Garden of the Spirit

Hanging Out With Trees

Exhausted, discouraged, and stressed, 
I turned to the forest
all aglow in morning light, 
and the tall trees drew me 
into their golden hearts. 

A few weeks ago, my husband and I stepped back from our daily life and all the turmoil in the country and world. For a few days, we stayed in a small cabin deep in the Appalachian Mountains and hiked the forests that surrounded us. I didn’t know how much discouragement and anxiety I carried until I began to shed it. I didn’t know how tired I was until the rhythm of my days slowed down, and I breathed easily again.

Far from the conflicts of a world threatened by civil unrest amid a flourishing pandemic, I focused on watching deer outside the window. Each day we walked leaf littered mountain trails, while, above us, the giants of the forest accepted our presence with quiet serenity. By the edge of a mountain pool, I lay back on the grass and stared through gilded branches into a blue sky. I wondered, how could I have forgotten such soul-restoring stillness?

I needed the trees. Walking a forest path was like walking into a cathedral, breath-taking and quieting, bringing me to tears with its beauty. I was inside a space that opened me to God. I walked down a leafy aisle, I climbed up the steep slope on sprawled root steps, and the trees embraced me and filled me with peace.

I turned to the trees,
burnished by autumn's palate,
and they breathed on me.
I leaned to their silent embrace,
comforted by deep rooted strength.

I turned to the trees
whose boughs, bending down,
brushed me softly with falling leaves,
and I was quieted 
by their feather light touch.

I turned to the trees,
and far above me I heard
a slow deep murmur,
"Welcome home, child. We are still here.
Come, and rest among us."

Hanging out with trees brings me other gifts as well. The long arc of tree life reminds me that trees measure time by centuries. Absorbing the deep-rooted, long wisdom of trees, I wake to hopeful possibilities behind my own ephemeral lifetime. When I recall tree time, I can live for a future that I will never see.

Like a tree whose living nurtures other life, whose dying feeds future blossoming, may my presence in God’s world nurture its healing. May my spirit be rooted in the Divine Spirit and contribute to a future where people offer the wisdom and peace of the trees — to each other. The Psalmist writes of such people: “they are like trees planted by streams of water which yield fruit in its season.” (Ps. 1:3) May we indeed bring forth such fruit!

My husband and I have returned home to our usual daily lives and responsibilities. Around us, the furious tumult of the world goes on. But the healing wisdom and quiet strength of the trees remain with me. I cherish hope again. I look ahead, and live for the lives of the children of my grandchildren — who may turn to the identical trees I turned to. And the trees will gift them, too, with peace and renewal.

Outside my window, a profusion of colorful leaves spreads across the grass. Even as the pine tree that stretches above my house retains its green, the maples surrounding it are preparing to release their last gold and red into the light wind. Shimmering in the sun, the leaves will float silently down to join the carpet below. The season is turning, and the skeleton of the maples is revealed in all its elegance and strength.

When wind-whipped, raucous storms
buffet our lives,
when fault lines crack ever deeper 
in our world,
I turn to the trees for healing, 
to the comforting patience of the forest,
to the long-lived continuity of trees.
I trust the passing seasons again;
my soul is restored.

The Challenge of Listening

I am a professional listener. As a psychologist and spiritual director, clients have literally paid me for listening to them. I should know something about listening after all these years, but I am still a learner. I do know that listening to another can be deeply spiritual, an experience that opens both of us to God. And I know the challenge is to listen with an open heart and mind, to be hospitable to the speaker’s story and truth.

Listening comes in many forms. Sometimes we listen simply for information. Sometimes we are semi-attentive to another’s story because we’re waiting for a turn to tell ours. During this strange Covid time, we gather with friends online or in person and masked to share how we are managing and laugh, or perhaps cry together. Our days provide innumerable opportunities for listening, and usually it’s not hard.

Some occasions for listening are challenging, however, and those we’d rather avoid. Maybe we are wrestling with family differences about handling the holidays. (“What do you mean we’re not going to do Thanksgiving this year unless we isolate first?”) Or we wish we could find a way across a political or cultural divide and really talk with a neighbor or family member. We want to ask “How can you believe that?” (or perhaps we want to set them straight), but we don’t want to risk disrupting the casually polite conversations we already have. Sometimes, of course, we’re bombarded with intense words when we lack the energy to listen at all.

When we enter a conversation desiring to listen deeply and understand the other person and their truth, we must prepare ourselves. We need to set aside our own agendas, the natural desire to express our point of view and show our knowledge. This is hard! Being truly present to another is a sacred event; the Spirit is present, too. Do we want to engage in listening as a spiritual practice that opens both of us to God?

These insights have helped me to listen deeply and be present to the Spirit:

1. Listening deeply uses more than ears. Heart, soul, and mind need to be open and welcoming to the other. To offer that kind of listening, I need to remain centered and grounded in God. I must remember God is present while we struggle through painful discussions and disagreements.

When I prayerfully center myself before the discussion, I begin in hope and love. Sometimes I consciously invite Love to be present. In the midst of the conversation, I can remember my hope by silently repeating a word or phrase, such as ‘love’, or ‘peace’, or ‘Spirit is here.’

2. Listening with love is hardest when I fundamentally disagree with the words I hear. Sometimes I can calm and re-center myself by attending to my breath or my heartbeat. If I picture the other person’s lungs rising and falling and the other person’s heart pumping, I remember she is made of the same stuff I am. We share a common humanity.

Not only is the person I am listening to a physical being like me, but she is of God and lives within God’s love. Early Quaker George Fox instructed us to”walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.” When Fox wrote about answering, he clearly expected that we listened first. Fox’s tumultuous life included imprisonments, beatings, and fierce opposition to what he held as truth. Even so, he wrote that there is “that of God in everyone.”

It helps me continue listening in love to the other when I picture him living his best self, his most loving self. I can imagine him proud and happy at a child’s graduation, or pausing in awe at a sunset, or perhaps making an impulsive donation to a person in need.

3. I will never fully master this practice of deeply listening in love. All I can do is pray “help!” and be open to God as my listening companion. But learning to listen in love helps me grow spiritually. It enlarges my loving. Besides understanding the other better, I understand myself and my own resistances better. Sometimes, having listened, I speak my truth with more kindness. And I remember that I need more than my own abilities to truly listen.

Questions for Reflection

When I have difficult conversations, am I willing to be open and grounded in Love? Can I remember that Spirit will draw me towards love and tenderness as I listen?

Do I believe that God is in everyone, that we all have a best self? Do I want to remember this when I have hard conversations?

How am I challenged to practice listening in love?

Our Season of Fear

Last year at this time I wrote about gratitude in the abundance of my garden in autumn. While vegetable gardens still produce bountifully, this year the world is dealing with a very different kind of harvest. Our fruiting crops are fear, anxiety, grief, and even despair. These spread like weeds, and their tiny seeds float lightly through the air we breathe like deadly aerosols. Just like the virus we face, the seeds of fear can multiply and take us over.

When I talk with friends, I hear the fear. “I am afraid for myself and my family. How will we get through the winter? Will we be safe from Covid19? Will I have a job? Will my children ever go back to school?” Or perhaps it’s “I’m afraid for my country–so much turmoil and injustice and anger, and will the vote be fair? And now RBG has died.” Sometimes I hear, “The climate is in chaos, and is it too late? I’m afraid for the world’s survival.”

Rumi wrote of “the tangle of fear-thinking.” Such a tangle is a sticky web from which we struggle helplessly to free ourselves. The more we listen or read the news, the more those web-strands immobilize us.

I remember holding my young children in my arms when they woke frightened in the night. My arms and voice reassured, “Don’t be afraid; it will be all right. You’re safe.” That doesn’t work any more. I still want to offer the comfort of “it will be all right” but I won’t. Real and frightening events and possibilities are around us. We are anxious, grief-filled, despairing, and sometimes simply tired.

I have no security to offer today. I do not, however, believe we are powerless. We are not powerless in dealing with our fears, and we are not powerless in the world. When the psalmist wrote “under His wings you will find refuge” (Ps.91), he was reminding us of a more sure protection than Mommy’s arms. He was inviting us into the shelter of divine Love when we are frightened. From that shelter comes our help, our strength, and our courage (Ps. 121).

When someone said to my friend Marc “I am afraid,” Marc had an unusual reply. “Hi,” he said, “I am Marc.” Afraid was not his name, not his identity. You and I are not our fear. We have fear or anxiety that we can hold before us and examine. I can say to my fear, “Yes, there you are. You are real, and there are reasons for your presence here. But you may not take over and prevent me from thinking or acting.”

It may be intimidating to look at our fears and anxieties, but it is a first step in freeing ourselves from the web of panic and powerlessness. Fear limits our vision. In the midst of seemingly hopeless situations, there is no easy assurance, but there is more persistent strength and courage than fear permits us to see. We need to live from the deep place within us where God is, where we can draw strength and courage from the Spirit, even if we are not hopeful.

I have two questions for myself and for you:

1. Where can we find food for our spirits that will sustain us during this time? What habits of living, what spiritual practices help us to live grounded in God, bringing us to the shelter of God’s wings? I posted “Spiritual Practices in a Pandemic” several months ago. Such practices and others nurture us and strengthen us to live in love.

2. What is ours to do in this time, our witness to love in a pain-filled world? Perhaps, as Mother Teresa said, it is to do “small things with great love.” There are many small things to do, from listening to another with a tender heart to donating to an organization that helps people in need. Perhaps you are called to join others in creating change. You might feel a nudge to something very specific, like my friend who signed up to work the polls or another friend who began delivering Meals on Wheels.

We are all much more than our fears. We all have capacity to be light in a frightened world. Many years ago, the iconic folk group, Peter, Paul, and Mary sang “Don’t let the light go out; it’s been shining for so many years” (Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle”). As long as we live beyond our fears, are sustained by the Spirit, and choose to love, it will shine on.

A Love Story: Fianna and Samuel

Fianna and Samuel were my grandparents, and I’ve inherited a boxful of letters that tell their love story. It’s a simple story from a century ago, but their joy and their sorrow is timeless, a tale of love and faith in the midst of pain, a tale for today.

Their romance began in college. There they saw each other daily in classes and clubs, at chapel and in the dining room. She was slender and graceful with a quick smile, and he was handsome with dark curly hair. With similar family backgrounds, a similar sense of fun, and a shared religious commitment, they were well-matched. Samuel reflected later how their union was “the result of much prayer and careful thinking.

Soon after Samuel finished college, they married and began their life together. A year later a baby boy arrived, and, before long, he had a little sister. Samuel worked in a bank and farmed while Fianna cared for the children and managed home, garden, and chickens. Contentment and happiness filled their home.

Then came the hard times. Fianna became mysteriously ill. She coughed a lot, had a persistent fever, and lacked energy to care for the children or do her work. The doctor called it pleurisy and advised rest, but she didn’t improve. Eventually they consulted another physician and discovered the truth.

Fianna’s trouble was one of the world’s oldest killers: tuberculosis. In the early 1900’s there was no cure or effective treatment. A few people survived though, and that kept hope alive for others. (Even with today’s antibiotics, this disease yearly kills a million and a half.)

Fianna and Samuel decided that she’d go to White Haven Tuberculosis Sanatorium, an isolated mountain facility far from their home. There, with rest and a special diet, she might have a chance. The regimen there (sleeping on the balcony in the snow! raw eggs and milk!) and the life among strangers was hard for Fianna. She remained cheerful, but she longed for her family. For Samuel, life at home without his beloved was painfully lonely.

Samuel’s first visit was at Christmastime. He brought gifts, their little son, and all his love. What joy it was to be together again! Although Samuel thought Fianna looked better, the doctors were not encouraging. Filled with both fear and hope, Samuel turned to prayer. “I walked out one day and back of the Sanatorium I found a path leading to the top of the mountain which overlooks the highest hills far and wide. When I came to the top, the occasion and quietude moved me to kneel on the pure snow and pray earnestly for the recovery of her who brought so much sunshine in my life. What more can I do than to pray, Lord I believe help thou mine unbelief.

Fianna remained at the Sanatorium for three months, but her health steadily declined. Finally, the doctors told Samuel she would not recover. They encouraged him to take her home where she could be cared for by her family and surrounded by a community that knew and loved her.

Together Samuel and Fianna prepared for the long separation. They discussed how Samuel’s life would unfold without her. “She took much interest in my and the children’s future.”

Fianna’s gentle gratitude for the care she received and Samuel’s tender steadiness as he cared for her touched those around them. After a house call one day, her family doctor spoke about “her cheerful spirit” that continued in the midst of pain. Fianna’s sister wrote that “a day before she died, she said to me, “If there is an ideal home ours was one.

Fianna’s last words were to Samuel. “I am going to my beautiful heavenly home.” He responded that he and the children would also come sometime, and Fianna whispered, “I will wait for you inside the gates.

In The Prophet, poet Kahil Gibran wrote, “Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable.” May we, like Fianna and Samuel, face our grief and pain with courage and steadfastness, recognizing such times are woven into the tapestry of our lives as surely as is joy. May we trust, as Samuel wrote, “our God who can see both the sunshine and the shadows.”

NOTE: Moved by the joy and sorrow I found in my grandparents’ letters, I have written their story into a book, Fianna’s Story. It is available from Masthof Press or through Amazon. Click here to learn about it.

Lives That Are Linked

Life is short. We don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind. Henri-Frederic Ariel

Fifty years ago I was fresh out of college and learning to teach English to rooms full of ninth graders. My challenge was to interest almost 150 teenagers in books and reading, to teach them spelling and grammar, and how to write an essay. Some students were enthusiastic, especially when we borrowed play swords and acted out famous scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Others, I think, simply waited for the bell to ring.

I’ve forgotten most of the faces, but a few rise before me now, and I can even remember where they sat. Mary, for example, sat in the first row on the right. She dressed plainly and wore her dark hair braided and pinned on her head. A Japanese American, she was one of the few students with non-European ancestry. I remember Mary’s smile and friendliness, and how she sometimes hung out in my classroom after school had ended. She was an excellent writer and responded thoughtfully during class.

I moved away after a couple years and left my teaching job. I never lost Mary though. Intermittently through the years, we’ve been in touch. I met with her when she was editing a magazine. Then I heard she had moved west and was passionately engaged in anti-war activism through art and poetry. She hosted music programs on public radio and found her home in Albuquerque’s art world. I read the poems she posted on her website. Once she told me about helping lost street kids rebuild their lives. Reclaiming her Japanese heritage, Mary continued to develop her strong sense of self and her calling to poetry.

And then, almost ten years ago, Mary asked if she could dedicate her first published book of poetry to me. Yes! What an honor! When the book arrived, I opened it eagerly. Under my name was written “my ninth grade English teacher who saved my life.” I did what??

Turning to Mary for an answer, I learned of the other side of her ninth grade life. Behind the gifted writing and her ready smile lay a home life of religious fundamentalism and white supremacy, a place of cruel abuse from which she escaped as soon as she could. I had seen the surface and never guessed what lay beneath. How did I save her life when I was just figuring out how to live my own?

Affirming her gift for writing, enjoying her conversation after class, sending her a postcard from England–these were small things, not life-saving actions. But Mary recounted another small event, one that I don’t remember. Once she was hanging out in my room after school when a couple of the big guys came swaggering in to see me. As she was leaving, they made a disparaging joke about her. Mary remembers me fiercely telling them: You just wait. Mary is the kind of person who is going to change the world!

I wish I remembered saying that, but it doesn’t matter. The only person who needed to remember was Mary, and she did. Her life has been about changing the world, using her gifts and her energy, her compassion and her wisdom to make the world better.

Mary is my teacher now. What has she taught me? I’ve learned that our lives are profoundly linked to others, and the ripples from our small actions and words extend further than we would ever expect. We are never a neutral presence in another’s life. We can do harm, even through ignoring another. (Whose raised hand gets recognized in the classroom?) Or we can be attentive and experience the other as an equal, as another child of God. We may not always save a life, but we always have an influence.

Mary has taught me that gratitude travels two ways. I may have saved Mary’s life through means I will never understand, but Mary has deeply blessed my life by inviting me to participate in hers. In the end, we have both given, and we have both received.

Last week I heard from Mary again. She has been named Poet Laureate for the city of Albuquerque, and she invited me to watch the online ceremony. I watched, I remembered, and I filled with gratitude.

       from I am a poet
i am a poet to reclaim humanity from the ravages of war
not to count the casualties but to heal them

i am a poet and my task is immense
i cannot do it alone
but an army of poets can kiss the world awake
                 Mary Oishi
       from you are here
you should have died
you should have died so many times
i cannot count them all
you should have died but

here you are
still here
still here
still dancing.
                ---Mary Oishi