It has been a quiet new year thus far, with winter storms and flu. The ground outside my window is pure white, with shadow marks from the footprints of deer, wild turkey, juncos, cardinals and Carolina wrens.
In this wintry introspection, I am only just realizing that for years I have resisted my work being called spiritual- a word used frequently in our culture, and sometimes in abstract or empty ways. I am often confused, and don't wish to be mistaken for someone who has things sorted out.
And yet, which word would I choose in its place? What do I call the longing to be called? To know what it is you are here for? For it isn't your work, your ability, your IQ, or your talent that sets you on course. It is the willingness to listen inwardly, and point yourself in a particular direction. You are called to action, and it is this movement that fosters faith. I am not talking about faith in any particular object or creed, but simply in the felt experience that you are part of something much larger than your "self" or your work, your family or your identity.
This sounds so simple, but in a world that promotes fixes and cures for all manner of things having to do with your "self", one easily loses track of ground. By ground I mean the core of your being, the something you came in with, that is part of everything, yet intangible. Sometimes it is called soul. Whatever soul is, wherever it abides, it eludes all formulas for fixing, predicting or defining. No matter how many clever remedies we have for our "self", our work, and our relationships– there is still something missing whenever we lose track of the deeper ground that holds us here. Conversely, feeling in contact with the hidden part of you that is connected with all the world, seems to sort out your problems, or at least give perspective.
People say, you are a painter, you are a calligrapher, or you are a teacher. But there are many times, for example, when I am not painting, and I don't feel like a painter, or know if I ever will feel like a painter again. And times when I am lettering that I cannot find the right form. And every time, before I teach, I am in constant unrest about what I have to offer. Thankfully, once I am in the classroom, I forget about myself. This is the key. Whatever you do, it is those moments when something speaks through you that are the most powerful. This happens when you are no longer concerned about yourself. You are both seeing clearly, and feeling seen.
While there is general agreement on the necessity of developing skills, learning about your tools and materials and studying– whatever gift you have is not your own. The experience of becoming an instrument comes of its own accord. Perhaps this is what is meant by grace. We cannot claim it for ourselves.
This is what I attempt to do as a teacher: create an atmosphere in the classroom that helps to lead us out of ourselves, and at the same time, bring us back to a sense of belonging. This is when your best work happens. I don't know what else to do. I myself need a container, a structure for this longing, this praise, this struggle, this work. A way to forget about myself.
I will end with this poem by Czeslaw Milosz, where I think he is looking back, and perhaps longing for the once long ago in the sun when he was taken outside himself:
A valley and above it forests in autumn colors.
A voyager arrives, a map leads him there.
Or perhaps memory. Once long ago in the sun,
When snow first fell, riding this way
He felt joy, strong, without reason,
Joy of the eyes. Everything was the rhythm
Of shifting trees, of a bird in flight,
Of a train on the viaduct, a feast in motion.
He returns years later, has no demands.
He wants only one, most precious thing:
To see, purely and simply, without name,
Without expectations, fears, or hopes,
At the edge where there is no I or not-I.This Only –Czeslaw Milosz
What stories or struggles do you have about times you have been led beyond yourself, and in that moment felt a part of everything? I'd love to hear from you.