Beginnings

Beginnings

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.

—T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets

Give yourself some time to simply be, remembering that your life is about more than the sum of your experiences and what you do in the world.

—Christine Valters Paintner

I savor things.

—Anneke Van Denend, 6 years old

Oak trees (Mary Van Denend)

Yesterday, New Year’s Day, we took a hike with our little dog Oskar to the top of Bald Hill, a nearby ridge of dense oak forest and evergreens crisscrossed with horse paths and bike trails. The day had dawned bright and clear, unusual for January in western Oregon, not one to waste indoors. So we grabbed the leash, a water bottle, a handful of nuts and raisins, and a paper bag for mushrooms. Like hobbits leaving the Shire, we set out full of hope and anticipation. Not a dragon in sight.

Isn’t it always like this the beginning of each new year? We imagine somehow that this year will be different from the last. We won’t be so anxious, we’ll travel more, pay off our debts, read more poetry and less Pottery Barn, be more hospitable, join a singing group, write more, complain less, walk the dog when he needs it, stop criticizing our spouse, and become holy and enlightened in the process. Even those who dismiss the idea of an annual wish list as pointless and naïve probably harbor an internal check sheet for self-improvement. It’s human nature, plus a dose of American optimism. Then long about March, or maybe even February, something shifts. Our list has begun to fray at the edges. It may unravel completely. Too many bad things have already happened in the world; we still teeter on some financial brink, our grown children make choices we don’t like, zealots of every stripe threaten to undo the planet. And we grow weary of ourselves. What can possibly carry us from March to December, from disillusionment to deep joy?

Artwork (Mary Van Denend)One thing that won’t carry us through is to imagine our resolutions and willpower, envisioned in our well-crafted list of “How I Will Fix Myself This Year,” have any lasting effect on the state of our hearts, that they can keep us content and secure. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Mystics down the centuries, from the Buddha and Teresa of Avila to Pema Chodron and Father Richard Rohr, all repeat the same mantra though they may use different terminology: silence, surrender, weakness, vulnerability. It’s when we are willing to let go the sly illusions that entomb us — especially our idealized notions of ourselves and self-righteous assumptions about truth — that our lives begin to make sense and we can hear at last another voice speaking. If we constantly stuff ourselves with food, purchases, and endless activities, we leave no space to savor the ordinary moment, no quiet to hear anyone but us. Be still and know that I am God, says the Psalmist. Be still.

Last fall I gave myself a gift, an online retreat for women on a threshold, an open doorway of some sort — a tender place of receptivity and hope, fear and uncertainty (www.AbbeyoftheArts.com). I was in the process of leaving my workplace of 12 years. While believing this was the right course, I had no clarity on what would follow. And my beloved father had died in June. Those were obvious thresholds I could identify as the three-month retreat began; others, more subtle, would arise as the weeks unfolded. We encountered women throughout history who crossed their own decisive thresholds. Women like Eve, Hildegard of Bingen, the medieval Beguines, and others whose stories remain largely unknown. We read provocative fairy tales and stories from Scripture; we wrote poems of instruction, created artwork, and weekly practiced Lectio Divina. The bravest among us shared mysterious dreams or troubling childhood experiences, always with true respect for each others’ innate wisdom. Over 100 women participated in building a genuine cyber community — something I never would have thought possible. It’s difficult to even write about this in neatly drawn paragraphs. Some of it too fragile and intimate, the rest too enigmatic without the context of all that we learned together. But I can offer this: I am learning to be more comfortable with uncertainty. I believe mercy hides everywhere in the world, waiting to swoop in and hold us. We cannot control much, but we can still live deep and meaningful lives. We can attend to the work of our hands and embrace our small yet worthy part in practicing resurrection.  Remembering that we are forever beginners, never experts, at love.  

Anneke (Tom Van Denend)

I am also the first to admit how difficult this practice is, this daily dying and rising. It’s hard enough for me to claim the manifold opportunities each day affords to say, “I’m sorry; Please forgive me; Thank you; I love you.” When the horrific news of the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary came, the only way I could wrap my mind around such evil was to imagine my adored oldest granddaughter, Anneke, as one of those little first-graders. She is the same age as most of the children who died so hideously. How else can we allow such unspeakable sorrow to wound us, to fill us with adequate grief for those lost lives, all of them? Even as I listened again and again to Sara McLaughlin’s refrain of a favorite Christmas carol, ”What child is this who lay to rest?” it was the scared and scary face of the shooter I kept seeing. Who grieves for him? What child, indeed?

We can never foresee what any given year will bring, and for that, I am grateful. I did not plan to lose my father so soon after my mother. Nor did I expect to find such grace-filled communion from an online retreat. A lively Australian woman in our group shared these lines from poet David Whyte:

Every human life is quite magnificent and dramatic and mythological because of the intensity of what’s at stake . . . We are living in a time where we each need a tremendous amount of courage — a fierce kind of attention and intentionality. The doorway is always through your vulnerability, the experience where you are open to the world whether you want to be or not.

The trails at Bald Hill oozed thick with mud. No edible mushrooms left to speak of, scant chanterelles either soggy or long gone. A few wild pears lay on the ground, some still green, frozen. Oskar ran his heart out in the best New Year’s Day ever in his shelter dog’s life. From the top of the ridge we could see all the way to the Cascades in the center of the state, three hours from home. Snow-capped volcanic peaks of The Three Sisters glinting on the horizon. Once more we embark on separate little journeys. Mundane routines, dog walks, maybe even some grand adventures. We’ve all been granted another year of clean slates and new beginnings.  

So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. . . . Love someone who does not deserve it. . . . Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.

—Wendell Berry

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