Archives for posts with tag: Life

I like to write.  An article I read today challenged me to write for 15 minutes rather than complain about not having the time.  So I’m doing it now.

I have been thinking about limits.  In limits there is freedom.  Endless possibility can mean paralysis.  Chaos alone does not lead to beauty or truth.  It is creativity working within boundaries that really makes something special.  And it’s only once you know the rules that you really know how to break them, as I think the Dalai Lama said.

I love Jazz, partly because improvisation is one of the best examples of all this.  Only by first learning the rules of scales, chords, rhythm and song structure can a musician be free to soar to the heights of his creativity and self expression, and to do so in harmony with others.

Perhaps one of the reasons we wrongly believe we will find freedom unshackled by any limits is because limits/rules/boundaries – whatever you want to call them – hold the possibility of transgression or failure.  And we fear this.  Yet without the possibility of failure there is no meaningful achievement or purpose.

I write this the day after a crushing failure for the English Rugby team.  First ever host nation to be knocked out at the group stages.  Huge knock on effects to national morale, plus economic effects.  And yet it’s only a game.

And isn’t it interesting to think that any game is nothing but a collection of arbitrary rules, made significant only by collective agreement and historical familiarity?  And isn’t this how so much of life is really structured?  We all agree to some common ways because without them we are adrift in meaningless, at odds with each other or with nothing to hold onto.

The rules themselves, often are less important than what they represent, or the good effects they seek to produce.  Was the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden itself in anyway harmful?  Or was the rule about it simply a representation of the need to submit faithfully to something – someone – so much better, wiser and more beautiful than anything our own willfulness could lead to?

15 minutes is up, clicking publish.

Since it’s first transformation from seed to seedling the giant redwood on my windowsill has changed very little in recent months.  In the meantime, the strange caterpillars I found last August and put in a tin have just emerged from their cocoons as moths – earlier than expected.  (The elephant hawk moth is particularly stunning.)  And within 2 weeks of planting, my daughter’s sunflower seed already towers over the giant redwood.

Elephant hawk moth and lime hawk moth

Giant Redwood and Sunflower SeedlingsSometimes growth is sudden – a step change.  Sometimes it takes a long time – a strengthening of what is already there.  Often it happens in the dark, underground, when nothing seems to be happening at all.

In our own times of darkness or waiting, the world around us reveals the promise of hope and new life.  Every endless winter is followed by another spring.  Even destructive forest fires burn out eventually and life bursts forth stronger than ever.  What was once concealed out of sight in seed or cocoon, reaches for the open air in miraculous splendour when the time is right (and the shell that once protected it is discarded – dead – so the new life can be set free).

Moth Pupa Cocoons

There is a time for everything and everything has it’s time.  Some grow slow, some fast, but all have their own purpose and beauty, and a comparison between the redwood and the sunflower at this stage will not hold up in 100 years!

As the natural world shows, times of darkness and waiting are necessary to growth, and even death and pain release new life.

Kahlil Gibran said it so well:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses
your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its
heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the
daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem
less wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept the seasons of your heart,
even as you have always accepted the seasons that
pass over your fields.

And you would watch with serenity through the
winters of your grief.

This is a profound book – I urge you to read it!  Life is a journey home towards a deeper, wiser, happier simplicity – what he calls the second half of life – but not everybody gets there.

It’s the kind of book that I want to quote in its entirety!

But here is an excerpt:

There is a gravitas in the second half of life, but it is now held up by a deeper lightness, or ‘okayness’. Our mature years are characterised by a kind of bright sadness and a sober happiness… There is still darkness in the second half of life – in fact maybe even more.  But there is now a changed capacity to hold it creatively and with less anxiety…

In the second half of life one has less and less need or interest in eliminating the negative or fearful, making again those old rash judgements, holding on to old hurts or feeling any need to punish other people. Your superiority complexes have gradually departed in all directions.  You do not fight these things anymore; they have just shown themselves too many times to be useless, ego based, counter-productive and often entirely wrong.  You learn to positively ignore and withdraw your energy from evil or stupid things rather than fight them directly.

You fight things only when you are directly called and equipped to do so.  We all become a well-disguised mirror image of anything that we fight too long or too directly. That which we oppose determines the energy and frames the questions after a while.  You lose all your inner freedom…

The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better…

Such inner brightness ends up being a much better and longer-lasting alternative to any war, anger, violence, or ideology could ever be.  All you have to do is meet one such shining person and you know that she or he is surely the goal of humanity and the delight of God.

(This extract is taken from Falling Upwards by Richard Rohr with kind permission of SPCK)

I used to think my faith would protect me from pain and trials.  I thought this was what the Bible was saying.  Now I see faith as the greater hope beyond the pain, and a transcendent peace in the midst of the trials.   And suddenly it’s right there in the Bible, in the lives of all who followed Him – the suffering, the pain; but the greater hope: ‘In this world you will have trouble, but take heart!  I have overcome the world.’

I used to think faith meant God would provide whatever I trust Him for.  I have known such direct provision, yet often faith has meant sticking with Him over the long haul, through the disappointments and failures, trusting that these are the very things that will shape me and my life in the way He knows best.

I used to think faith only went one way.  But now I marvel to discover that He has faith in me too, that I am His co-worker in the mission of my life, and that if I cower away in fear or false humility due to a lack of faith in myself, I might not fulfil the potential He calls me to, with only myself to blame.

I used to think the walk of faith was a safe path, but now I know it is a risk with high stakes and the possibility of failure.  And I thank God that he never designed us for boredom.

I used to think failure was something to be feared, and incompatible with faith.   But now I know it is a familiar obstacle on the route to success but His grace is my ticket to re-enter the race.

I used to think faith meant a fixed path for me to walk, a predefined route that I secretly feared missing.  But now I know my God is living, active and creative and so am I, and we are laying the path together.

There is much to learn in life and I want my learning to create in me the expertise of a jazz musician, using the resources gained through discipline to create the freedom and beauty of a continuously improvised life – rather than the learning of a single song, safe and predictable, read from a sheet, and slowly dying the more it is repeated.

 

 

Since coming back from the storytelling festival in Romania I have wanted to write so much.  Ideas build up in my head, needing to find expression but held back by the other things in life that need to get done.   Some of these ideas have an urgency to them – words of hope I want to speak into the darkness of the world (because I know by writing such words I can speak them to myself, to dispel the darkness that creeps into my own heart).  Some are words of joy, the desire to share things we experienced and people we met in Romania.  Some are just the seeds of a thought, that I would love to water by writing with time and attention.

But at my stage of life, time and attention for writing is limited.  So these ideas unexpressed, which began as life-giving thoughts, become yet more entries on the list of unfinished tasks.

So I write now to remind myself that my life (and yours) is much more than a list of tasks.  Life is not a forever unfinished burden, something I am always trying to catch up to but never reaching.

It is a story, it is happening now, and it has threads running through it – of love, perseverance, hope, a journey and a destination.   When I imagine my life as just a series of tasks, I lose the threads.  I can’t see the wood for the trees.

Which is an interesting cliche, because I noticed at the storytelling festival how many traditional folk stories are set in a wood, and involve a journey.   The forest seems to me like a metaphor for the unconscious.   And our unconscious thoughts govern our experience of life powerfully.  Do we see the forest (the story of our lives), or are we preoccupied or overwhelmed by each tree?

I am learning that I get less bogged down in writing (as I am in danger of doing now) when I develop my thoughts instead as a story or a bit of poetry.  Like my last post.  I increasingly find that story and poetry get me a closer to truth than analytical thinking.  I am inclined to read factual books in an effort to learn and improve my mind, so I have to remind myself to read novels, as they feed me better – in my heart, soul and spirit.

When I try to pin something down in analytical writing, it eludes my grasp or becomes diminished by the smallness of the box of words that I make for it.  When I let it flourish in story, the truth expands through the open doors of metaphor, and has a chance of touching others too, according to their own interpretation.

I am learning also to embrace paradox.  The unresolved or contradictory truths of life.  The loose ends of the plot.  Such as this:  life is short and life is long.  I believe both are the truths we need to hear at different times.  Life is long enough to let things unfold in their own good time – be patient.  It is short enough that we mustn’t waste it – be bold.

But, again, I am in danger of losing my thread, or grasping too many threads, and I should have just written a story.  So here is one:

A man was discouraged, weighed down and unwilling to change.  He went reluctantly to a far off land.  It was a place he had been before, long ago.  It used to inhabited his dreams, but had since become irrelevant to his responsibilities.  He had become ashamed of the tears he used to cry when he left that place.  He returned now only to accompany his family, duty being the new order of things.

Deep down, he feared the hold this place used to have on him.  Not because it had been a vice-like hold (not at all – it was more like a bear hug, a loving grip and an invitation to be his best).  But he knew that if he returned to that place, and discovered it no longer had a hold on him, he risked revealing to himself that he had changed beyond repair: that the fullness of life he once knew there really was gone, and even returning there couldn’t brought it back.  Or that it was just an illusion in the first place.  And if that old life proved dead to him on return, it would be dead indeed.

At first his fears seems fulfilled.  For he found himself different, and the place different too.

The unfolding days spent back in the city on the plain brought experiences both new and familiar.  And as he made forays into the forests and hills where old friends lived, he discovered them both changed and unchanged.  But his heart was warmed to see them.  Bringing his daughter with him he saw them afresh through her eyes.  And he realised with wonder that she herself was new – even undreamed of – back then.  And all the world to her now was brand new.

He started to realise that life is change.  Sometimes death, but always, one way or another, life.  All will change and so it should be for all is a story, and stories move forward.

The joy of new experience that he saw in his daughter reignited something in him.  A glimmer of the old days, but more importantly a delight in the new.   And the new friends he met, the storytellers who he had first felt like an outsider to, became slowly, imperceptibly, suddenly, like his own kin.  For they knew already what he was only just discovering had been true for him all along: that all is story, and story is good.

So he knew, when he left, that the sadness he felt leaving behind his new friends was the same sadness he had felt leaving behind his old friends.  And it was a good sadness, and the future too would be good.

 

In the secret woods I stopped and heard a buzzing.  It was on the ground among the broken stems of hogweed that crunched and popped like celery when I stepped on them.  A strange, wide path of newly cut and flattened stems: a brutal reminder that my secret place was not secret at all, nor mine.   A small concrete marker poked out, like a miniature milestone, announcing 275,000 Volts running below.  This must explain the effort someone put into strimming such a path to nowhere.

But the buzzing at this spot was not electrical.  Eventually I located the bumble bee, half covered by a leaf, fighting to fly yet somehow immobilised.  And the tiny spiders going back and forth, many of them.  There must be a web… but I couldn’t see it.  And the bee continued to wear itself out with buzzing.

I nudged it away with a stick, the spiders fled but I feared they had poisoned it.  I wandered on towards the short steep slope, with the flat ground at the top, below the giant pylon beyond the fence.  The place where my daughter and I shook the hawthorn blossoms into our box of treasures when they were in full bloom.  The blossoms were all gone now, and I was struck by how much things change.  I had in mind to check on the bee later, but I wouldn’t find it again.  The pylon must be where the cable leads.

Before finding the bee, I had rediscovered the tree trunk whose green buds were just poking through the bark when we last visited together.  It made me smile to see 2 green stems a foot tall.  I was alone now, and without a camera, but I made a note to bring her back as I promised I would, to see how the little green buds by our fingers in the photo had grown so tall, quietly and secretly.

IMG_4478

I sat down on the hilltop looking back.  Surely this is the best place in our community to watch the sun set.  The clouds were turning orange.   (‘Gypsy mountains’ a neighbour says they called this place, when he and his friends were kids, playing there and dodging the rabbit hunters.)

I was glad to be alone here this time – that’s why I came:  I was burnt out again.

After all my promises (to myself, my family, to God) to do better and get the balance right, I was again worn out on work and too miserable from it to enjoy time with my family.  I needed to be alone, like a starving man.

Making the same mistakes, breaking the good habits that would have kept me sane.  I had made my resolutions and thought I was stronger now and didn’t need the habits anymore – the rest and the boundaries.  I had once again slipped headlong into the lure of endless productivity, forgetting the very insights I had blogged about so fervently.

Sitting on the hill, needing hope but inclined to despair, I reverted to a familiar prayer:

‘Lord, we both know I can’t do it on my own.  I can’t change myself – to be the man, the father, the husband that I want to be.  I’ve asked for your help.  Yet I feel like nothing has changed – I haven’t changed – and I’m back in this dark place again.’

And an answer came back:

‘You don’t stay still long enough to let me help you’.

And I remembered that for many years now, in many different ways, He has whispered to me (and sometimes shouted, though always lovingly) ‘Be Still.’

Yet too often my stillness has been that of the bee.  Going nowhere but buzzing frantically inside.  Rushing through my quiet times to get on with being ‘productive’ again.   Rushing on from a lesson that was meant for me, to share it with someone else.   Slightly aware that I am entangled in a web, but resentful to God about that, as if it was Him who spun the web.  Refusing to stop my fighting.  Totally unwilling to accept that he might not need my help, and that I might be more use to him, and more use to myself if I just stood still for a bit, and trusted, and let him do it.  That He might be able to run my life better than me.

‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength’

This is the encouraging verse that brings comfort and hope.  But it is the painfully accurate verses that follow that I also need to hear, to see my mistakes clearly and repent (turn around) from them, to find my salvation – no His salvation for me.

‘…but you would have none of it.  You said, ‘No, we will flee on horses.’ Therefore you will flee!  You said, ‘We will ride off on swift horses.  Therefore your pursuers will be swift!   … till you are left like a flagstaff on a mountaintop.’

And I know this has been my choice.  I work harder to get on top again and the work only gets harder and gets on top of me.  But today, finally, after the painful lessons of my burn-out forcing me to miss the once-in-a lifetime event of the Tour de France coming through my neighbourhood, I decided to stop at 5, regardless of the work still to be done.  I decided to put my family first again, to put space between things, just to be.

And I felt like I, and my daughter, and my wife, unfurled to me again like flowers, or buds in springtime, energised not by a striving to be energetic but by the flow of goodness and life, that flows best out of stillness and rest.

And also, for the first time in a while, the words flow and I have something to say again.

A jungle of weeds closes in on me.

I press on, but am I going in the right direction?

I feel water at my feet. There is hope. I long to swim in the open water; to see the full arc of the sky.

How much further?

I feel weak. But fighting the weeds is making me stronger.

One day I will reach the open water, where the weeds cannot grow.

Will I have the courage to swim? Or, like them, will I hold to the shore?

Have I, in fact, been skirting the shore all this time? Knowing the way out but too afraid to give up my fight?

20140620-081822-29902197.jpg