Beginner's Heart

via wikipedia

via wikipedia

Fire destroys. Especially in parks. And yet, it can have consequences beyond the immediate destruction, even the resultants deaths.

This is a picture of the inferno that blazed on the Rim vista point, in the Stanislaus National Forest. It cost approximately $127 million to fight.

The fire that devastated Yellowstone still haunts visitors — there are thousands of sere lodgepole pine skeletons reaching skyward. They march across the horizon like their own grave markers, thin black silhouettes.  Even now, so many years later (13?), you can see entire acreages of bleak grey sentinels, standing watch over the younger vegetation below.

But fire also renews. Most of us who visit national parks know about the serotinus conifers —  pines, cypress, sequoias — that need fire to help seeds sprout. Fire helps habitat for grazers, as well, opening up more area for grassland beneath the denuded trees. Ash is an excellent fertiliser.

Still, no one seeks out a raging fire. No one intentionally sets fire, other than in carefully managed circumstances. Because fire, when uncontrolled, is so very destructive.

National Park Service / EPA

National Park Service / EPA

And yet… It’s beautiful, fire. From a distance — away from the killing heat, the fatal smoke? There are few things lovelier. Witness the picture of the recent Yosemite Half Dome fire.

That’s today’s lesson for my beginner’s heart. Sometimes what seems catastropic, or at the very least severely destabilising, is a form of controlled burn. We can be renewed through it. And no, it’s not particularly pleasant. I’m sure the deaths suffered in the great Yellowstone fires are still mourned. But the new growth? The new grazing, the young saplings, the revitalisation? That’s the legacy of fire.

I’m sure this is some kind of lesson, all gleaned from a picture sent me by a friend. Just a picture of beautiful fire, seen from a distance. Doing what it does best — both destroying & renewing. The destruction is obvious, as is the beauty, if you’re far enough away. But you have to look for the renewal. And it takes a while. I’m ready.


Genuine, heartfelt ritual helps us reconnect with power and vision as well as with the sadness and pain of the human condition. When the power and vision come together, there’s some sense of doing things properly for their own sake. Making a proper cup of tea means that you thoroughly and completely make that tea because you appreciate the tea and the boiling water and the fact that together they make something that’s nourishing and delicious, that lifts one’s spirit. You don’t do it because you’re worried that someone’s not going to like you if you don’t do it right. Nor do you do it so fast that it’s over before you even realize that you made a cup of tea, let alone that you drank six cups.

So whether it’s smoking a cigarette or drinking a cup of tea or making your bed or washing the dishes—whatever it might be—it’s ritual in the sense of doing it properly…

~ Pema Chodron

via wikipedia

via wikipedia

I am betting most Americans don’t meditate. Or at least they don’t think they do. They don’t sit on the deck following a guided meditation. Nor do they sit on a zafu, legs crossed. Not even in a chair, breathing in/out, in/out. They don’t follow their steps, as the beloved monk Thích Nhất Hạnh does.

But still, you probably do meditate. You just don’t call it that. You have these rituals — some even daily — that you perform. Rituals that calm & center, as you walk through their steps. You do this already, w/ only one small thing lacking.

For me, it’s often tea — the cup, the pot, the water. The spoon, the sugar, the milk. Although sometimes it’s coffee — packing the espresso filter, watching as the crema foams. It can be consciously feeling the pain in my knees as I do stairs, going up to fetch something for my beloved. Often it’s sitting down to write.

via the author

via the author

Some days — not as daily as I would like! — I do sit on the deck, listening to my day’s meditation lesson from Headspace (great program, just FYI). Immersed in the birds catching up w/ each other, the sound of weekend leaf blowers providing the tympani, I gently refocus, time after time after time.

I meditate, for the most part, to be a better me — to meet my beloved’s illness w/ more patience & support. To be a better mother to my sons, my DIL. A quieter and more listening friend. To have more equanimity in general.

But I also meditate for me. Just for the quiet it brings me, the soothing healing quiet.

gratitude journal 2This isn’t a popular position, I confess. Even my meditation program notes that ‘being aware of the impact on our meditation on others is important.’ I get that. I really do.  It’s also one of the things I do just for me. Like my morning cuppa, or my gratitude journal. Each a ritual, an island of softness in a sometimes hard day.

Today, as I sat in the highbacked deck rocker, reminding my mind that we were sitting, not playing tag w/ every thought that came up, I am grateful for rituals. The obvious — morning meditation — and the not-as-obvious, the ones we do almost unconsciously.

And that’s the point: just make them conscious. Then they become a kind of meditation, a way to focus you on what’s important. YOU. Because if we don’t love ourselves — whom we know so painfully well — how will we ever find it within to really love the other flawed human beings in our worlds? So when I go weed the walled garden today? I”m going to try to remember: this can be ritual. Just pay attention, and be here. Now.

Just sayin’…


vanity mirrorI’m not (I think…?) a needy person, someone who seeks love and affirmation for everything s/he does. What I do like is when I can just love folks. My folks, of course — not as good w/ the whole hoi polloi. My friends, family, the people I journey with.

Love is a pretty good mirror, actually. My sisters & sons & beloved — as well as various dear friends, family, colleagues…they think I don’t see them as they really are. I’d contend that we rarely see ourselves objectively, as we really are. I’m far better at seeing you clearly than you are.

For instance: I know that my elder son can be judgmental. So can I. And my younger son is occasionally brusque. So is his father. My beloved is impatient (to a fault!). My mother was often moody under stress, my father flamed when angry.

What each of them doesn’t see — and what I do — is their incredible generousity, their commitment to learning, their compassion for underdogs and the less fortunate. How they were patient w/ me when I most needed it, loving as I required it. What my sisters, who are certain I ‘just love them,’ never realise is that they are not their faults. None of us is. That’s where love is the best of mirrors.

via wikipedia

via wikipedia

I’m not blind to faults. They just don’t mean so much, because your faults are outweighed by so many more important things. Are you tight with money (always under-estimating your share of the bill), as one of my friends is? Okay, but far more important is how incredibly giving you are w/ your personal time, your support, and your many skill sets. Do you sometimes blow up when you’re tired? Or forget to email me back in a timely fashion? Or misspell something in a FB post? Well, you also push yourself farther for your friends than almost anyone I know. Ultimately, doesn’t that latter outweigh all the former?

What about the way you take care of your aging parent(s)? The tenderness you show your child(ren)? The stray animals you rescue and help? Self-concept theories say we are what WE see. But we’re so much more than that. Where in this model of self-concept do you include how I see you, any of you whom I love…? Where is there room for your goofy sense of humour, your erudition, your ability to fix a computer by walking in the room?

This is the best part of loving people, in my none-too-humble opinion: mirroring back to them what I see when I look into their faces. So don’t tell me I don’t see you clearly: I ‘just love’ you. Yes. I do. And it gives me far clearer vision than yours.

glen & me wedding 1976 001 Once upon a time (and it was a very long time ago) there were a very young man and a very young woman. They fell in love & eventually (much to their parents’ delight) married.

They didn’t know any ministers — neither being church-goers — so they asked their religion professor to marry them. ‘Happy to,’ he responded. They picked some vows — Elizabethan ones, for the English major — and set a date. She bought a dress on sale; he had rings made by one of the groomsmen. It was a GREAT day.

Today, these many years later, they celebrate that day. Because sooo many great things came from it:

  • Two practically perfect sons
  • A perfect daughter-in-law
  • A beyond-perfect grandson
  • In-laws on both sides who still love us dearly
  • Travels w/ our best friends (us!)
  • The growing & ongoing flowering of a life-long love & friendship

I know; this is pretty mushy. Oh well! Today, marriage to your college sweetheart — 1st marriages for each of us — that grows, deepens, &  lasts, is indeed a throwback. It was probably equally rare in the throwback days; they were just more discreet in their miseries back then.

photo the author

photo the author

We don’t have miseries. We do occasionally have disagreements — and we used to have out’n’out knock-down/dragout fights, as my mother would say. But now? Mostly we talk things out — a lovely fruit of a gracefully aging tree. Even though no one thought our marriage would last (except me!). We’re as different as the card I gave my beloved this morning — he’s a math guy, a techie, a physicist and an engineer. A deepsea fisherman. While I’m a poet, a writer, a teacher,  a journal-keeper & a major ranter on all things.

I asked him once why he didn’t marry X or Y. “She wasn’t funny,” he replied. And that, my friends, is as much a rule for happy marriage as any. Humour. Because I wanted kids & he didn’t (we now have 2, plus part-time interests in several nephews & nieces). He wanted to have French bulldogs; I wanted big dogs. We have Frenchies. Another long list, of compromises that don’t feel like we ‘gave up’ anything.

via google

via google

Instead? They feel like old jokes (humour, remember?), retold & well-loved. Like so many of our stories: the dinner in Algeria where we were served hollow bones (true); always going to the Rijksmuseum every visit to Amsterdam; the first time I cooked for him (and caught his kitchen on fire!).

But I have to add — it also helps if you both love to travel, place great value on family, and read more than sane people… And don’t forget ice cream. You can NOT marry someone who doesn’t like ice cream. Happiest of anniversaries to us. ♥


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