April 2018

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


A few weeks ago, when I was frustrated with some of my younger classmates, my professor recommended that I read Kathleen Dowling Singh's The Grace in Aging: Awaken as You Grow. I thought my professor was recommending the book because I am negotiating generational differences with my classmates, and I thought she was sending me to a resource that would help me negotiate those differences more gracefully. Perhaps that's what she intended, and perhaps I learned those things, but I also learned to think about my life--the particular place where I find myself in my journey right now--differently. The learning is relief. It is also humbling. 

My professor pointed me first to a poem by Jan Richardson in a chapter on forgiveness, a chapter I needed to read, and next came the chapter, "Humility."  Yep, it's humbling to admit it, but I need that one, too. In fact, I needed all the chapters from here on out.

I have a lot of strengths, but--to be honest--humility isn't one of them. Perhaps this is genetic. One of my father's oft-repeated sayings is, "It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am." In the home where I grew up hangs a cross-stitch of another of his sayings, given to him by one of the nurses in his office: "It's hard to soar with the eagles when you're surrounded by turkeys." Now, give him credit for his sense of humor, and note that perhaps both the humor and the pride are part of his apple tree, and perhaps this apple didn't fall far from that tree. 

Dowling Singh gives me a new way to think about humility. Her thinking goes beyond the punitive: “Pride goeth before the fall.” She writes, “Pride has nothing to do with the radiant and holy.” I’d like to live in the radiant and the holy, so perhaps my journey will take me away from pride—or beyond it. She also writes about pride as something beyond gloating, inwardly or outwardly. Pride is about our ties to ourselves, what she calls “selfing.”

In her penultimate chapter, Dowling Singh writes extensively about self-reference, saying that in order to be wise we must enter "experiential rather than narrative attention.” As a writer of two memoirs and blog that’s entirely about me, this worried me a little, but it’s also a truth that makes sense to me. I have even written about this idea myself. When I thought I had finished my first memoir, I wrote an afterward in which I confessed:

“Where is all of this recalculating taking me?” I wonder. My life’s route changes with each recalculation, but the destination, which I finally come to realize is death, does not change. Like the cliché says, life really is about the journey. Or maybe it’s about the moment. Which moment? The moment that is now.
I begin to wonder if my life is more like the still moment in a poem than like the journeys of an epic hero. In this paradigm shift, I wonder if I should sit still and watch closely rather than trying to defeat my foes. I wonder if it’s time to stop recalculating, time to breathe and look around.
As I write, I realize that when I have faced blocks in the road, I have always sought a new route. Though my routes have changed, I have remained much the same—always looking for a route.  I find a new route, and I charge (or hobble) away in a new direction. Perhaps I now need to sit where I am and look around. And just be. I wonder how to do that and what it means. Once again, I feel a little lost. Once again, I don’t know the way. This time, I don’t know how to just be.
But I guess I can only be lost if I am going somewhere. If I can just be, maybe my destination doesn’t matter. Perhaps I cannot be lost if I am not going anywhere.
Oh boy. Here I go again. Or here I am at last.

So in my writing I have already imagined that I need to move away from narrative and the life story that narrative reveals, but I have not known how to move in this direction. I believe I am a memoirist, not a poet. Poets, I believe, are profound and deep in a way that seems beyond my ken. That is why I quote so many poets. They bring truths into the light that are only hinted at in the shadows of my narratives. Kathleen Dowling Singh is a poet.

Dowling Singh quotes the poet David Waggoner as if she and he had read my unfinished memoir:

Stand still. The trees
ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever
you are is called Here.
The forest knows where you are. You
must let it find you.

How do I stand still? Dowling Singh tells me that I must let go of my stories and of the storyteller, which would be letting go of myself. Uh-oh. I've said I'd like to be wise, but this blog is entirely self-referential as are the two memoirs. Besides, I’m a Southerner, which means I tell stories. I’m not yet ready to relinquish my stories—or my self.

After I read this chapter on relinquishing the story and the storyteller, Ann and I had dinner at Paradise (at Mt. Rainier, which is heavenly but not heaven), and at dinner I told her that I would have to give up my notion that I might become wise because I must tell stories, and Kathleen Dowling Singh says that wise ones go beyond their stories. I have stories to tell, stories that in the telling I find healing and hope to connect with others who seek healing. I feel compelled. I really just must. I’ll say it again: I am not yet ready to relinquish these stories—or my self. So I guessed I would not be wise.

In fact, before brain surgery I did not fear death: I feared losing my sense of self, and I have been quite happy to have maintained this sense and to have so much to say about it—about myself. Also, one of my favorite poems is Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” which begins, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” Joyfully self-referential.

“Uh-oh,” I was thinking. “Wisdom is not for me.” It seems odd to actively choose not to be wise. I wondered if this were like a deal with the devil: I would keep myself and lose my soul. 

Fortunately, I read on, and in the final chapter Dowling Singh writes, "Telling the story is pivotal, as it highlights both our wounds and the sense of self that the story explains…. Healing can begin in the experience of feeling understood.”

Whew. I don’t have to give up wisdom. I simply need to accept that I am on a journey and have not reached a destination, if wisdom is my destination. (I had thought my destination was death, but perhaps that’s the same thing—or at least along the same path. And I wonder if either death or wisdom are really destinations, or if they simply are.)

As is so often the case, I need to slow down and to see that my journey is a human one, and in my humanness I have a process to go through. I had thought the wisdom might be in my writing, but perhaps the writing is simply a part of the journey, and I need to accept, humbly even, that I am on the journey and am not yet so close to being wise as I had hoped.

So how do I begin this journey? Fortunately, Dowling Singh points me in a direction:

1. Tell my story, and then perhaps I will be “willing to see through [my] narrative to the truth.” (I think I have a start here.)

   2. Experience intentional silence. (Each morning now I sit quietly for thirty minutes, and I am noticing how overactive my mind is, how insistent it is on amusing itself with distractions. I am beginning to experience what I have heard: my mind is not me. Also, in October I’ll begin an eight week course on “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction,” which as I understand it is meditation for those who deal with serious health conditions. I’m committed to learning more about meditation. So I have a start here, too.)
3. Practice silence. (I’m not ready for entirely silent days—and  Ann’s probably not ready for my total silence either—but Dowling Singh gives me a step along the way, which she calls “Essential silence” which is “to speak only as appropriate, only if it is essential.” I think I’ll try this. A new start.

And then perhaps I’ll discover the next step, which I cannot now see. Perhaps I’ll learn again (I am always re-learning this lesson) to slow down and to accept my awakening as a process that will take time. As the wise Oscar Romero said:

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
 The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction 
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
 Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
 saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one 
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
 knowing that they hold future promise.
 We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
 far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
 liberation in realizing this.
 This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
 It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
 a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's 
grace to enter and do the rest.
 We may never see the end results, but that is the 
difference between the master builder and the worker.

So we cannot do everything, and we cannot see everything. This is what it means to be human.

And what about my pride, a pride I have buttressed as my vision has doubled and decreased and my balance makes me totter rather than stride? As Dowling Singh writes, “Divine pride is grateful ownership. We own the nobility of our own essential being, but we own it gratefully.”

So perhaps I’ll grow in humility and gratitude in a way that I cannot now imagine.

I welcome myself to the human race, which is not a race.

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