Our love needs to be bigger than our insanity.
There are three covenants that keep us engaged in the work of love. To begin with, when we see something true and beautiful in someone, it is not the work of love to change them or force their growth in our direction. It is the work of love to create conditions by which what is true and beautiful in all we behold can grow and blossom, bringing forth its deepest nature. At the same time, the work of love depends on giving others, especially young people, a sense of safety in the world, nurturing their confidence to lean into life and the unknown—not away from these eternal resources. Still, being human, we constantly slip from integrating our experience to being consumed by our experience. We move, almost daily, from having our fear, pain, and worry live in us to living within our fear, pain, and worry. So the third covenant of love is to keep each other company when we’re drowning in our experience and awash in our feelings, until it all can right-size, until our experience and feelings can once again live in us. These covenants exercise the muscle of compassion we call the heart.
I know now that, over the years, my own cries that life is unfair, have come from the inescapable pain of living, and these cries, while understandable, have always diverted me from feeling my way through the pain of my breakage into the re-formation of my life. Somehow, crying “Unfair” has always kept me stuck in what hurts.
I offer what has surprised me in my pain: that life is not fair, but unending in its capacity to change us; that compassion is fair and feeling is just: and that we are not responsible for all that befalls us, only for how we receive it and for how we hold each other up along the way.
When you feel you have no more to give, keep your heart open just a while longer, because this is when the deepest gift we have is about to show itself. This is the foundational side of a paradox that can’t be explained: as we’re humbled over time to honor our very real limitations, the light we carry is ever more exposed through those limitations. And just when we’re at the end of what we know, the soul’s lips are ready to meet the world. As we honor our frailties, we’re also asked to trust in the inexhaustible Source the heart is threshold to. While the container we are can wear down and weaken, the Spirit we carry is indestructible. I know this because I’ve watched the life-force burst from those being born and I’ve bowed to the tenderness seeping from others as they die. I know this because I’ve almost died myself, and have felt the life-force burst and seep through me. I’ve been roughly rearranged by life until the face beneath my face, that can hide nothing, finally met the world. Once the light we carry is felt and known, a covenant is awakened within us to keep that inexhaustible light in view. This is a marriage of the deepest kind between our soul and the life that carries that soul while here on Earth.
For all the hardships that life throws at us, I have always felt that life keeps living. Perhaps not in the same form or in a way that is recognizable. But life keeps pulsing under everything. And no matter the pain or confusion I face, something in me keeps reaching for that irrepressible pulse. This poem comes from my reaching.
A FEW TURNS OF THE MOON
From the balcony of this restaurant, I watch
a hundred lives below: burrowing and laughing
and finding their way. And perhaps because
I’ve lost my father and our beloved dog in the
last year, perhaps because at sixty-three, I see
over the final hill more clearly, I also see the
hundreds on the other side, still burrowing
and laughing and finding their way. I don’t
know if this is alarming or a comfort: that
we go on the same, that the gleam pressed
out of every hardship is the jewel of existence,
here and on the other side. So I spoon my
soup and sip my wine, knowing the balcony
is the gutter and the gutter is the balcony,
that the dark waits all curled up in the light,
and the light, thank God, waits all curled up
in the dark.
It was a sunny day
and I went to the park
and sat on a bench. I was
one of many coming out
from under our rocks
to warm and lengthen.
He was two benches down,
a gentle older man
staring off into the place
between things, beyond
any simple past, staring
into the beginning or the end,
it was hard to say.
When he came up
our eyes met
and he knew I’d seen him
journey there and back.
There was no point in looking away.
And so, he shuffled over
and sat beside me. The sun
moved behind the one cloud
and he finally said
in half a quiver, “How
can we go there together?”
I searched my small mind
for an answer. At this,
he looked away and the sun came out
and I realized this is what the lonely
sages of China were talking about,
what the moon has whispered
before turning full for centuries,
what dancers leap for, what violinists
dream after fevering their last note.
But I was awkward and unsure.
He stared, as if to search my will,
and after several minutes,
he just patted my knee
I watched him
darken and brighten in the sun,
and vowed to look
in the folds of every cry
for a way through,
and hope someday
to meet him there.
This is the story of a blind boy who in a dream is told that bowing will open his eyes and let him see. He tries for several days to bow and open, everywhere he goes: in the grass, in the wind, in the soft hands of his mother. None of it gives him sight. He bows his face into the holiest of books, the one his father studies. Still nothing. The dream felt so real that he’s now in despair, certain he’s misread the gift of this instruction, certain he’s lost his chance to see.
In his sadness, he wanders to the shore of a lake, where he wades to his waist. Depressed, he sits in the water. And as a child sinks in a bathtub, he holds his breath and drops into the lake, below the surface of things, below the noise of his blindness. He is surrounded by such softness and quiet that he begins to cry as the water from his eyes mixes with the water of the lake. In the slow, gentle wash of water meeting water, he begins to feel the bottom of the lake. He begins to feel the old fish swimming behind a rock. He can feel the oar in the middle of the lake slipping in and out of the cloud-reflected surface. He even feels a heron circling above, its shadow cooling pockets of the deep.
He returns to the surface and can feel the movement of air against his eyes, and the heat of the sun warming his face. From that day on, he can feel with his eyes, as long as he remembers to slip below the surface of things. And though he is blind, from that day on, he carries great vision. In time, he becomes a teacher that others seek out, and through his gentleness, others learn that whatever our blindness, the heart can sink below the noise of its memories and wounds. The sweet blind boy tells everyone who asks that the heart wakes slowly, and only our gentleness—our willingness to sink into the depth of things and wait—will let us see and make our way.
The Sufis speak of polishing the heart into a mirror, so that through our love we can reflect the heart of everything. This is one practice that in time can help us make the necessary agreement between our being and our humanness. By its very nature, living in the world creates a film over our heart, while our thoroughness of being and our gestures of love remove that film. There is no arrival in this process. The goal isn’t to stay clean or get dirty, but to stay engaged in the unending transformative cycle of life. And when we can’t summon the effort or courage to clean the film from our heart, there is always the necessary rain by which life will clean and refresh itself. In this way, the work of being and the inevitable friction of becoming are inextricably knit together.
We all film the heart and we all polish the heart. We all move between these points of wakefulness and weariness. All the while, the resources of life wait like a great sea to cleanse us. This is why we polish the heart into a mirror—to open and touch the place within us where all life lives, where all hearts feel, where all things resound through the inlet of our soul. The endless practice here is to live out a constant commitment to aliveness, to stay engaged in the ongoing journey of being filmed over, only to be scoured into a clear vessel, again and again.