but I bought three—
white diner mugs
from the antique dealer
in the big barn that
we hoped had a bathroom
along the long road to
We didn’t intend to
but these were a bargain.
Lovely lessons in early industrial design
for only ten dollars each
(and one on sale for eight.)
I loved their sloping sides and chubby handles—
the fat lips that promised to meet mine
with unapologetic thickness.
The grace of unrestrained function.
Designed for demanding conditions—
big hands and thoughtless treatment
from men more natural than me
sitting on stools nourished
with greasy eggs, sausage links and
coffee without self-consciousness.
three mugs seem like too many.
They vie for space in the crowded cupboard
with others equally worthy—
one on top of the next
like tumbling ceramic acrobats
caught in dangerous moments of balance.
I must stop
bringing home stray mugs
from every roadside attraction.
Someone’s bound to get hurt
in the jumble of everyday use
unless I sort through them sometime
but I’ll probably just find
another shelf somewhere so
I don’t have to decide—
don’t have to let go
of any fat or skinny handles
we threw acorns
into the lake of my childhood—
my mother and I.
Both of us old enough
not to be persuaded
I had come to help,
but we paused from the packing
at her insistence
the small round missiles
from the blue bucket
into arc and splash.
at our shared silliness,
then turned from the
back toward our now separate journeys
when we might be together
again throwing acorns
into their perfect circles—
radiating and diminishing like us,
that we have gown old
in this place
where once we were young.
Going through some old files, I came upon a newsletter article I wrote for Dynamy in 1997. (Dynamy is the experiential education school where I was Executive Director from 1991 to 2003.) In the article, I introduced ‘three assumptions that underlie experiential education,’ but in re-reading them this morning, I see they are also three assumptions about being human. They are not principles to be obeyed, but rather potential starting points to help us live our lives with as much grace and ease as possible.
Reading the words of my former self, I was surprised and inspired by what I used to know and thought I would share it here. I’m also a sucker for these lists that boil down the wisdom of life to just three or four things, somehow they make me feel like life is actually quite simple and perhaps even manageable.
So, in case you didn’t read your newsletter in 1997:
1. We can only be who we are. Most of us feel like we should be smarter or more talented or more attractive or more something than we are. But, from one perspective, we have everything we need already. Our real challenge is not to live up to some set of external (or internal) expectations but to find out who we really are. We each have unique gifts and a purpose that only we can fulfill. True success comes from uncovering the valuable internal treasure we already posses and using it to enrich the world and ourselves.
2. The present moment is our best teacher. The art of paying close attention to what is happening in our lives is essential if we are to learn and grow through our experience. Too often we respond more to our hopes and fears of what should be rather than to what is actually occurring. A friend who is a Fortune 500 corporate trainer claims that 90% of all our problems would be solved if we learn to listen more deeply to others and to the situation in which we find ourselves.
3. There is no way to avoid discomfort. We all spend a lot of our time seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. There is actually a much more interesting way to live in which we dive deeply into each experience to learn what it has to teach us. Authentic growth comes only when we are willing to leave behind the safety of what we think we know. Learning and engaged living require that we venture into unknown waters where the outcome is uncertain.
PS – the photo is from a walk I took on Sunday on the Asnebumskit Ridge Trail here in Worcester. It doesn’t really pertain to this post, but the glowing ferns in the morning sunlight were so beautiful I wanted to share them with you.
A full lunar eclipse is in progress as I write this. October 8, 2014 5:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Here in Worcester, Massachusetts, this spectacular play of celestial light and shadow is mostly eclipsed by cloud cover. As I take a cursory look through the trees guarding the western horizon, I surprisingly see the moon filtering through the clouds. I run upstairs, grab my binoculars and raincoat, and come back outside.
Standing on the edge of the Temple parking lot, I see the moon just over the roof of my neighbor Dick’s house. I stare in amazement as it appears and vanishes. Several times. So far, the coming darkness nibbles only gently into the edge of its fullness. Then the clouds come thick, casting their common darkness over my preferred spectacle. I stand still and continue to look over Dick’s roof hoping he doesn’t glance out and see me staring toward his house with my binoculars in the early morning.
I unintentionally begin doing small negotiations with the Universe to get a better view. ‘If you let me see the moon, it will be a sign that everything is good.’ I am embarrassed by my naïveté and small-minded self-interest, but the thoughts rise unbidden.
Sometimes, I can’t help personifying life. Maybe it’s my early religious training. Or maybe it’s just the natural impulse to understand what we don’t know in terms of what we know—to understand the unfathomable universe in terms of the self I imagine me to be. To some degree, the self-referential quality of learning is unavoidable. We can only comprehend something new by finding a place for it in the pre-existing relational web of our current world. We can only understand what we don’t know in relation to what we do know. The danger in the process is that we can easily minimize and tame the wondrous, new and foreign, by simply fitting it into old categories rather than allowing ourselves to be truly touched by it.
Meanwhile, the shadow of the earth goes on darkening the moon behind the dark clouds over Dick’s house. In consideration, I’m just grateful for the glimpse of gauzy whiteness that was allowed me earlier.
I find myself lying in bed in the early morning darkness. I don’t want to get up. I’ve had a night of difficult dreams—tasks I couldn’t complete and people who were strange and threatening. I don’t feel like getting up. It’s still early but I’m losing valuable writing time lying here in bed while time ticks away. I consider forcing myself out of bed, but can’t muster the energy.
I think of my friend who holds tightly to a story of how the world doesn’t support her. In spite of a nice house, children who love her and a faithful partner. In her mind, the problem is that the world has it out for her. This story has become her painfully cherished identity.
Still in bed myself and feeling oppressed by my world, I decide to explore what is here. Conscious exploration of my condition is actually quite different from just being ‘in it.’ Lying here ‘in it’, I just don’t want to get up and, without thinking, assume the truth of my perceptions.
But looking toward what is really here, I notice the voice in my head that is repeating: ‘I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to get up.’ Though this narrating voice feels quite strong, I hadn’t even noticed it until this moment. It just felt true.
The feeling of this moment before rising is quite intense and it feels like a luxury to stop and examine it. What is going on here? What is present in my body and mind?
I feel flat. My body seems to have no dimension. I am being pressed against the mattress by some amorphous external force. It doesn’t hurt. I just feel lifeless and don’t want to move. I notice another internal voice that tells me to quit this silliness and just get out of bed. Even in turning my attention toward this place, I feel like I am violating some kind of internal rule.
As I write about this an hour later, I’m reminded of the book by Alice Miller that came out in the nineteen eighties called ‘Thou Shalt Not Be Aware.’ One of those books that I never read, but that touched me in some way. As I remember, the book was about child abuse and the psychological mechanisms that prevent some adults from recovering these memories. Is my urge not to be aware part of some similar internal processes? Perhaps parts of us really don’t want to be aware, thank you very much. I’d rather just believe my story. It may not be true. It may be painful. But at least it feels certain.
I’ve read somewhere else recently that the mind only wants a story that feels certain. It often doesn’t seem to care how closely the story corresponds to external reality. In fact, the mind is quite adept at construing external events in a way to support whatever story it is telling. It just craves certainty and the resolution of doubt.
But continuing my early morning inquiry, I am aware that this flat place of being is also dark—an internal darkness that corresponds to the lack of light this early October morning. It doesn’t hurt. This is surprising to me. I feel quiet and still. A low ebb of energy – like the tide has gone out and I am the stagnant water left behind in shallow pool. But blacker and more lifeless. Now I notice some agitation beneath my solar plexus.
Though the day ahead is normal, tasks and meetings I actually enjoy, I feel a low level dread. Everything is fuzzy and dull. I’m not quite sure where or who I am. This is disconcerting. My competence and capacity to be clever and kind are utterly absent here. But as I let myself be muddled and dull, I find even the dread is not so bad. It too, is just a kind of darkness.
I move one leg from bent to straight. My toes are now pointed toward the center of the room. I lie very still. Just breathing.
I wonder if this is what it will be like before I die? If there will be a time when I can’t move and can’t talk—can only lie in bed and breathe. Right now, in this moment, I don’t mind this limited life. Breathing is pretty special. This world is full, even without moving. Though I see already that the challenge of this imagined moment will continue to be my mind. How to continue returning to the breath, to the investigation and even, if I am lucky, the appreciation of this moment.
I tell my friend that the problem is not the world and that she would do well to focus on herself rather than on the things that are not in her control. For a moment she considers this possibility. But then she runs off chattering along another path that confirms her painful conviction. I don’t try to stop her, realizing that it will be more profitable for me to take my own advice than to try to convince her. So I trust her to the paths and emerging wisdoms of her life.
Now I lie in bed. Not minding the flat darkness. An unspecified fear is still present, but not quite as strong. I am content as I lie in my slight discomfort.
Then, without thinking, I pull back the covers and swing my feet toward the floor. I don’t know how or why I chose this particular moment to rise.
Or perhaps it’s just the urge to pee.