Mystery

Ten years ago, my birthday. I am visiting a friend in New Hampshire. It is unseasonably cold for early October; already, less than two hours north of our Boston suburb, frost has ravaged gardens, stolen the life out of all the flowers in the big planters downtown. While my friend is at work, I spend the day wandering through her town.

Peterborough is just half an hour away from where I grew up, but it feels further, thanks in large part to the mountain in between, the harsher climate over here. When I was a child, we rarely came in this direction; “civilization” lay to the south and to the east, toward Boston, not up and over Temple Mountain in the direction of Vermont. Yet our occasional family trips — for summer evening ice cream cones at Silver Ranch, or to prowl antique stores with my mother — made lasting impressions. The town seemed special even then.

On this day, my forty-second birthday, my eye catches a sign propped up on the sidewalk in the middle of town: Tibetan Monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery Create Sand Mandala. Each day this week, 9 –5.
I have no idea what a sand mandala is, but the door of the old brick building, a former Baptist church from the colonial era, is open, and I have an empty afternoon stretching out before me. It seems unlikely that a tiny New England village with a population of four thousand could support a multi-cultural museum, but that is exactly what the Mariposa appears to be: a welcoming community center devoted to bringing world culture to one small town in New Hampshire. I drop a donation in the jar, walk through a gallery stuffed with vibrant artwork, handmade dolls, puppets, and wall hangings, to the stairs leading to the second floor.

Upstairs, the soaring hall has been transformed into a sacred space. At one end of the room, an altar has been created, adorned with apples and oranges, small bowls of rice, flowers, candles, and a statue of the Buddha. On a large blue board on the floor an intricate design is taking shape, made entirely of colored grains of sand. I slip off my shoes, take a seat, and watch the monks silently bending to their work.

There are several monks, dressed in crimson robes, sitting quietly, meditating; two others are down on their knees on the hard wooden floor, hunched over, noses inches from the ground as they “paint” with what look like narrow metal funnels and small sticks. There is no sound but for the rhythmic tapping of metal on metal, as they painstakingly fill in their exquisitely detailed design with grains of colored sand.

Afternoon sun streams through the high windows. People come and go. A young mother arrives to watch with her little boy, who solemnly eats an apple, never taking his eyes from the monks, who look up every now and again, stretch, and smile at us, nodding hello. The mandala increases in complexity, each intricate design element appearing as if by magic from the thin streams of sand. Not a grain falls out of place. The slightest breeze or sneeze or misstep would destroy its geometric perfection. Yet the monks move easily around their creation, barefoot, their robes flowing, seemingly heedless of the danger yet as mindful of each movement as they would be if performing a dance. Unhurried, graceful, light-hearted. Peace pervades the room.

A thought arrives, alights like a bird upon my shoulder: I want to live here.

That night, back at home in Massachusetts, my husband is waiting for me; he and our sons have made a chocolate cake and a birthday dinner. But there is something going on in the back yard. The people who recently bought the house right next to ours have decided to cut down all the trees between our two houses. The chainsaws are still roaring. The landscape has changed; but it suddenly feels as if everything else has changed, too. Where, just yesterday, there were golden leaves shimmering in the sunlight, a thick, leafy canopy of protection and privacy surrounding our home, there is suddenly devastation. Our familiar tree-house view is gone, replaced by a stark, unfiltered view into someone else’s brightly lit tv room. Tears fill my eyes. I say, “I think we need to move.” I am as surprised by the words as Steve is.

Sometimes we recognize the defining moments of our lives as they’re happening. But not always. It was a long time after that emotional October evening before my husband and I finally decided that yes, in fact, we were going to move. And longer still before we finally settled into a house of our own on a hilltop in the town of Peterborough. But looking back now, I know: for me, the journey to the place we now call home began in the presence of a group of exiled Tibetan monks from India, who came to spend a week creating a mandala for peace in a small town in New England.

This week, the monks returned to the Mariposa. They are traveling in the U.S. now at the request of the Dalai Lama, re-creating a new, breathtaking sand mandala designed to inspire world harmony and to honor all beliefs and all religions. Early on Friday morning, Jack and Steve and I sat for a while and watched them put the finishing touches on their week’s work. The monks welcomed us happily, eyes twinkling. The mandala was breathtaking; intricate, finely textured, each minute detail meticulously rendered. A half hour passed; Jack needed to get to school, but none of us could bring ourselves to leave.

According to Buddhist scripture, sand mandalas transmit positive energies to the environment and to all who view them; they are believed to effect purification and healing. On this beautiful April day, there was no doubt at all: we were in the presence of peace, enveloped in love, steeped in goodness. Exactly where we were meant to be.

Funny how ten years go by and, while you’re busy living your life, it is inexorably turning into something else altogether. Funny, too, how destiny is revealed, how it’s only by pausing and looking back that we can truly discern the gifts given us by grace — the moments that have shown us who we are, that have illuminated the dark path, revealing just where it is we are meant to put our feet and the direction in which we are called to go.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about intuition. Was it just a random thought, or some kind of inner knowing, that brushed against my awareness all those years ago, on my forty-second birthday, loosening my grip on things as they were and whispering in my ear that change was already in the wind?

I can’t say, but I’m coming to believe that we are guided all the time, that support and direction are right there for us if we take time to pause and listen to the quiet inner voice that says, “go here,” or “do that.” Perhaps the way forward can only be revealed in those quiet spaces in between moments, when we are sitting still, so still that gentle breezes from another realm can be heard to murmur.

This spring, coming to the end of a time of intense work and reflection, I find myself once again at loose ends, humbled by uncertainty. Our two sons are about to graduate, one from high school and the other from college. Life is full of unknowns. But one thing I have learned is that there are energies at work in all our lives that can be trusted. Our job may simply be to ask the questions, to open ourselves to possibility, without presuming to nail down the answers. Perhaps there is no right answer anyway, other than the rightness of trusting that things will unfold as they are meant to — as long as we’re willing to make room for our many ways of knowing, even the ones that seem beyond reason, the ones that dwell in the realms of soul, instinct, faith, mystery.

On Sunday, I returned for the monks’ closing ceremony. The room I entered for the first time as a stranger over ten years ago was filled now with my neighbors and friends – it seemed that everyone in town had come out on this rainy afternoon to view the completed mandala and to bid it farewell. For, within hours of completing their masterpiece, the monks destroy their creation. In a deep bow to the impermanence of all things, the monks chanted, prayed, and then,using two ordinary paintbrushes from the hardware store, they swept the beautiful offering they had spent the entire week making into a small rainbow-hued pile.

I came home with a little packet of that sacred sand. And later today, when the sun comes out again, I will sprinkle it in the garden outside our kitchen door, in this place that we have come to call home.

NOTES TO YOU:

If you would like to see more photos of the mandala and the monks at work, please visit The Gift of an Ordinary Day on Facebook; I will have them posted there.

SIGNED BOOKS FOR MOTHER’S DAY As always, my wonderful local bookstore is happy to help with a special gift for a special mom in your life (maybe you?). Click here to order signed, personalized copies of Mitten Strings for God and/or The Gift of an Ordinary Day.

Reclaiming Peace

“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”
Etty Hillesum

I find myself returning again and again to Etty Hillesum’s words, absorbing them, hoping they will take deep root and live in me during this holiday season.

As I sit in my kitchen on this gray December morning, so aware of time passing and so wishing to make the most of each shared family moment, the idea of cultivating peace at home and in my heart seems particularly apt.

These are short, dark days. Much of the world is in turmoil. Our country feels divided, split by cynicism and falsehood. In my own life, I’m feeling the weight of having too much to do and never enough time to do it all. No matter how early I get up or how late I go to bed, I don’t get enough accomplished. There are no Christmas cookies this year, no handmade gifts, no special things to place under the tree. My writing is stalled, my concentration jagged – I keep thinking of all the loose ends I’ve left dangling, keep wondering where, exactly, I’m meant to be and what I’m really meant to be doing, keep being distracted from the slow, painstaking work of crafting sentences and returning instead to the ever-expanding to-do list. Neither place feels quite right: I “should” be working on my manuscript, and I “should” be creating Christmas for my family, but instead I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, feeling as if I’m failing at both.

Yesterday, my son Henry turned twenty-two, a fact that fills me with both pride and wonder: how did we get here so fast? Wasn’t it just a few short years ago that he was a week old and we dressed him up in a tiny velour Santa suit and posed for our first family portrait? Wasn’t it only yesterday that he spent the days before Christmas sitting upstairs at his desk writing college applications? Now, he’s just months away from graduation, months away from having to find a job, a home, an adult life of his own. The years fly by, faster and faster it seems. This week Jack was accepted at Boston University, his first choice for school. I’m thrilled he’ll be close to us next year, but stunned to realize he’s actually old enough to go to college. Over the weekend, my husband pulled out a pile of old photographs of our boys when they were little: all fat cheeks and cuddles, innocence and giggles. Tiny beings that live now only in pictures and in our memories. Amazing to think that our lives have already had such breadth and span, that we have lived through our child-rearing years, raised sons to young adulthood, watched them leave home, and then eagerly awaited their return, knowing that soon they will leave again.

Tomorrow night, Henry will arrive and our family will have two short weeks together. Today, I’m preparing for his homecoming by clearing all my books and papers out of his bedroom, where I’ve been working these last few months. But I am also taking some time to prepare myself. Instead of getting started on a new chapter or running around doing errands and last-minute shopping, I’ve decided to stay home and just sit in stillness for a while. Today, I need to cast my lot with “being” rather than with “doing,” and to trust that being is enough. To believe that reclaiming large areas of peace in myself is perhaps the most urgent, most necessary work I could do.

I feel inspired, most of all, by a moment on Saturday afternoon at my brother and sister-in-law’s house. Jack and Steve and I had attended their four-year-old’s Christmas pageant, an epic musical production performed by sixteen nursery schoolers in full costume. Afterward, as the whole extended family sat around in the living room enjoying a late lunch of chili and cornbread, little Gabriel accidentally whacked his grandfather’s dish from his hand; a direct, home-run hit. Food flew everywhere – an entire bowl’s worth of chili spattered on the beige wall-to-wall. There was a moment of stunned silence in the face of the disaster. Gabriel’s eyes filled with tears. And in that instant, as chili seeped into the rug and everyone leapt into action, a choice was also made for peace. No one shouted. No one scolded. No one got upset or delivered a lecture about little boys who ought to be more careful.

“It’s all right,” Gabe’s mom said, as she went for the Resolve and paper towels. “It’s all right,” my brother reassured his son, as he got down on his knees and began to clean up the mess. You could feel the tension in the room dissipate as quickly as it had come. Peace reclaimed and reflected back into the world. Peace as moral duty. Peace as the true lesson of the day. Peace because Gabriel, too, will be all grown up in the blink of an eye, and soon enough his own parents will be looking back at his vanished childhood, wondering if they’ve taught him well, if they’ve prepared him to bring peace into this troubled world. Small moments; big, lasting impressions. I like to think that, as the big sister with the grown-up kids, I’m the one who can teach my younger sibling a few things about being a parent. But just as often, he teaches me.

I know that what matters most this week is not how much I manage to get done, how many words I write, or how many presents I wrap, but how I choose to be. And that what brings our sons home to this house, my parents to our hearth on Christmas morning, family and friends to our table for dinner, is surely not just a sense of duty and tradition but a universal longing for connection and love, acceptance and peace.

Peace is what we all yearn for, and peace is the gift that we can offer one another – in a word of forgiveness, in a smile, a hug, a kindness done, a gratitude expressed. Even in the ease with which a huge mess of chili gets cleaned off a rug.

Reading the newspaper each morning, it is easy to despair, easy to see how readily seeds of hatred and fear grow into crops of violence and cruelty. But I take my cue from my brother and sister-in-law’s loving patience with their children, and solace in the faith of a young Dutch woman who could envision the possibility of peace even as she awaited her own certain death at Auschwitz in 1943. This is the Christmas spirit I aspire to embody, the truth I will try to remember as we light the candles, serve the meals, play the music, and celebrate this time together: peace begins here, right where we are, and peace is always possible.

The treasure of an ordinary day

It was the softest of mornings, the quietest of sunrises, the loveliest day to step out into. I cherish these September days — the silky air, the damp, sweet scent of summer succumbing to fall. I walked across the wet grass, sat on a rock, and watched the mists drift across the valley, the sky brighten, a single bird soaring high, silhouetted against the sky. Never do I appreciate the beauty of home more than on a day when I have to leave it.

I type these words in an airport terminal, waiting for my delayed flight to Atlanta, where I’m giving a talk tomorrow on “the treasure of an ordinary day.” These invitations still catch me off guard; the idea that someone would think of me as a public speaker, as a person with enough wisdom to impart that my appearance is worth organizing an event around. But I’m learning to trust the people who ask, to gather some thoughts, and to go where I’m wanted.

Of course, I have nothing to offer those who come to hear me speak that every one of us doesn’t know already. The themes are plain and simple: That life is precious. That we already have everything we need. That we can choose to be grateful. To see what’s right in front of us. To be in the present moment. To slow down, rather than racing so fast through our own lives that we miss them.

I also know how hard it is to remember what we already know. If you’re like me, you probably have to remind yourself, over and over again: to notice where you are, to accept what is, to love that. Sitting still helps. Coming to a stop and allowing my busy, wild mind to be at rest is the only way I’ve found to be truly mindful. It’s why, after years of not meditating, I finally do. Walking helps, too. It’s why, although I love to run, I also spend hours each week walking alone on the empty roads near my house, allowing my thoughts to drift and noticing everything there is to notice.

Last week, I spent a few days alone at a friend’s tiny, secluded cabin. There was no internet, no opportunity to toggle back and forth, as I tend to do at home, from e-mail to a friend’s latest blog post to my own stop-and-go writing to the most popular stories in the New York Times. With nothing to do but sit and write, I sat and wrote. With no company to keep but my own, I got back in touch with a deeper, quieter part of myself. With no to-do list to whittle away at or schedule to keep, I felt the expansiveness of an hour, an afternoon, a day. Time became generous.

I tried to carry some of that spaciousness home with me. To remember my own capacity for quiet, focused attention, whether I’m alone in a cabin or standing at a podium in front of a room full of strangers. I can react to events, get carried away by stress, allow myself to be distracted and distractible. Or I can simply do the next thing that needs to be done, with care and commitment and faith in the rightness of things as they are. Without making a fuss. This is the way I want to live. And yes, I do need to keep reminding myself.

The photo my husband took at dawn this morning captures the fleeting beauty of the moment. It says “peace” to me. It’s easy for me to be grateful when I’m sitting in my own backyard, feeling blessed to have these gentle mountains as my neighbors.

Now, held captive in an over-air-conditioned terminal, with CNN blasting away, boarding announcements crackling over the loudspeaker, and the smell of pizza in the air, gratitude is a little more challenging to practice. But it occurs to me that living mindfully isn’t just about sitting and meditating, or about appreciating a beautiful sunrise. The real practice comes when we are called to keep going even when things aren’t exactly going our way. It’s using what’s at hand, and being ok with that. And so time is generous here, too. I have hours and hours to myself, with no place to go and nothing to do but wait for my delayed plane to arrive at the gate. Annoyance, or grace. The choice, of course, is mine. Perhaps the treasure of an ordinary day is always right in front of my nose; all I have to do is decide to see it.