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The Horse and I

Sonoran Desert, Arizona, September 2012

A hot, dry breeze ruffles my hair as I shade my eyes and scan the surrounding hills covered with scrub brush and ocotillo. Among scattered boulders, saguaro cacti stand at attention, stick figures stretching their arms toward the cloudless, sapphire-blue sky. My three younger sisters have splurged for my sixtieth birthday and are treating me to a week with them at the Miraval Resort and Spa, an oasis of porches, pools, palm trees, and paths. I love the dry heat. I love the wide sky. I love my sisters.

When we arrived at the resort, we got to choose from the usual variety of massage and facial treatments, but there were also unexpected offerings, including hikes, trail rides, and an intriguing session called the equine experience . “Practice living life in the moment as you work with specially selected horses and our expert facilitators,” the description read. “You’ll perform equestrian ground skills, getting a chance to notice personal patterns of learned behavior that may be holding you back from the life you want to live.” It had been awhile since I’d been with horses, and this seemed like a good time of life to learn what might be holding me back, so I signed up.

Which is why I’m now standing in the corral, eyeing the desert hills as I bake in the sun. I turn back to the horse I’ve chosen to work with. She’s the oldest horse here, so I feel some connection, seeing as how I’m moving into senior territory myself. At the moment, my job is to clean her front left hoof. The underneath part. So I have to get her to raise her leg. But she’s not cooperating. Her feet stay firmly planted on the ground.

“I don’t think she wants to do this,” I tell the trainer. “At least she doesn’t want me to do this.”

“It’s not about the horse,” says the trainer. “She knows the drill. Just touch her on her foreleg, and she’ll raise her foot for you.”

I touch. Nothing happens. Really, I think it’s obvious that she doesn’t want to raise her foot right now. But I say nothing and try again. No go. Maybe I’m doing this wrong. I stroke her and try again. Nothing. I resist peeking at the other participants with their horses, but I’m afraid that I’ll be the only person here who can’t get their horse’s hooves clean.

“Okay, step back,” says the trainer. “Deep breath. What are you thinking?”

I inhale deeply, exhale slowly. “Umm, I’m thinking I can’t make her raise her foot if she doesn’t want to.” Plus, I’m no good at this, I think; plus, I’m afraid I’ll fail; plus . . .

“She’ll do it,” says the trainer. “She likes having her hoof cleaned. But she can sense what you’re feeling. Give yourself a minute and try again.”

I look to the hills, breathe deeply, let all those thoughts fly off into the desert somewhere, and start over. I try not to think at all but simply approach the horse as if I do this every day. I touch her foreleg, and – wonder of wonders! – she lifts her foot, and I scrape her hoof clean.

“What was different that time?” asks the trainer.

At that moment, I know the secret: I gave up control. I, who have made a career out of thinking, stopped thinking for a moment. I let go of the outcome, touched the horse, and, with her cooperation, bent to my work. As I relaxed into the moment, into my surroundings, into the experience, so did the horse. It was a life lesson – not to stop caring but to stop demanding, to hold my thoughts and expectations with a loose hand, to relax into uncertainty.

Uncertainty. That’s what we’ll look at next week as we think about life – is it color-by-number or interpretive?

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Why Faith Needs Balance

On my refrigerator, I’ve posted three important reminders to myself (besides my grocery list):

• a bumper sticker that says, “No Sniveling”

• a slip of paper from a fortune cookie that says, “It is much easier to be critical than to be correct.”

• a Peanuts cartoon that shows Snoopy at his typewriter on top of his doghouse, writing a book on theology. Charlie Brown walks up and says, “I hope you have a good title.” Snoopy smiles as his thought bubble claims he has the perfect title: “Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?”

Snoopy’s simple question hits the bull’s eye. When I first read it, I realized that it had never occurred to me that I might be wrong. I had been blindly arrogant, believing that I had life and God all figured out. I even thought I knew enough to tell others what to believe. Until I asked myself if I could be wrong. And I realized that, yes, I could. I might really be wrong.

That’s why it’s so important to me to have a faith that is a balance of integrity and grace. A faith of integrity requires me to admit that I’m willing to hold a belief (or tenet or doctrine or creed) with a certain amount of blindness. Because God is a mystery. There’s so much that cannot be proved. So I want my chosen beliefs to be steeped in grace. Otherwise, my beliefs can easily become prideful, arrogant, and unloving. So if holding a belief does not result in grace, then I can’t hold that belief with integrity. I want a faith of integrity balanced with grace.

In last week’s post, we looked at how the Greek word prautes, which is often translated meek or gentle in the Bible, often implied a balance in ancient times. It’s interesting that some Bibles translate prautes as humble. Humility is the result of having both integrity (honesty with self) and grace (a generous spirit toward others). The search for integrity and grace, then, is a search for humility, a balance of honesty and generosity, of self and others.

Life seems to be a long process of finding our balance. We never know which way our world will tilt. If we dig in our heels, refusing to pay attention or to question and examine our beliefs in light of our experiences, then we’re refusing to open our spirits and grow. We’re in danger of getting stuck off-balance. According to the faith research of James Fowler, this “assures that one will settle for a narrower and shallower faith than one needs.”

But when we pay attention, when we allow ourselves to question and examine our beliefs, we have an amazing opportunity to discover what we truly believe and why. We have a chance to grow toward maturity, toward a balance of integrity and grace, toward a living and open-hearted faith in a loving and open-hearted God. We have the opportunity, as Fowler says, to be “grasped by the vision of a center of value and power more luminous, more inclusive and more true than that to which we are devoted.”

Here’s wishing you a luminous, inclusive faith of integrity and grace!

Next week: The Horse and I.

 

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Text and No Sniveling photo © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy pexels.com and morguefile.com.

 

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How to Balance in a Tilting World

Balance – from walking to biking to skiing, in art and cooking and even finances, we are continually balancing, either instinctively or using skills we’ve learned and don’t often think about. Last week’s post reminded us of some of those skills, the point being that life has already taught us how to balance when our world tilts – a relationship crumbles, a job or career changes or ends, hatred comes out of the shadows and marches down the streets – and the ground seems to shift underneath us. We’re left trying to keep – or regain – our balance emotionally.

So how has life taught us to balance? Here are the skills from last week’s post, summed up as a neat and tidy list of life principles, ways to keep or regain balance in a tilting world.

  • No one can tell us when we’re balanced. We sense it. Our center of balance is likely to be different from our neighbor’s.
  • Pay attention.
  • Stay flexible, shifting as needed to stay centered.
  • Slow down if you need to.
  • Hold onto something (or someone) if you need to.
  • If you have a choice in matters, choose people, places, things, and activities for what they can contribute to your wholeness and integrity and for what you can contribute to theirs.
  • That said, appreciate and incorporate variety. We can be asymmetrical (not quite fitting someone else’s idea of perfection) and still be in balance.
  • Season life to taste, but try not to lose your distinctiveness.
  • Give your life the time to simmer and mature. Be patient with yourself. It takes practice to be able to keep our balance during the unexpected ways that life tilts.
  • We need unfilled, open areas – negative spaces – in our schedules. Time to pause. It’s worth scheduling that time on our calendars. In other words, keep up with the deposits and withdrawals on your time, your energy, your spirit. When you’re getting depleted, it’s time to fill up. When you’re full to overflowing, be grateful and let it spill out.

Balance is, of course, a sign of emotional and mental health. But we don’t often think of balance as a sign of spiritual health. In fact, many of us were taught, in strictly stark religious terms, that there cannot be a balance, spiritually speaking. There’s heaven vs. hell, right vs. wrong, conservative vs. liberal, good vs. evil, faith vs. doubt. We’re either at one end of the scale or the other. There is no in-between, because that’s a lukewarm position, and lukewarm gets spewed out (Revelation 3:16). So there’s no compromise, no tolerating other viewpoints, no trying to balance the scale. And yet . . .

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Balance. Heavens and earth, light and dark, evening and morning, above and below, water and land, tall plants and short, flying animals and diggers, male and female. “And God saw that it was good.” Delight, pleasure, generosity – it all started with balance.

It’s interesting to note that balance is one meaning of the Greek word prautes, which is often translated meek or gentle in the Bible. In ancient times, prautes implied a balance, for example between friendliness and strength or between leniency and sternness. One lexicographer of ancient languages says, “For Aristotle [prautes] is a mean (a midpoint) between bad temper and spineless incompetence, between extreme anger and indifference.” If we think of meek in the sense of balance, it gives fresh meaning to some familiar scriptures.

“Blessed are the balanced, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). In other words, blessed are those who are neither bad tempered nor spinelessly incompetent, neither extremely angry nor indifferent.

“See, your king comes to you, balanced and riding on a donkey . . .” (Matthew 21:5). This has nothing to do, of course, with balancing on the back of a donkey and everything to do with being the type of king who fit Aristotle’s definition of balance, being neither bad-tempered nor a spineless incompetent.

“By the balance and forbearance of Christ, I appeal to you – I, Paul, who am ‘timid’ when face to face, but ‘bold’ when away!” (2 Corinthians 10:1). Forbearance, according to Webster’s, means refraining from enforcing something like a debt, right, or obligation. It’s interesting that Paul asks for balance after being accused of two opposites: timidity and boldness.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, balance, and self-control” (Galatians 5:23).

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the balance that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13). When I read this, I think of the opening lines from Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem If:   “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . . you’ll be a Man, my son!” In other words, you’ll be mature if you can remain balanced.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am balanced and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). Jesus, trained to be a carpenter, would have learned how to make yokes. “My yoke is chrestos,” he says. Chrestos means well-fitting. A yoke has to balance in order to fit well.

An open-hearted faith is always finding its balance. Next week’s post will focus on what I consider the most important balance we can find in our faith.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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What Makes A Balanced Life?

Did you ever try to balance on an old-fashioned seesaw with a partner or two, trying to get to the perfect spot where no one’s feet touch the ground? Did you ever walk across a room with a book balanced on your head? Or cross a stream, balancing on stepping stones? . . . Or get your life into balance?

Ah, it’s that last one that’s the ultimate challenge. Is it possible to balance a life? If so, how is it done? How do we know when we’ve found our balance? How do we keep it? And what does it have to do with faith? Does balance even apply to our spiritual life?

The more I’ve thought about balance, the more I’ve realized just how critical it is to every area of our lives, including the spiritual. But before looking at spiritual balance – and at the risk of sounding simplistic – I’m going to remind us of what we already know about balance.

Balance is, of course, a physical necessity for our bodies. I’ve experienced vertigo a few times, and it’s weird – as well as nauseating – to be sitting completely still when the room appears to be spinning. My balance is gone, and there’s no way I can stand and walk. It’s frightening to be that out of balance.

When I was in college, one of my favorite PE courses was gymnastics. I especially enjoyed the uneven parallel bars. That’s where I learned that each person’s body has a center of gravity, a midpoint of mass that the body can use to maintain its equilibrium in whatever position we might take, whether we’re immobile or in motion. We discover our center of balance early in life when we learn to walk. We find it again when we learn to ride a bike. And if we have a gym class and are required to angle our bodies in new and different ways, we find our center of gravity yet again.

The thing is, the gym instructor could tell us generally where to find our center of gravity, but only I could actually locate my own. It took a bit of slipping and tilting and a lot of practice to find that place of balance, but once I found it, I could tell fairly quickly when I was going off-center in a routine.

Biking, dancing, rafting, skiing, hiking, rock climbing, yoga – movement takes balance.  Simply walking takes balance. With a bit of practice, our bodies balance without a thought. Recently I learned a practice that’s meant to help prevent falls in older people. To train the body to rebalance when it goes off-center, you practice standing on one leg, letting the body correct any wobble that results. But that’s not all. Then you extend your arms, lift them, wave them. Then extend the raised leg forward, back, and to the side. You make your body practice bringing itself back into balance.

So here’s what we know about physical balance.

  • Pay attention.
  • Flex.
  • Slow down if you need to.
  • Hold onto something if you need to.
  • No one can tell you when you’re balanced. You learn to feel it.

Another kind of balance is found in the kitchen. Cooks work hard to get just the right balance of flavors in a dish. I don’t create dishes, but I can follow a recipe. Sunday night at our house is soup night. I found an amazing recipe for kale-sweet potato soup. It perfectly balances the flavor of kale and sweet potato with leeks, onions, cilantro, lemon juice, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. But in another recipe – for butternut squash soup – I had to tweak the balance of spices. The recipe looked wonderful, but it was so pepper-hot, it was hard to enjoy. The balance was not right for me. With food, we know when something’s out of balance by tasting it.

The classic cookbook Joy of Cooking advises, “[D]on’t use too many kinds [of herbs] at once or too much of any one kind.” Nick Korbee, in The Egg Shop, says, “We don’t want to mask the individual flavors in any way, but rather find balance where each herb has its chance to explode on the palate.” We know that some foods – like chili, pasta sauce, and most soups – taste better a day or two after they were made, because the flavors infuse each other without losing their distinctive taste. And, back to the body, we know that a well-balanced diet is good for our health.

So here’s what we know about balance in cooking.

  • Choose the parts that for what they can contribute to the whole.
  • Appreciate and incorporate variety.
  • Season to taste.
  • Take the time to let the flavors simmer, rest, and meld without losing their distinctiveness.
  • Balance in a diet is essential for good health.

Another type of balance is found in art. Once a week I attend an art and design class in which we are free to follow whatever inspires us at the moment. Some of us draw, some of us sculpt, and some of us paint. I usually paint or sketch. After each class session, we display what we’ve created and then tour our group gallery. I’ve learned that whether a work of art is abstract or realistic, it’s the balance and variety that make it pleasing and attractive.

I don’t mean balance in the sense of perfect symmetry. In fact, perfect symmetry is often uninteresting, while asymmetry that keeps a certain balance attracts us. What I mean is the balance and variety of texture (rough and smooth in the same composition), color (light and dark, bold and pale in the same painting), and line (thin next to thick, angled beside curved in a drawing). In her book Freehand, Helen Birch points out that in a drawing, “the use of negative space – the white areas help to balance the whole.” Or an illustration may succeed “because of the balance between intricacy and simplicity.”

Back to the body again: Even figure drawing relies on seeing the balance of a body. In figure drawing class, I learned to look for a model’s point of balance, the area that takes the weight of the body and the invisible line that extends through that point to ground it.

So here’s what we know about balance in art.

  • Variety is vital.
  • Balance can be asymmetrical.
  • Creating a pleasing balance takes practice.
  • Unfilled, open areas – negative spaces – are essential.

And then there’s the balance in my checkbook. Or in my online bank statement. I’m no expert here, but I do know that I can’t take out more than what I’ve put in. Once a month I make sure I’m keeping up with the cash flow.

So here’s what we know about balancing our finances.

  • Keep up with deposits and withdrawals. If we don’t have the money, it’s best if we don’t make the purchase.

Okay, so what’s the point? The point is that life has already taught us how to balance when our world tilts and when the ground seems to shift underneath us. I’ll bring it all together in next week’s post on how to keep – or regain – our balance in a tilting world.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com and morguefile.com

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When the World Crowds In: Finding Our Footing

 

Hong Kong to Guangzhou, China, September 1994:

At one of Hong Kong’s north rail stations, my friend Sandra and I, along with her teenage son and mine, join the jostle of Asian travelers and commuters boarding the train to China. The high-backed, wooden bench seats are filling fast. My son and Sandra’s find two places together. I choose a rear-facing seat beside a window with a tiny, bolted-down table standing between me and a grandmotherly woman seated across from me. Beside me on the aisle side of my bench is a lively older man, who tries to strike up a conversation. Unfortunately, I speak no Chinese, and he speaks no English, so he turns to Sandra, who is sitting across from him, beside the grandmother. Sandra knows enough Chinese to converse a bit.

As the train starts its two-hour journey to Guanzhou, I pull my camera out of my shoulder bag, eager to snap some pictures of the Chinese countryside. But the windows are so smudged and grimy that it’s hard to find a section clean enough to provide a good view. Still, I have to try. The farmland is picturesque, the crops laid out in rows about three feet wide and mounded in the center. Only a few people are in the fields, and they’re bent over the rows, working by hand. I see no machinery except a plow pulled by a water buffalo.

Back inside the train, a hostess periodically walks the aisle, selling wares of all kinds: books of stamps, newspapers, candies, mints, gum, and boxed hot lunches (rice with meat and vegetables). From time to time, she returns with a broom and sweeps up the trash everyone is tossing onto the floor. She scoots the mound of trash to the door between the train cars and shoves it out onto the tracks. Now I know why I see trash scattered between the train tracks and the fields. Occasionally I see someone picking through it. I assume that’s where the field workers get the plastic bottles that are turned upside down, covering the young plants.

The towns we pass are full of tall, whitewashed, look-alike apartment blocks or short rows of stable-like houses. Bamboo scaffolding surrounds many buildings, as if the urban areas are growing and thriving, but I don’t see many construction workers. I do notice a few railway workers here and there, laboring manually along the railroad ties, which are made of concrete. Sandra tells me that there aren’t enough trees to make the ties out of wood.

Our approach to Guanzhou (Old Canton) takes us through miles of rice paddies before we roll into the big city with its crowds and noise and smog. As the train pulls into the station, our fellow travelers surge to their feet, and as soon as the train halts, they pour out the doors and flood the walkway in a rushing tide that sweeps us with it. Fortunately, my son is tall and blonde, so I can easily locate him in the sea of satin black heads in front of us. But that’s all I can see: heads. I notice that those at the front of the pack are dropping out of sight. It’s as if I’m rafting in a swift-flowing river, suddenly realizing that up ahead it flows in a waterfall over a cliff. We’re obviously heading toward a staircase that I can’t see, and in this crowd, there’s no slowing and no stopping. I can’t help but think of lemmings.

I also can’t help but think of news reports about people trampled to death at crowded soccer stadiums or among midnight shoppers shoving to get into Wal-Mart for the best Black Friday deals. But we’re in the middle of the crowd, and there’s no way to go but forward and down. It gives new meaning to “Go with the flow.” And we do. We flow down the stairs and into a corridor, where we shuffle forward, packed shoulder to shoulder. The crowd practically carries us along to the exit, where small turnstiles squeeze us out of the station like toothpaste from a tube. My friend’s son comments that the object of this configuration seems to be to force the greatest number of people through the smallest possible opening.

On the way down the corridor, I had noticed guards sitting on gates and ledges above the masses. Now that I’ve gone through the turnstile, I realize that the guards are not above the crowd just to oversee everyone but also to stay out of the way. Otherwise, they risk getting squeezed through the turnstiles themselves. I exit the train station with a new motto: “Whatever you do, step carefully and keep your balance.”

Sometimes it feels as if the whole world is out of balance. Work and school schedules, news cycles, issues with home, family, and friends crowd around us, tipping us one way, tilting us another as they sweep us along and squeeze us out at the end of the day. Often, the best we can do is step carefully and try to keep our balance.

Next week: What is balance? How do we find it? How do we know when we’ve found it? How do we keep it? And what does it have to do with faith?

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com and morguefile.com.

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How Can Slower Be Faster?

 

“Slow down and you’ll get it done faster.”

– Arunima Orr –

Arunima is the founder of the artists’ space where I take classes, and I’ve decided she’s right about slowing down. Well, truly, she’s right about a lot of things, but getting things done faster by slowing down is one of them. In art class, we usually apply this to cleanup, but I’ve applied it to my daily life as well, and I’ve discovered that slowing down doesn’t mean moving at snail speed. If I simply shift into a slightly lower gear, I have more traction. My movements are more precise, deliberate, and intentional. And I notice more. As my sports friends might say, my head is in the game. Life is simply easier to navigate when I slow down.

Now more than ever, the world needs you and me to be calm, clear-headed, and thoughtful. Here are some things I’ve realized as I’ve practiced living less frantically.

  • Not every answer has to be given right away.
  • Not every request or demand has to be fulfilled, and if we choose to fulfill it, it does not have to be fulfilled right away.
  • Not every task has to be tended to immediately.

That may sound like a dream list for procrastinators, but there’s a difference between procrastinating and giving a task the mental prep time it needs. I’m not suggesting that we shirk responsibility or wiggle out of a job we’d rather not do. I’m just saying that slowing down and pausing allow us to intentionally approach tasks with care. Slowing allows us to be mindful as opposed to mindlessly plowing through.

One caveat: that list above may simply be a wish list if you’re the parent of preschoolers. Someone once said that preschoolers are walking emergencies. That’s not far from the truth. With young children, some things have to be tended to immediately. Still, taking your life as a whole, not every task needs to be done right this minute. You may have to be creative about it, but where can you cut yourself some slack?

We need to pause occasionally to assess ourselves, the world we now live in, and our journey through it. We’d be wise to assess mindfully, thoughtfully, and graciously. To cultivate an open-hearted faith, we need to move forward with open eyes and open ears, listening to various voices (including those not of our “tribe”). We need to consider differing viewpoints and weigh ideas.

Consider is a key word here. It’s the root of the gracious term considerate. Our world needs considerate people, people who don’t just blindly jump on bandwagons but consider what they see and hear and believe. The old advice, “Think before you speak” is right, as is “think before you act.” When we take our time, we give ourselves the space to think and listen, to be attentive and considerate.

Slowing down and taking our time also gives us the opportunity to appreciate. The word appreciate contains the Latin pretium, which means price. To appreciate is to comprehend the value, the true nature, and the importance of something or someone. When we slow down or pause, we give ourselves the space to notice what’s of value. If we keep our eyes open for signs of grace, kindness, beauty, and goodness, we usually see them. We witness God’s touch on and in the world. We can appreciate – or value – our turn on the timeline.

A few posts back, I wrote about drawing lifelines in a class on abstract art. When I think back to the lifelines that I and my classmates drew, I’m awed at the value each one represents, and I feel a deep sense of appreciation. I’m amazed that one lifetime can hold so many swings of the pendulum: sorrows and joys, illness and health, angst and comfort, enemies and friends, failures and successes. Maybe we wish our path had been otherwise. Maybe we wish we had not been so blind. Maybe we wish we had responded differently. Maybe we wish we had been Dorothy instead of the Tin Man. But in the wide world of humanity, in the broad flow of history, each of us is on a unique journey, and each of our journeys tells a unique story.

“The blessing of regret is clear,” says Joan Chittister, “– it brings us, if we are willing to face it head on, to the point of being present to this new time of life in an entirely new way. It urges us on to continued becoming.” All of our past experiences – all of them – have brought us to where we are now. And now is a treasure. Now is the time for re-vision and discovering our path ahead.

As I’ve said before, we are always coming of age, moving to the next stage, taking the next step, growing into the future. And the future is something new. Even if we’re old, tomorrow is new. Next week is new. Next month? Next year? All new.

In my dream of now, we stand with hands cupped before us, holding what we thought were the thorns of the past. But they’ve turned into fragrant flowers. As we cradle them in our palms, something marvelous happens: the petals become wings. With one joyful toss of our cupped hands, we send them flying into the future. And as we bring our hands back down, we realize that, in spite of everything we let go, our hands are not empty; they are full of mystery and grace and hope enough to fuel our next steps.

Next week: Finding our footing on roads rough and smooth.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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What’s In Your Hand?

 

“The best camera is the one in your hand.”

Pete McBride, a National Geographic Photographer –

I photograph shadows that I find interesting, but shadows don’t last long, so I try to have a camera nearby at all times. If I have to search for a camera, by the time I return, the angle of the sun will have changed the shadow, or clouds will have blurred or blocked it completely. Catching a shadow means using the camera that’s nearest to hand.

Last week, I mused about finding meaning and purpose in life, which I suggested begins with discovering the gifts we’ve been given and cultivating them. Then we give of them graciously and generously. But that can be done only in the moment-by-moment context of our individual lives. So how do we do that? How do we know which direction to go? How do we know what our gifts are? It’s a bit like catching a shadow; it’s done with what’s at hand.

So what’s in your hand right now? (Literally it may be a phone, which could be your answer, but in case it’s not, go with me metaphorically for a minute.) That’s where we start: What do I have? What can I do? What doors are open for me at the moment? Sometimes the answer hits like lightning; we wake up one morning and simply know what to pursue. At other times, discovering our direction requires pausing and taking the time to reflect. What is in my hand?

It’s an ancient question, as old as Moses. Before he was a famous leader, Moses was a not-so-famous leader . . . of sheep. (Well, maybe he was popular among the sheep, and he was wanted as a murderer, but that didn’t look so good on his resumé.) Then one day Moses took a Time-Out from shepherding his flock to get a closer look at a burning bush and found himself standing before God (Genesis 3, 4).

Behind Moses was his conflicted past, which he knew all too well; before him lay his future, which was about to blow wide open with risk and uncertainty. But at that present moment, all he knew was that he was standing barefoot on holy ground, watching the strangest bonfire he’d ever seen, and hearing the Voice of God.

“I’m sending you to Pharaoh,” said God. “Tell him to let my people leave Egypt.”

“How?” asked Moses. “No one will listen to me.”

And God asked, “What’s in your hand, Moses?”

I picture Moses glancing sideways at his shepherd’s staff, maybe self-consciously shifting his grip a bit. His staff was a symbol of his leadership, although at the moment his only followers were sheep, and they weren’t always so cooperative. He had to nudge, guide, and sometimes even rescue his sheep. With his staff. But that was his gift at the moment. And it just so happened that at the moment, his gift was needed. Moses knew very well what was happening in his generation. Now Life was calling to him. And where was his gift? He was holding it.

But to figure that out, Moses had to take a Time-Out. Seth Godin has said, “[S]ilence used to be precious, it used to be at the heart of our joy and our humanity. . . The silence of sitting and wondering. The silence of ‘what happens next?'” Sometimes we don’t slow down long enough to notice the burning bush. Or to listen for the Voice. Or to discover the gift that was in our hand all along.

The fact that we often call slowing down “taking time” hints at the need to be intentional about it. We can take time. We can look for it, grab it, and spend it purposefully and meaningfully. That may require setting aside our devices for a while. I’m on social media, and I’m grateful that the internet connects me to information and networks me with a variety of people, but I’ve also experienced the way it cuts into my time, lures me in, and lulls me into pursuing the next story and the next. Link, link, link. Eventually links make chains, and some of those chains are awfully hard to break.

Author Matthew Crawford points out that when we live through and on screens, we’re “encountering the world through manufactured experiences” and we’re more easily manipulated, because those encounters are mediated. It’s worth asking what we might be losing with 24/7 connectivity. Could we benefit from a Time Out?

In her book Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett quotes Ellen Davis of Yale Divinity School as saying, “. . . anything in our world now that slows us down is to be valued.” Why? Because slowness and stillness is the state in which we cultivate calm and inner peace. Slowness and stillness can help us notice the sacred space within us and the touch of God in the world around us. Slowness and stillness can nudge us toward appreciating what we have rather than racing toward what we don’t have. Slowness and stillness can nurture gratitude rather than greed, contentment rather than cravings.

Jonathan Swift said, “May you live every day of your life.” He obviously meant more than simply breathing and having a heartbeat. Swift’s way to live requires being intentional and aware, and that often means slowing down. When we speed through life, it’s hard to gain more than just a fleeting impression of people, places, and events. But when we gear down our minds and bodies, we give ourselves a chance to be present and to witness life.

We also give ourselves a chance to discover the specific how-when-and-where of our gifts, which, like Moses’s gift, can be found only in the context of our time, our era, our generation. Are you a baby boomer? A Gen-Xer? A Millennial? How is your life calling to you? What is your time, your era, your decade asking of you right now? What’s in your hand?

Next week: a bit more on taking time.

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Shadow photo and Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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An Adult Time-Out

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

– an ancient proverb –

At the end of last week’s post, I nudged you to treat yourself to a grown-up Time-Out. I hope you got to ease back from your schedule at least once. A few years ago, if someone had suggested that I take a time out, I would have balked: “A time-out? How? When?”

Good questions. There’s work to be done, or shopping, or any of a thousand things clamoring for our attention. At one time, I was so busy with kids and commitments, I would dash home after teaching writing classes, run upstairs, toss down one bag, grab another, and rush back out to the car, hoping to make it to the next event on time. Even the daily Quiet Time that our church leaders encouraged us to observe became another line item on the daily To-Do list, and one I felt guilty about skipping. In reality, I was too busy for my own soul’s good. I learned that if I don’t control my time, it controls me.

But time is often too precious a god for busy people to ignore. At the core of busy-ness, a hidden heartbeat drums, What do I need? I must provide. What do I want? I must provide. I must provide. I must provide. Not only was the original concept of the Sabbath a grand Time-Out, but it was also a sign of trust in God as Provider. It’s amazing how hard it is to trust God to provide for what we might miss by taking a Time-Out. Yet it’s in the Time-Out, settling into the present moment, that we connect with the day, with our tasks, with each other, and with the Divine Mystery.

I realize that some of us would love to carve a moment or two out of a full schedule but truly believe we can’t. While it’s true that at times the road on our life journey is crowded with people and events making demands on our time, that’s all the more reason to make an effort to establish a habit of stillness. I’ve touched on the issue of pausing and finding stillness in previous blog posts, but it’s an important key to opening our spirits, to finding Eternity in the Now. So I’m picking up the thread again for a few minutes to look at it from the angle of time.

“We fail to notice because we’re busy keeping busy,” wrote Seth Godin. But we don’t have to take the grand all-day Sabbath Time-Out in order to notice the present and the eternal. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to slow down. With just a heads up, a breath in and a breath out, we can ease back from a frantic pace to a deliberate pace.

A time-out can be as brief as thirty seconds: pause, inhale, exhale, while using as many senses as we can to notice one specific object nearby, something to be grateful for – a leaf, a dandelion growing from a crack in the sidewalk, the texture of a brick, the flow of air from a fan, the scent of popcorn, the sound of one voice or a hundred voices, the marvel of a human hand. Capture the pleasure, the calmness, the gratitude of that specific moment, and then carry that calm into the rest of the day. Do this thirty seconds, once a day. Then make it twice a day. Then a dozen times a day. Then sixty seconds at a time. Then fill an entire coffee break noticing the gifts of the present moment and being grateful for them. “Attention is the beginning of devotion,” says poet Mary Oliver. Being present and noticing life can become a sacred, soul-enriching habit.

Ram Dass, a Hindu spiritual teacher, said, “Early in the journey you wonder how long the journey will take and whether you will make it in this lifetime. Later you will see that where you are going is HERE and you will arrive NOW . . . so you stop asking.” That’s a beautiful thought, and it’s true as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go past Now. I suspect that Ram Dass is trying to say that Now is all we have, and Here is the only place that the present moment encompasses or can even handle. He implies that if we ignore or overlook the Now, we’ve ignored and overlooked life itself, because life is lived moment by moment. That’s true. God is not accessed in a future that has not yet occurred, nor is God accessed in the past, where events have come and gone. The live connection is in this moment. In the Now. However . . .

NOW is always slipping into NEXT. If Time is like a book open to a double-page spread of Now, then we are always turning to the next blank page as we journey through life. Sometimes the journey feels purposeless; sometimes it feels purposeful. Sometimes it seems meaningless; sometimes it seems meaningful. Maybe that’s part of what developmental psychologist Erik Erikson meant about feeling either integrity or despair in older adulthood. We feel integrity if we sense that our lifeline has purpose and meaning; we feel despair if we don’t sense or see the meaning.

The existential question, “What is the meaning of life?” was asked so often in the 1960’s (often with awed voice and glazed eyes) that the question soon became a cliché and, of course, a staple of jokes:

“What is the meaning of life? All evidence to date suggests it’s chocolate.”

“What is the meaning of life? To find out if you have one before you have none.”

“Every time I find the meaning of life, they change it.”

And from cartoonist Mark Ishikawa: “The purpose in life is to find a purpose in life.”

But the question is a serious one: What, indeed, is the purpose of our time here? What gives life meaning? I’ve said before that I believe our whole purpose is to learn and practice love. If we dig a bit deeper, we find that practicing love involves both receiving and giving, both gratitude and generosity. Meaning and purpose begin, then, with discovering the gifts we’ve been given and cultivating them. Then we give of them graciously and generously, expecting nothing in return. Appreciated or unappreciated, we give.

But if we’re going to give generously, we have to continually refresh and refill ourselves; we have to continually nurture our gifts. Where do we find that nurture and refreshment? Sometimes from others who are living generously. Sometimes from nature. Sometimes from silence and stillness. And always by gravitating toward where we find love and grace and life. Because, as I’ve said before, where we find love and grace and life, we’ll find God. That’s the well where we receive, the well we draw on when we give.

It’s easy to advise “discover your gifts and cultivate them.” But how do we do that exactly? In the next post, I’ll be a bit more specific about the way I look at it.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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Where Time Touches Eternity

“Each of us has our own hard won perspective, built by our individual past,

which created our own unique way of seeing things.

In other words: each of us has our own decoder ring.”

Lisa Cron

Remember secret decoder rings? You could send off for them if you had bought Ovaltine chocolate drink mix or Kix cereal or other products, and sometimes they were actually inside the package.  Using a simple substitution cipher, the ring allowed you to decode a secret message. (I don’t remember what the messages were, but I can guess that they were along the lines of “Ovaltine makes strong bones,” or “If you like Kix, try Trix.”) What Lisa Cron is saying in the above quote is that our past is the code by which we interpret ourselves and the world around us. But what if we don’t like our decoder ring? What if the message it decodes is despair? Can we change it?

Another type of ring became popular in the 1970’s: mood rings made of crystals that changed color with fluctuations in the temperature of your skin. Occasionally, changing our outlook is just that subtle. Small questions, an overheard comment or a helpful hand from a surprising source can color the way we see things. Or to switch metaphors, minor drips can wear away hardened beliefs little by little.

But frankly, subtle and easy don’t usually work. As Seth Godin points out, change often doesn’t happen until we’re thirsty enough. Usually to change our view, we have to be shaken by a major event – a wedding, a funeral, a birth, a relocation for school, a new job, a major health crisis, or a milestone birthday.

No matter what triggers the look back over our shoulder, when we see our own tracks, our own personal lifeline, we deserve a moment to indulge ourselves and wonder what if. It’s even okay to admit that we wish our prologue had been different. But we can’t drive forward with our eyes always on the rearview mirror.

It’s not helpful to set up camp in the “if-only” frame of mind. David Brooks, in The Road to Character, quotes Samuel Johnson on the subject of sorrow, which Johnson calls “that state of mind in which our desires are fixed upon the past, without looking forward to the future, an incessant wish that something was otherwise than it has been, a tormenting and harassing want of some enjoyment or possession we have lost.”

Our thoughts seep into our pores. Some heal us; others poison us. We can do without the torment of wishing the past had been otherwise. We’re healthier to admit that, yes, the past has been mapped in permanent ink, and it may look like a roller coaster or a dive off a cliff, but it’s the road life has taken so far. However, the past is past. We’re not standing back there now. Lisa Dale Norton, in her book about writing memoir, encourages writers to look back at the events of life and “line them up in some pattern that offers grace for all involved.” We don’t have to write a memoir to do that. When we look back, we can choose how to line up the memories. We can choose a view of grace. Isn’t that what we’re to be about – grace for all involved?

We can draw a box at the leading edge of our lifeline and put an X in it, like a mall map: You Are Here. You’ve made it this far. What life comes down to now is: Where do your feet stand at this moment?

The next question is: Which direction will you point your toes? That is something we have some control over. Here is the only place and now is the only moment when we can decide which way to go. Time may be long, spanning far behind us and stretching an unknown distance ahead, but now is all anyone ever has. We can mentally relive or prelive our lives. But the now is where we exist.

Now is when and where we make our choices. This is where we either renew our commitment to our original vision or choose a different path. This is where we decide how to walk forward – in despair or integrity. Realistically, we’ll experience a bit of both as we journey on, but we can tip the scale in favor of integrity. When we do that, according to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, we gain the strength of wisdom.

Here’s where the faith cycle that began in infancy comes full circle. The sense of integrity found in healthy older adults contributes to the trust that should develop in the young child, because trust, according to Webster’s, is “the assured reliance on another’s integrity.” Erikson links the trust of childhood to the integrity of adulthood, saying, “[H]ealthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.”

Someday our now will be our last moment, at least on this side of time. But every present moment of now is a point at which time touches eternity. Eternity describes a sacred quality of life that’s accessed and lived in the Present. I picture earth time as a thick book suspended in a vast expanse of eternity. At this present moment, the book is open to the double-page spread of our current place on the timeline – yours and mine. As we live each day, we’re writing our stories, drawing our lifelines, taking our turn onstage. It’s one of those choose-your-own-adventure stories. And those choices are not made in the Past or the Future; they are made in the eternity-rich Present.

Once we get past the Past, we can become aware of the Present. I drafted this post as a chapter in a new book and began writing it at Advent, when we were being reminded at church that Advent is a season of emptying ourselves in order to receive the incarnation, opening ourselves to receive what gives us life. Most of what gives us life is found in the Now. Scents, flavors, textures, colors, shapes, sounds – we experience all of these in the present moment.

I suspect that was Jesus’s point when he said, “Become as little children” (Matthew 18:3). Children live in the moment, open to and aware of what’s right in front of them. Parents and caregivers of young children have the advantage of seeing through a child’s eyes and tapping into time as experienced by a child. If we’re open to children, they constantly show us life’s wonders through the sensory-filled world of the present moment.

We adults would do well to give ourselves a childlike Time-Out now and then, intentionally stilling ourselves for the purpose of absorbing the present moment, considering the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. The original concept of the Sabbath was a grand Time-Out, ceasing business as usual – or busy-ness as usual – and settling into the sacred moment of Now, where the Present touches Eternity. In fact, the Present is the only place where we can experience Time touching Eternity.

Treat yourself to a Time-Out this week, and as you settle into the Present, become aware of time touching Eternity.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Decoder Ring photo courtesy sobebunny

Mood Ring photo public domain

Other photos courtesy pixabay.com.

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What If . . .

“What’s past is prologue.”

– Shakespeare, The Tempest –

The mysteries of time have always challenged philosophers, physicists, and novelists, too. Since 1895 when H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine was published, the human imagination has played with the possibility of time travel. It may be the stuff of fantasy and sci-fi, but we do a type of time traveling every day. We go back in time when we read history or novels set in the past or even the news of what happened last week or yesterday. We go forward in time when we imagine how next week’s committee meeting will go or anticipate our vacation next summer. We go back in time when we peruse old photographs and memories. We also go back in time when we imagine what life might have been like on the “road not taken,” that “what-if” of choice and chance bypassed on paths that we’ve already traveled.

Unlike the trail ahead of us, which is unmapped, the trail behind us is full of the tracks we’ve left behind. It’s a time line of our lives. In an abstract art class I once took, our instructor directed us to create our own abstracts starting with a single charcoal line drawn across a large piece of paper – one line that represented our life. Then we took turns telling, in general, how the lines we drew symbolized our lives. One woman’s line wandered all over the paper. Another woman’s line spiraled. Another student had drawn smooth curves interrupted with jagged, mountainous sections. It was fascinating to hear my fellow students explain this zig-zag, or that curve, or the dramatic, bold line that looked as if it fell straight off a cliff.

My abstract looked like a roller coaster. As novelist J. Courtney Sullivan said of one of her characters, “She had made a choice and then she had made another and another after that. Taken together, the small choices anyone made added up to a life.” My choices had added up to a life. As I stood there studying my lifeline, I found myself thinking about the negative space, the white space around the line. That empty space was a powerful symbol of roads not taken. I couldn’t help wondering “what if.”

 

I suspect that my fellow artists were posing the same question about their own lives. When we look back at our past choices, “what-if” is hardly something we can avoid. But it can be risky. “The thought of what could have been eats at the center of the heart,” writes author Joan Chittister. “It pretends to be reflection, a kind of tally of the years. But . . . [r]egret is a temptation. It entices us to lust for what never was in the past rather than to bring new energy to our changing present.”

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that in older adulthood, we find ourselves living in either integrity or despair, depending on how we look back on life. The life road we traveled may have been steep or rocky, fogged-in or full of switchbacks, but if we view it as our path to wholeness and maturity, we’re able to feel a sense of integrity, integrating the various aspects of life into the whole.

On the other hand, if we view the past with regret and remorse, we’re likely to feel a sense of despair. In The Spirituality of Age, psychology professor Robert Weber says that in older years, despair results from denial, which comes from a place of self-protection. We’re hiding, he says, from guilt or shame instead of facing it, admitting it, and unburdening ourselves. If we dwell on if-only and roads not taken, we feel a sense of despair.

 

 Of course, older adulthood is not the only stage of life when we’re subject to pining over if-onlys and roads not taken. We all see unexplored paths when we look back. We’re all aware of lost opportunities, missteps and failures, and decisions made too quickly or in the heat of emotion. It’s human nature to assume that the road not taken would have led to a life that’s better, healthier, and more satisfying than the one we have now. But would it have? That “what-if” has no answer. The truth is, there are hundreds of paths we didn’t take. Another truth is, the journey is not yet done. Going forward, we can prevent a lot of despair by refusing to dwell on what-ifs and if-onlys.

In one sense, Shakespeare was exactly right when he said that the past is prologue. And from what I know about writing novels, I can say with confidence that the only prologue worth including is one that’s essential to understanding the story to come. In real life, that’s all of it. As Isabel Allende said, “I am now the sum of everything I have been before.” Our past is an essential part of who we are now. Acknowledging that can help us understand where we currently stand on our own timeline and where we’d like to go in the future.

 Next week: Where Time Touches Eternity

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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