Terrible, Beautiful

I sat on the cold, tile-floored kitchen, my left shoulder against the door, my knees bent, my feet tucked underneath them, my legs leaning towards the door, held up by the strength of my right hip and the weight of my body.  I was wearing my house clothes-black sweatpants and a grey, hooded, zip-up sweatshirt. I stared at my house shoes-processing my thoughts.  I felt at once tired and embraced.

“I get triggered,” I began.  Looking up towards Taryn who now joined me in sitting on the floor.

Flor was sprawled out next to me.  I reached my hand over to touch the back of her furry neck.

I had not liked the way the morning had began, and I was blaming.

My tone of frustration for things not being to my liking, had given way to a softer recognition of the problem being one on the inside of me.  This shift had contributed to Taryn’s position moving from one of standing, busy with tasks, to being seated, attentively listening as she faced me.

I recall the words of my LifePlan:

“As the context for my life’s Greatest Delight and Most Demanding Work, our relationship serves as a symbol of Singularity, and, an arena for the constant Vision of Vulnerability.”

 We sat there for a while, talking, listening, exchanging mutual self-disclosure.  Breathing in the air of the space that the conversation was creating.

Meanwhile, the boys ran about back and forth down the hallway playing hide-and-seek.  Every so often one of them tried to open the door, usually Jakob, wondering when we were going to the store.  He had plans to get a new Cars 3 toy with his piggy-bank savings.

“When Mommy and Daddy are done, Jakob,” Taryn announced again, followed by a whine and stomping feet.  We looked at each other smiling about his reaction in its consistent predictability.

We were on day 16, the last and final day, of the Christmas holidays.  During which, two out of three of, our boys had contracted chicken pox.  The night before I had squirt half of Lucas’ ‘acetaminophen’ accidentally on the side of his face.  It had been that sort of day.  We were tired.  And our coming together in the kitchen that morning was in recognition that we weren’t going to get through the day without staying in concert with our connection to one another.

Love always costs more than we are initially prepared to give.  And the process of surrendering to something bigger is so intricately intertwined with the most important relationships in one’s life.

In my case, this starts in many ways, with my relationship to my wife. It seems we have the frustratingly good fortune of living a life that, literally, doesn’t work without such a practice of coming together around the details of our days, as much as around more long-term dreams and plans.

That morning I was experiencing the fruit of that commitment for myself. Again, from the context of my LifePlan.

“Together we are learning to give the best of what we share away, while struggling to stay grounded in the Truth-that GOD IS EVERYTHING, and every part of us is welcome here, and that awareness alone brings out the best in us.”

 Our surrender to something bigger, in this case the demands of authentic partnership, transform the relentlessness of that work into a delivery system of refuge for both of us.

We landed in a place of giving thanks for specific aspects of our life together, giving ourselves and one another affirmations, in a way that honored, and even revelled, in our oneness.  We were ready to move on from there, together.

Preparing the baking soda bath for my three-year-old son Lucas, I noticed the way his delicate skin had been transformed by the bumps and blisters.

He was drowsy from the anti-histamine he had taken, and sat hunched forward in the tub, hugging his knees to his chest while I poured cups of water over his back; occasionally sprinkling baking soda directly on his skin to dry out the broken blisters before rinsing it off.

I continued dipping the blue plastic cup, almost rhythmically, into the water sitting inside the slightly darker blue plastic tub in which Lucas sat.  Slowly I poured the water down his back.

I felt tired.

Life is terrible, I thought.  Wonderfully terrible.  And terribly beautiful.

The poet Rilke writes, “For beauty is only the beginning of a terror we can just scarcely bear and the reason we adore it so is that it serenely disdains to destroy us.”

As I write this, I think of the multiple people I know who are going through some of the worse kinds of losses.

A daughter struggling with substance addiction, the death of a son to its disease.

The sudden death of an active and healthy father.

A spouse with late stage cancer, another with the early onslaught of Alzheimer’s.

The loss of a lifetime family home to wildfires.

Life is terrible.  Wonderfully terrible.  And terribly beautiful.


I sometimes meet life with disappointment in having the expectation that things will one day be easy.  But I’m finding that it is through the acceptance of difficulty, not in spite of it, that a paradoxical ease is actually delivered.  And it comes in the form of a posture of non-clinging.

This stance, of course, can be cultivated in myriad ways.  Practiced through things like prayer and meditation. But, it often comes most powerfully through the shock of loss, delivering the beatitudinal blessing of being in a right relationship with people, places and things.  Where we learn to honor life’s impermanence and passing nature-having been broken open by the beauty and terror of things.

The spiritual journey often begins with such shocks, or, some other injection of emotional pain.  Shaking us from the illusion of security and control to which we’ve been clinging.  In fact, it is often only through suffering that we can access the love with which our hearts most deeply desire.

Richard Rohr writes:

“Any journey of great love or great suffering makes us go deeper into our faith and eventually into what can only be called universal truth. Love and suffering are finally the same, because those who love deeply are committing themselves to eventual suffering. And those who suffer often become the greatest lovers.”


Finishing the bath, I wrapped Lucas in a towel, and grabbing the calamine lotion and cotton swabs we then headed down the hallway to the living room.

It was a beautifully sunny, albeit chilly day, and the south eastern sun light shone down directly into the room.

Placing him on his feet in front of the radiator heater, I flipped on the TV and began dabbing his body with the increasingly pink cotton swab.


Lucas is feeling better.

He’s still home from school but hopefully will be able to return next week.

In the meantime, he is enjoying the attention and special treatment.

And even though we are adjusting to the circumstances the feelings of wishing they were different, just like any other day, sometimes shows-up.  There is an invitation to a practice in learning to welcome them.

Yesterday afternoon, Lucas burst into the hallway from the living room, announcing enthusiastically, “Pee-pee…poo-poo!”  Flor had donated both to the floor.

I cleaned it up.

Lucas, having gone into his bedroom, reappeared, equally enthusiastic, now holding a plastic rhinoceros in hand.

“No more pee-pee, Daddy!”


“Learn from the things that are already in the place where you wish you were not.”

-Pádraig Ó Tuama


Indeed. Life is terrible.  Wonderfully terrible.  Terribly beautiful.

And love always costs more than we are initially prepared to give…love anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

School is in Session

I am a recovering perfectionist, living cross-culturally in Spain.  I have three children-Levi (6), Jakob (5), and Lucas (3).  Tomorrow we are getting a puppy named ‘Flor’-meaning “flower.”  

Each of these elements provide the necessary messiness, and context, for my life’s healing and ongoing transformation.  

Let’s just say…my life is set up in a manner where I never get to get away with looking too good, for too long. And, thank God for that!!!        

I meditate most mornings, and try and follow a twice a day practice of centering prayer.  I also enjoy reading in the mornings, especially on Saturday mornings, and especially with a cup of coffee.  Although typically, it takes me all morning to finish my first cup.  

Sometimes I replace reading with other things, like listening to recorded talks.  Today I listened to a teaching on humility by James Finley.  He talks about a particular transition in our spiritual journey when it seems as though we, in the role of seeker, move from being the questioner of life and God, to the one being questioned.  

From his book Merton’s Palace of Nowwhere, Finley writes:

“The experience is something like going, you think, to teach a class at a    university.  You come in on the first day of class and you’re so pleased to see how many students have signed up for your class.  You come up to the front of the room and you open your attache and you put your notes on the podium.  The students are continuing to file into the room.  And at a certain point an administrator comes up to you and whispers as gently as possible, “There has been a terrible misunderstanding.  You are not invited to teach the course, you are invited to take it.”  And the professor who was invited to teach it is standing there with her attache waiting for you to get out of the way so that she can start the class.  And in front of the whole room you are fumbling, dropping notes on the floor, trying to get yourself together, and there is only one seat left empty in the room which is in the back row.  And the professor begins to speak in a language that you do not know, and the first exam is on Friday.  We do not like moments like this…we thought we were teaching the course and here all the while we were being asked to take it.  And we don’t even understand the language the course is being taught in.  Nor do we understand the scales in which our progress in the course is being weighed.”      

I also work with a tool called a Life Plan-a visual narrative that helps a person co-create their life with the Divine through a lived remembrance of their essence.  A Life Plan therefore includes all of a person’s most essential relationships-with a Higher Power, oneself, partner, other family, friends, community and purpose.    

After completing my morning routine, including the reading of my Life Plan, I got up to join the rest of my family on the other side of our apartment.   

My wife, Taryn, and our oldest son Levi were preparing to leave to the pet store.

Standing in the entry way, having put on his jacket and shoes, Levi broke out into a song with synchronized movements as Taryn and I stood rapt in awe, trying to listen closely to the Spanish lyrics, taking in our son’s glow and sincere desire to share with us this gift.  Standing side by side, we glanced at each other in mutual recognition at the beauty of the moment’s unfolding. 

Really feeling it, I began to dance along, unaware of the coffee I was spilling in the process.  

As Taryn pointed out that fact, I glanced down to see it on the floor; along with some darkened spots sitting atop the grey wool of my house slippers.  

At that moment I could uncharacteristically care less as I beamed in the perfection of the design of my life plan, recalling its words surrounding my relationship with Levi.

Levi, in his MORE, leadership, unfettered goodness, and contagious zeal for life, is my forgetting myself, and I give him space, a room and a tether to BLAST OFF in WILD CELEBRATION!

Taryn eventually handed me toilet paper.  I held it, waiting for Levi to complete his perfect rendition-which it was by the way.  

Closing the door behind them, I knelt down reverently to clean the mess.  Disposing of the paper, I walked down the hallway into the living room where meanwhile, Jakob and Lucas were watching the animated film Kung-Fu Panda.  I sat down, placing my arms on the back of the couch, Jakob sliding under the fold of my wing with Lucas laying peacefully on the floor at my feet.        

It felt good. Like the way a Saturday morning should be.  I sat wearing a satisfied smile.   

A moment passed before, looking up at me, with big, innocent, knowing eyes, Jakob declared, “I’m Oogway.”  

Oogway of course being a character from the film; a wise, elderly tortoise and kung-fu master, and one whom my ego usually identifies itself with; while my kids typically claim ‘Po,’ the fun loving, curious, albeit clumsy, slow learning, and undisciplined, panda.     

Knowing Jakob knew this, I pulled him in closer to my body, partly in adoration and partly as a placating gesture.  Though clearly he felt my affection for him, under the heir of my sense of superiority and rank, as he then settled his head down into my lap.  

In the gap between that moment and the next, I relaxed deeper into the felt sense that indeed all is well in the universe. 

That is, until, a sudden jerk sent Jakob’s body across my lap, his head bumping into my half-full coffee mug.  

I jumped to my feet, feeling the room temperature liquid splash on my hand as I swept my arm up trying to keep the coffee contained.  Simultaneously I heard the words “sorry,” and “what the fuck,” spring into the air, the latter ones coming out of my mouth as I completed the motion of standing up.  My eyes had moved from the mug down to the couch surveying for where and how much coffee had been spilled.  First spotting the darker color of grey on the couch, my eyes then focused in on the liquid I saw that had been spilled on the back of my phone, which had been sitting next to me on the couch.  Quickly stepping towards the dining room table in front of me I set the mug down with my left hand and reached back across my body with my right hand to grab my phone, picking it up and chucking it against the back of the other couch that sits at the adjacent wall, spewing the words “God damn it!” as the phone left my hand.  

Having already turned my back to walk out of the room towards the kitchen, I heard a thud accompanied by a three year old “aaooowww,” as I crossed the threshold through the doorway into the kitchen.  The phone must have bounced off the couch, hitting Lucas’ small, sprawled out body, where he lay on the floor.

Only now can I appreciate the words of my Life Plan regarding my relationship to Jakob and him to me. 

Jakob, in his sensitivity, stubbornness, charm, and affectionate nature, is my caring for myself, and I give him access to safety and challenge that shows up AT THE END OF ME. 

After rinsing and wringing out a rag in the sink, I calmly walked back into the living room as though nothing but the accident that it was had happened, having now gotten to the “end of me.” 

I dropped the rag on the wet spot of coffee, next to where Jakob sat on the couch in a conceding-like acknowledgment, that yes Jakob, indeed, your head butting wisdom had come as a gift, reminding me again, that I am, and always will be, much more like ‘Po’ than ‘Oogway,’ much more student than teacher on the spiritual journey, the one being sought and questioned, much more than the one doing the seeking. 

“There is no shortage of spiritual directors in our lives. For our spiritual directors are the people we live with.  They place upon us unbearable burdens.  They give us unexplainable gifts.  They grind us like wheat.”

-James Finley

 

Humility celebrates life’s messiness as an experience of grace, trusting the entirety of human experience as an expression of God’s infinite generosity; giving itself to us and through us as the very shape of our lives.  Its purpose being, in part, to learn the ongoing lesson that our ego is not Running The Show, and our sense of what’s good or bad, right or wrong, positive or negative, is not only, typically misguided, but ultimately, irrelevant.  

Because in the end, God is Everything and All is Grace.  

 

(Originally written on November 12, 2017)