I had never been to Yellowstone Park before this month. Of course, I'd heard of Old Faithful, the most famous and one of the larger geysers in the Park, but had no idea the Park was full of hundreds of geysers, big and small, across thousands of square miles of mountainous terrain. In our daylong tour it felt like we saw most of them and it gives one pause to recognize that the ground beneath our feet can be so tenuous and not what it seems. An ancient, teeming force pulses beneath us, though we walk along oblivious.
You might say the geysers are a blessing in disguise, releasing energy at regular intervals so the vast volcano underneath does not blow its top, and us, to smithereens. We do the same thing, don't we? Releasing bits of ourselves over time, playing it safe, even though the irony is that for us to feel true contentment, even joy, in love and friendship we must allow ourselves to be fully seen. Blow the lid off, so to speak, of the mask we present to the world. Clinging to the surface will never result in deeper connection and the meaning we are all searching for.
All Hallows' Eve or modern day Halloween, originated as a pagan ritual with the ancient Celtics, the night before the day of the dead. Disguises were worn even then to protect themselves from ghosts; the living did not wish to be recognized by the dead. The rest of the year must have been more difficult to hide one's true identity and feelings. With rampant disease, early death and only medieval amenities to ease their battle for survival, the living recognized in each other a common struggle. Today, we have the luxury of hiding behind an image we project, or a part that we play, forgetting that beneath the surface we all search for the same things: love and acceptance, honesty and authenticity, wisdom and peace.
Remember the Halloween fun from childhood, when we revealed to a friend or a family member who was really behind that masked bandit or clown? Of course, most of the time, they already knew and loved us just the same.
There is a song in the play Hamilton after the victory at Yorktown that is as filled with wonder as it is with trepidation. The underdog colonies emerged victorious, surprising the world, as much as the British. When I heard the song for the first time, the powerful lyrics resonated with me as their meaning is emblematic in my own life in the twists and turns I could never have imagined.
How many of us ever thought we would be where we are today? Doing what we are doing? And even if we did, and we are, I'll bet it looks and feels as different to you as it does to me. From marriage vows to professional accomplishments and parenthood, surprises lurk. Some are good, better than we could have ever dreamed, like grand-parenthood for example; others not so much, like cancer diagnoses and the deaths of those whom we love.
As I think about my own life, my cancer diagnosis at age 44 turned my world upside down. Now, twenty healthy years later, I count my blessings more openly, more meaningfully. I was given a gift, not only in longevity, but in the wake-up call to think about and recognize what is important. It is the same kind of decision process our new nation needed to undertake; yes, on a smaller, more personal scale, but monumental none-the-less.
As I face this anniversary of my re-birth, I do so with anticipation, knowing the importance of the insights I have learned on our miracle journey: to practice a generosity of spirit, to forgive myself as well as others, to strive for understanding and acceptance, and to dream and work for justice (if not for the universe then at least in my part of it). Most importantly, to be grateful for the abundance that surrounds me from the sea breeze to the shared love of my family and friends.
Yes, the world turned upside down, but it is OK, we survived.
On a recent trip to CA we went for a walk with friends in the nearby woods. Even though the temperature was in the nineties, the walk was entirely in shade and in some spots you could still feel the refreshing comfort of morning cool from a few hours before. Our friend mentioned something called forest bathing, which I had never heard of, and which consists of a romp in the woods or forest concentrating all your senses on the trees. Known as shinrin-yoku in Japan, there is no hiking or photography or talking allowed. Just being. Listening to the trees rustling in the wind or watching the sunlight dapple on the path as it filters through the leaves, keeping all your senses on high alert, even your 6th sense, your state of mind. I'm glad we weren't officially tree bathing on this particular day because I did snap a photo that caught a heart at the top of the canopy.
Trees, some living for thousands of years, do possess a certain ancient wisdom to pass along if we but listen and see, breathe and touch and be. They mark time and bear witness, survive calamity, resilient and faithful in their ability to go on. No two silhouettes, branches or leaves are alike providing us a new experience with each encounter. Shinrin-yoku teaches us to be stewards of nature with the patience to allow the details to unfold. In return, we receive an appreciation for the bounty that surrounds us, and the solitude to be aware and in the moment.
Trees have been an important symbol at the center of history, literature and spirituality throughout the ages. Buddha became enlightened under the shade of a Bodhi tree and the Tree of Life from Genesis conferred eternal life, much to the chagrin of the exiled and fallen Adam and Eve. In more modern times, Anne Frank kept track of the seasons through the one uncovered window in the attic and dreamed of life outside by the watch of a horse chestnut tree. Inspired by her tree, she wrote, "The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God." To that end, there is a beautiful pear tree at the 9/11 Memorial, the "survivor tree", initially scarred, burned and pulled from the rubble that was nursed back to health, and now stands for hope and rebirth.
As the summer winds down and before the leaves begin to fall, take a moment to look up at a nearby canopy, or sit in the shade of a wise old tree. As Hermann Hess wrote, "...a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me!" And allow yourself to ponder.
Summers are a time of great celebration. There are graduations, weddings, births and even celebrations of life scheduled when it may be easier for families and loved ones to be together. Yet, it's not only the big moments that deserve recognition. Cause for celebration exists in the small moments as well. A family BBQ, a day at the beach, a walk in the woods, the reduced traffic in the city while others are on vacation are all to be savored.
It's easy to get caught up in the more is better column of life, but that's not always a good thing. I'm trying to practice the less is more approach to life, but that's not always easy. The truth is in my world, sometimes it doesn't even feel possible. I have so much for which to be grateful. Less is more takes intention, in part because there are many demands, some real (like those nasty bills that keep coming and need to be paid) and others imagined (like I am personally responsible for everyone else's good time), that I place on myself. If January is a good time for making New Year's resolutions, then summer is a good time for self-assessment and re-calibration.
I am striving to remember to capture the joy of the moment that I feel whenever I find a great parking spot in each of my experiences. As many of you know, when my father passed away more than 25 years ago, I gave him a job. He worried about me driving hither and yon, whether it was daylight or in the wee hours of the night. Driving never bothered me, I enjoyed finding new places and connecting with the people I met along the way. What did terrify me was the necessity of entering one of the large and creepy parking garages. Dark stairways, blind corners, hidden figures, all conspired to make me nervous. I knew dad would want to continue to offer his loving protection and so I dubbed him my very own Parking Angel. Like many other of his previous jobs, with the exception of home repair, it is a job where he excels. Finding my preferred space, no parking garage necessary, is cause for routine celebration thanks to dad. It is a way of continuing our connection in a concrete way and without fail it brings a smile to my lips.
These are the moments I cherish, parking spaces, the warmth of the sun, the companionship of friends, the laughter of family members, and with luck finding my lost luggage from one of my recent trips (please feel free to add your own prayer to St. Anthony). Not all celebrations require fireworks, some are more simple, merely bringing a smile. These are experiences that are subtle, free and available all year long. It is good to know it is enough.
It seems to be the human condition that we tend to appreciate in retrospect: the summer breeze in the middle of winter, good health when illness comes calling, even the too familiar footsteps of a loved one coming through the door. We expect tomorrow to be the same as today, the status quo, nothing to get too excited about. Until it changes - a lost job, a death, even a nasty cold can flip the switch of appreciation for the good old days, which may only have been last week. I am no different than the next person in this respect.
My mother once told me, "When there's ice cream on your plate, it's time to eat ice cream." About three years ago, I began to fill my plate with a triple scoop of chocolate chip (my favorite!) in the form of three grandsons, two of whom lived less than a mile away and filled nearly all of my mornings with a kind of warmth and belonging I could not have imagined. Their proximity to me was a gift I cherished and took advantage of whenever I could. They were my exception to the rule of appreciation in retrospect because I knew what I had, I knew it might be temporary and I appreciated (almost) every moment. A few weeks ago, they moved across the country. It made me realize that my seizing of the moment at the time made each one sparkle that much more.
It's a scientific fact that the universe is expanding. I do think the more we can appreciate all the good moments that come our way, understanding that "we may never pass this way again," the more our own universe expands. We change the stars for ourselves and others in the same way the expanding universe must. When it comes to an end or changes in a way that breaks our heart, perhaps there is a little bigger cushion for the fall. In retrospect, I have no regrets, a foundation of love and joy to cherish that is so big it's not of this world. (Katie)