Life expands and contracts in the yoke of a second. One minute there’s an unseeable vastness between life and death, and the next, it’s the length of a needle we’ve dropped and can’t seem to find. There is no one name or reason or label we can put on what we go through, though all of us, in our want to calm our fears, try to pin it down. Yet when doing all we can—holding, listening, bearing witness, and resisting the demon of “why” while leaning into the angel of “how”—there’s so much wisdom in the depths of our rawness. In being so present and engaged, we are forever shaped and carved as we shape and carve. This only makes us a more finely wrought instrument. So you are not blind and thickheaded, no matter how powerless you might feel. Quite the opposite: you are a clear jewel being burnished until all of life is reflected through your deeply exposed heart.
I start each day by opening the blinds and making coffee for my wife. This way, I enter the day by letting in light and doing something for someone I love. From there, come what may, I’m centered in the strength of light and care. Then I feed our dog and go to work, which for me is re-entering my conversation with life. Like an astronomer who spends his days looking into the galaxy, tracing the movement of stars and planets, I look into the inner galaxy, tracing and mapping what I can.
By midmorning, I take Zuzu, our yellow Lab, for a walk. It’s there that the trees and birds begin to speak. Or rather, I begin to listen, as they’ve been sharing their secrets constantly. Most mornings, I see birds tending and feeding their young, flying to and fro with twigs, or pecking at the ground for seed. They’re always building and mending their makeshift nests. Much like us, going to and fro to gas up the car, and pay the bills, and get the tools we need to patch the roof. Endless tasks that keep us a part of life.
When my twentieth book was published, we had a party in our backyard. It was such a milestone. My wife, Susan, surprised me that day by having the incomparable folk singer, May Erlewine, play with her quartet. I was dumbfounded to see her in our driveway. As May played, her voice threaded through our histories and I could feel the weave of stories that have brought us all together. After her first set, I offered a reading, one piece from each of my books. I have read all over the world and, honestly, I’m never nervous, but reading in our backyard to our dearest friends, I was. As I took in all those loving faces, my heart swelled and I realized that what so touches me about May and her music, beneath all her gifts, is that when I first saw her play, she reminded me that I am alive and that the moment we are in has yet to happen. And standing before my friends, I said as much, adding, “I feel this with each of you. Every time we’re together, no matter the distance or time in between, I am reminded that I am alive and that all this has yet to happen. In this way, each of you holds up my heart. In this way, each of you opens my heart. In truth, anyone or anything that reminds us that we are alive and that this has yet to happen is a friend.” I could feel all these beautiful beings with their gifts and burdens, mirrored and softened by each other’s company. Insight often appears in the loving presence of others. It had happened again. Standing with friends on this raft of an afternoon after years of rowing downstream together, I could see that friendship is my religion, the constant practice of love in the world.
In the middle of the night, your hand was sticking up from under your pillow—so still and open—as when we finally stop reaching and are just beginning to receive. I gently twined my fingers in yours. You were so asleep, and yet you took my hand. That’s how deep we can go. We hold on, even when drifting in the sea of dream. I couldn’t see your face, only your hand. And with no distractions, with no dishes to wash or bills to pay, I was winded by all the things you’ve held and cared for, including me. This was the hand that stroked your mother’s face before she died, the hand that cupped a baby bird till it could fly, the hand that cupped my face when I was so alone in my pain, the hand that learned to give our beloved dog Mira shots to ease her arthritis, the hand that sometimes doesn’t know how to care for itself, the hand that renews itself nonetheless by planting things in the earth. I wanted to place your hand, like a salve, on my heart but didn’t want to wake you. Then your fingers went limp, as if the dream you were falling through was coming to an end. In that moment, I feared this is what it would be like if you were to die in your sleep. I quickly squeezed your palm, and you stirred. I held you and whispered, “Everything’s alright. Go back to sleep.” And you turned over. It was then I put my head on your shoulder, leaning on the mystery of your heart, of my heart, of the one indivisible heart, as thousands have done throughout time.
When hurt, it’s important to scream. Just don’t pray to the scream. When sad, it’s important to grieve. Just don’t build a kingdom of your loss. When falling through whatever you thought would last, admit, “I’m lost and confused.” Just don’t map the world as lost and confused. And when riding the wave, however it appears, feel the strength in you released. Just don’t believe the strength comes from you alone. But most of all, when listening to others, say, “This may be so.” Then look for yourself at what life is painting with all its colors.
I always hear what’s soft breathing inside what’s hard. I think this comes from my great-grandfather’s family, who hid from the Nazis in Romania, who slept in cemeteries under the blue night and woke with the stories of the dead, which filled them with resilience.
Just today, I heard a woman who’d been tortured softly play a wooden flute. Though she can’t put to rest what was done to her, her softness filled the room, making each of us think of someone who’s loved us more than we thought possible. And there was the minister born to blind parents. He said with a tremble that his father saw him better than anyone. And the burly electrician spoke of his colonel in Vietnam taking his dead friend from him when he couldn’t put him down. And two states away, the stepdad who never knew his father calls his stepson’s father to ask him to stay with them, because he wants his boy to have what he could never find. And just last week I met the nurse who helped me walk after surgery twenty-eight years ago. We cried in each other’s arms.
So if you think someone is brave, tell them. For they might feel frightened and small, and you will change their life. If you think someone is beautiful and aglow, tell them. For they might feel dark and lonely, and you will quiet their demons. When you reach to help someone who is stuck, you might free the flight of their soul. And they will return when you least expect, to bring you something from the sky. Never underestimate the strength of your kindness to suture the torn.
When I admit I’ve been wrong
and that you’ve been true, I want to pick up
all I’ve broken with my insistence and bring
you flowers you’ve never seen.
This is what it means to make amends.
When a misunderstanding unravels,
I want to linger in that clearing, and put
aside our beliefs, which weigh us down
like old iron castings we’ve carried
around for generations.
Though I run to get out of the rain, it’s standing in the rain with my hands on my heart that is cleansing. Though I run from the pain, it’s standing in the pain with my face to the sky that is healing. So I never stop peeling the hurt, never stop trusting life to burst through whatever I have to face. Even when lost, there’s a truth we carry that—when released—can return us to the ground beneath all trouble, beneath all pain, beneath the worm in our mind that wants to run. Facing things together is how we move through the labyrinth of trouble, from thinking alone to feeling together. So when my head is burrowed in what I can’t put down, when I can’t find what I’ve just said, please, hold your kindness like a mirror, so I can begin again. Tell me that, hard as it is to accept, the path is right where we are, when too exhausted to chase anything. Remind me that the angels we seek flutter within us, using our hands as their wings.
And what of an afterlife? In our humanness, the question stays too small. Like crabs on the bottom asking each other if there is life after the ocean. What if one thing is supposed to carry another? What if the purpose of the snake is to keep the process of shedding alive? And the purpose of being human is to keep the process of loving alive? What if heaven for the wave is evaporating into sand? And destiny for the fox is that when he dies he will live inside the coyotes that eat him? What if paradise for rain is the root it swells in the dark? What if reincarnation is not one to one, but more like leaves broken down to mulch? What if we disperse into all that we love? What if your kindness becomes part of the lake that held you? And my heart becomes part of the wood that braces a bridge that saved me? And Susan’s ability to listen becomes part of the canopy that shades those tired on the way? What if Robert’s unshakeable belief in all that is unnamable becomes the bent nail that keeps the barn from falling? What if our tears and sweat irrigate the dreams of those yet to be born?
This excerpt is from my book, Things That Join the Sea and the Sky: Field Notes on Living.
For all we go through, for all the heartache and loss, for all the messy ways we’re dropped into the depth of life, for all the ways we’re pried opened by great love and great suffering, I feel certain there is something unbreakable and regenerative about the force of life we each carry. And while we are the very breakable human container that carries that essence, the Spirit we carry is not.
Somehow, resilience comes from letting what’s unbreakable rise through the broken pieces that make up our lives. And the only way to access what’s unbreakable is through an open heart. And the only way to open our heart is by staying committed to the depth of our feelings. Though we resist their intensity, being rinsed by the depth of our feelings is what opens our heart to its timeless bottom. And following our heart to its timeless bottom is what lets us drink from the unbreakable stuff of life. Whenever I dare to take what I feel to the bottom of my personality, I dip into the well of all personality and I’m renewed.
When we can open our hearts and work with what we’re given, loving what’s before us, life stays possible. Then, through effort and grace, we do what we can with what we have. And when exhausted by all that’s in the way, we’re faced with the chance to accept and love what’s left, which is everything. This is how we discover that Heaven is on Earth.
A Question to Walk With: Describe a time when you experienced a moment of Heaven on Earth. What led you there? What have you carried from that moment with you?
I have longed for people I thought I would die without. And wanted books and music I was sure would bring me peace. And I’ve driven myself to accomplish things I thought would secure my worth. And though I seldom touched what I longed for or got what I wanted or achieved what I pushed for, the remnants of my longing burned like ancient wood on the fire of my soul, making the heart of my being burn brighter. To my surprise, I loved and worked and pushed till I used my self up. To my surprise, using my self up was the fate under all my aspirations. At the end of all we want, we’re meant to glow. So long and want and dream till you exhaust your heart’s desire. We learn so much from longing, and wanting, and dreaming. Mostly, that they are not the mansions we dream of living in, but the wood that keeps our fire going.
This excerpt is from a new book in progress, Returning to Where I’ve Never Been.
In late November, I had an odd sensation in the night of not being able to breathe properly or easily, especially when lying flat. Upon going to urgent care, I was told that I had a small amount of fluid on my left lung. This led a three month fall into a dark hole of worry, as the common causes of fluid on the lung are serious: congestive heart failure, a pulmonary embolism, or the appearance of lymphoma, just to name a few. My doctor sent me to the emergency room which ruled out these serious conditions. Though I kept getting better, no one could find a cause. It took five weeks before I could sleep lying flat again.
In early March, I went to a pulmonary specialist to follow up. He was very kind and a thorough listener. After many questions, he brought me beside him to look at all my medical films through the years. Then, he quietly said, “I don’t think you ever had fluid on your lung. The abnormal shape of your left lung is the result of scar tissue from your rib surgery thirty years ago.” His best guess was that I contracted something viral that had passed its course.