First Blog, January 2018
For those who love stories:
I recently read that Anthony Bourdain, at age 44, was a man with no savings, employed frying french fries in New York, when he wrote an article that his mother urged him to send to The New Yorker. Once published, the world–literally the world–opened for Bourdain, and thus began a Cinderella story that we all hope to emulate in 2018–that is, do what we love, work with joy, and watch as the universe opens doors.
Sooo…plans are in the works to carry StoryCorps forward in 2018 as StoryCorps E (as in, E is for Everyone). In honor of J Zach Gregg, this May, WNIN 88.3 will air stories from last summer’s StoryCorps workshop, and we’ll stir up new stories in a June workshop at WNIN. More on that soon.
I believe the right doors open when we figure out our purposes and our gifts. I believe the universe is cheering for us to find our paths by following our passions, and with that in mind, here are my goals for my 68th year on earth: (1) Lead others to find and tell their stories through StoryCorps E; (2) Finish my own adult novel; and (3) Enter a poetry collection in some contest. Any contest.
Like me, try putting your goals in writing–not too many, two or three. Follow your gifts…We can do this.
Sometimes December seems like a story everyone else is writing.
Almost nothing resonates. Mall visits, online buying, the traditional places of worship can fall short of hopes and expectations. Everyone else’s idea of “holiday” swells…and we seek our own elusive connection to joy and authenticity. We alternate between wanting to fit in and wishing everyone else’s ideas of the season would just disappear.
Toward the end of November, wandering around a local bookstore, I realized that every item seemed only for a more traditional believer or conventional celebrant of the approaching holidays. The feeling of being left out of some exclusive club persisted, and I began to wonder: What could December become if it belonged to everyone? What if everyone—Christian, atheist, pantheist, Muslim, Jew, the sacrilegious, the downtrodden, the disappointed, the disinterested—felt worthy of and open to the call for reflection? What if the literature, the liturgy, the music, the traditions made room for everyone, and December could be a positively transformative time?
I consulted several people whose spirituality I respect and asked if they thought offering thoughts and meditations for a wide diversity of people might be worthwhile.
They suggested that I begin to gather them for myself as well as for anyone else who might want to consider one for each day of this traditional season when we are asked to come near to the Light, whether we are sure what that is or not.
December holds the Winter Solstice, Advent, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Prophet Muhammed’s birthday, and Christmas day. For believers and non-believers, for the holy and the secular, December provides opportunity for joy and reflection, yet an anxiety and dread can creep in as holidays approach. How do we thread our way through our expectations of December to experience more positivity and peace?
Charlie Martin, a Catholic counselor whom I consider open to mysticism and wonder, calls the span of days between Thanksgiving and Christmas a “quiet, meditative time of the year.” He says the longer periods of darkness encourage us to sit in silence, and “we are invited through the way the earth leads us” to come to a more spiritual place. “It is a time,” he says, “to sit in the silence…quite at odds with commercialization.”
Reflection for December 1: What if I were to rise before the sun tomorrow or sit alone after it sets this evening and eliminate thoughts of “to-do” lists and worries about money or errands or expectation? What might come into consciousness?
In a time set aside, I will consider the images or words that arise in the quiet and be open to a spirit of Oneness and Love and Hope.
Charlie Martin continues: “Many spiritual teachers suggest gratitude as the foundation for spirituality.” During and following Thanksgiving, which Martin sees as the doorway into Advent, “the gathering, the sense of gratitude can be very transformative.”
Can we get to gratitude if our hearts and minds have too heavy a weight?
I am moved by Martin’s reverence for a time of the year that causes some to sink into materialism, isolation, or despair. Because he believes in a personal and general need for healing, he suggests that we have patience in asking for courage, resilience and inspiration.
Reflection for December 2: I will consider three things for which I am grateful, as well as three things that need healing in my life. Writing them might be helpful.
What is missing from the first list (gratefulness) that allows for the second list (regrets, sorrows, illnesses) to maintain a hold on me? Give the missing element a name. This is what I must be seeking.
As the call to “come near” to Light begins in earnest, consider whether you believe that Light exists, whether it belongs to a God who is personal and concerned for you, or even to a network of energy that pervades all.
Reflection for December 3: Describe a personal conception of God without censoring. What do you believe God to be?
In The First Christmas, by Biblical scholars Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, the authors suggest that we are bound by too literal an interpretation of holy texts and invite us to consider this: Since the Enlightenment, we have insisted that “fact” and “truth” be/are interchangeable. Borg and Crossan invite us to consider the truth that resides in parables–for example, The Good Samaritan—-a story in which the fact of the story as verifiable historical event makes no difference in the truth the story conveys.
Reflection for December 4: What is one aspect of a spiritual belief I held as a child that I no longer believe? How is that holding me back from recognizing a truth in that belief? What is the truth I have discarded that might require another look?
Borg and Crossan continue, “[Stories of the season] are often sentimentalized. And, of course, there is emotional power in them. They touch the deepest of human yearnings: for light in the darkness, for the fulfillment of our hopes, for a different kind of world.”
Reflection for December 5: What is one thing you wish to change about yourself or your world? Write the word or phrase, indicating what you hope to change, and put it in a place you see daily.
Often change seems impossible because of sorrow or regret. These personal challenges weigh us down, not allowing us a higher resonance of joy or hope.
Reflection for December 6: List one sorrow and one regret that has a hold over you. Only one of each. As I write, I am noticing that I cannot change or undo these things. What I can do is suggest a way of looking at each that allows me to move forward. For example, though we may not be able to bring a loved one back into our lives, we can consider possibilities or read experiences of others, suggesting that the energy of those we love remains–for example, Life After Life by Raymond Moody, or stories from each religious heritage. Next to each of the sorrows/regrets listed, give yourself a path forward, a different way of thinking, that could change how you cope with the loss or regret. Do not try to fabricate a solution you cannot believe in; try to be authentic in finding an approach that offers real possibility for you.
When we are feeling hopeless or depressed, doing something for someone else can lift us out of our self-absorption. Consider someone less fortunate that you are–even at your lowest moments. What does that person need?
Reflection for December 7: What do I have that I can give someone who needs lifting today? I will change thought into action and provide a service or gift, reflecting on my own change of mood following my reaching out.
I will consider loving and giving as a way out of darkness.
Christmas and Hanukkah are upon us, asking us to believe in miracles involving light: the light of the glory of angels and the light of a menorah that burns inexplicably. Physicists are currently discovering properties of light that were previously unknown–for example, each half of split photons mirror the changes of the other half, even when they are great distances apart. New advances in photography have shown orbs of light that are normally unseen by the eye.
In the year following the loss of my son, unusual happening with light occurred frequently: lights flickering, lights coming on unexpectedly, lights in nature having ethereal and calming properties. We purchased a garden post reminding us to Live in the Light, and light came to have an expanded meaning.
Reflection for December 8: Would you consider sharing one miracle that might have been a message sent through light? What was it? Try to articulate for yourself or for someone else.
Emily Dickinson writes in her poem “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” that we all move in darkness, both literal and figurative, but can grow accustomed to moving without clear psychological, spiritual, or physical light.
Considering that most people, until the past three hundred years or so, had no light at all except for the sun, fire, or candles (which many had little access to because of cost), all of history has regaled, worshipped, or honored light, and most metaphorical darkness has been associated with danger or fear.
Reflection for December 9: As this year comes to a close, consider or write a list of three areas of metaphorical darkness that have pervaded your life for the past year. These areas of worry or despair, these areas of lack of clarity, may stem from concern for yourself, for others close to you, for your country or your world. Do you consider yourself having become numb to the darkness, having grown accustomed to no relief from it? What would you need to do to lift the darkness? Would the change take some internal light or light from another source? Imagine a clarity, a light, coming to you individually or to the world’s consciousness as a whole. What would that look like? Do you imagine that source of illumination must come from without, from within, or from some combination of both?
Last night I attended a production of Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, performed by well-known professional actors in a small-town auditorium. The space was, for an hour and a half, what Ernest Hemingway termed “a clean, well-lighted place”–a space illuminated with warmth, connection and safety.
In Hemingway’s existential philosophy, this is the most that we can hope for, to find connection and comfort from love, art, knowledge–some beauty or joy–that gives our lives structure, order and meaning. In the absence of certainty or discernible “truth,” existentialists believe we make our way in the dark by absorbing or creating our own light through what we love and choose to commit to.
Reflection for December 10: Name for yourself some entity, passion, or place that you consider to be your “clean, well-lighted place.” This can be something or someone you love, a ritual or belief–anything that makes you feel centered, peaceful and secure. For example, consider your child, mate, or parent; music or art; a sport, food, or hobby; your religion; a library or bookstore…
Does this “well-lighted place” depend on a belief in yourself and the goodness and creation of other humans, or is an element of the unseen, of the divine inherent in your centeredness or your place of light?
Nature provides a “clean, well-lighted place” for many of us.
When I walk the dogs down past the woods and the sun is just rising through the trees, I am surrounded by a light that circles everything and seems to hold it all together. I think: I am part of this light, and so is the son I lost. I need to be held within the warmth, so I accept the possibility that we are all connected within the light. Because this seems, intuitively, a plausible concept, the light, for me, becomes the Light. I try to imagine what great holiness could hold both my son and me, nature, and the universe of all people together. I believe this network exists, and for lack of better mental and verbal articulation, I term this wholeness the Light. I feel I am called to honor the Light in each person I meet.
Reflection for December 11: Make a mental list of every person you honored yesterday by surrounding him/her with a loving behavior that acknowledges this possibility: “If you have done it unto the least of these,” you have honored God. Choose five people today to honor with love in reverence of this holiday season.
On this first day of Hanukkah, we revisit the story of the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem after it had been destroyed. In this story, when the Jewish victors wanted to light the menorah in the temple in celebration and reverence, they found only a small amount of oil. It was sufficient to light for one day. However, as the story goes, it continued to burn for eight days, until more oil became available. That miracle, as the story is interpreted, represented God’s taking his people under his protection.
Reflection for December 12: Consider whether you believe in miracles, such as the one in the story above. Put a mental check by the statements below with which you agree.
- The laws of physics control physical actions and reactions, and “miracles” do not occur outside of these laws.
- The laws of physics control physical actions and reactions, but we are still striving to understand the complexity of these laws. What seems like a “miracle” could be part of a a miraculous, understandable fabric of interactions and truths.
- Physics and metaphysics are governed by the same amazing laws, and “miracles” often happen.
- Miracles are controlled by divine forces. Physics and physical laws are irrelevant and likely to be set aside.
- The story above is a parable, and the “fact” of a miracle is irrelevant.
For almost two weeks we have considered December as a reflective and perhaps transformative time. Some of us have tried to articulate our understanding of the divine–so far as clarity will allow. We have considered the divine as either absent and or as present–in humans or in nature or in all things. Individually, we may have considered the divine as anthropomorphic (like us, with a distinct personality), or as a network of energy. We have considered the divine in ourselves and in others, in history and in literature. Most of these considerations have been mental reflections.
Reflection for December 13: Quiet the mind and feel intuitively and physically. What comes to you? Is there a peace you can absorb?
During these two weeks of reflections, it is possible you have found yourself at a place of uncertainty about the importance of December and its rituals, about your connection to the universe and to others. As Charlie Martin, whom we “met” in our first reflections, is fond of saying, “There is much mystery.”
We find that we often have to live with metaphysical mystery, but what we can be certain of is that the humans around us are real and present, and most have needs and issues–regrets, sorrows, uncertainties, bad decisions, insecurities. Every one. But each also has a great capacity for joy, progress, and connection.
As those who practice yoga often say at the end of each practice, “The Light in me honors the Light in you. Namaste.”
Whatever each of us considers as the Source of the Light–Energy, God, Soul, Consciousness–it exists in combination with both love and need in each of us.
Reflection for December 14: Today, I will do one thing to nurture and honor the light in myself and one thing to honor the light in another person. I will write those two things to solidify them as a personal commitment, and I will carry them out today with a hope for love, connection, and nurturing.
I continue to consider: What if December could be a positively transformative time for many, or all of us?
Several things happened yesterday to make me believe that in this dreary weather, in this alarming political climate, in this rush of commercialism, there are–somewhere below the surface–the roots of goodness.
Three examples: Standing in line at the UPS store, a man who, by all appearances, probably shared little in common with me, who, I’d wager, agreed with very few of my political beliefs, motioned me ahead of him and made polite, humorous conversation as the line grew behind us and the UPS agent struggled to control the crowded room. A small gesture, perhaps, but one that lifted the stress of those both ahead of the man and behind him.
Later at the post office, the older woman who managed the busy location by herself (as the only postal clerk in the small building) greeted customer after customer with helpful suggestions: (“You can save money with this box; let me help you–the address goes here; I’ll see if I have something in the back to pack this better”). I imagined the long hours on her feet, the stress of the job, and still she smiled and was helpful.
The national news at 8 p.m. was a bit better, too. Could it be that the arc of history does bend toward justice?
I have to believe this…and to believe that most of us (whose needs are even slightly met) have goodness–even divinity?–at the core.
Reflection for December 15: Consider one person you do not like or cannot forgive. Maybe it is yourself. Maybe it is someone else. Name the positive attributes at the core of this person, despite his or her disappointing behavior. Does that disappointing behavior come from fear, or from unmet needs? Can you suspend judgement and simply honor the goodness at the root of this person’s heart or spirit?
A post on Facebook crystalized for me what December’s Story could be for every person, despite religious, racial, ethnic, gender, disability or any other “boxes” or lines we might be tempted to draw. The post included a video of Josh Shipp talking to high school students about his son, Justin, their autistic peer.
Shipp says shortly into the video that his talk is not about autism, but about loneliness: eating alone, being excluded, being left out. He tells the students, “Your life is about the other people around you.”
He concludes by saying that life is about the people you can touch, impact, love, and care about.
That is a story worth considering in December and throughout the year.
Reflection for December 17: Ayn Rand and some other authors, politicians, and leaders contradict the belief system offered by Josh Shipp, telling us that life is about the “I” first, and the rest will take care of itself, trickling down to other people. Think about which philosophy you believe and/or practice.
Is it possible that life is about the people you can love and care about, including yourself, with no delineation between who should come first? Is it possible that we are all a part of a circle rather than a vertical line that puts some higher and some lower–some first and some last?
Borg and Crossan in The First Christmas assert that we are meant to be changed by this time of year, that December is “about the earth’s transformation…about a world of justice and peace,” and in Advent they suggest not only personal, but also political repentance and then participation to bring about the world promised by Christmas. We are to “collaborate” with God in bringing about personal and political transformation to ease oppression and inequity, to bring about peace and justice.
Many groups concerned with spiritual growth have rituals calling for atonement and transformation–Yom Kippur, Ramadan, Advent, even the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. What transformation can this December bring in each life personally, as well as in our communities and our world?
Reflection for December 18: I will answer these questions:
- What am I sorry for personally that I can change or transform during this season, evolving into a more aware and caring person?
- What is one political action I can take to lessen oppression, help those in need, or take a stand for justice?
I have been thinking more deeply about transformation. I am imagining myself, as you might sometimes, as a stained glass window in the night, just before the sun rises. I am broken into pieces. I am dark. When the sun rises and the light shines through, the pieces come together to make a perfect whole, and the colors radiate, at first dimly, but with passing hours, more vibrantly. I am not the one shining by myself. The Light is shining through me.
Reflection for December 19: Can I let go of control and be open to the Light, to the joy, that wants to help me transform?
Eckhart Tolle and other spiritual teachers suggest that ego and fear inhibit our ability to connect with higher consciousness, leaving us isolated from others, from the whole, and from a sense of peace.
Ego and fear are emotional and mental by-products, and according to Tolle, ego can block awareness “of connectedness with the whole…intrinsic oneness with every ‘other’ as well as with the Source.”
Tolle suggests a radical transformation of human consciousness, and he cites the Hindu and Buddhist terms of enlightenment as representing similar ideas. In addition, Christianity suggests, he says, that this enlightenment will bring about “a new heaven and a new earth.” A new heaven, he says, “is the emergence of a transformed state of human consciousness, and ‘a new earth’ is its reflection in the physical realm.”
Is enlightenment possible on an individual and/or group basis? How does it occur? How do we connect with higher consciousness? Is the need for individual power or success cutting us off from transformation? How can we develop or become aware of a consciousness that is connected to something bigger than ourselves?
Reflection for December 20: Sit quietly and envision the image presented in yesterday’s meditation–that is, yourself as a dark, stained glass window. Consider this broken darkness as self or ego. Envision further the light that enters while your brain does nothing and the colors of the stained glass emerge. What might it feel like to become beautiful through little to no effort of your own?
Reading suggests that transformation occurs in many ways. For C.S. Lewis, transformation was logical, mental—a rethinking. For Eckert Tolle himself, this narrative emerges: After a period of deep depression at age 29, he experienced an epiphany. Falling into a void, he awakened with the depression lifted. He felt divorced from his heavy “self” and experienced peace. The “bliss,” as he termed it, came from letting go of the “I” and just observing. Awareness grew, even psychic awareness.
For Saul on the road to Damascus, the light is reported to have been literal. His transformation from a persecutor to one who sought to heal reportedly required a blinding light, a voice, and three days of reckoning.
Sometimes transformation comes through grief. Sometimes we behave in such dysfunctional ways, or we are jolted by catastrophe, so much so that we are changed and enlightened. It has been my experience that this happens neither quickly nor with clarity, but change can happen if we seek it.
A meditative prayer for December 21: Source of all light, change my anger and fear, my ego and sorrow, into peace. Let me accept and observe. Make room in my consciousness for joy.
Just before dawn I stand alone outside and see only bare limbs against a blue-gray sky; I feel the air, quiet around me. On some level, the dark and quiet seems infused with life, presence, and promise.
Because yesterday, the winter solstice, marked the shortest day of the year, today will be the first of days that grow longer. The sun will seem to strengthen, and light and dark will move toward a balance which, in six months will bring the summer solstice, marking the longest day of the year.
It is this upward climb that bolsters me. Today I am part of Emerson’s Oversoul, the energy of all beings in a divine whole, and I believe all things can work for good and for light. In the words of the hymn by Horatio Spafford, “It is well with my soul.”
Spafford wrote the song after much loss and sorrow, including financial loss and the death of children. He went on to do much good for others. I seek this remarkable hope and centeredness, as do others–maybe you.
Reflection for December 22: How do I hold on to a feeling of well-being when I know all too well that both peace and misfortune, like the length of the days, is cyclical? Today I reflect on what it might mean to cultivate centeredness, despite circumstances.
This is the scene: I am in a crowded department store next to a woman and two teenage daughters. The woman has on a ball cap and looks as if she might be undergoing chemotherapy. One daughter, I’m unsure which one, is trying unsuccessfully to buy shoes. The daughter who is slouched resentfully in the chair nearby talks back to her mom, and the mom looks apologetically at me, whispering, “Merry Christmas.”
I smile. There is an understanding in her eyes that she cannot communicate to her impatient daughters, but I get it.
My heart is with her. The holidays can be so much less than we hope. Because I lost my son a year and a half ago, I long for the opportunity to be in a crowded mall with him, even if he is only slouched in a chair, disinterested.
Almost everything about the past year and a half makes me believe that we, he and I, are both wiser now, and he would not be disinterested, nor would I be frustrated. At the expense of seeming simple-minded or worse, I believe my son is, as the holidays have promised, a part of an eternal light and is—somewhere—wise enough now to know what I have come to understand: Almost nothing matters more than love.
December 23: I will sit and think about five people, present on the earth or not, who, I believe, love me unconditionally–and whom I love.
This month we have considered that the holidays, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, are traditionally a time of reflection. Even if we do not participate in Advent or Hanukkah or any other formal time of assessment, we are forced by the traditions of those around us to reflect: How are our life views different from the guy’s on the street next to me—from the girl’s in the chair at the mall?
I no longer believe that the end of our lives on earth marks the end of our learning and our love–and I no longer have a simmering existential anger about not having enough clues to figure out what we are supposed to be doing here. Still, I recognize that others hold many diverse beliefs. For those who believe this life is all we get, isn’t the present moment then all the more important?
Reflection for December 24: In all that happens on this Christmas Eve, I will try to be fully present and in the moment.
Reflect on the ways being fully present will be or is a complete departure from the way you generally live your life. What changes when we are fully present?
Yesterday we considered two life views: One, this life and this present moment are all there is. Two, this life on earth is part of a larger matrix, plan, or pattern.
Today, on Christmas Day, imagine the earth as a giant terrarium. In it, all manner of life thrives. Suppose you are a part of the life within the glass sphere, within the terrarium.
If all falls to the ground and is destroyed, all the plants uprooted and dangling disturbed, do you believe the terrarium is worth replanting and replenishing?
Reflection for December 25: If you believe the terrarium is part of a larger life force, consider what it might mean if this larger force chose to send (to the teeming terrarium) messages of care through messengers of love. What would those messages or messengers be like? Visualize the messengers that might be sent, and imagine the messages in detail. How would a God Force try to help the fragile terrarium?
If you believe the metaphorical terrarium exists in isolation, what would cause it to be worthy of rebuilding? Are you a humanist who values the life inside the globe whether or not it is connected to something larger than itself? If so, what is your responsibility to this life?
Traditionally, the day after Christmas, a close circle of loved ones and I head to the beach, even though this is not usually a warm time of year on the north Florida coast. Still, we walk the beach, cloudy or rainy, decompressing from the holidays and readying ourselves for a new year, a new chance to get some things right.
Reflection for December 26: Make a list of three things you want to let go of and three goals you want to accomplish in 2018. Look at the list daily for the next five days and meditate on letting go and starting over.
In T.S. Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi,” the author comments on the Christmas story in an unusual way. After the birth of the baby Jesus, he says, the Magi were so changed by what they had seen and encountered that it was difficult for them to return to “the old dispensation”–that is, to return home to a community that had not had their experiences and to return to beliefs they had formerly shared, but no longer believed. Whether we view Eliot’s poem literally or symbolically, we have all had experiences that have changed us individually in ways we cannot explain or share to our broader communities. Those singular experiences often exert a great hold on us. In this time before we begin a new year, it might serve us well to explore the hold of our critical, individual experiences.
Reflection for December 27: What is one thing that has profoundly changed me and altered the way I view the world? I will put this event or experience into words for myself. In what ways has it changed me negatively? In what ways has it changed me positively? How has it altered my basic belief system?
Sometimes we are not changed merely by experience, but also by books we have read or movies we have seen, which, it can be argued, is a certain type of personal “experience.” We are changed by ideas and characters and themes and accounts. Books/movies/artwork can inspire us to be our better selves and can become part of who we are.
Reflection for December 28: What is one book/movie/or other artwork that has changed me? How did it inspire me? Articulate the ways this one creation has caused a personal alteration or transformation.
For 30 days, together we have considered gratefulness, healing, our places in the world, the possibilities of things divine, giving, connecting, light and darkness, and transformation.
On this last day before the new year, I am thinking of–finally–abundance.
Two days ago, as I was walking on the beach, I found a tiny, perfect sand dollar, an oddity in December. I have come to associate baby sand dollars with wonder and miracles and messages, and so I carefully carried it inside to dry. The next day, my friend found two more.
This morning as the rain blew in, I walked my mile or so on the beach and found seven baby sand dollars. Seven.
The message was unmistakable. Abundance. There is abundance. How many times do I have to relearn that there will be enough: enough love, enough lessons, enough growth, enough new beginnings, enough of what we need.
The natural cycles of the earth indicate that to every thing there is a season and that we get many chances. Following the winter solstice, days become longer, and the year symbolically begins again. Let it be. We head toward lighter days.