Archive for 2007

It’s not over ’til it’s over


December 2007

I was one of those kids who ate all their veggies, not because I enjoyed them, but because they were the necessary gateway to dessert. No one in our household ever got a piece of cake if the green beans hadn’t been consumed. I learned at a young age that you have to do the hard thing first if you want the goodies.

One outcome of this steady and persistent approach to life is that I actually do like most vegetables, these days. But this behaviour has served me well in many other ways. The most notable outcome of that dogged willingness to slog through suffering that I learned at the dinner table was that I came out of the PhD program alive. And, of course, at various times in various jobs and various relationships, I sucked it up when quitting would have been easier (and sometimes, perhaps, wiser). The most recent exercise of steadfastness was during my mother’s death. Anyone who has sat by a dear one’s deathbed knows that just being there and doing nothing—because there is nothing to do—is the ultimate endurance test.

But I’ve noticed lately that this behaviour isn’t necessarily appropriate in all times and places. Like many other things that I learned in my childhood, there’s a shadow side. A compulsiveness. A mental twist that can doom me to grief if I don’t pay close attention.

After this last trip down to the States, I came home to our beautiful Heart’s Rest hoping for just that—heart’s rest, time to be quiet and pray, write, get ready for my next retreat. But our friend the plumber had come to fix the shower leak while we were gone. Now, I’m eternally grateful for the repairs he made. It’s just that fixing the leak involved using a high speed saw to remove the tiles from the bottom half of the shower. There was gritty, nasty dust everywhere: ceilings, walls and floors, windowsills, and every book and bookshelf in the house.

And the garden needed to be hoed under, hoses needed to be drained and stored, wood needed stacking, mouse traps had to be checked, and of course emails and calls needed answering. Instead of peace and tranquility, I felt overwhelmed and resentful and stuck. What do I do first? Why can’t someone else do this? How will I ever write when all these things need to be done?

During my morning meditation, I’d been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s latest book, The Art of Power. I always love his writing because it’s so straightforward and kind. In this volume, he examines the five Buddhist powers—faith, diligence, mindfulness, concentration, and insight—and speaks of how these practices are the foundations for real joy. It is a great book, especially for people who are seriously attempting to integrate their practice into their work life, no matter what that work life is.

But the section that grabbed my heart was the chapter on mindfulness, which I read one morning in our dusty, gritty home. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote of the need to bring full attention to the present. He said, “The fruit of mindfulness practice is the realization that peace and joy are available within us and around us, right here and right now.”

Well. No matter where you go, there you are. This is not rocket science, but I don’t read books on spiritual practice because they are going to tell me something new. I read them because I need to be reminded of all I’ve forgotten. I need to be brought back to myself. And that self needs to remember that I am okay now, not just later when everything is cleaned up and stacked and done. I can be happy without having eaten all the vegetables. (Sorry, Mom.) I can be happy now, cleaning the house, or happy now, not cleaning the house. I can do some of the work each day, and not be obsessed and upset by the mess the rest of the time.

As I said, this is not rocket science. But it is a high holy thing to live joyfully in the middle of what is and what is not. The hardest work I have ever done is to hold both what’s right and what’s wrong and be at peace.

I have, at times, tried to shut out all information that disturbs me—global warming, the war in Iraq, the physical and mental suffering of those close to me, the state of our finances, the dust in the living room—because I feel overwhelmed and powerless. (This is the fallacy that ignoring something makes it go away.) At other times, I get so angry that I long to eliminate certain groups so that the rest of us could live in a better world. (This fallacy fueled the Holocaust, as I remember.) And at yet other times I am so consumed with grief over the world’s pain that I long to throw myself into the fire as a sacrifice to end suffering. (Another fallacy, assuming I’ve got the power to fix things all by myself.) I pray daily for strong direction about how to give my life so I can help stem the seemingly infinite tide of human sorrow and planetary suffering. I pray to know, because it seems like whatever I’m doing isn’t enough and nothing I can do will ever change anything. This too is a fallacy, this diminution of one’s contribution.

Thus far, when I DO have a strong sense of what I should be doing, it’s neither escape, eradication, self-immolation, or self-deprecation. The life to which I seem to be directed looks a lot like my life today. Some prayer time. Some writing time. Some talking to someone who’s suffering. Some being kind to those around me. Some taking care of the daily business of life. Some enjoyment of the natural world. And some work on behalf of the greater world, which today means correcting and sending out the minutes of the Slocan Lake Stewardship Society. I try not to hide from the world’s suffering but I try not to wallow, either; I try to do what I can, be that pray or type or make a call, and to find joy in these little pieces. Can this possibly be enough, this small faithfulness?

Wendell Berry, poet, essayist, novelist, and farmer, writes about this human longing for escape from suffering and the holiness of everyday life more clearly than anyone I know. Here is an excerpt from his poem “Work Song” (Clearing, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: San Diego, 1974) written when he was wrestling his ruined farm back to health:

Because desire and will are strong
I have believed in miraculous deliverances.
I have believed that I would never
have to forsake anything. I have believed
that even at last the strange
woman whose lips drop as a honeycomb
would beckon from her door, and even
in my hurry to reach home her song
would draw me out of my way.
And in spite of reason and belief, even
desire, I have heard a voice saying
that I shall labor here a while, comfort
denied, and then come to a distant place,
a beautiful city or a gentle garden
preserved by someone else’s servitude,
where I would take my ease and meditate
the long incoming surf of day.
It is not to be. It is not to be.
That is the burden that roughens
my song. That is my joy’s burden.
This steep, half-ruined, lovely place,
this graced and wearing labor
longer than my life, this marriage,
blessed and difficult—these have
a partial radiance that is all my life..

Berry’s partial radiance is, I think, another way to speak of Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness: the ability to live in the imperfect present joyfully. This is about learning to love vegetables for their own sake, rather than as the price to pay for pleasure. This is about seeing the gap between what is and what could be—and discerning God’s presence in that place. This is, my dear friends, the high holy calling of each of us.

Copyright © 2007 Mary Therese DesCamp