The Light of 2019

Last year during the week between Christmas and New Year, it was very, very cold here in Virginia, inordinately cold, exceptionally cold. We seldom get to single digits, let alone for a week straight. We took Katja, a visitor from Germany, to Washington, D.C. and walked from one end of the National Mall to the other. It was 4 degrees F (-15C) that day.

Just before Christmas we were in Vermont. I did not pay as much attention to the temperature because we were busy insulating Lincoln’s house and hauling household items up the snowy hill, but I do remember hearing it was 11F. That’s not as cold as 4F but it’s still mighty cold. Coco doesn’t like it. Poor baby. There’s not a lot of fur on her belly, and it’s very tough on her. She would much rather be tucked in.

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When we got home it was much warmer. It makes me smile to see her finding her spot outside on the front porch (that’s no closer to being finished than six weeks ago)…

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…or inside where the sun comes through my south-facing bedroom window.

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She finds and occupies the only bit of rug that also has sun in that room and has her trusty fox toy behind her. Now we’re talking! New Year’s Day in my neck of the woods is predicted to be sunny and 64F (17C). Ah, glorious sun!

If a patch of sun can make Coco so happy, imagine what it can do for you, what it does do for you without you hardly noticing it most of the time. Think about how you feel on a drab day vs. a sunny day. If you live in a place that’s sunny all the time, you may not be as aware of the effect that cloudy days have on your emotional well being. But winter is harder in places that get snow not only because it’s colder but also because there is less sun.

Imagine if we arranged our built spaces to take advantage of the sun whenever possible. One of my favorite books about the design of living spaces is A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. In it he suggests some examples to encourage indoor sunlight: “(1) a porch that gets the evening sun late in the day; (2) a breakfast nook that looks directly into a garden which is sunny in the morning; (3) a bathing room arranged to get full morning sun; (4) a workshop that gets full southern exposure during the middle of the day; (5) an edge of a living room where the sun falls on an outside wall and warms a flowering plant.”

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In Lincoln’s pentagonal house, he has chosen to put an oculus (which will become a cupola with functioning windows) in the center of the second-floor ceiling. Light will stream into almost every room of the house through this amazing component of his design.

This (in my woobly red line) is the oculus I’m talking about. Only some of that flooring will remain.

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Most of us are stuck with the house we have, the orientation it came with, the sun we get. But on this first day of 2019, I am thinking about what the sun does for us and how we can and should take advantage of it. Find a sunny spot to sit in if you can, even for a little while. Let the sun do its work on you. See what happens.

Beyond that, I think about what we can do for others by being “sunny” in our interactions. The expressions that come to mind and go hand in hand with this concept include:

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar – a favorite of mine because it’s true not only figuratively, it’s true literally. The image of a flypaper hanging from a ceiling in a cabin somehow resides in my mind. If the strip of paper were coated with honey, no way could a fly’s wings detach once they landed on it. What (very dumb) fly would land on a paper coated with vinegar? I translate as: You accomplish more by using grace and kindness than by being sour/vindictive/mean/angry/etc.

In honor of Mary Poppins, all the rage with Mary Poppins Returns being in theaters right now: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. In the Julie Andrews original, she applies this literally, though why the children need medicine when they are not sick is beyond me. Nevertheless, my translation: The world can be a tough place; anything we do to make it better makes it better! Add an element of good to something that is unpleasant or difficult and you will find everything easier.

Lastly: This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine! I was thinking today about how limited we are, how our sphere of influence is small, how many people there are in the world and how few of them we can in any way affect. So what? We don’t have to save the world (this has already been done), but we sure can make our own corners — and the corners of those we love and care about — less dark by our chosen actions.

Several years ago, I found the essay We Were Made For These Times by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (American poet, post-trauma specialist and Jungian psychoanalyst, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves). It made me think about why I do what I do, what I think is important, what the future might hold. Maybe it speaks to you and helps you make 2019 a wonderful year in new and important ways.

My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.

I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

Que Sera Sera

Last week after I finished reading to Evelyn – she just turned 101 and we are almost through a biography about Queen Victoria – I walked the hallway to get to the exit and passed what is a common area for the residents of this retirement community. I heard someone playing the piano and looked to my left. This is what I saw.

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The lady playing the piano was quite good. The tune was lively. The song was Que Sera Sera. If you are unfamiliar with it, check out Doris Day’s 1964 rendition. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azxoVRTwlNg

The message of the song is summed up in the translation of the title: Whatever will be, will be. When you listen to the whole thing, you don’t get the idea of determination or active movement toward a particular goal. Quite the contrary. As to whether the future is bright or not – whether you will be rich and good looking and successful – it is seemingly out of your hands, which one might say is rather a passive approach. But is it?

Specifically in the lyrics a little girl asks her mother “What will I be? Will I be rich? Will I be pretty?” And her mother replies “Que Sera Sera. Whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see.” Later in life she asked her sweetheart: “What lies ahead? Will we have rainbows day after day?” He replies as the mother did. Later her own sons ask her: “What will I be? Will I be handsome? Will I be rich?” She then replies as her mother did.

“Que Sera Sera. Whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see.” To this I say Amen, therefore, precisely because we don’t know what lies ahead…

…let us do what we can to make today and tomorrow better than it might otherwise be. I suspect this lady playing the piano would very much prefer to sit up straight. Yet she is not sitting there grumbling. She is playing a lively song for the entertainment of herself and others. I suspect Evelyn would rather not be blind. Nonetheless she can learn through books on tape and others reading to her. This week we learned together about the widowed Queen Victoria’s protector and friend (whatever else he may have been), John Brown. Fascinating stuff. Did you know that all documentation relating to this relationship was summarily burned? Hmmm…

Start with yourself. Start with the people who are in your circle today or every day. The other day I described two children who were here as Airbnb guests (for the blink of an eye it seemed) doing me a kind service without knowing it. How apropos to have just found this quote hanging on the wall in a public bathroom:

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Amen, therefore, precisely because we don’t know what lies ahead…let us give thanks for what we do have. Do I have a high-paying job? No, but I have everything I need, and I am exceedingly grateful for good food to eat, a home to live in and the abiding love and care of incredible friends and family. Am I as physically strong as I used to be or as mechanically inclined as I wish I was? No, but I manage, and where I need help, there is help, and I am exceedingly grateful that when there have been serious issues like pipes freezing or bursting, I have not been here by myself. Can I be with my children and grandchildren and dearest friends as often as I want? No, but I cherish the moments with them and greatly look forward to next time.

Needs are different than wants. Do we have everything we need? Most of the time, yes. Do we have everything we want? If we did, what would there be to look forward to? What would there be to look back on and be grateful we had for a time? How would we get outside ourselves and be glad that someone else could enjoy that experience or that thing?

Amen, therefore, precisely because we don’t know what lies ahead… let us carefully and lovingly walk alongside others who are having a hard time. It’s true that some things are out of our control. In the past three weeks, tragedy has hit three families in my circle. Two young deaths and one very serious illness. The grief of these families is beyond words. Yet as each of them works through their pain and comes to grip with what they did not in their wildest nightmares anticipate, they are surrounded by, embraced by, uplifted and upheld by many who love them. The loving, caring people who come alongside during a tragic time are like the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, as Mary Poppins so beautifully sang. They are the reminder – even if it cannot be fully appreciated at the time because of shock or stress – that they are not alone through their grief. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8VHc49ZdP4

Amen, therefore, precisely because we don’t know what lies ahead…let us recognize the beauty of whatever world is around us. That beauty might be in the artistry of your favorite barista who makes you smile as he hands you a cappuccino.

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That beauty might be in the face of a child encountering a fuzzy chicken.

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It might be a precious moment with a dear friend you don’t see often.

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It might be a fabulous vista you get to see in real life rather than in a picture (with a dear friend you don’t see often).

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It might be a joyful moment of reunion between man and dog.

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Do I know what lies ahead? Sort of. The future’s not mine to see, but I am confident that no matter how many years or months or days I have left, it will continue to include amazing people who enrich my world as well as an amazing world in which to spend whatever time I can with these amazing people. It will include great measures of love, joy, forgiveness, hope, service to others and making a difference in whatever ways we all can. Could I ask for more? No.