Icarus and Us

         Imagine visiting a gallery and coming upon this painting for the first time without knowing its title.  What do you see?

         I see the farmer with the red shirt guiding the blade of his plow. 

         I see the ship sailing in the nearby channel. Having just taken some sailing classes, I’m curious about the design of the ship.  The sails on the bow and stern are capturing a strong wind; those on the central mast are not extended.  If they were unfurled, would the wind blow too strongly and make navigation difficult?  

         I notice the shepherd looking at the sky with his dog by his side and the sheep grazing.  Is he looking at a specific object, or just daydreaming?

         My attention moves to the background where I see the harbor and a few buildings.

         I’ve seen enough.  A visual “slice of life” from the mid-16th century.  Interesting. Sort of.

         But then I happen to see the brass plate next to the frame: “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus.” 

         What? Where’s Icarus?

         Taking a second look, I discover Icarus in the lower right-hand corner –a pair of legs entering the sea with feathers fluttering in his wake. 

         How did I miss him? 

         In the Greek myth, Daedalus learned how to make wings using feathers and beeswax.  His son Icarus is young and wants to fly.  His father warns him he must not go too close to the sun, or the wings will melt, and he’ll fall to earth. But Icarus is young and confident. He ascends. The wings melt. He falls to his death in the sea.

         Looking at the rest of the scene a second time, I realize no character seems to notice him.  Reading about the painting, I discover that’s the point. 

         People are in trouble around us every day.  A young man’s life ends and what are we doing? Farming? Sailing? Staring at the sky?  Fishing?

         The story of Icarus evokes something personal for me.

         In my early 20s, I’d had what Jung called an inflated ego. I had become isolated and was taking risks with my life. Like Icarus, I believed I was immune from any serious consequences. But then I had a personal crisis which put me in peril. I could have easily fallen into the sea, unnoticed by people around me until it was too late.  If not for the grace of God, I don’t know how I would have survived.

         Hidden tragedies and pain are no doubt being carried by people we pass every day –at Trader Joe’s, at Costco, at work, or walking in our neighborhood. Do we notice them?

         I was at the local movie theater recently to see “West Side Story.”  After the film ended, the small crowd was exiting while the theater was still dark. Just in front of me, an elderly gentleman with a cane fell to the floor. His wife had charged ahead and didn’t see it.  I knelt and asked if he was alright, and carefully helped him stand up. He regained his balance but seemed dazed.  His wife came back and, a bit impatiently, told him to follow her. 

         Don’t most of us want to notice others in need and help when we can?

         But can we spend our entire day on the lookout for strangers in trouble?

         Looking again at the painting, I notice new details.

         Take the farmer. He’s not working a flat prairie field in Kansas where he could let his attention go elsewhere.  He’s plowing a steep hill which requires extra focus.  He needs to do this well if he’s to care for his land and raise food for his family and village.

         How about the sailing ship? The ship is passing through a narrow channel.  The captain and crew need to be on alert for any changes in the strong wind, ready to respond in a skillful and timely manner if they are not going to run aground or collide with another ship.  They must bring their full attention to their work to be safe while make a living.

         And the shepherd. If that was my job and all seemed well in the moment, I might get lost in thought – I don’t think I’d be constantly scanning the horizon looking for someone in danger.

         This time I notice the fisherman in the red hat. He is the closest.  I don’t know why he doesn’t notice Icarus splashing in into the sea.

         A part of me identifies with those other characters, not just Icarus.  When we have responsibilities, we need to attend to them.  

         I say that to myself, but something tells me that may be a way to let myself off the hook from being alert to the suffering of others.

         The great spiritual traditions implore us to care for the stranger, to be our “brother’s keeper,” to be Good Samaritans in a world of self-absorption. I believe most of us do so when we can.  But can we do that all the time?

         This isn’t a pleasant pastoral scene. This is a soul-scan revealing the tension between our personal responsibilities and the call to care for others.

         Life is complicated.

         What a great work of art.

Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, Brueghel, c 1560

Dear Reader: On March 6, there was a stunning interactive piece in the New York Times exploring this painting and how it inspired a famous poem by W H Auden: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/03/06/books/auden-musee-des-beaux-arts.html

I had been meaning to write this modest reflection of my own before reading that article, and, after reading it, almost shelved my piece as it seems a bit simplistic. But I believe all great art invites many interpretations, even the humble ones.

Your Soul Is Like A Wild Animal

         When I reflect on the idea of having a “soul,” my mind first goes back to cartoons I watched as a kid.  Some character would get bonked on the head and fall over, and then a wispy image of that character would start floating up from the body with little wings and ascend into the sky.

         In college, I began to get the idea that a modern, scientific person should be skeptical of believing in anything that could not be measured, observed, and analyzed; the idea of human beings having souls was a superstition best left behind.

         Then I had my spiritually transforming experience when I was 22.  I suddenly sensed that there is something in us connected to a living reality beyond what we can see.  In the years that followed, I began to explore the many ways we can conceive of having this spiritual essence that we sometimes call “soul.”

         In 2009 I read A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life by the academic-turned-spiritual-mentor Parker Palmer.  Early on, he says he will be using the word “soul.” He knows his academic friends will be dismissive about both the word and the concept.  But, he believes there is something within us that is best described with this word — a point of connection and wholeness that all spiritual traditions understand.  And, he says, he found a useful metaphor for it:

         “The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, and shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding. But if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself.”[i]  He goes on to say that much of our culture keeps us distracted and so our soul withdraws. But in moments of quiet and inner attentiveness, our souls cautiously appear. In those moments, we realize who we really are and how miraculous the world is; in those moments, we often find guidance, assurance, and hope.

         I loved this idea.  If we are thrashing through the woods, wildlife flees from us and hides. But if we come to a cabin in the woods, sit on the porch and become still, the wildlife emerges, and we can observe it with reverence and wonder.

         Palmer says there is another quality of soul that is like a wild animal:

         Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. I learned about these qualities during my bouts with depression. In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.[ii]

         The soul is like a wild animal. It is shy.  But it also can endure great hardship.

         This certainly described what I have witnessed many times in my life. 

         When I worked at Hospice of Santa Barbara, many people came to deal with a personal loss – maybe it had occurred just a few weeks before, maybe years ago. The loss had fractured their sense of meaning and trust.  Their soul had gone into hiding. But they hoped they could somehow make sense of life.  They would be given an appointment with one of our counselors.  The philosophy of our staff was based on a simple assumption: “We can’t fix you, but we can come alongside and journey with you as you find your way.”  The client would begin to experience this caring, skilled, and non-invasive companionship.  It could take weeks or months, but, in time, it was as if the person’s soul could finally come out of hiding and begin to find a way to accept what had happened while forming a new understanding of life.  As they found their way, you could see it in their eyes: there was light where there had been shadows. The soul had reemerged and brought with it a quiet wisdom about hard truths and an awareness of simple blessings.

         In my time at the La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, I would often use this metaphor when giving tours. There were no televisions or newspapers, and, fortunately, very limited Wi-Fi.  As we’d walk the 26 acres of oak groves and gardens, I would point out various places for contemplation they might want to visit during their stay.  As a guest, they would be free to wander the property, enjoy the delicious food, and rest as much as they needed.  “Our souls are like wild animals,” I would say.  “They are shy, like deer in the forest.  But when we are quiet, the deer come out.  Your soul will begin to sense this is a safe place to be.  Give it time, and your soul will come to you.”

         When people arrived, they would often be stressed, tired, and distracted.  At first, many would keep reaching for their cell phones, trying to find a spot with adequate reception, like a dowser looking for water. They were desperate to stay in touch with the busy world that had ensnared them.  But in time, that compulsion would fade. They’d rest, and wander, and explore, and discover whatever it was they needed.  As they were leaving a few days later, you could see the change in their eyes. They’d found their inner light, and with it came peace, clarity, and a renewed sense of purpose.

         Your soul is like a wild animal – shy, but capable of enduring times of great stress.  It is always choosing life instead of darkness. Honor it, care for it, listen to it.

[i] A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, pg 58

[ii] Ibid, pg. 58

Photo Credit: Department of the Interior

Invitation to a Wake

This week I did something I’ve wanted to do all my life: take sailing lessons. I signed up at the local harbor for “Beginning Sailing 101.” It’s a three-day class and I’ve completed two days so far. My exam is next week.

            The course includes learning nautical terms – some of which are familiar, some not.  I soon noticed how much sailing jargon is part of our everyday language. 

            At one point the instructor was presenting ways to know if you are moving in the water if you seem to be standing still.  “You look at the boat’s wake,” he said. “If there are bubbles and ripples behind the boat, it means you are moving.”

            I looked over the stern (the back end!) of the boat for the wake. Sure enough, there were the bubbles and ripples.  I started thinking about the term “wake.”

            The first thing that came to mind was the Irish tradition of gathering after someone has died to remember and honor them.   We often associate that experience with heavy drinking of certain distilled liquids. But it was not immediately clear why we would use the word “wake” for such an event.

            Then it came to me — the person has left a “wake” in our lives – an influence or impact – and we instinctively want to gather to reflect on what that means.

            As I pondered this further, it occurred to me that the wake behind a moving boat may seem to dissipate as the boat continues sailing.  But it has made a real impact on the ocean itself, even if it seems small compared to the vastness of the sea. I began thinking about people whose “currents” of influence are still swirling in our lives. 

            My father came to mind. He died almost ten years ago, but every day some word or phrase of his comes to mind.  Most of them are not appropriate to publish in a dignified space such as this, but others can be shared.  For example, he employed a general handyman named Orville.  Orville could often find solutions to practical problems when the proper part was not available.  My dad delighted in his innovative ability, and, when faced with a puzzling problem, he’d say “Let’s see if we can ‘Put the Orville to it.’” Sometimes when I face a similar problem, I’ll think, “Maybe I can ‘Put the Orville to it’,” and it always makes me smile. But it’s more than just remembering the phrase – something about it causes me to reexperience a tangible sense of my dad’s spirit.   It’s one of the ripples of his wake.

            If I hear a jazz artist singing Gershwin’s “Summertime,” I’m taken back to times as a child when my mother would be singing it to herself at the piano as I was walked through the living room. She’s been gone 29 years, but when I hear “Summertime,” it’s different from a pleasant memory – it’s a moment when I feel she’s present again; it’s part of her “wake.”

            It can also be true with organizations.

            A few years ago, I was greeting a new neighbor. She asked where I’d worked. I mentioned Hospice of Santa Barbara. Her eyes widened.  “You worked there?  Your counselors saved my life after my husband died suddenly. I wouldn’t be standing here today without them.” What she expressed was not a simple fact – it was bringing to the surface a healing experience that was very much alive in her.

            Last fall I went to Los Angeles for one of the first post-COVID concerts.  An older woman sat next to me, and we began to talk. She told me she was from West Los Angeles. I told her I was from Santa Barbara.  “What did you do there?” she asked.  “I was Director at La Casa de Maria Retreat Center.”  She almost came up out of her seat.  “That’s one of the most important places in my life!” she said. “My 12-step group went there every year, and we loved it.  It’s an amazing place.”  I could see La Casa’s impact on her had not dissipated but was buoying her spirit even as we spoke.

            These moments aren’t just the retrieval of weightless, neutral thoughts from our past. They are times when we are truly feeling them again in body and soul.  Just as a boat’s wake continues to be present in the ocean long after it is visible, these are strong, visceral experiences that continue to eddy and swirl within us, rising into our awareness in unexpected moments.

            Are there times when such memories come to mind for you, drawing with them your body and soul as if you are still in their “wake?” 

            Finally, I thought about how all of us are “sailing” through our life every day and – know it or not – leaving a “wake” in the lives of those around us. What kind of wake is it?  Are we paying attention to the currents we are setting in motion with our words and actions?  Are we navigating skillfully so that those currents will benefit others, strangers in addition to loved ones? 

            Shipmates, I’ll confess reflecting on the word “wake” caused me to lose track of what the instructor was saying – good thing I wasn’t at the “helm.” But I’m grateful to be out on the sea, and to cherish all the people whose wakes are still with me.

“Sailing Accross the Atlantic,” Oceanpreneur

Fenced and Free

This is Rue:

She was named after a character in The Hunger Games and sometimes goes by the alias, “Rue-Rue.” She 11 years old and weighs 8 pounds, 2 ounces. As she’s gotten older, she’s had seven teeth pulled. She also has a “collapsing larynx,” meaning she often snores. But she doesn’t seem to lament her fate, or question why she’s here. She makes the best of each day.

This is Sita:

Aliases include “Sita-Ram” and “Ram-Stine.”  She’s 12 years old and weighs 69 pounds, 8 ounces.  She now struggles when she gets up in the morning due to arthritis, and her right eye is partially closed.  But she doesn’t seem to lament her fate, or question why she is here.  She makes the best of each day.

This is one of the “Unicorn Tapestries”:

It’s about 520 years old, and currently lives in New York at the Cloisters Museum.  I don’t know how much it weighs.  There are many opinions about what it means.

            The first time I saw it was in the office of a long-time friend and Jungian therapist whom I would visit when facing important decisions.  We’d explore my dreams to understand what was going on within me, and we shared an appreciation for spirituality, myths, symbols and metaphors.

            Her office was in downtown Santa Barbara.  One day I came for my appointment, saw her door was open, and went in. She was busy finishing something at her desk and invited me to take a seat. As I sat there, I looked around her office.  I noticed the print of the unicorn tapestry on her wall.  I was curious why it was there.

            She finished making her notes and came to sit across from me.  I asked her about it.

            “It’s a famous image from the Middle Ages,” she said.  “Some say the unicorn represents the experience of being alive. Our soul instinctively feels like we are magical creatures and should be free to travel anywhere and do anything.  But the corral keeps us constrained in a space that seems too small, like the limitations of our physical body.  The question is: do we resent the limitation?  Or do we accept it as part of being an incarnated spirit?”

            I purchased my own copy of the “Unicorn Tapestry” and had it framed.  It was on the wall of my office at La Casa de Maria Retreat Center when the 2018 debris flow swept it away, along with the entire building.  But I still think about it.

            Do you ever feel like the unicorn? Within yourself you sense your soul, your spirit — an awareness of being alive and unique that you first felt in childhood?  At times you delight in the freedom your spirit has to dream, to explore, to create – to be like a magical creature.

            But then there’s this body, and the limitations of life. Sometimes this body is a delight of its own as we experience so many wonderful things through our senses.  But other times our body seems to work against us. We get sick. We get injured. We age.  We don’t belong in this corral!

            There have been at least two ways to look at this in spiritual traditions.

            Some have held that physical existence is a curse.  We are born into “original sin,” and deserve to suffer whatever befalls us.  Years ago, there was a funeral in our town for a young man who had died tragically.  The priest said, “God could have saved him. But why?  Who wants to live in this world of sin?”

            Other traditions hold that suffering and limitations are not a form of divine punishment, but simply a natural aspect of being biological creatures. Why we are here, where our awareness comes from, and where we are ultimately headed is a great mystery. But if we try to fathom all the amazing processes which make it possible to simply be alive, how can we not say life is “a marvelous work and a wonder?”

This is me:

I’m 69 years old and decline to give my weight. On my bathroom shelf are two 7-day pill containers – one for the morning, one for the night – to help me remember to take my medications.  I sometimes don’t recognize myself in the mirror. I often wish I was younger and could do activities I used to take for granted. I’ve seen some terrible tragedies in my life that still haunt me, and have abiding respect for people who have endured great heartbreaks, limitations and loss.

This is me with our new granddaughter, Selah Rose:

I’m holding her in my lap on Christmas day. She’s 3 weeks old.  She weighed 6 pounds, 6 ounces when she was born. 

            I don’t know how I’ve made it this far, and don’t know how much longer I’ve got.  But when she held my finger as she slept, I was reminded what a miracle it is for all of us to be alive.  And to make the best of each day.

Silver Keys, Mean Moms and Compassion in the Workplace

…and from beneath his robe he drew two keys; the one was made of gold, the other of silver; first with the white, then with the yellow key, he plied the gate as so to satisfy me.     

 “Whenever one of these keys fails, not turning appropriately in the lock,” he said to us, “This gate of entry does not open…”

            “One is more precious, but the other needs much art and skill before it will unlock – that is the key that must undo the knot.”

                 Dante, The Divine Comedy, Puragatorio, Canto 9:115 – 126

            I first began exploring Dante’s The Divine Comedy fifteen years ago.  It’s an imaginary journey through the afterlife, drawing on the scientific and religious knowledge current in 1300 AD, formed by and filled with Dante’s extraordinary imagination.  Despite being written long ago, I’ve found it contains fascinating spiritual and psychological insights.  I’m currently in a year-long Dante study group meeting on Zoom every Monday afternoon.  I want to share with you a brief passage we read recently.

            Dante is being led through different stages of the afterlife by his guide, Virgil. At this point he has passed through the underworld (Inferno) and is at the foot of Mount Purgatory. If we want to get to paradise, we need to make this trek — a final chance to overcome our personal shortcomings.  

            Dante and Virgil come to the entry at the base of the mountain. They meet an angel who guards the gate, possessing two keys given by St. Peter.

            As seen in the passage above, the angel pulls them out from his robe: one is gold and one silver.  He says the gold one is “more precious.”  The silver key is not as valuable, but you can’t open the gate without it, and using it takes “much art and skill.”  Scholars have long believed the gold key represents the pure gift of divine love; the silver symbolizes how that love is actually applied in the real world.

            I love this distinction.  Here’s why.

            Last week my posting was “Uncover the Love,” which focused on a personal experience I had in a sweat lodge.  I saw how love is always present in our lives, even if we don’t recognize it.  I linked that to the Buddhist concept of “metta” (compassion) and the Christian concept of “agape.”  In light of the Dante passage, these are represented by the “gold key” — love, grace, and compassion in their purest form. 

            It’s one thing to receive this gift. But how do we apply it in the complex situations we face in everyday life, including family and work? For that we need the silver key: the art and skill of applying love and grace in the here and now.

            Reflecting on this theme, I was reminded of a Mother’s Day sermon about being a “mean mom” I once heard from my long-time friend, LuAnn Miller. I contacted LuAnn this week to help me remember what she said that day.  She replied with a summary:

            “Thanks for checking! Sometimes I needed to be the “mean mom” and set boundaries. Nobody gets to do everything or get everything they want! Possible short-term scowls usually lead to long term steps to being a responsible, kind, loving citizen of the world.

            She has always loved her boys. But sometimes loving them meant not letting them do what they wanted. Compared to lenient moms they knew, she was “mean.” She gladly accepted the label, knowing she was doing what was best in the long run.

            This is an example of using the “silver key.”  You love your kids, and you don’t want to disappoint them. But the art and skill of being a loving parent includes setting boundaries and expectations kids may not appreciate at the time.  Your love for them is good as gold, but to make it real you need to be a silversmith.

            I also thought of a story I heard at a business and spirituality conference.  The speaker affirmed that many of us want to be compassionate, but that’s not always easy in the workplace. 

            There was a woman in his company who loved to make conversation. The problem was that she shared a work room with six others. Her constant talking made it hard for them to get their work done, and they asked him to do something.

            He noticed another company had an opening for a front office receptionist.  He encouraged his employee to apply for it and he put in a good word on her behalf. She got the job.  Two months later, he visited that office and she greeted him. She thanked him for helping her get a job she loved. And her former coworkers were relieved they could work in peace.

            The right thing to do was not to simply feel compassion for everyone involved, but to find a solution to the problem. That took “art and skill.”  

            My friend LuAnn added a bit more about what she had said: “The other part of my talk, as I recall, was the importance of having other adult people in our kids’ lives. Teacher, neighbor, auntie or uncle, grandparent, LOG (Love Of God, our youth program) …I believe each person has the opportunity to be “that person” to make a small difference for someone. With a smile, word of encouragement or a loving reminder of a boundary.” 

            Love, grace and compassion are divine gifts, I believe. But it takes “much art and skill” to apply them in life.  We benefit from any “silversmiths” we may know:  teachers, neighbors, friends, and family when we are raising kids, and wise colleagues when the challenge is at work. 

            “One is more precious, but the other needs much art and skill before it will unlock – that is the key that must undo the knot.”

Top image: William Blake, Dante, Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto 9, c 1827

Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 9, Bodelian Library, Oxford, c. 1350
Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 9, Franz von Bayros, Vienna, 1921
The gold/yellow and silver/white “keys” on the Papal flag. In Dante’s time, the gold represented the “supernatural powers to administer God’s grace” while the silver represented the church’s power in political affairs, as well as issues like excommunicaiton.

Uncover the Love

For several years, my wife and I participated in a week-long summer yoga/hiking retreat at the foot of Mt. Shasta. Day 2 always involved a day trip to Stewart Mineral Springs, where a Native elder would lead a sweat lodge ceremony.  In the first three years, I had been reluctant to try it.  My stubborn self told me that, having grown up in San Bernardino, I’d experienced enough heat to last a lifetime.  I’d had a TIA stroke, brought on by blood pressure issues, and was wary of getting my heart rate racing.  And having lived seven years within the boundaries of the Yakima Reservation, I was skeptical about non-Native people appropriating Native practices.  But in the fourth year, I decided to give it a try.  I joined the two-dozen people huddled inside the small, dome-shaped tent that was covered in blankets. I sat near the door so I could make a quick escape.

            The elder explained the sweat lodge can be a spiritual opportunity because it forces awareness inward.  As the temperature rises, your everyday busy-mind will say, “This is getting HOT! Let’s get out of here!”  Your only hope is to totally focus your awareness within.

            And, the elder said, a good focus can be love. He told a few humorous stories about how he frustrates his wife daily.  But, he said, beneath those day-to-day issues, and beneath everything, love is present — a gift from the Creator.

            His assistant pulled down the flap of the door. We sat in darkness. The heat from the fire began to build.  I tried turning my attention inward, looking for love.

            For some reason, my mind seemed ready.  I began seeing faces of people in my life.  It began with me as a child. I saw the face of my mother, then my father, then each of my siblings.  The images weren’t specific photographs — just the calm face of each person. 

            I started seeing my teachers, starting with Miss Kelly in Kindergarten, then Miss Potter for first grade, and on up. I hadn’t thought about them for years and was surprised I remembered their names and faces. I had never thought of these teachers as particularly “loving.” But it was as if I could see that, within each one, they had been teachers because they had a fundamental love for students.

            I next saw childhood friends. Then more teachers. Then it was professors in college with whom I’d worked.

            At one point, I became aware of the unusual experience I was having. But that broke the spell, and I felt the searing heat.  I returned to the safety I’d found in this inner state of meditative receptiveness.

            I saw my wife when we first met as students in Isla Vista.  Then I saw the faces of each of our children as they were born. 

            I saw other significant people from my adult life.  After a while, the vision was completed. My awareness returned to the present moment. 

            I discovered it was very hot, and sweat was running off my face.  But I felt a great calm and sense of wonder.  Love was underneath everything and had been all along.

            The elder announced the ceremony was concluded. His assistant opened the flap.  We were told we had the option of going to the nearby creek for a dip in cold water.

            As I reflected on what had happened, I realized what Native people had known for generations: that a sweat lodge can be a powerful place for spiritual visions.

            Two years later I was participating in a five-day retreat for hospice workers led by Frank Ostateski, a Zen mediation teacher and director of the Metta Institute. Frank was discussing the Buddhist term of “metta,” which is often defined as “loving-kindness” or “compassion.” At one point, he noted that metta is not something we create in our lives, but something we uncover. It’s here already, everywhere, always.  Spiritual practice is simply the act of uncovering metta, and letting it enter our life.

            That certainly resonated with my sweat lodge experience.  That love I sensed was there all my life?  No one created it, but each person reflected it.

            This is close to the New Testament concept of agape (agápē).  In English, we use the word “love” to describe a positive emotion for many different experiences: romantic relationships, friendships, family, and treasured activities (Baseball! Popcorn! Swimming in warm ocean water!). But these can come and go, rise and fall, emerge and disappear. Agape is not subject to our immediate context, our mood, or whether we’ve got our act together at this moment.  It’s simply there, like a calm, pure light that “never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:8) And we instinctively know it’s available to everyone.

            I think of an elementary school principal we knew in the small town of Wapato, Washington. Before I met him, he’d had an accident while farming which had severed his leg. He got along well with his wooden leg, and he’d invite kids to knock it with their knuckles to hear the sound.

            Jim was an elder in my church, and one day I went to the school so he could sign a document. It was recess, and I found him on the playground. As we were talking, a little girl came running to him, upset by something a playmate had done.  As she started to tell her story, he put his hand on her shoulder, gave her a big smile, and listened.  He didn’t interrupt her. He didn’t try to solve it. He just kept looking at her and smiling. Eventually she calmed down and finished her lament.  As if nothing had happened, she ran back towards her friend.  Simple, genuine love was what she needed.  His name was Mr. Devine.

Living on the Back Side of the Tapestry

            Years ago, the great sage and scholar of all things spiritual, Huston Smith, spoke at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara.  He announced he had five talking points that evening – statements that the Santa Barbara audience might disagree with.  But, with a smile, he encouraged everyone to consider them.

            Each of the five points was provocative and memorable, and today I will comment on the fifth: “In the end, absolute perfection reigns.”

            He said he knew many people would think this is naive.  With so much suffering in the world, how can anyone believe perfection will emerge in the end?  But he stated it’s one principle all the major wisdom traditions agree on.  He also offered a metaphor to appreciate the concept: tapestries. 

            When you look at a tapestry from behind, it seems like a chaotic scramble of dangling bits of yarn and crossed threads. But if you walk around and see it from the front, you realize it’s actually an integrated, inspiring work of art.

            As we live our lives, he said, we can feel like we are creating something that looks like the back of that tapestry. We may go through days and seasons where we feel things aren’t working out the way we hoped, and our life has become a mess.  But in time – perhaps, as we keep going, or after we have left this life – the strands we felt were mistakes can be rewoven and incorporated into a larger fabric, and they will form something grand.

            I think about my family history.  I try to appreciate all that my ancestors went through, and that includes some dangling threads of tragedy, disappointment, and hardship. I want to live my life in a way that honors their accomplishments and also has compassion for what they may have felt were their failings.  It’s like I’m picking up pieces of thread from their lives and trying to give it new meaning as I find ways to weave their experiences into my own.

            I think about all the suffering people have endured due to race, gender and injustice.  I can’t do anything about the past.  But I can try to honor those sufferings and work towards a more just and humane world.

            I don’t know when my time on earth will be up. I go day by day, weaving my strands as best I can, assuming I’ll die with some left undone.  I hope those who follow me can pick those strands up and incorporate them into the lives they live, creating something good out of what I’ve done and from what I left unresolved.

            And if all humanity is doing that – if we are learning from the past while doing the best we can –that big tapestry is constantly evolving, and all the strands will ultimately find a place in the bigger work of art.

            And if there is a divine force in this world, present in all of nature and within each one of us, and if it’s endlessly at work helping us endure and learn and heal and create and serve – then we are not alone.  As we seek divine guidance and direction, we’ll find there’s a master artist at work alongside us, encouraging our creativity and leading us into new and novel patterns of meaning.

            As I say this, a skeptical voice within me speaks up. It tells me this is all wishful thinking. “We live, we die, life goes on and that’s it.”  I reply, “If that is the way it is, that’s OK…I’m grateful to have lived as long as I have, and to see all I’ve seen, and to have done the best I can.”

            But another voice in me thinks Huston Smith — and so many mystics — may be right. In the end, it’s not just about me, it’s about all of us, and that big, evolving, living tapestry we are all part of.  Maybe, just maybe, led, inspired, and sustained by divine grace, it will be true: “Absolute perfection reigns.”

Top Image: Jacquard paisley shawl (detail of front and reverse sides), Scotland, 19th century. Laura Foster Nicholson at https://lfntextiles.comtps://lfntextiles.com https://lfntextiles.com

Angela Merkel’s Gardener and the Unexpected Mentors in Our Life

I just finished reading The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel.  I was impressed by many details of her remarkable life, including the impact made on her by her family’s gardener.

            Angela’s father was a Lutheran pastor who had volunteered to serve in Soviet-controlled East Germany during the Cold War. He and his family were sent to the city of Templin.  He was respected for his dedication and work ethic but was often an intimidating presence.  He had a strict schedule and high expectations for his daughter, and while she learned logical rigor and discipline from him, he was emotionally distant and often absent.  Her mother was busy with her own duties, and Angela was often alone.  As it turned out, she found an unexpected mentor.

            “I remember a gardener, a sturdy older man, who instilled basic trust and great calm in me,” Angela recalled much later.

            “I learned all kinds of things from him about practical life.  I learned how to identify flowers, or when the cyclamen was in season.  From him I learned how to talk to the mentally disabled. With him the atmosphere was warm and trusting, and he allowed me to eat carrots fresh from the ground.  This man awakened a connection to the earth and to nature for me…today I recognize how important time is, more important than possessions.”[i]

            Angela Merkel went on to become a nuclear chemist and a remarkably effective politician.  She was the first woman ever to head a German government – and was elected four times, serving 16 years.  She also led the European Union through many crises, standing up to Vladimir Putin time and again, and was a leading spokesperson for democracy and international cooperation.  Her quiet wisdom, analytical abilities, and patience enabled her to either persuade or outlast many of her opponents.  Throughout her career, she would return to the forests and land of Templin for rest and renewal. Apparently, the lessons she learned from the gardener — ”basic trust,” “great calm,” a deep connection to the earth, and how to talk to anyone respectfully – became hallmarks of her own character.

            This led me to think about people in our lives beyond family who have had a lasting impact on us.  One person who comes to mind for me is an old painting contractor I worked for, Tom Childress.

            As a teenager, I earned money in the summer and on breaks by learning to paint houses.  I often worked on my own, but twice worked for painting contractors.

            One was a big property manager. He paid us $2.50/hour, was often impatient, and more than once missed our payday because he was out of town.

            And then there was Tom.  Old guy with white hair, always dressed in white, paint-speckled overalls who drove a faded-yellow Dodge camper truck.  He was fond of Busch Bavarian beer, and a Styrofoam cooler with a six-pack was always by his side. Tom paid $4/hour.  He patiently taught me all he knew about painting.  Friday was payday, and he often went to the bank at lunch time and came back with a roll of 20s to pay us in cash.  More than once, he’d let us off early on Fridays after paying us for the full day.  

            I worked hard for Tom.  And I learned from him what it’s like to work for someone who genuinely respects their employees.  (Though I have yet to gain an appreciation for Busch Bavarian.)

            I think of Mr. Kenley, a high school English teacher who must have gone through many boxes of red pens.  At first, I resented all the corrections and questions he wrote on every assignment. But in time I realized he was doing his best to make us better writers. After my first year away at college, I went back to his classroom to thank him.

            And something one of my Spanish teachers said still lingers with me.  One day in class, after sharing a personal story, he said, “You know, in life we need two kinds of experiences: some to make us proud and some to keep us humble.  We need both to be a real person.”  It didn’t have anything to do with Spanish, but I’ve never forgotten it.

            I don’t know if Angela Merkel’s gardener lived to see her become Chancellor of Germany.  I’m guessing he could not have imagined that the time he spent with her would shape her character and career, and through her, the fate of democracy in the modern world.  We never know the impact we have on others.

            Who taught you lasting lessons along your way?

Painting: Camille Pissarro, The Gardener: Old Peasant with Cabbage, 1895

[i] The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angel Merkel, by Kati Marton, pg. 7

The “Narcissism of Small Differences:” Toothpaste, Starbucks, and The Human Condition

“Narcissus” was a character in Greek mythology who was strikingly attractive.  He rejected advances from anyone, feeling no one was good enough for him. One day he came by a pool of water.  For the first time in his life, he saw his reflection. He was entranced. Admiring himself was so compelling he could not bear to leave; he died staring into the pool.  He was transformed into a beautiful flower that bears his name.

            Sigmund Freud drew on this myth to describe a curious element of human behavior. He observed that people tend to look for very small differences between things and other people, and then make judgments that lets them feel “special” or superior. To describe this tendency, he coined the phrase “narcissism of small differences.”

            I have found this concept to be very useful.

            Let’s start with toothpaste. 

            I had a friend who lived in Kenya for two years while serving in the Peace Corps.  He said when he would go to the store for toothpaste, there would be one or two choices.  When he returned to the states and went into a drugstore to buy toothpaste, he was overwhelmed by the options. He had to come back the next day to choose.  He said he missed Kenya.

            This week, I went to CVS to pick up a prescription. I stopped by the toothpaste aisle to count the options. I counted at least 30 choices — of Colgate.  Crest? 43 options. Bringing up the rear: Sensodyne, Aquafresh, Arm and Hammer, Tom’s — and the always humble Pepsodent.  That’s more than 80 choices.  How can anyone leave the store without being empowered by their toothpaste selection?

            In the early 90s, a typical supermarket might contain 7,000 items. Now it often ranges between 40,000 and 50,000. We must be royalty to be able to get exactly what we want!

            Time for coffee?

            Restaurants used to serve coffee. Then, there was a second option: decaf. Then Starbucks came along. From the main menu of 40 options, you can specify endless variations. According to an article in the Huffington Post, the possibilities of “getting it your way” run to 80,000.[i] Anybody walking in can announce precisely what they want, then watch the barista obediently prepare it.  Doesn’t it feel good to know you are the master of your destiny?

            We could keep going with these illustrations by considering fashion, cars, wines, craft beers, appliances, and everything else.

            The reason for so many choices? Advertisers and marketers know that if we are presented with many options, choosing the one that we like the best makes us feel empowered. It doesn’t matter if the difference is significant – all that matters is how we perceive it.

            The concept applies not only to products, but also our social relationships.

            Think about what you wore in Junior High.  When I was in 7th grade, at some point it became clear that if you wanted to identify with the cool crowd, you had to wear a pocket t-shirt from Penny’s.  It had to be from Penny’s.  You could easily have bought ones made by Hanes or Fruit of the Loom.  But the other kids would know immediately you were a hopeless klutz. When I finally got one and wore it to school, I felt like I was 10 feet tall (even though I was less than 5 feet high at the time).

            I heard a lecture given by a rabbi at an interfaith conference some years ago. He was talking about our human temptation to feel superior to others based on perceived differences.  He told a joke about a Jewish guy who was stranded on a desert island. When rescuers arrived, they saw two identical structures on the beach.  When asked what they were, he said, “This one is the synagogue I worship in every week.  That other one? I wouldn’t step inside that one if my life depended on it.”

            Christianity is often talked about as one religion.  But recent surveys indicate there are at least 33,280 denominations that call themselves Christian in the U.S.[ii] Each one believes it stands for something unique and important.  I’ve been to lots of churches in my time.  I’ll tell you this: there are some I feel comfortable worshiping in, and some I wouldn’t step into if my life depended on it.

            For our hunting and gathering ancestors, it was an advantage to be able to accurately distinguish between plants that were edible and those that were poisonous, which strangers we can trust and which we cannot, and who has the most status in our group.  We prize attention to detail in many areas of life.  But we can easily fall prey to the “narcissism of small differences.”   We can make choices about things that have little relation to their actual value.  We can make judgments about other people that make us feel superior but blind us from seeing what we have in common.

            Let’s be on the lookout for this tendency, and not fall prey to it.

            And if you’re going by a Starbucks any time soon, could you pick me something?  I’d like a “doppia con panna.”  It’s not on the menu, and you may have to translate the Italian: two shots of espresso with a shot of whipped cream.  They may ask how much whipped cream…I prefer two inches. When you come by to drop it off, just leave it on the doorstep — I don’t want to be disturbed. I’ll probably be out back, sitting contentedly as I gaze into my new, state-of-the-art reflecting pool.

Waterhouse, “Narcissus and Echo”

[i] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/starbucks_n_4890735

[ii] https://nacministers.org/blog/tag/how-many-denominations-of-christianity-in-america/

Top Image: Caravaggio, “Narcissus”

“You Never Know”

If there’s one phrase I’ve come to rely on over the years, it’s “You never know.”  Like a Swiss Army knife, it’s handy in many situations.

         Rachel Naomi Reimen is Professor of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF and creator of a widely used medical school course, “The Healer’s Art.”  I’ve appreciated her books, seen her speak several times, and had a chance to meet her personally. Her grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi and master storyteller. In her medical practice, she learned the importance of listening to patients’ stories and being open to mystery, spirituality and the unknown, while still employing the best medical care. A patient would come to her and report that an oncologist had given them six months to live.  She sensed the patient assumed the doctor was all-knowing. She knew better.  She would offer a different, more open perspective.   “Let’s put it another way.  This diagnosis means you’ve started a new chapter in your life. But no one knows yet how the story will unfold.” This didn’t change the medical facts, but it more accurately describes what happens in life: you never know where things will lead.

         I remember a parishioner named Doug.  When I first came to serve the Goleta congregation, I was told he was facing terminal cancer and I should visit him soon.  I remember meeting Doug and his wife Marge in their mobile home park and thinking, “What a nice older couple.” As they were telling me about their background, they mentioned that when Doug retired, they did something they always wanted to do.  I thought, “They probably went on an Alaskan cruise.” But when I asked, they said they’d gone to Europe, bought a Volkswagen bus and traveled there for two years living each day as it came.  I had totally misjudged them. 

         You never know who a person is or what they’ve experienced until you listen to their stories.

         I asked Doug about his cancer. He told me he’d been through a series of chemo treatments and found them quite debilitating.  Doctors said he would need another round, or his time would be very short.  But he had decided it wasn’t worth it.  He decided to stop treatment so he could spend his remaining time enjoying life as best he could, even if it was just a matter of weeks.  

         Doug did not do any more treatments. He lived two more years.  You never know.

         And then there are the people that are heathy and fit and doing all the right things. They have a heart attack and then they’re gone.  You never know.       

         This certainly applies to politics.  In the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Joe Biden finished fifth with 4% of the vote.  In 2020 he was fourth. Now he is president. You never know.

         I’m a Dodger fan.  The most important game of the year was game 5 in the do-or-die playoff series against the Giants. With the score tied in the 9th inning and a runner at third base, the batter who came to the plate, Cody Bellinger, had the worst batting average on the team.  My fan-heart sank.  But he poked a single into right field and the Dodgers won.  You never know.

         By the 1850s, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had become well known in his native Denmark. People approached him asking to write his biography. He refused to cooperate. He believed biographies don’t tell the true story of someone’s life. Everyone knows how the story ends, so everything that happens will be seen in that light. But when we are living day by day, we have no idea how our life will turn out.  “Life can only be understood backward, but it has to be lived forward.”[i] 

         Think of decisions you regret.  Weren’t you making your best judgement at the time?

         Or think of blessings in your life you did not anticipate.  Who could have predicted they’d appear?

         If we draw on a particular spiritual tradition, it certainly helps to reflect on core principles and spend time in prayer and contemplation.  But even then, at some point, we must set a course and hope we made a good choice.[ii]

         In real life, we often must make decisions using the available facts and truest feelings we have at the time.  How will it turn out?  You never know. We just do our best and see what happens.

[i] There is, of course, a long tradition in Western philosophy focusing on the question of what we can really know.  I took three quarters of philosophy in college, working from Plato to Aristotle to Descartes to Hume to Kant and into the modern age.  In the end, I think you never know. Life is too complicated.

[ii] In Buddhism, a core emphasis is becoming aware of how susceptible we are to becoming attached to ideas and expectations about life that are more illusory than certain.  Jesus promises the Spirit can be always present with us, and Paul believes that nothing can separate us from the love of God. These are wonderful reminders, which I live by.  But it still leaves us with the inescapable burden of making decisions about our life with limited knowledge.

Art Work: “Two Dancers,” Matisse, 1937