by Mary | Oct 6, 2022 | Life Lines
It’s funny how we have certain expectations of life, from the biggest events to the smallest details, and we are quick to label the results: good, bad, lucky, sad. Too often we judge the quality of our life by where the tally falls, but we know all too well that this journey is filled with too many highs and lows to ever be able to keep count. Over the course of a lifetime, we each experience a cascade of little deaths and resurrections, those moments when something must give way to make room for a new lesson, an untraveled path, a chance to grow, whether we like it or not.
At no time is that inevitable cycle more obvious than during the autumn season, when we can look out our window and see the unbelievable beauty of trees on fire with reds and yellows and oranges. We stare in awe, knowing that this magnificence is only temporary and will be followed by a dying away, the starkness of barren limbs against a winter sky.
When I finished leading a retreat in the Adirondacks last month, I decided to end the weekend by squeezing in a paddle across the lake with a good friend. We have been spoiled in past years with herons taking off in flight before our eyes, loons floating alongside us, their calls beautiful and haunting, and even once an eagle soaring across the sky so fast we weren’t sure what we’d seen until after it was gone. Not to be outdone by the spectacular sights are the frogs hiding among the lilies, the tree that grows up out of a deep crack in a boulder or the dragonflies that dart by and every now and then pause on the point of a kayak like a prayer with wings.
This last time, however, the one loon we saw was skittish, diving under the water and moving away from us. Eventually we saw splashing and heard a cry unlike any other. We paddled closer and saw the loon was in some sort of distress. We thought maybe he had something caught around his neck and headed back to land to find help.
What we learned was that this loon’s sibling had been found dead that morning. This was distress, indeed, just not the physical kind. My friend asked if I thought it was a bad sign, and I quickly said, No! Maybe too quickly, as though I didn’t want to consider it, because it was in the back of my mind. As I drove home, I found myself thinking about the Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, written by St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast we celebrate this month.
“Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, who is the day through whom You give us light,” the prayer begins, working its way through all the glories of our amazing world, from wind and water to fire and flowers. By the end we get to “Sister Death, from whom no-one living can escape.”
Our world makes us think if we try hard enough, worry enough, we can keep the tally of “bad” things in our life on the low side, but we are not in control. There will always be seasons to mourn, just as there will always follow seasons to dance. Our job is not to look for ways to ward it off but to learn to surrender to what is rather than what we think should be.
When I paddled across that lake, I thought I should get something that would make my heart leap, a sight that would somehow seal the weekend as a success in a spectacular way. Instead, I was met by a mournful cry and the primitive ache of loss, reminding me that there is beauty even in the fading. Just look out the window, and watch the leaves let go.
This column originally appeared in the Oct. 5, 2022, issue of Catholic New York.
by Mary | Sep 26, 2022 | Life in My 60s
So I’m standing at the start of a new decade today and feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude, peace, and contentment. I know how blessed I am, and I can honestly say that today — maybe for the first time in my many years — I am completely at home in my own skin, happy with where I am in my life, and very much aware that it could all change in an instant and so I should take every moment as a gift and simply Be. Here. Now. (As Ram Dass taught.)
Earlier this year, I did a heart-centered program by Danielle LaPorte that required me to dig deep into my core desires, after an arduous process of looking at the stories I’ve been telling myself for far too long, stories that come not only from my history and my experiences but, often, from other people’s histories and experiences and views of who I should be. Little by little I could feel the masks dropping away, and I could feel deep love and compassion for the parts of me I’ve always held at a distance or hid or hated. Fascinating and fulfilling.
In the end, my core desires weren’t about money or success or anything you can achieve or buy in a worldly way. They were contentment, connection, creativity, and love. Tall order, and yet most mornings when I wake up and assess where I am I, I smile to myself as I realize I am there at the moment, and I am grateful. And sometimes, when I’m especially aware, I say a little prayer that when things are not so rosy and a particularly rough challenge surfaces, I can somehow find the courage to stay in the moment and find the lessons and the gifts and the divinity — or Spirit, if you prefer — that is always swirling in and around me, and you and everything and everyone else.
When I peer into the coming decade, there are some fears, to be sure, because it’s undeniable that I’m on the downward slide of life, not in a bad way, just in the circle-of-life way. And that’s okay, even if it’s tinged with a little trepidation. Because if I can learn to be present — really present — and grateful, even when things are not going exactly as I want them to go, I can hold onto contentment and inner joy no matter what. I have no illusions that this will be easy, nothing good in life is, but I do believe that I am finally willing to do the work required. Daily work. Hour-by-hour work.
I grabbed a Mary Oliver book, Devotions, off my bookshelf before I taught yoga class yesterday, and it fell open to her poem “Snow Geese.” I knew as soon as I read it that it was the heart of the dharma talk I would give that day and completely fitting for this time of year and time of life.
“Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!
What a task
of anything, or anyone,
yet it is ours,
and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.” — Mary Oliver
I hope you’ll join me on this journey through the next decade. Who knows where it will take us? Let’s keep each other company because, after all, to quote Ram Dass yet again: “We are all just walking each other home.”
P.S. If you’d like to read my final Life in My 50s post, you can find that HERE.
by Mary | Sep 26, 2021 | Life in My 50s
Today I begin the first day of my last year in my 50s. Feels significant in some inexplicable way. I guess all the birthdays become significant, or more significant, as we age. I woke up this morning with my usual aches and pains in hips and knees and lower back, with eye issues that have become chronic, and the ability to jump out of bed becoming a distant memory, and yet I thought: I’m breathing. I woke up to see another day, another year, another birthday, and for that I am grateful. At one point this morning I remember thinking: I am now 12 years past my mother’s age when she died. Trust me, that is no small thing. And most people who have lost a parent too young totally get that.
by Mary | Jun 5, 2021 | Life Lines
Last week I was working out in a corner of our backyard where I decided to create a meditation garden. The area, which had once been home to a swing set, had become overrun with weeds and was, for the most part, lost space. I came up with the idea for the garden last year when pandemic gave me ample opportunity to work outside.
by Mary | Mar 3, 2021 | retreats
If you are near — or can get to — the stunning Bon Secours Retreat & Conference Center in Marriottsville, Maryland, I’ve got a weekend retreat to kick off your summer. I’ll be presenting “Broken, Beautiful, and Beloved: Learning to See Ourselves through God’s Eyes,” from Friday, June 25, at 3 p.m. through Sunday, June 27, at 1 p.m.