Can Beauty Rise Next to Sorrow?

 

Egret flies
Photo courtesy of Graham Owen – Bird Photography

Yesterday was my baby sister’s first chemo treatment. Her diagnosis of cancer came in the usual way, I suppose – as a complete, life-shattering shock. There Karla was, minding her own, gathering up at the grocery store, grabbing coffee on the way to work, feeding the dog, folding laundry.

And now, this.

A few weeks earlier she texted, saying she would be having surgery to remove a large growth that had quickly filled her belly. “I’m sure everything will be fine – just wanted to let you know.”

But the surgery exposed a five-pound tumor fueled by ovarian cancer.

It was as if we, her three older sisters, stood at the steep ragged edge of a glacier and the part that held Karla and her life and everything she loved broke loose and crashed to the sea below. She stands on this iceberg of her life now, drifting out into uncharted waters, sometimes looking back at us wistfully, sometimes angry and frustrated. But the clearest part for us all, the part that is unbearable right now, is her separation from us and how it used to be. We shout back and forth across the widening gap, our words garbled and washed out in the fury of this breaking off, the sum of our tears the only truth.

This morning, a handful of egrets rise from a flooded field next door. They lift to the sky, long white grace and lightness filling the air, slender charcoal sticks of legs trailing in their slipstream.

I was astounded by the sheer beauty and grace of it, a Mary Oliver poem coming to life, the moment wide and generous, life-giving. And then, just as surprising, I felt awkward, disloyal. Is it okay to be breathless and spellbound before Beauty when such sorrow washes the world about? To feel yourself drawn to Beauty’s gracious invitation of witness when so many are suffering? To kneel and behold when others despair of even hope?

When your baby sister has cancer?

I watch the egrets head east, in the general direction of my sister’s far away house. I beg them to visit her too. I pray this for her – that Beauty will reach out and embrace her gently; a new friend in the infusion room, an unexpected kindness from a stranger, an apple of gold in words fitly spoken.

That something new and precious might push up through the frozen barren ground of this and now, something just for her. Something she can carry alongside as a respectful companion to Sorrow and Fear.

Perhaps there isn’t a conflict here, that it isn’t just Suffering or Beauty. Perhaps, to live the full measure and meaning of our days, we must honor the deep presence of both.

 

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When You Go to Tai Chi but Find Yourself in a Prayer for the World

Related image
Photo courtesy of the National Council on Aging

The public service announcement in the local paper says a Tai Chi class meets at the multi-generational center in our little town on Tuesday and Friday mornings and all are welcome to attend – no charge. A handwritten sign taped to the front door of the center reminds us to sign up with Louise if we want to stay for lunch. Today, lunch is a regional favorite – green chile cheeseburgers.

The building bears some resemblance to an old New Mexico church; exterior stucco the color of sand and a silver metal roof peaked and flowing over a generous outdoor patio. The outside seating area is swept clean and dotted with a variety of chairs and tables, none of them matching.

Which is a lot like the group gathered this morning for the Tai Chi class.

About twenty of us are here – men and women, black, white and brown. Some are teachers, some are ex-military, some are unemployed, some are church-goers, some are not. A few are Tai Chi experts, a few more have the basic idea and, for the rest of us, it’s our first time.

The oldest is Sarah, who just turned 83. Our instructor, Zach, is 70. And today, a flock of women from the local transitional living program have joined us. They are young, from early to late twenties, recovering from lives wrung hard in addictions and prison time. Patty, a caregiver, arrives with her client, Misty, a woman in her thirties with autism who cannot express herself with words.

Zach warmly welcomes everyone and demonstrates Tai Chi forms named things like “Wave Hands Like Clouds” and “White Crane Spreads Wings.”  Zach reminds us of the importance of slow, mindful, breathing and movement.

We begin, watching Zach and each other, the music soft and simple. We start off sort of all over the place, looking a bit like a group of blind people searching for a door. We’re also self-conscious, as if there is a “correct” way to feel about in the dark.

Zach offers no additional words of instruction – we are left to try these movements without judgement or commentary, guided only by the invitation of his slow, graceful example.  After about ten minutes our movements begin to synchronize, and it seems we breathe a single breath.

Our arms and legs and bodies sway like a stand of seagrass in an easy offshore breeze.

Misty doesn’t understand the pattern and instead quietly meanders among us. She walks up to me, slowly reaches out her hands and holds my face between her palms. I respond in kind and hold her face in my palms, the rest of the class flowing about us like water.

Our eyes meet and I whisper, my voice breaking, “I see you.”

Misty smiles and we lower our hands. She moves off again.

We bend forward now, our arms extended in a slow-motion swan dive. We sweep our hands downward, palms turning upward at the bottom, gathering space and grace and light back up to our hearts. We slowly straighten, our hands moving upward from our hearts, past our faces, above ourselves, above everything broken and dark and scarred.

A profound longing seems to lift skyward from within us all. A great hope, a dream far beyond all our small possibilities – to find a place where we belong, balm for the wound that will not heal, light to guide our way.

Something to let us know we are not abandoned. Not forgotten. Not alone.

We are all the same in this, we are all the world in this – we yearn to trace the edge of an eternal shape we think we may have known in a dream, a deep soul-memory from before.

If we could just reach out and touch the hem of it…

Something empty would fill, something broken could heal.

Zach brings us to a close, a gentle floating down of the arms and hands, like a leaf or a feather falling, to rest by our sides. A reverent bowing of the head.

We are silent, still. Together. One. We are…a prayer.

After a long moment, the women from the transitional center break out in applause and then we all start clapping, and turn to one another with a slight bow and a heartfelt “Thank you”.

We lingered quietly for a bit, reluctant to leave the threshold of the door opened to and through and beyond us all.

Reviving the Nearly Dead (This Includes Us)

Renewal1

Today I found a plant in need of some serious TLC – I think this one was marked down to $1 because no one at Lowe’s imagined it will survive another week. I feel an odd kinship; I don’t know anyone who is not in need of some serious Repair & Renewal.

First, I cleaned out what was dead and spent. Like the plant, I also have a lot of this. Things that once seemed important and useful but are now lifeless and no longer work. All the ways I’ve tried to do what I thought was right and never saw the wrong of it. All the ways I thought myself “good” only to discover humility was far more holy.

And then there it was.

Trim

The only part truly alive was hidden deep underneath the brown of dying and done. The leaves were tiny, perfect.

Improbable.

I cannot yet name the something in me like this – something so delicately, so vibrantly, alive underneath it all. But I know it needs light and water and fresh air. The little tendril also looked like it needed a new home, something more spacious to spread and open and breathe free beyond what has been.

Drain

I gathered up an old pot, a few stones, and a new fresh bag of potting soil. I wanted the good soil Jesus mentioned but they didn’t have this at Lowe’s.

I wanted something that would nourish the deep place within where everything comes from. The place I can’t hold or touch yet holds and touches everything else. The place from which true and wise could grow, something that would produce a great crop of goodness and beauty and truth – “thirty, sixty, a hundredfold…”.

Replant

That seems an unlikely outcome for both myself and the plant, but I’m going to hold it close and treasure it as a possibility. We, this little plant and I, look so very small in the great bigness of things, the harshness of winter storms, the hardness of hearts, the evening news, the pleading to Love One Another.

I named the plant We and set it next to the door so I pass by often. A tiny green prayer in honor and remembrance of this deeply alive something in us all…right here, below the surface of things.

What a Horse and a Boy with ASD Know About Beauty

Rocky Handprint

 

A wriggly crowd of kids living with Autism Spectrum Disorder cautiously eyed the horses. Ten-year-old Billy stood on the mounting block and threw his leg over the saddle of a big paint gelding named Bear. The therapeutic riding team walked alongside, leading Bear and Billy down a dirt trail winding through towering Ponderosa pines in the Manzano mountains of central New Mexico.

Billy liked to talk, especially about animals. Billy declared animals were named for their habitat, “…for example the Polar Bear and the Tasmanian Devil” and explained there were several types of zebras, “for example the Plains Zebra and the Mountain Zebra”. Billy’s favorite animal was the Black Rhino, “but of course you can’t ride them…”.

Suddenly, Billy’s monologue stopped, his eyes fixed on something distant. After a long pause, Billy declared, “I know why people love horses.”

Another long pause. I looked up from Bear’s side to Billy’s face, his large brown eyes clear, smiling.

“Why is that?”

Billy’s gaze remained fixed ahead and he declared, “Because they are always walking forward into beauty.”

Billy was quiet again, moving through the beauty with Bear, inhabiting it.

I had forgotten this about Beauty – how sometimes it’s simply revealed and you are in just the right place to see it, to see things beyond their surface. To see them whole and complete, perfect and belonging just as they are.

I heard it then, saw it then, a chickadee calling from lightly rustling oak leaves. The soft rhythmic clopping of Bear’s hooves on the dirt path, the baby blue morning sky. The scent of pinon trees and saddle leather gently swirled past, lazy. The sun warmed my neck and drifted over my shoulders. I wondered, as I do every time this happens, why don’t I see this more?

Billy will spend his lifetime struggling to process sensory information. And yet, he held the fullness and detail of beauty in now and here and this.

We helped Billy dismount and dip his hand in bright green acrylic paint. Bear’s broad chest and rump already carried neon yellow and deep purple hand prints left by other riders. He pressed it, fingers spread wide, amongst the others. I wanted to dip my hand in the hot pink paint, press it against my heart, mark the day Billy helped me remember Beauty.

When I Read Your Words, I Swallowed a Star

Honestly, I wouldn’t bother to develop my own writing were it not for writers whose words touch and hold the soul of me. While their forms vary from fantasy to song, fiction to poetry and haiku to how-to, all offer glimpses of the mysterious way of the Spirit.

When I read your words, you took me to the places all readers want to go – somewhere unforgettable, somewhere breathtaking, somewhere meaningful.

I remember when I read that, how it washed up on my soul, carried away something old and broken and deposited something new and wriggling, something looking for a way to be born through a life. I was surprised when this happened – it took my breath away and I knew, this is True.

I recognized something eternal, an ancient beauty, a crystal-clear goodness. My soul was borne up on the rising-ness of it, broke the surface, and breathed. I was found and known.

Your words wrestled Life in the great chasm between what could or should be and what is actually so. You taught me these words are what we claim and what we deny, what we revere and what we despise. As such, they are a profound, honest, soulful prayer.

I am forever in your debt for the long years of learning and living it took to say what you’ve come to say, to birth your words bearing that kind of life.

When I read your words, I swallowed a star.