d call myself “trans-spiritual” or “inter-spiritual” these days, but what I love about the Jesus story is that it’s about being human. Anything that starts with a refugee family having a baby in a barn is something that will captivate me forever. Here’s a poem I wrote a few years ago about that.

Crèche

Christmas stories are piling up.
You see them everywhere, stories of
powerlessness, wandering,
no room at the inn. Stories of kingdoms
bent on domination,
fear, fear, fear.

You don’t know if it’s true—
shepherds watching flocks,
wise men from the east,
angels, mangers, glory in the
highest and all that.

But one thing is truer than history—
love doesn’t wait. Love doesn’t hang back,
demand comfort, status, or a clean hospital.
It’s born everywhere, all the time.

Whoever the characters were and
whatever they’ve become through the years,
here’s the real crèche:

your willingness,
your yes,
how you can enter a smelly barn
and find God in the cold.

—SMK

P.S. Photo snapped at my friend Jenn’s house where I spent the day. The eggs were gathered by her beautiful daughter Leona this morning.

Advent 12: No Wrong Seasons

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In this excerpt from her poem “Hurricane,” Mary Oliver describes wrecked trees coming back to life:

But listen now to what happened
to the actual trees;
toward the end of that summer day they
pushed new leaves from their stubbed limbs.
It was the wrong season, yes,
but they couldn’t stop. They
looked like telephone poles and didn’t
care. And after the leaves came
blossoms. For some things
there are no wrong seasons.
Which is what I dream of for me.

There is no wrong season for new love, repair, or forgiveness. There is no wrong season for leaving your job or starting a new one, no wrong season for being surprised by friendship or adventure or taking up knitting, painting, mountain climbing, singing, or botany. You might look like an old peeling telephone pole and then burst into bloom. How beautiful. How disruptive. How like the universe.

Advent 11: Be Transported

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This morning my stylist Anna cut my hair (okay—and colored it—sheesh). I always look forward to being in her studio and talking about life.

I mentioned a favorite love song and sent her a link. While my hair was setting, she played it on her phone and we listened together. I teared up a little (surprise) and we had what one might call a moment, connecting with one another and with all of life, really. We were transported. If Emily had been there, she probably would have sighed, “I love love.”

Much as I’m sustained by my inner life, that fire needs fuel. I’m grateful for all the numinous experiences I’ve had in my meditation corner. But I’m equally grateful for a world of amazing people, projects, places, books and ideas to push off of. Everywhere I look, there are springboards, transporting me into beauty, justice, kindness, wisdom, sorrow, or love. This morning, it was Eddie Vedder’s voice and what that song means to Yancey and I. And it was the experience of really listening to it with someone.

What transports you? What can you count on to bring you back to yourself? Here’s a short, idiosyncratic list of what’s transported me lately or in the last year or two:

  • The poetry of Ellen Bass, especially her volumes Like a Beggar and The Human Line

  • Green Book, movie out now about an unlikely friendship between a world-class black musician and an Italian bouncer from the 1960’s NYC night club scene

  • The movie Itzhak about Itzhak Perlman, his music and zest for life, his perseverance despite disability, and all the ways he’s given his life to students

  • Insomniac City, book, the story of Bill Hayes and Oliver Sacks falling in love

  • Elizabeth Lesser’s book Marrow about she and her sister. Produced what’s now a strong refrain of mine, “Every relationship has the potential to be a little better than it is.”

  • The Best we Could Do, a graphic novel by Thi Bui about immigrating to America with her family after the Vietnam War

  • Esther Perel’s podcast Where Should we Begin?, chronicling real-life couples talking about their relationships

  • The Robcast, Rob Bell’s podcast about God, life, and whatever he feels like talking about

  • Touching a tree, which is so easy to do in Bellingham—feeling its rough bark under my hands, letting my life join with its life

We have some wise guides in this life—there is always someone who’s been through what we are going through, who’s thought about or experienced something before we have and who can help light the way.

Advent 10: Flying takes Two Wings

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My pastor Sharon talked about joy this morning, and she showed this clip. Aleksander Gamme is a Norwegian adventurer and explorer, and the first to complete an unsupported trip to the South Pole and back. On the way in, he hid supplies and snacks in snow-covered caches. He purposely did not keep track of what he left so it would be a surprise.

On day 86 of his 87-day trek, he comes upon his last cache and expects to find the annoying practical things he’s found in the other ones—batteries, water purifying equipment. Instead, he finds Cheez Doodles, candy, and cheese, and he goes crazy with happiness. I barely ever click on links to videos, but do yourself a favor and click on this one. It might make your day.

There is the obvious takeaway here, which is, “Could I be the kind of person to go ecstatically crazy over a such a small thing?” It’s a reminder to us in our world of diminishing returns when we get antsy for the Netflix show to load or throw food out because it’s not exactly what we feel like eating.

Beyond that, though, my question is, “Am I up for the highs and the lows?” Gamme’s joy is largely due to the fact that he’s been living in deprivation—snow, sleet, cold, just enough calories. Because he’s been exposing himself to the elements, really pushing the limits of his humanity, all it takes is a bag of chips for him to soar to the heights. His happiness is in direct proportion to his discomfort.

I’m not arguing for masochism here, but if your life is anything like mine, it’s organized around comfort and security. Everything from the temperature of the house to deeper things like avoiding negative emotions. We avoid these in all sorts of ways, numbing ourselves through food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, image management, unhealthy relationships, even good things like exercise or spirituality. When we do that, we might be avoiding pain, but we’re also missing out on the Cheez Doodle dance! The tidal, total freedom of losing ourselves in the wonder of life, whooping with delight. I wish that for me, I wish that for you, whatever storms are brewing or behind us. Suffering and joy are wings of the same bird—without both of them, we can’t fly.

(P.S. The photo is from my time at Grace Cathedral in SF a few days ago. It’s an art installation of hundreds of paper birds suspended above the sanctuary. I caught it at the exact moment the sun was coming over the hill. A Cheez Doodle moment, for sure.)

Advent 9: Absence

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Had a quiet walk through the bare winter woods, feeling companionable with the trees and sky. I’ve been listening to Rob Bell’s 11-part podcast series on Jesus, and heard today that “Efficiency may not be God’s highest goal for your life.” Isn’t that relieving? How boring and exhausting that would be.

The bare trees remind me to be empty, to make friends with darkness, quiet, and hibernation, to relax into the way things are instead of trying to hustle.

December Trees

Puncturing winter sky,
a rough, reaching tapestry
of strength and loss,
colors long gone,
they become absence,
make space for the light.

Advent 8: I'm Lonely Sometimes

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My dad works at the Lighthouse Mission in Bellingham and every time we are together, he has saved up some stories. They are always poignant and full of humanity. He was with two of the guests recently who remarked to one another, “The holidays suck.” My dad (the most practiced observer I know) teared up telling me that, and we talked about how this time of year is painful for so many.

I am not homeless, poor or grieving a death or divorce. I am not sick or away from home. But I am familiar with loneliness. If we let ourselves listen, that’s the human condition.

Emily and I were talking about loneliness this week, and she said, “I don’t want to be ashamed of it.” Sometimes I feel alone when I’m in a crowd or with a friend. I feel alone when I wake from a dream about loss or failure. I feel alone when my phone is silent for too long. When Yancey is on shift over the weekend, I can go a long time without interacting with another adult, and I’ll think, “Is something wrong with me?”

I’ve heard a few spiritual teachers talk about our phones as mindfulness devices. And they are not talking about getting a meditation app! They’re suggesting that every time we reflexively pick up our phones, we ask, “What need am I trying to meet?” I’ve begun doing this, and often my answer is “I don’t want to feel alone.” I want to know someone is thinking about me. I want to know I matter to someone, that I’m connected, worthy, or valuable.

I could give a lot of tips here for taking the edge off loneliness, and you’ve heard them all. Plan ahead, read, text a friend, listen to music, join the YMCA. This season, I’m thinking of Mary, bringing her baby into the world in a stable. No mothers or mother-in-laws around, no friends rubbing her feet or bringing her ice chips. No meal deliveries, no “Congratulations” to the unwed mother. But she had something that’s available to all of us—a holy encounter, an angelic visitor that instructed her, “Don’t be afraid! Your ordinary life is extraordinary, though you can’t believe it. Don’t pick up your phone, don’t distract yourself, don’t keep track of who has been there for you or not. Just watch and wait, and the miracles will keep happening.” THAT is what our loneliness can summon, if we are brave enough to let it.

Advent 7: You are Loved

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Last time I was in San Francisco, the reader board at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts said, “The real leaders walk among us.” It was a year after the 2016 election, and it was exactly what I needed to hear. This morning it said, simply, “You are Loved.”

I walked from there to the top of Nob Hill and sat in the sun on the steps of Grace Cathedral. I listened to a a song that made me cry (link here, click on the first song on the album). At 44, what’s finally changing is that my very loud Inner Critic is starting to quiet down. I used to think that if I quit listening to her, I’d be less good. Or less lovable, successful, or action-oriented. The truth of my belovedness is starting to slip past all that, and the sign this morning confirmed it.

So that’s what I want to say to you: You are Loved. Whether you are beautiful or homely, you are loved. Whether you are single or partnered. Whether you are happy or sad, confident or scared. Whether you are rich or poor or anything in-between. Whether you are in community or you are lonely, whether you are fat or thin. Whether your body works right or not. Whether Christmas makes you happy or wretchedly sad, whether your mother loved you or not, whether you’re employed or not, whether you think your work is meaningful or not. None of these things—not one—changes the essential, universal, not-told-enough truth that you are loved, you are beloved, your life is worth everything, and we should all be shouting from the rooftops about it. Amen.

Advent 6: Enjoy Enjoying

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More from Rick Hanson, who says “our brains are like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones…We’re designed to over-learn from bad experiences while under-learning from the good ones.” So part of becoming healthier and happier human beings is learning how to encode good experiences, making them stick as persistently (or more so) than the bad ones do. From a neurological standpoint, he says we can flag experiences as “keepers” for long-term storage by intending to receive enjoyable experiences—being open—and then by letting them sink into us, going over them in our hearts and minds and allowing them to become part of us.

This time with Emily in the Bay Area are days I want to encode. I want to enjoy enjoying them, like photos I take out. Some moments I want to remember:

  • Helping Emily with her Tinder profile on the train

  • Doing the StoryCorps (!!!) interview she set up for us, encoding the story of our friendship and what we love about each other in front of some amazing facilitators and witnesses

  • Swimming together in the early morning with steam rising off the pool

  • Going to the Stanford Hospital Hanukkah service and singing “Grant us peace” in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic

  • Watching “Green Book” in the theater and going into the ugly cry

  • Doing morning, midday, and evening prayers together

  • Laughing our asses off with the college students who shared our Lyft ride

  • Dancing around the altar at St. Gregory’s

I think we’ve both had the rare experience of actually knowing we are in the present moment with one another, and how beautiful. To enjoy enjoying. I wish the same for you during this Advent season.

Advent 5: How will the Miracle Unfold Today?

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I have a ridiculous collection of devotional aids (prayer books and beads, oracle cards, candles and incense, icons), but my sister gave me a book that’s at the top of my list again this Advent. Gayle Boss’ All Creation Waits has 25 meditations on how wild animals adapt to winter cold and darkness. Her descriptions are factual and insightful at the same time, and I look forward to learning about a new animal each morning.

Today, Emily and I read about the chickadee who must “continually eat during winter’s short daylight hours to stoke its fires for the long night to come…on a winter night [it] burns through all the calories it ate during the day.” In the summer, the chickadee hides seeds under tree bark or in log cracks, and the memory center of its brain actually grows in winter as it recalls all the hiding places.

Gayle says,

Every winter day the equation of their existence is open: Will there be enough of what they need to take them through the dark night, into tomorrow? Beyond reason…they act as if the question is truly an opening, a freedom, a joy.

I love this—”the equation of their existence is open.” And who among us can claim differently? Every day, the equation of our existence is open. Even if we manage to trick ourselves by a stable job, hot water and electricity, relationships with family and friends, money in a bank account. Everything could change in an instant. This is really what the animals and the poor have to teach us—how to survive and even thrive when the fragility of our existence is laid bare, when we can’t depend on the weather or the world cooperating.

Kevin Kelly, in his essay, The Universe is Conspiring to Help Us, talks about hitchhiking and everything it taught him about living day to day, about giving and receiving. He says,

When I was in my 20s, I would hitchhike to work every day. I'd walk down three blocks to Route 22 in New Jersey, stick out my thumb and wait for a ride to work. Someone always picked me up, and I was never late. Each morning, I counted on the service of ordinary commuters who had lives full of their own worries and yet, without fail, at least one of them would do something generous, as if on schedule. As I stood there with my thumb outstretched, the only question in my mind was simply, "How will the miracle happen today?"…I have developed a belief about what happens in these moments and it goes like this: Kindness is like a breath. It can be squeezed out, or drawn in. To solicit a gift from a stranger takes a certain state of openness. If you are lost or ill, this is easy, but most days you are neither, so embracing extreme generosity takes some preparation. I learned to think of this as an exchange. During the moment the stranger offers his or her goodness, the person being aided offers degrees of humility, indebtedness, surprise, trust, delight, relief and amusement to the stranger.

Wow. Like the chickadee, like the trusting hitchhiker, how can we embrace “extreme generosity” this Advent? Though the equation of our existence is open, how can we let that uncertainty be a freedom, a joy?

Advent 4: It's Okay to be Hopeful

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Yesterday I read an excellent piece by Christena Celeveland called The Privilege of Hopelessness. She says the phrase “Despair is the luxury of the bourgeoisie” has been overheard in a Palestinian refugee camp. Strangely, the farther we are from systemic injustice (by virtue of race, class, ability, life circumstance, gender identity, etc.), the easier it is to despair.

I remember right after the 2016 election when liberal white folks (myself included) were panicking, wondering what had happened to our country. People of color and other marginalized groups were saying, “ Welcome to our our world! It’s been scary for a long time. But it didn’t keep us from working for justice.”

And lately I’m noticing it again, that it’s become popular for people of my ilk to binge on news and then bellyache about how horrible the world is. I’m right there with them. I don’t believe things are getting better. I’m noticing the smoke hovering over Bellingham every August and the news of gun deaths every day and the barefoot children at the border. I’m horrified that so many people in power are ignorant, cruel, or greedy. I don’t have a generalized faith in humanity or God or science that we will figure these things out before it’s too late.

But, as a person of privilege who sometimes despairs, I don’t believe I have the luxury of staying there. The priest who gave the homily at St. Gregory’s yesterday (Photo above! Beautiful!) talked about “phenological mismatch,” a phenomena that’s happening more and more because of climate change. The white hares in New England are turning white later in the season because the snow is late and, without their camouflage, they are getting eaten by coyotes. Frozen sea turtles are washing up on the shores of Cape Cod since warmer water means they are migrating later and getting caught in the cold. Listening to the priest, I was backing into a darker and darker place, tears dropping onto my lap. As it should be, really. We’re talking about the end of the world here!

Then she surprised us by saying, “Despair is a phenological mismatch for the season of Advent.” This is a season when we are allowed to hope, even called to hope, despite all the evidence. I’ve always said that the antidote to despair is to live in reality. The turtles are freezing, but a record number of women just got elected to Congress. Black bodies are being traumatized by the police, but my white son is talking about it. There are hundreds of homeless people in my little town, but my Dad comes home from his job at the Lighthouse Mission and tells me stories about their courage.

The word “courage” has held a lot of meaning for me this year, and I think it takes courage to hope. Emily and I have been reading a daily prayer for courage from the Corrymeela Community in Ireland, an organization that works for peace and reconciliation. I’ll end with part of it:

…we are called
to live lives of courage,
love and reconciliation
in the ordinary and extraordinary
moments of each day.

We bear witness, too, to our failures
and our complicity in the fractures of our world

May we be courageous today,
May we learn today,
May we love today.
Amen.

Advent 3: Sacred Spirals

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Today was one for the books.

Emily and I celebrated Eucharist at St. Gregory of Nyssa then walked the labyrinth at Lands End in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It was sunny and almost windless. On the trail out to the point, the cypress trees spread their windswept canopy over us. On the way back, we took Natalie Goldberg’s advice—she hikes a lot with friends, and has a pattern of hiking in silently and not talking until the way back. We reversed the order.

The labyrinth was full of happy people—friends and lovers getting their photos taken in the center, children picking up the stones and moving them around. Emily and I, like the liturgical geeks we are, actually walked it meditatively. In the middle, she pulled out anointing balm from her traveling chaplain’s kit (yes, she has that) and we anointed one another with the surf as our backdrop.

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Walking a labyrinth is a kind of body prayer, and they are hidden in sacred places all over the world. You don’t need a physical labyrinth to receive the blessings of one, though. Advent, a time of waiting and opening the door to possibility, is a perfect time to settle into a refuge moment and walk your self through the three R’s. You can also print out an icon and use your finger to trace the path:

Release: On the pathway in, ask yourself, What needs releasing? What am I holding too tightly? What fear, control, worry, or tension, anger, or apathy do I want to say goodbye to? Alternatively, ask yourself nothing and just feel a release in your body—a progressive lightening up as you move toward the center, enjoying a break from thinking about every damn thing.

Receive: This is my favorite part, probably because I have a much easier time giving than receiving. One you reach the center, stubbornly stand there and wait for a gift from the universe—some wish of the heart. Maybe you know exactly what you want, and you can say, Thank you for the gift of healing or I want to receive clarity about graduate school. Or maybe you have no idea what you need, and you just want to stand there, empty-handed or broken-hearted or bursting with joy, waiting for water to come pouring from the spring. Maybe you’ll stand there for a minute, maybe an hour.

Renew: The way out is as important as the way in. It’s not about rushing out to do whatever is next. The gift continues, one foot in front of another. After you’ve released what you don’t want anymore and accepted the gift at the center, the return is about renewal, about being invigorated, called again, or enlivened to keep doing your work in the world, whatever it is. Maybe it’s loving your narcissistic brother or finding the good in your boss. Maybe it’s loving YOURSELF, since no other love is possible without that. Whatever it is, feel a gradual tide of aliveness as you retrace your steps out.

Happy Trails!

Advent 2: Your attention is your property

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This is bark from a Douglas Fir tree along the Nooksack River where I take my retreats. Every time I go to that sacred spot, I notice more. I walked past this elder on a drizzly morning, my hat pulled down over my ears and the roar of the river behind me. It pulled me in, reminded me how ancient the universe is and that I’ll come and go while it persists.

Rick Hansen says our attention is our property. Only we can guard it, and we should guard it carefully. This year, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to trees, more attention to children, to silence, to the seagulls outside my office window, to how it feels to stay in the shower for a few more minutes.

There are lots of ways to say this:

Wherever you shift your satellite dish, that’s what you pick up.
What you focus on grows.
You are what you eat.

Shifting my satellite dish has meant taking some very practical measures. Among them:

  • I receive no notifications on my phone except for texts.

  • I read the NYT for 30 minutes every morning, but I don’t watch the news. I prefer not to hear certain voices or see certain faces, and I certainly don’t want everyone’s commentary on every nuance.

  • I use social media, but with a lot of rules. I have only actual people I know and care about in my private Instagram feed, and have a public one for following artists, writers, and other luminaries. I still have a Facebook account (for now), but spend about 5 minutes/day there and don’t use it as a news feed.

  • I don’t subscribe to any newsletters in my inbox.

  • I don’t give my email to stores so I can get discounts. I’d rather pay more and be left alone.

  • I keep completely separate inboxes—my work and personal one on my desktop, and my junk mail as web-based that I have to open other windows to see. That way, I see it far less often.

These guidelines aren’t for everyone, but they help me see the trees. And boy, they are worth it.

Advent 1: Take a Retreat Wherever you Are

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I’m at the airport, thinking I had 45 minutes to write this post. I refreshed my flight info to see I now have two hours because of a delay. Clearly, it’s time for me to take some of my own advice—to take a retreat wherever I am.

The first day of Advent is technically tomorrow if you follow a Christian liturgical calendar, but I adopted December 1-25 years ago because it’s much easier to remember, especially if you’re not a math major. So today begins a season of waiting, a season of anticipation, a season of being present to both light and darkness.

I’m reading Rick Hanson’s “Resilient” right now. Just a few chapters in, I can tell it’s going to be something that profoundly affects me. He says,

In the flow of your day, find refuges such as time to yourself in a morning shower, the friendly camaraderie of people at work, listening to music on the way home, or thoughts of gratitude as you get ready for sleep…When you find refuge, slow down. Be aware of what refuge feels like; perhaps a sense of relaxation, reassurance, and relief. Stay with the experience for a breath or longer. Notice what feels good about it. Let the sense of refuge sink in, establishing itself in you as something you can go to wherever you want.

I had a headache on my commuter flight to Seattle and was beginning to settle into some familiar scripts: I am probably not getting enough sleep. There are a lot of things I should be doing besides taking some time off right now. I should have stocked the fridge with food. I took a breath and looked around. The young woman beside me was texting someone she loved. Two elderly men a few rows ahead were talking about how much they are enjoying this twilight time in their lives. I leaned my head back, closed my eyes, and practiced ducking into a little micro-refuge, a moment where I appreciated myself and the crazy luck of being alive one more day.

In this next month of unrealistic expectations, I think our longings are the same: as they always are To know who we really are and what we are here for and to connect with one another. I hope you can identify what your own places of refuge are and put your feet up for a minute. Because if there’s one thing we can count on, it’s that there will be flight delays. The world won’t work like we want it to, but our inner life can warm and sustain us if we let it.

Twice-Baked Yams with Chorizo and Chard

jewels of autumn

I’m far too late with this little number to affect anyone’s Thanksgiving table, but I think yams belong on the table much more often.

In that spirit, I offer the following “recipe,” and a lot of thanks for a multitude of blessings: all my clients who employ people, labor over decisions, and make the world a better place; my colleague and office-mate Laura Todd who makes my life infinitely richer; my hardworking husband who helps people stay alive at work and builds decks at home; Wyatt and Loretta who suffuse everything with meaning and fun; Emily, my other spouse in this life; every sunset Bellingham has been doused with this year; and the power we all have to transform ourselves and care for each other.

Twice-Baked Yams with Chorizo and Chard
Poke 4 big yams with a fork and rub all over with olive oil. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, until soft but not falling apart. Let cool. Meanwhile, in a big saute pan with a glug of olive oil, saute half a red onion and a few cloves of minced garlic. When that’s soft, add a handful of finely chopped Spanish chorizo, salt and pepper. Saute a few minutes more, then add a big bunch of chopped chard or kale and 1/2 head of cauliflower, finely chopped (or “riced”). Saute down for about 10 minutes more. When the yams are cool enough, split them and scoop the insides out into the chard mixture. (Carefully. The skins are thin. Don’t worry if they rip a little bit.) Mash the whole mixture up together with a potato masher, adding 1/2 c. plain Greek yogurt, juice from half a lime, and a little more salt. Scoop mixture back into skins and bake in a casserole dish or on a sheet pan for about 25 minutes, until warm and bubbly. When they are out of the oven, top with a few things for color and interest—the options are limitless. More chopped greens, pepita seeds, feta or blue cheese, chives, pomegranate seeds. Serves 8 as a side dish or 4 as a main dish.

How to take a Solo Retreat

along the Nooksack

I’m here again, honoring the commitment I made to myself a year ago that I would take a quarterly solo retreat. This is a practice that was modeled to me growing up. My dad would take a day off work go to a monastery up in British Columbia. I remember him assembling his journal and prayer books and how “more himself” he seemed when he came home. I’ve been doing this for years, but very sporadically. This whole “once a quarter” business is a factor of several things—no babies, a flexible job, a husband whose firefighting schedule allows him to be home for a few days in a row, and finding the perfect set-up—a location that’s close to home but feels far away (read more about this place here).

Even so, there’s hesitation when I’m packing the car and leaving notes for the kids. I feel guilty that I won’t be home for a basketball or volleyball game. I rehearse the script about how many people don’t have this luxury or about how retreating from the world won’t save it. I’m nervous about leaving all my distractions behind. Those distractions are comforting, and mask an inner restlessness I'd prefer not to face. Every time, leaving is a counter-cultural act.

I do it to remember I have a soul instead of being clenched in what one poet calls “the fist of survival.” I do it to be bored, quiet, and alone. I do it to have a break from stimuli of all sorts—traffic, emails, texts, social media, doing favors for people, taking care of my family, letting the dog out, helping clients, making plans, comparing myself, or judging myself for not deep-cleaning the bathrooms or remembering to send canned goods for the food drive. All of that is SO LOUD sometimes!

Some of us are naturally more contemplative than others, so the struggle to leave is felt with varied intensity. If you’re an Enneagram TWO, leaving town will be Herculean and a sign of major growth. If you’re a FIVE, maybe you need to stay just for 2 nights instead of 10. (You’re welcome, Enneagram lovers. I’m sorry, everyone else.) Wherever you are in your personality or life stage, though, there’s hardly any practice I’d endorse more.

So if you’re open to the idea, if you sort of get the “why,” maybe the harder part is the “how.” What follows are a few highly subjective tips for the seeker in you who’s curious.

Find a place that’s inspiring and easy to get to. Before I had this rhythm, this was always a huge barrier. David Lynch talks about how artists need the “set-up” that will enable them to walk into their studio and get to work. That’s how I think of this. Maybe it’s a friend’s garden shed, a retreat center, a hotel, a tent. So many options depending on your aesthetic and budget.

Talk to a wise guide while you’re away. I see my spiritual director while I’m here, which is easy since she lives on and maintains this property. But maybe you can talk with a therapist or coach on the phone. It’s so transformative to have this kind of help and input in our lives, especially when silence has primed us for it. I bring in my journal, snippets of books, things I’m happy, sad, or confused about, and we make a tapestry of them together.

Bring a journal. I’m with Natalie Goldberg and Naomi Shahib-Nye and so many others on this one—no one ever felt worse about something by writing it down! Don’t worry about being profound or readable. Just start moving your hand across the page. Also, I usually bring an archived journal or two so I can get up on the balcony of my life and see what’s been brewing on the dance floor.

Assemble a collection of creative and meditative aids. It’s comical in my case. I haul so many things out here. I’ve got cookbooks, Enneagram, spirituality, and coloring books, poetry, novels, Tarot cards, stationary, watercolors. It’s always interesting to see what I feel like pulling out.

Bring simple, nourishing food. If you go to a retreat center with a dining hall, that can be very wonderful. I like to make my own food. For breakfast, I bring yogurt, fruit, bread and butter, eggs, coffee. For lunch and dinners, things to assemble rice bowls and salads—greens, cooked brown rice or quinoa, black beans, roasted yams, sharp cheddar, avocado, chiles. Cheese, crackers, pickles, and a chocolate bar for snacks.

Expect to be antsy. You may think of a million reasons to return to your life. You may look deep and be dismayed to find not much there. You may be forced to sit with sadness, uncertainty, boredom, or fear. Wonderful! If being on devices will be a temptation for you, don’t bring them. Embrace the emptiness, though you may hate every minute of it.

Stay at least two nights. I’ve learned over time that one night isn’t enough. Those first 12-18 hours are a detox, and the next day is where the good stuff happens. I’m finally settled into myself, ready to receive.

The late David Daniels, Enneagram teacher, said, “To make a difference in our world, for our planet, we need to begin by making a difference in ourselves. We so need to be able to do this simple work of getting honest, getting present, and becoming more responsibly conscious…our hope for the future depends on [this] ability.”

Thanks for reading, friends. Here’s to the evolution of consciousness!