Seeing People Like Trees

Dr. Michael Kearney is a skilled hospice physician, gifted writer, former colleague, and treasured friend.[i]  He recently posted this:

“Answering a question about how we can judge ourselves less harshly, Ram Dass writes:  Part of it is observing oneself more impersonally… When you go into the woods and look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, “ You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in.  And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

I find this a helpful metaphor.  It is common to look at how someone appears, how they present themselves, and how they behave and put them in categories of good or bad, respectable or not.  We do this to ourselves as well. Our inner critic can be fierce in judging who we are, what we’ve done, and what we should have done.

Thinking of people like trees can give us an alternative.

Look at this Eastern Redbud tree in our backyard:

Somebody looking at it will assume that the trunk is curved to the right because that is the direction in which the sun shines into our yard.  That is correct. But I know more about its history.   

We planted it ten years ago and it had a hard time getting established. The top of the trunk was often bending so far following the sun that it was in danger of falling over and having its roots upended. We tried bracing with different methods — vertical stakes and ground anchors — but the growing center branch was always veering perilously to the right.  One day a gardener pointed out that the bracing was no longer helping. The tree had become dependent on external support and was not developing its own root system. We removed the bracing.  After one strong windstorm, the tree bent completely over, and the tip was touching the ground – we didn’t know if it would recover. But it did.  In time, the roots became established and created the strong support it needed. It now reaches in two directions: one continues orienting toward the sun while the other grows vertically, adding balance to the whole. It may not win “Best of Show” in a horticultural contest, but when I look at it, I see a living presence that has had to struggle to survive and has succeeded.

So it is with many of our fellow human beings.

Early in my ministry, I felt a calling to do memorial services, regardless of whether I had known the person or if they had any religious affiliation. 

We were living in the small, rural community of Wapato, Washington, when I got a call from the local mortician.  He asked me to do a graveside service for a man who had no known family and just a few friends.   I agreed.  I met with the friends to gain a sense of the man’s life, chose a few relevant Scripture passages, then led the service.  A half-dozen people were present.  No impressive obituaries were published, nor were any soaring eulogies given. But like a tree that had faced many challenges, this man had endured a great deal.  I remember feeling a sacred presence as we honored him.

We know trees benefit from skillful pruning.  A good arborist sees each tree in its unique environment and shapes it to help it flourish.  The same is true for loving parents, dedicated teachers, insightful mentors, and caring friends.

Following a spiritual path can be an act in which we open ourselves to being pruned by the wisdom and practices that a tradition gives us. As the saying goes, “God meets us where we are but doesn’t leave us there.” 

A friend of mine is a retired police captain.  He told me that a turning point in his career was when he began seeing people with compassion instead of judgment.  And his life was profoundly influenced by Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, who has spent decades working with at-risk youth, convicted felons, gang members, and their families.[ii]  Father Boyle has said, “I choose to stand in awe at the burdens carried by the poor rather than standing in judgment about how they carry them.”

Take a close look at the oak that Michael photographed while hiking the San Ysidro Creek:

How many twists and turns has it made while seeking the life-giving sun?  What a story it could tell.

Oak Photo: Dr. Kearney


[i] To see Michael’s writings and meditations, go to https://www.michaelkearneymd.com  Michael’s wife, Radhule Weineger, is a popular mindfulness teacher whose work can be seen at https://www.radhuleweiningerphd.com

[ii] https://homeboyindustries.org

Do Your Best and Let It Go

            Let’s talk about pressure and responsibility.

            Last year I was listening to a baseball broadcast on the radio.  The announcer told a story about perhaps the greatest “closer” of all time, Mariano Rivera of the Yankees.  In baseball, the job of a “closer” is to come in to pitch toward the end of the game when his team is ahead by a narrow margin and not let the other team score, “saving” the game.  Between 1995 and 2013, Rivera was asked to do that 1,115 times. He succeeded 734 times and failed only 80.[i] He was selected for the All-Star team 13 times and elected to the Hall of Fame in an unanimous vote. Rivera was once asked how he could live with the intense pressure of being a closer day after day, year after year. He said he did everything he could to throw each pitch to the best of his ability, but once it left his hand, he assumed he’d done his part – what happened next was beyond his control.

            I find this perspective to be valuable when thinking about how we live our lives.

            Take parenting.  You want the best for your children.  You provide for them, guide them, lose sleep over them, and do all you can to prepare them for life.  You will always love them and be concerned for them. But once they go out the door, they face a world beyond your control. Free will, chance happenings, and unexpected events will shape them. 

            Or how about work?  Every time I’ve left a job I cared about, I hoped the organization and people would do well.  Sometimes that happened and sometimes it did not.  I felt sadness when things did not go well, but, taking Rivera’s advice, I remind myself I gave it my best when I was there and what happened after that is beyond my control.

            The same can be true for many decisions we make, including deciding to move to someplace new or what we do with our money.  As Kierkegaard said, we tend to evaluate our lives by looking backward at the decisions we have made – after we know how it all turned out. But we did not know then what we know now.  We have to live life forward, without knowing all the facts.

            In spiritual traditions, we can find similar stories.

            Moses takes his people from bondage to within sight of the promised land, yet dies before they cross over.  But he had done all he was asked to do.

            One of Jesus’ last recorded words was, “It is finished.” How could that be, a retreat leader once asked — if he came to feed the hungry, give sight to the blind, and liberate the oppressed, so much suffering was still present in the world when he died; how can he say, “It is finished?”  The leader concluded: because the specific task God had given him to do was finished. It would be up to his followers to take the work forward.

            One of the stories about the death of Buddha describes how, in his 80s, he fell ill after eating spoiled pork.  The man who cooked the food was overcome with sorrow. But Buddha told him not to feel that way.  What had happened was a gift, because Buddha was ready to die and move into the next realm.  He left behind a vast treasury of teaching, and that was enough.

            Let’s do our best with the responsibilities we’ve been given. But let’s also recognize there is only so much we can do.  Once the ball leaves our hand, we can be at peace.


[i] For folks who care about baseball statistics, Rivera had 652 saves and 82 wins for a total of 734.  He had 80 “blown saves” and the rest were no decisions.

Are Natural Disasters Sending Us a Message?

Earlier this week an intense storm moved through California. My community experienced historic levels of intense rainfall, much as it had five years ago; roads were closed, creeks overflowed, and thousands of people had to evacuate.  As I followed the news reports, I couldn’t help but notice a pattern in the language used to describe it. Here are some examples (italics added):

  • “Southern California faces another day of punishing rains…” (LA Times)[i]
  • “…the latest in a series of atmospheric rivers to pound the state…” (LA Times)[ii]
  • “The string of storms pummeling California has proved catastrophic…” (NYTimes)[iii]
  • “In Los Angeles, four people escaped after a sinkhole swallowed two cars on Monday night…” (NPR)[iv]
  • “We need to be nicer with Mother Nature, because Mother Nature is not happy with us…”  (Ellen de Generes’ tweet cited in NPR Online.)[v]

What does this language suggest?  Does rain “punish” people like an angry parent?  Does a storm “pound” an entire state as if it’s in a rage?  A boxer “pummels” an opponent to subdue, demoralize and defeat him – was that why this atmospheric river came our way?  Whales “swallow” people in the Pinocchio and Jonah stories — but does asphalt do that?  And does “Mother Nature” send an intense torrent of muddy water down a hillside to show us that she is “not happy”?

Of course, the rational answer to these questions is “no.”  The language expresses in dramatic terms what severe weather can feel like when we experience it – it’s our human imagination at work. Weather events are not personal acts of cosmic vengeance but are explainable by the laws of physics. 

And yet I understand why such language feels appropriate.

I vividly remember in January of 2018 when, for the first time, three of us were allowed to pass through police barricades and evacuated neighborhoods to view the impact of the debris flow on our 26-acre retreat center in Montecito just days before.  The mud was deep, viscous, and dangerous — it would pull your rubber knee boots off your leg if you stepped in the wrong spot.  Boulders, mud, crunched lumber and twisted oak trees were everywhere. Some of our large buildings had completely disappeared.  It was stunning, hard to fathom, and an unforgettable reminder of how fragile life is. Somewhere deep in my primal instincts, it felt personal – like a mighty, conscious force was displaying its power to make a point.

After returning home, I began thinking about stories our ancestors told to make sense of such destruction.  Noah’s ark came to mind.  I reread it. 

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.[vi]

Sounds like the reason the flood happened is that the divine force felt a need to “punish,” “pound,” and “pummel” the corrupt and violent human race, letting the seas “swallow” them all up –because the Holy One was not exactly “happy with us.”

I thought about that.  I understood it made sense generations long ago in a prescientific world, but it doesn’t seem plausible to me today.  Indeed, the more we learned about debris flows, it became clear that these are routine geological occurrences that have been going on for thousands of years, long before people were living here.  Besides, I don’t believe in a punishing God. The storm was not a moral or spiritual event but a phenomenon explainable through the natural sciences. 

But I kept pondering the issue. I wondered: “Was human behavior a contributing cause to the severity of this event due to our complicity in global warming?”  We can’t blame a Creator or Mother Nature or physics for climate change – that’s on us, on our ignorance, willfulness, stubbornness, and greed.  The dramatic intensity of the storm was not an expression of divine judgment but, to some degree, a natural consequence of our past actions. So, if there is a moral lesson carried in the increasing intensity of severe weather events and fires, it’s not about divine intent or a weather system with emotional issues – it’s our selfish behavior coming back to haunt us.  We need to be humbled.  And we need to take responsibility for our mistakes.

Several weeks later, I was able to return to the property and walk it again.  Bulldozers, backhoes, trucks, and work crews were clearing the wreckage of the buildings and trees.  The magnitude of what had happened was still astounding.  But in many places, green shoots were coming up from the ground. Life was regenerating.  Let’s hope the lessons being offered us are not forgotten.

Art work: Noah and the Dove, 13th century, Monreale Cathedral, Sicily


[i] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-01-10/storm-southern-california-los-angeles

[ii] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-01-10/storm-southern-california-los-angeles

[iii] NY Times. Online, Jan 10, 2023

[iv] NPR Online, January 10, 2023

[v] Degeneres Tweet, NPR Online, January 10, 2023

[vi] Genesis 6: 11-13


Friction, Character and Home-Cooked Meals

            Some years ago, I heard of one family’s coming-of-age ritual for children on their 12th birthday: prepare and serve a multi-course dinner for the family. Not by micro-waving or Grub-hubbing but by doing it all from scratch.  Deciding on a menu. Making a list of ingredients and buying them.  Setting the table.  Prepping and cooking each dish. Planning it all so everything would be ready at the right time.  Announcing, “Dinner is ready” and calling everyone to the table.  Then doing the clean-up after everyone is done.

            This was expected of each child, regardless of gender.

            I doubt if I would have wanted to do that when I was a kid.  It would involve giving up highly productive activities I preferred – like watching cartoons and sitcoms.  It would require listening, observing, experimenting, and being patient.  I might very well experience what we can call “friction”– the discomfort we experience when we are doing something difficult.

            My use of the word “friction” comes from a philosopher of technology, Albert Borgmann.  I encountered him and his work twenty years ago when I did a sabbatical project exploring how digital technology was changing personal life and spiritual practices.  Borgmann observed how digital devices often reduce friction in our life.  Instead of getting up and having to do something that may take effort and skill, a device invites us to avoid the effort – the friction — and instead, we tap a button or give a voice command.   Borgmann’s point is that the more and more we expect a friction-free life as the way things are supposed to be, our capacity to deal with friction when we encounter it diminishes.  He also believes the way in which we handle friction in daily tasks carries over to the formation of our character and capacity for nurturing interpersonal relationships.

            I remember a time when our family was practicing having a “digital sabbath day” – one day a week when we would not turn the computer on.  (This was long long ago in a galaxy far far away — before smartphones and tablets competed with oxygen and water as essential for moment-by-moment survival.)  My six-year-old daughter was bored. She begged me to let her turn on the computer and play a game. I told her we were taking a day off from using the computer.  Why not, instead, play with a favorite neighborhood friend of hers?

“We had a fight on Friday”, she said.

“Well, you could call her and try to get over it,” I said.  She fumed.  But after minutes and minutes of misery, she decided to call.  They got together, cautiously at first. But soon they became lost in play which continued for two hours. They faced the friction of interpersonal issues and got through them.  It would have been easier to be digitally distracted — and alone.  But working through the friction led to a renewed relationship.

Whether it’s marriage, family, or the workplace, dealing with other people often involves some discomfort – some friction – and it takes patience and determination to see if things can be worked out. The more digital technology leads us to expect a friction-free life, the less and less able we will be to deal with other people — those pesky humans just don’t seem to respond to our desires as quickly and easily as our beloved devices.

            My wife spent many years teaching first graders, who can become frustrated learning a new skill. She would tell them to say to themselves: “I can do difficult things.”  In a sense, it’s saying, “I can bear the friction I experience as I learn to master something new or challenging.”  And developing our will and stamina to do that strengthens our character.

            Huston Smith said that one of the shortcomings of our contemporary culture’s understanding of “spirituality” is that we often make it too easy and self-serving.  Spirituality becomes something like a buffet table – we walk by displays of various ideas and practices and put on our plates what appeals to us at the moment.  In doing so, we may avoid anything that is difficult.  But the great global traditions include practices (Ramadan, High Holy Days, Lent, vision quests, etc.)  that ask us to take on difficult things, like fasting, repentance, and acts of service.  Our ego may resist, but our soul welcomes the challenges as the means to a more personal strength and maturity. The traditions, Smith said, “have traction.”   

            I’ve often thought of that family’s dinner preparation ritual. Imagine turning 12 and, for the rest of your life, having the confidence and skill to feed yourself and others. How strong and free you would feel.

Image: “Mickey Mouse and Goofy: Thanksgiving Dinner,” #776, Children’s Book Illustration, Whitman, c. 1970s (apparently the guest on the right is a turkey who’s been invited to share in a vegetarian banquet instead of being the main dish.)

Out With The Old, In With The New?

            I once was asked by my employer to attend a program on “Organizational Change.” There were six of us present, each responsible for a particular program.  Standing next to an easel holding a blank sheet of newsprint with Magic Marker in hand, the presenter posed a question: “Why might we resist change?”

            A few years ago, I would have been excited by this question.  As a young leader I wanted to be a “change agent” and a constant innovator. But maybe I’d been in too many of these kinds of seminars led by consultants or speakers who seemed to unequivocally assume every “change” is a good thing.  Or maybe I sensed she assumed the way we ran things needed improvement without first appreciating what we were doing.  Or maybe I was just feeling ornery.

            With nothing to lose, I raised my hand and said, “Well, one reason we might be resistant to change is that things that are working well don’t need to be changed. They should be respected and preserved.”

            She looked at me as if I said something incomprehensible. She didn’t ask me why I felt that way, or what examples I could give.  She ignored my comment and turned to the others to give the answers she wanted.

I confess from that point on I tuned her out.

            “Out with the old, in with the new” is a common phrase in our culture.  But there are times when we should question it.

To be clear, I’m all for new things – when they are necessary.  In the past year, I bought a new Ride1Up E-bike that is a delight to use.  We bought a new TV that’s far better than our old set.  In May I went to Los Angeles for the premiere of a bold new classical composition by Thomas Ades and it was thrilling.  I got a new pair of shoes that I really like — only $25 at Costco! I put a new coat of paint on the walls of my home office, and it looks a lot better.  I’m always on the lookout for a new way to grill fish, or an exciting new movie, streaming series, or book. I love meeting new people, asking where they’re from, and learning what’s been important in their life.  And I’ve led organizations where I’ve worked hard to envision and implement changes, and felt satisfied and gratified when things turned out well.  

            But some old things are worth hanging on to.

            I have a dining room table from my ancestors’ farm in Iowa that is 150 years old. My grandmother did her Latin homework on it in 1915.  It was old, worn, and in pieces when my father asked me if I wanted it when he was cleaning out his garage.  I almost left it for the landfill. But I decided to take it home and see if I could refinish it. I sanded it, shaped it, stained it and finished it with a coat of varnish. It turned out far better than I had expected.  When you put all the leaves in you can seat 12 people, and it’s a meaningful link to my family history.

            I treasure friends that have remained close over the years.

I have a special affection for old dogs.

            I don’t think I need to seek out a “new and improved” version of the Pacific. Or trade in the Sierras for a “new” mountain range.

            I was a history major in college because I wanted to understand how the world got to be the way it was.  One day I realized I had always assumed that the story of Western civilization was constantly moving forward toward something new and better, and that everything “old” needed to be discarded.  That may be true in some areas. But how about the arts and sports?  Would you say someone has finally gotten “better” than Bach, Gershwin, Lennon/McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, or Michael Jackson?  Has painting “improved” since Botticelli, Monet, and Van Gogh?  Are athletes “better” than Babe Ruth, Pele, Serena Williams, or Steph Curry?  New composers, artists, and athletes come along, but that doesn’t mean they are “better” than those of the past…they are just new arrivals.

            Our economy is built on the assumption that we must be constantly expanding.  But look what it’s done to our “old,” dear earth.

            In the last year, I’ve been meeting with a group focused on the redesign and rebuilding of La Casa de Maria, the 26-acre retreat center that was damaged by the 2018 mud and debris flow while I was the Director.  We’ve been working hard to see how we can bring it back better than ever. But we also know there was a sense of “soul” and presence there that can’t be improved on but must be preserved.  After months of work, we believe we have found an optimal balance between innovation and preservation.

            I believe the divine Spirit is always fresh and creative, asking us to dream new dreams and be open to new approaches to life.  At the same time, have we found better values to live by than to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly on this earth with one another?

            So — out with the old, in with the new? It depends.  There comes a time when we need to let some things go. But other things need to be kept, held with deep affection, and revered.

Photograph: “Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park,” amercianforests.org

Sunlight Finds the Opals

LODE

Even underground, sunlight

finds the opals and fills them.

So much beauty embedded

in cavern walls, needing no one

to find it, no human eye to see,

waiting in perfect patience,

in due time, to be revealed.    MCM

The painting is by John McEntyre and the poem by his wife, Marilyn.  John and Marilyn have been friends and colleagues for many years. Marilyn led several online writing classes during COVID which helped me change my writing process — she discourages using an outline or having an endpoint in mind when beginning, and instead “write into the unknown.” 

As I’ve followed this advice, I’ve found myself coming to surprising perspectives.  I don’t know if the insight is there before I start seeking it, or it is formed as the search progresses. But there is “sunlight” “embedded” in us, and often we need patience, curiosity, and courage to find it.  Maybe it’s through painting or writing.  Maybe it’s on a long walk or during an extended conversation with a trusted friend.  Or maybe it’s letting a sacred text or piece of music open our hearts and imagination to something new. 

I’ve seen many people walk through times of darkness and find such light.

I worked at Hospice of Santa Barbara for 5 ½ years. When I told people where I worked, it was common for them to say, “Oh, that must be depressing.” But I would say it was not. Seeing people work through their grief to find some authentic resolution and a way forward was inspiring.  One 15-year-old said: “Death is like a broken heart.  It hurts and is sad but you get through it.  Your heart is twice as strong.”

Solstice and the sacred stories of the season remind us that there are endless points of light waiting to be revealed in “due time.”  As we face periods of uncertainty, may we trust that the light is there, safely residing in “cavern walls,” “waiting in perfect patience, in due time, to be revealed.”

John’s painting and Marilyn’s poem are used by permission. More information about Marilyn, her publications, her classes, and retreats can be found at https://www.marilynmcentyre.com; John’s work can be seen at https://mcentyreart.com.

Going Anywhere This Season?

Journey: 1) The act of traveling from one place to another, especially when involving a considerable distance; a trip…. 3) A process or course likened to traveling, such as a series of trying experiences; a passage.[i]

In August 1981, I completed my seminary training in New Jersey, and we began a cross-country trip to my new job in California. We were driving our 1971 Plymouth Scamp. In the back was our 2 ½-year-old daughter in her car seat and our pregnant Calico in a cat carrier.  We planned to camp as much as possible to save money.

            One morning we left West Virginia and headed west. Our destination was Branson, Missouri, where a seminary friend was expecting us.

  Late in the afternoon, we stopped at a gas station in the Kentucky countryside.  It was hot and humid. As the attendant was washing the front window, he said something.  He had a strong Kentucky accent and spoke softly, and I could not understand him.  I said, “Sorry?”

            He repeated the phrase. It took me a minute to make a guess. 

            “Our radiator is leaking?”

            He nodded.  I got out and looked under the engine; water was dripping on the concrete.

            We unloaded our daughter and cat and pulled the car into the service bay. He inspected it.  “Your radiator is cracked,” he said.

            “What will it take to fix it?” I asked.

            “We’ll have to call and see when we can get a new one,” he said.

            We found some shade for our daughter and the cat carrier. The cat’s eyes were squinting as it panted in the heat.

            I made small talk with the gas station attendant.

            After an hour, the station owner answered the phone, then came and told me they could not get a new radiator delivered until the next morning.  And then he said, “You know, you’d be welcome to stay with us tonight.”

            We had not planned on this. I was uncertain about what to do.  But we decided to accept.

            The owner closed the station, then got in his car and drove us several miles into the country to an old two-story house.  It turns out he lived with several people, including his girlfriend, and they welcomed us.  One guy said it would only be right if we had some beer; living in a “dry” county meant he’d go to the closest “wet” county to buy some, so he got in his truck and made the trip.

            That night we enjoyed dinner, conversation, and warm 3.2% beer.

            The next morning, we thanked everyone, and he drove us back to the station. The radiator arrived, he installed it, and we continued our journey.

            We began to correspond with the couple after we settled in California. We exchanged Christmas cards. They sent us news of their engagement. Then their wedding announcement.  Then, several years later, pictures of their first child.

            I’ll never forget how vulnerable we felt that day, and what their hospitality meant.

            Our cross-country trip was a “journey” in the first sense — The act of traveling from one place to another, especially when involving a considerable distance.  But, through this unexpected kindness, it became an example of the third definition: “A process or course likened to traveling, such as a series of trying experiences; a passage.” It became for me a spiritual journey. Being on spiritual journeys involves something more than just covering distances.  It’s about trusting what we cannot see and relying on resources beyond our control.

            At La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, we hosted thousands of guests every year.  I often gave introductory tours to people and groups. I would walk with them around the 26-acre property and point out places they may want to explore: the small meditation chapel, benches along the creek, the spiritual gardens, a labyrinth, the Peace Garden, a stone memorial honoring victims of gun violence, and the oak grove that had been cultivated for centuries by native people. I would tell them to be like Alice in Wonderland: walk around and see where your curiosity leads.  Then see what happens if you just sit for a while.

            Our guests rarely left the property, so did not travel far in the literal sense. But people came because they were on personal journeys.  They took time to rest and be in nature, and be attentive to their thoughts, feelings, intuitions, and unseen, benevolent forces.  Time and time and time again, people would gain insight, experience a sense of healing, or find a new vision for their life.

            The Gospel of Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary made the journey to Bethlehem not because they wanted to, but because the Roman government had ordered a census. When they arrived, there were no rooms available.  But the innkeeper offered them a night in a stable. It was enough.  They had to trust what they could not see, and, in time, found their way home.

            People experiencing grief often feel like they are on a journey.  They may be living in the same place they have for years, but the absence of a loved one can make it feel like they are now in a foreign land.  This is particularly true during the holiday season.  Once, I was sitting in on a grief support and a recently widowed woman described what the holidays were like: “I see the lights on the trees and houses, but they’re not sparkling.”  Members of the group understood.  She was not alone.

            I’ll never forget the feeling of vulnerability at that gas station, and what it meant to be offered kindness and hospitality.

            Being on spiritual journeys means we don’t know where exactly we will end up. But along the way, we often find support, help and blessings in unexpected places.


[i] American Heritage Dictionary

Art work: “Nativity,” Giotto, 1320

God Rest Ye Ornery People

Music can be one of the many joys of this season as we hear familiar songs and carols.  Some were composed by highly trained composers and others have more humble origins. 

One of my many favorites is “I Wonder As I Wander.”  As the story goes, a scholar of folk music, John Jacob Niles, found himself in the small Appalachian town of Murphy, North Carolina, in 1933.  He came upon a modest evangelistic gathering on the outskirts of town. Onto the small platform stepped an unkempt young girl who smiled shyly as she sang:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,

How Jesus the savior did come for to die,

For poor ornery people like you and like I,

I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”

Moved by the song’s haunting beauty, he paid the girl to repeat it several times so he could transcribe it.  He took it with him, extended the lyrics and stanzas, gave her credit, and published it in 1934 in Songs of the Hillfolk.  Since then, it’s been recorded by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, Julie Andrews, Barbara Streisand, Joan Baez, Leontyne Price, Andy Griffin, Linda Ronstadt, Chanticleer, and many others; it’s included in countless hymnbooks and seasonal playlists.

            I am drawn to it partly by its melancholy mood and simplicity.  Composed by an untrained person living at the fringes of society, it’s like the blues – an expression of life’s hardships created by people who are living hard lives.

            And my favorite line is, “…how Jesus the savior did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I.”  I love the word ornery.

            There are two possible meanings of “ornery.” Some say it’s just the Appalachian pronunciation of “ordinary,” and many published versions use that option.

            That may be correct.  But I’m biased toward the other possibility — that it means “ornery” the way I heard that word used as I was growing up.  Merriam-Webster’s definition: “Having an irritable disposition: cantankerous; difficult to deal with or control… (as in) ‘an ornery mule’…”

My dad would talk about people being “ornery,” and we knew what he meant.  And when you sound it out, it sounds defiant, grumpy, and stubborn. Ornery.

            I sometimes feel ornery.  We are not supposed to feel that way. We are supposed to always be civil and kind, generous of heart, and looking out for the interest of others.  But sometimes we don’t feel like we are supposed to feel.  And the carol puts it right out there: the world is full of “poor ornery people like you and like I.”

            Thinking about this message and mood led me to page through hymnals looking for other carols which suggest how living in this world can be disheartening:  

  • “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight…Bid envy, strife, warfare cease..” (O Come, O Come Emmanuel)
  • “From our fears and sin release us…” (Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus)
  • “…And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world…above its sad and lonely plains they bend on hovering wing, and ever o’er its Babel sounds, the blessed angels sing.”  (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear)
  • “…and ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who will along the climbing way with painful steps and slow… “ (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear)
  • “No more let sin and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground…” (Joy to the World)
  • “’Fear not,’ said he – for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds…” (While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night)
  • “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom, sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”  (We Three Kings)

If you collect these phrases and line them up, you get this: there are times when life can feel like we are living under “gloomy clouds of night,” haunted by “death’s dark shadows,” often having to deal with “envy, strife (and) warfare” as well as “fears and sin;” the world can be a “weary” place” as we make our way on “sad and lonely plains” hearing all these different voices with their “Babel sounds;” under “life’s crushing load” we can feel like our “forms are bending low,” that any progress we make is made with “painful steps and slow;” we have days when we are convinced that “thorns “infest the ground” we walk on, moments come when “dread” seizes our “troubled minds,” and we know that life, at its most difficult, includes times of “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying” all leading to “a stone cold tomb.”

            Not exactly Christmas Cheer.  But life can be tough.  No surprise that we get ornery.

            Hard as life can be, and no matter how “ornery” we may feel, the gift of Christmas comes to us anyway. That’s what the young girl who created this song knew, and that’s what allowed her to sing it with a shy smile under her sorrows. 

            “God does not love as we love. God loves as an emerald is green.”

Image: “Sky Over Big Bear,” Shutterstock Photos

Ever Experience the Same Thing Twice?

         In my inbox every morning is “The Writer’s Almanac,” which describes significant events in cultural history. A recent article noted it was the birthday of Claude Monet:

He and his friend Auguste Renoir were among the first European painters to take their canvases outside to paint directly from nature. They would often work as quickly as they could, so that their paintings looked like sketches, and that sketchy style became known as Impressionism. Monet spent the rest of his career exploring the idea that you can never really see the same thing twice. In a single day, he would often paint the same subject half a dozen times, from slightly different angles and in slightly different light, spending no more than about an hour on each canvas. In the last 30 years of his life, he painted almost nothing but the water lilies in his garden at Giverny. Monet bought the four-acre property in 1883, built the bridges, dug the lake, and selected all the flowers and plants himself.

It seems he painted 250 scenes in his garden as a way of “exploring the idea that you can never really see the same thing twice.”

Can we ever experience the same thing twice?

We have grandkids that are 7, 5, and 1, and feel blessed to watch them grow and develop.  This week the one-year-old made the evolutionary leap from being a four-legged mammal to two, ending with a smile confirming she knew that she had just taken a “big step.”  In one sense she’s the same wee person she was the week before – but she’s not exactly the same.

A golf teacher once made the point that your body and mind are always changing, and every time you play, you’ll need to adjust to who you have become.

A yoga teacher said that every day we begin our practice, something in our body has shifted. We may be a bit less flexible or a bit more – it’s hard to predict — but it is something we should expect. 

And what tennis, soccer, or baseball player can completely control time after time where the ball will go?

Modern science tells us there is no such thing as solid, unchanging matter — it’s all energy in varying states and forms.

Every day, countless cells in our body are dying and others are being created; biologically we “are not the person we used to be.” (As we get older, looking in the mirror becomes vivid proof).

So maybe this was what fascinated Monet as he created this “Impression” of the lily pond in his garden…

Nymphea, 1905

…and then sometime later he captured the same pond in a different light:

Nymphea, 1905

On the one hand, it’s exciting to think “you can never really see the same thing twice.”

But on the other hand, it can be a bit unsettling.  It makes me feel like I’m being carried away on a river when I’d prefer to have my feet planted on solid ground, at least occasionally.  Where do we find stability?

This is a central question for many spiritual traditions.

Hinduism assumes we all have an “atman” within us, an essence that is rooted in the divine; it’s like a “witness” within ourselves, observing our life as it ebbs and flows and will be the awareness that continues beyond death.  Buddhism disputes that, at least in the most simplistic form.  Western traditions have often spoken of each person having a “soul.”

There’s a beautiful old English hymn that used to be common at memorial services: “Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.” The English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said these words sum up the universal longing of humanity: “Fast falls the eventide” acknowledges that all life is passing, while “Abide with me” is a plea that our connection with the divine will be a constant.

Two stories from my hospice work come to mind.

Serenity House is a beautiful residential hospice here in Santa Barbara. I knew the Executive Director of the organization as it was being designed and built, and she shared with me some of her hopes during that time.  One key theme was integration with nature: every room has a porch where the patient can enjoy the landscaping as well as a view of the city and the nearby mountain range.  Sometime after it opened, she told me that one patient had asked the gardener to not remove the fallen leaves on her porch but let them remain where they had landed.  The patient said looking at the fallen leaves gave her comfort.  

A friend of mine is a longtime volunteer at Serenity House. He has often been with patients as they are dying, and it is common for them to begin to sense there is something “on the other side.”  Never – not once – has he seen people in those moments experiencing fear.  

“We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery,” Huston Smith said.  Maybe our whole life is just a series of “impressions” as we try to capture important moments in the changing light. What a gift to be doing so.  And what amazing colors the light reveals.

Top Image: Nymphea, 1903

Water Lilly Pond, 1917-1920

Is Life All About Our “Highlight Reels?”

            I sometimes find myself wondering if life is all about creating memorable “highlight reels.”

            Highlight reels are excerpts from sporting events that capture dramatic and decisive moments.  You don’t have to watch the entire World Cup soccer game to find out it ends in a scoreless tie – you just watch a few minutes of compelling footage that an editor has decided will hold your attention.  You don’t have to sit in the stands at a baseball game for 3 ½ hours as it painstakingly unfolds – you just see 5 minutes that include the diving catch, the dramatic home run, and the last guy striking out.  The folks who put the highlight reels together know how the game turned out, so they can create just the right script and a satisfying finish.  The scenes include commentary by a skilled announcer and maybe even a dramatic soundtrack.  Highlight reels can be much more engaging than the actual experience.

            In this digital age, we can make our own “highlight reels” using our smartphone cameras. We can capture stunning sunsets, joyous birthday cake moments, and two friends smiling at the foot of a majestic waterfall — significant moments of inspiration, celebration, and affection.  That’s what we want to remember. Who wants to watch real-time video of the drudgery we felt at work before we got home to see the sunset, the housework we had to do to get ready for the party, or the long hike that got us to the waterfall?

            And in recent years, it’s common for memorial services to include a slideshow of the person’s life, tracing it through the decades with carefully chosen images.  It’s always moving to feel like we are seeing pictures that each tell us a thousand words about someone’s life, especially when we know their life is complete.

            So I sometimes wonder: maybe it’s only life’s highlights that are worth living for.

            But then I consider the oak tree in our backyard.

            The oak tree in our backyard (as seen in the above photo) is a “volunteer,” meaning it came up out of the ground unexpectedly.  I remember first seeing the 18” sprout while doing yard work; I had a pair of pruning loppers, assumed it was unwanted, and was ready to snip it into oblivion.  But my wife saw me and said, “Don’t cut it! That’s a volunteer oak. Leave it alone. Let’s see how it grows.”

            Years later it’s a magnificent living presence.  Our landscape designer is in awe of its structure and vitality. He told me the tap root can go 100’ feet into the earth, and that a wealthy person would pay $50,000 for a tree that looks like this one.

            I find myself gazing at this tree and thinking how undramatic it is, how silent, how steady, how patient.  It’s alive. It grows. It simultaneously knows how to send roots into the earth seeking water while sending branches into the sky seeking light, all the while breathing in carbon dioxide, breathing out oxygen, and manufacturing acorns to provide for future generations.

If I was to make a “highlight reel” of the oak tree, what images would I use? It does all its labor undercover.  Meanwhile, I rush through my days hoping to do something that will qualify for my personal highlight reel. 

            Trees are prominent in spiritual traditions.  The “Oaks of Mamre” is a place of divine encounters for Abraham.[i]  Though they have never met before, Jesus tells Nathaniel he already knows him because “I saw you under the fig tree.”[ii] And, according to one tradition, Buddha sits for 49 days under the Bodhi tree, stands to thank it for its shade – and in that moment receives enlightenment.[iii]

Trees are a common source of shelter and safety, and therefore an ideal place for contemplation.  But maybe there’s more to it than just protection from the sun. Maybe being in the presence of such creations subtly reminds us that life is more than just clips that qualify for a highlight reel.  Maybe they instead teach us what it is like to be quietly immersed, moment-by-moment, in the miracle of life.


[i] Genesis 18:1

[ii] John 1:48

[iii] https://buddhists.org/the-bodhi-tree/