The woman was slow to find her shoes. When she wiggled into them at last, she moved reluctantly toward the coat rack for her jacket. Her gaze traveled to the wall where the bench used to be, where the candles once were. Finally, I understood her hesitation. "Did you want to light a candle?" I asked her. "I really need to say a prayer." she answered rapidly. This woman, who some might label "disabled", has displayed some of the most genuine faith I've seen. For weeks now, she has come to class, pausing to write a prayer and light a candle. A sensitive soul and avid news watcher, she often needs to pray for an accident victim, storm survivors, or an injured animal that she has heard about. There seems to be no request too large or too small for her. She sees, she hears, she feels, she reacts. Sometimes her prayers are silent, as they are this day when I had moved the candles. She lit up when I showed her their new location, above the fireplace, interspersed with shells, feathers, heart shaped rocks and bamboo. She wrote her words carefully on a slip of paper and folded it into the bowl. She allowed me to help her with the lighter, and together we lit not one, but two candles. "Two!" She enthused. She didn't ask why, but if she had, I would have told her. One candle was for her request, whatever it was. The second was mine. Silently, I asked to learn from the beauty and simplicity of this woman's light. She sees, she hears, she feels, she reacts. She reacts with her heart; not by needing to spring into action, but by admitting her innocence, her powerlessness, her fear, her dreams. She reacts by needing to write the words down, to place them in a bowl, and then to shine a light on them. She has inspired me to re-prioritize my needs when I arrive at work. The first thing I do these days is offer up my prayers. Like hers, they are often for those I know, for those I've read about, for those I love. Some are painful petitions, others are abundant gratitude. All of them make the room and my heart brighter.
The plant in the picture is older than any of my biological children. It belonged to John's first wife, and to her father before that. Both had extraordinary green thumbs. The plant survived both of their losses, and the eventual onslaught of activity brought about by my boys and my arrival. It shouldered a move into the house when little hands in the school building became too rough for it. It grew and flourished, until Nala moved in. A sweet, oversized orange tiger cat, Nala had/has an affinity for plants. She climbs them, sleeps in them, digs in them plays in them and eats them. Each time she would eat a new shoot off this plant, it would grow another one. It became a war between the plant and animal worlds, until Nala finally won. Worn, broken, leaning, the tree appeared to give up. I prepared to throw it out, then looked more closely.
On the end of one brittle looking branch are two tiny green shoots. Before I could change my mind, and before Nala could lick her chops, I moved the plant to Abundance of Peace. I dug up the soil, fertilized and watered the plant. It sits next to a thriving plant, its tiny shoot looking a bit greener each day. It isn't beautiful. It isn't even remotely attractive. But I can relate to this plant. I'll bet you can, too. We all strive to grow. We grow through spurts in which we're lush and green, nimble and strong. And then a usually well meaning cat comes along and we find our branches barren. Then we become more tenacious and decide to grow in spite of feline obstacles, until our growth becomes too much temptation for her teeth to resist. And we keep trying to grow, and we keep getting nipped, until there seems no choice but to go dormant....except for those two little whispers of hope growing out one branch.
Here is where those who keep growing differ from those who give up. To keep growing, we need to get the heck away from the cat! Sometimes we can do so independently, but usually it takes the help of someone willing to lift us to safety, stir our soil, fertilize and water us. My hope is strong for this particular plant. It is warm, safe, fed and in no danger of coming in contact with Nala. It is in a peaceful place, surrounded by healthy, strong, lush green plants. It sits amidst laughter and yoga and gets touched by loving reiki hands. It gets gently spoken to with words that focus not on the withered brown trunks, but on those two little green shoots. It has its own sign, a symbol of the possibilities in each of us when we are willing to grow in spite of obstacles and accept the gift of hope.
She was the type of woman who commanded attention when walking into a room. It wasn't Olga's beauty that made one take pause, but her way of being that was evident in her every move. She looked strong, muscular, able to take care of herself. She was in her early 70s when I knew her, yet there was an ease and a grace with which she carried herself. She exuded kindness, but not vulnerability. She dressed simply, and wore her long hair gathered at the nape of the neck and twisted into a bun. A closer look at her life may have revealed how little she had in terms of physical possessions, yet she never lived in poverty by her own standards. When she became ill, she decided that, at her age,(her words) she would not opt for treatment, but live out her days on her terms. Her illness spanned a couple of years, during which she had her ups and downs. She rarely complained, and when she occasionally did, she would breathe and state "...but I am blessed...". Always, she would find some story, some tidbit of positive to share. Olga was a giver of small kindnesses. A squeeze on the shoulder, a hug, a smile, a warm meal. For those who knew her better than I, she left many legacies, I'm sure. I am reminded of her impact each time my hairbrush gets full of hair. Olga always pulled the hair out of her brush and put it out for the birds. "They like something soft and warm to build a nest for their little ones", she'd say. When she was too ill to empty it outside herself, it brought her great pleasure when someone did it for her. A simple gesture, performed with such beauty and integrity. Because of her, I still leave the hair from my brush for the birds, and have taught my daughter to do the same. A skeptic might wrinkle his nose and point out that really none of this makes for a stellar life. After all, this woman didn't cure cancer, or write a best-selling novel, or make money hand over fist. She simply moved through life in gratitude and love. 35 years after her death, I still think of her kindness. Love, gratitude, the sharing of all she had...this was Olga's legacy.
When I find myself getting caught in frenzy, fear, lack of "enough", I strive to be more like Olga. Some days I succeed, and some days I fail miserably. It's a work in progress, and I am grateful.
It had been a day of reflection, of cleaning out and purging. With a bag of paper and plastic recycling and one filled with trash, I was ready to step out to the dumpster. As I opened the door, a man walked into the center asking about yoga classes. I printed a brochure, told him about our classes, showed him around the center. He bought a pass and said he'd be back in an hour for the next class. With the gratitude we small business owners feel during the lean months of the year, I walked to the dumpster feeling just a little bit lighter. With a deep breath, I heaved the bag of trash into the dumpster. As I exhaled, I heard a sickening clink. I started to laugh and cry at the same time as I realized what I'd done. I'd held my keys in the hand that held the trash. Somewhere in the bottom of the dumpster were the keys to my business, the keys to my house, the keys to my car. There was no choice but to go in. Taking another deep breath, (thank God for yoga!), I braced my foot on the side of the dumpster and pushed myself up and over into the murky mess. It was just getting dark, and I shuddered thinking about what life forms might be skittering beneath my feet. There are probably logical methods I could have used to unearth my keys, but the first thing that came to mind was the life saving drill we did in the water as camp counselors. We lined up, arm in arm and swept our feet through the water one at a time. In the absence of others, I began sweeping. On the third "sweep", I heard what could be my keys. Again, the only choice was to put my hand through whatever lay between the top of the trash and that sweet clinking sound. I did. I uncovered my keys, and pushed myself out of the dumpster with more vigor than I thought possible.
Once out and in possession of my keys and copious amounts of hand sanitizer, I meditated on what lesson I was to learn from this experience. For me, there were two, though you as the reader might find those more applicable to you. (If so, go with it!)
First, I reminded myself that there are people and things that I hold dear enough to be willing to sift through trash for. That thought filled me with gratitude. It also led me to my next lesson. When you have to sweep through the murky mess of a dumpster, or cloudy lake water, it's reassuring to have others arm in arm with you. Those same people and things that we care enough to fight for but sometimes hold at bay are usually waiting for us to invite them to join the line. Searching together is easier and more productive than searching alone. Spiritually, admitting "defeat" or at least our human nature, invites God to loop a cosmic arm through ours and search with us. Not bad lessons from the depths of a dumpster.