Things are Different: Grieve, Slow Down, Pay Attention, Stay Tender.

Things are Different: Grieve

Our lives will be forever changed. The grief and loss we now face will forever change us. They already have changed us. They will continue to change us. As long as I keep letting it in, grief is tenderizing me in ways my body had yet to feel. Loss is softening me to myself and others like never before. There is an opening, a deepening, a widening which can only take place in the searing furnace of grief, of loss, of uncertainty.

What would happen if I gave grief and loss more control amid a time of no control? What would happen if I let go to sink into the grief and anguish this moment beckons me to?

“In the personal life, there is
always grief more than enough,
a heart-load for each of us”
––Mary Oliver, Ocean in Red Bird

Here we are. 

Things are Different: Slow Down

Our slowing down depends on each other, and, the thing is, it always has. Nature cannot heal, you cannot heal, I cannot heal, until we slow down and begin to listen to ourselves and each other. This collective slow-down has really pointed me to the crux of the situation at hand: we belong to each other. My moral and ethical responsibility to my fellow human is about the collective us. My staying home is for me, for you, and for the collective body. And yet, my responsibility to me, to you, to us, was there all along. Sometimes slowing down is an uncovering. Sometimes slowing down is a return. Poet Wendell Berry captured the irony of this moment nicely in his 1980 poem titled Stay Home (an excerpt):

“I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man’s life
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.”

What would happen if I slowed down enough to embrace the stirrings within my own body. To feel my agonies and my longings. What would happen if I slowed down enough to remember my self-belonging, my belonging relationally, my belonging to the collective us?

Here we are. 

Things are Different: Pay Attention

Slowing down naturally leads me to paying more attention. My senses become more attuned, aware, and clear. And as I deepen my own connectivity to myself, it is inevitable that I touch an even deeper rootedness to all humans. “Attention,” Simone Weil writes, “is the rarest and purest form of generosity…. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

This collective slow-down tells us a lot about our systems — our countless systems which uphold injustices and oppression: the innumerable ways we are seeing the imbalance of Black deaths to COVID, the perpetual racism towards Chinese-Americans, the news segments of privileged white men with no symptoms and even tigers having easier access to testing than someone gasping for air, the continually dismissed clarity from the chronically ill and dissabled communities whose work has been speaking wisdom for time immemorial, the vulnerability of a number of groups including the homeless and incarcerated populations.

Am I paying attention?

It is safe to say that among other things, there is a “racial pandemic within the viral pandemic,” which is continuing to make the truth all the more clear, if I let it. If I am willing to pay attention. If I am willing to slow-down and heed the truth of innate belonging. A belonging which demands I see and yield to my connectivity to my fellow human––each and every one of of the collective body. “Sometimes,” writes Ibram X. Kendi in the Atlantic, “racial data tell us something we don’t know. Other times we need racial data to confirm something we already seem to know.”

In 1963 James Baldwin wrote, “I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the time burden is a reality and arrive where reality is. Anyway, the point here is that we are living in an age of revolution, whether we will or no, and that America is the only Western nation with both the power and, as I hope to suggest, the experience that may help to make these revolutions real and minimize the human damage.”

What does paying attention look like in this time of slowing down? What would happen if I did not forget what this moment in time is doing to the collective us, to the whole body of humanity?

“Neighborliness,” writes Howard Thurman in 1949, “is nonspatial; it is qualitative.”

Things are Different: Stay Soft, Be Tender, Let Yourself Rest (and eat chocolate)

Last week I opened the notes on my phone and wrote to myself: “Suddenly you have all this time and you’re not doing a damn thing? Good, you’re doing this right.”

If I have only learned one thing so far in this time of sheltering in place and slowing down, it is this: Stay soft, be tender, and let yourself rest.

That is enough. You are enough. However you’re doing this, you’re doing it right. You’re doing a good job.

Things are different: Grieve. Slow down. Pay Attention. Stay Tender. Repeat. 

(Oh. And, don’t forget to eat a little chocolate. In a recent piece on tips to cope with acedia––“the feeling of being totally bored and totally restless,” author Kathleen Norris shared, “I provide myself with enough chocolate to keep going.” Amen.)

Here we are. Welcome to the collective slow-down. 

 

Enjoy my writing? Become a Patron. become_a_patron_button@2x

New Year, Same Past

New doesn’t always feel good. We are told to embrace the New Year full of things that have never been as if we’ve been given a clean slate. As though we have no histories of brokenness, loss, torment, or suffering. And our world preys on us with its expectation of resolutions and quick-fixes––there’s a product for everything. For a day or two, maybe, we forget our pasts and embrace this newness, until the rest of us catches up and we deflate into the truth of where and who we are. Perhaps, for me, it’s the third-day itch of the New Year. Some feel it earlier or later. Some never feel the newness. My friend sends me a text: “Everyone now expects a depressed Christmas, but by New Year’s you’re supposed to get over it?”

On this third day, I did not rise. Instead I awoke to the silences around and within me. My heart as still as the days that move slow. My mind as empty as the blank page before me. Everything hushed to nothing. Reaching back into myself, I could only find the spaciousness of absence, the expanse of void. 

Tears are emptied.

The heart is out of questions.

The mind is thoughtless.

The list is so full, it is empty.

The hope is so deep, it is lost.

There’s a feeling of being so together, so clear; There’s only brokenness.

There is the place in my life, paradoxically, where mystery is conceived and the best of myself is birthed. It never seems to be a place of great joy, but it is a place of great truth. The world tells us this is brokenness, that we are the wounded walking around aimlessly. But, I dare to think that these are the breeding grounds for more truth, for more love, for something of the healing we all need and are looking for.

Suffering, Parker Palmer says, breaks our hearts, but the heart can break in two different ways. We can release the anxieties and sadness upon the world in a way that is reminiscent of breaking into shards, shattering the one who suffers as it explodes, and sometimes taking others down when it’s thrown like a grenade at the ostensible source of its pain. Or, we can transform like the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, the one that can grow into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.”

How to be that supple heart? The heart that breaks open, not apart? To suffer in a way that connects us? I cannot wander around looking for wounds that match—for that limits personal healing. I cannot thrust myself into the suffering over and over again, for that prolongs the pain. I can only be. Just be. Be with my suffering, my pain, my anguish, in all of its vulnerability. I dare to remember the strength and the courage that this kind of suffering takes. The kind of suffering that is so deep, I’ve lost words to describe it. The kind of agony that is so dark, I fear it will not let me go. Of course there are times and days when I must reach out, whether that be to friends or for professional help, for I am not meant to walk through suffering alone. But I do believe I am asked to try and see the fertile ground on which I stand when I suffer or when I encounter another’s suffering.

In Thomas Merton’s “Hagia Sophia” essay, he expresses that there is “in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom…” Going on to name wisdom as Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), he says of the suffering, “Gentleness comes to him when he is most helpless and awakens him, refreshed, beginning to be made whole. Love takes him by the hand, and opens to him the doors of another life, another day.”

On one of the last days of 2019 I cracked open a fortune cookie and read, “Believe in miracles.” Scoffing at the note I thought to myself, what does that even mean? What does it mean to believe in miracles amid a world so broken, so lost, and in such desperate need of healing? The word “miracle” often seems like a far-fetched hope which lives on the outskirts of possibility. My mind wants to make miracles smaller: there are the miracles of ordinary stuff of life, like the friend sitting to my left, who mocks the fortune right along with me. My nephews, who constantly remind me that play is more important than the seriousness of life. The relationships in my life that offer me the rarest and purest form of love by way of time and presence.

But what if the miracle is also so much bigger?

And I know that for too many, suffering has no end. And yet I’ve seen some of the greatest wisdom among those long sufferers—a raw wisdom drenched in presence and love.  While my agonies may not bring me closer to new life, they may bring me closer to an unveiled one. May my dark nights embolden me, on this painful ground, to long for more love and more truth.

Thomas Merton spoke of our world as a place where humanity is “taught not to be content with what they are and to be constantly yearning for something else.” In our longing to feel better, we find ourselves reaching for things to fix or even sustain us. For the everyday miracle. But it is on the ground of being where the miracle of the ordinary lives and a great depth abounds. He goes on:

“…the most crucial thing, at least for me, is the necessity to dig into what one is. A mysticism of is-ness, a mysticism of existence, a mysticism of accepting what is here and now right in front of your nose. And seeing that it is useless to reach out to what one is not and what one will never be. The passage is immediate, there is no passage. You’re not going anywhere, you’re where you are.”

So, onward we all go, into exactly who we are. Into a new year with the same past. Into another day with the same pain. Into the ordinary miracles of life, breath, love. And to the extraordinary miracle of being.

In this new year,

Blessed are you who are broken.

Blessed are you who are suffering.

Blessed are you who are trying.

Blessed are you who feel you cannot try today.

Blessed are you who are hopeful.

Blessed are you who are hopeless.

Blessed are you whose hearts are supple.

Blessed are you who heed the wisdom within yourself. 

Blessed are you who keep opening for the sake of Love, for the sake of Life, for the sake of Truth.

Blessed are you in your dark nights, my friends.

 

 

Enjoy my work? Become a Patron.become_a_patron_button@2x

Creating From The Wound

I live in Los Angeles, the epicenter of self-defining artists. And, like most people in this city, I consider myself an artist. However, unlike most people living in Los Angeles — I believe we’re all artists in some form or another. I’m in constant awe of the way people create, perform, produce, and refine their skills. I see this in the visual arts, parenting, writing, cooking, teaching, care-taking, and most avenues of life.

In LA, I’m constantly bombarded with things that take me away from my ability to create — the time in traffic, the busyness of a day’s work, the notifications on my phone, the amount of people. Because of this, I try to hike a couple times a week. Hiking seems to be an activity where I process through things in my life — often to the point of talking aloud as strangers walk by me curious about my babbling. More often than not, it’s reworking a conversation and my place in it, sometimes it’s prayer, and other times it’s just a subconscious dialogue I’d yet to consider. This personal jukebox seems to flow most easily in a natural setting; the safety of nature guides me into letting it all out. This sense of safety is not only ingrained in our genetics but is also evident in our psychological interaction with uniting our bodies with the earth.

“We’ve learned over hundreds of thousands of years, that when the birds are singing, we’re safe. It’s only if they suddenly stop that you get a really bad feeling.” Julian Treasure of The Sound Agency via In Pursuit of Silence

While hiking the other day, I unknowingly lifted my right hand to the left side of my face, holding it ever so tenderly, like a lost lover would. I stopped, closed my eyes, and began to weep. After a few seconds of embracing this deep grief, I finally gathered myself enough to keep walking, continuing to cup my own face as if I wasn’t alone, as if I was someone’s beloved, as if she was with me. And, as these moments turn out, I was indeed alone, on a trail, walking by strangers as I held my own face. And just how many times have I found myself grazing my own hand, twisting my own rings, comforting myself? More often than I’d like to admit, but less often than I’d like to feel. 

This alienated agony we all face reminds me of the bottomlessness of my need to belong. A human need that we all know so well. That the depth of my longing is quite simply a part of my being, a part of how I was created, a part of my insatiable thirst for finally feeling home.

“…The normal way never leads home.” John O’Donohue

I’ve often considered one of the few certainties of our lives (as if there were any actual certainties in life) to be found in our relationships. Because, let’s face it, this woundedness demands a sense of tangible security. A security that no human ought to be made responsible to carry for us — both because it is beyond human possibility, and as we well know — the pain never dissipates. The cracks never fill. Belonging feels momentary. Home is never really found. It is eased, comforted, soothed — but it is the precisely the agony of these stirrings that call us to our work. And that is the artist’s response. That is the response of the creative that leans into her image as being made in the image of her creator. That is the moment where we become the artist and create our work. The work so deeply intertwined with eternity — the work that meets the infiniteness of our fellow humans because it comes from the infinite broken-heartedness of our own being.

“We all have wounds. We all are in so much pain. It’s precisely this feeling of loneliness that lurks behind all our successes, that feeling of uselessness that hides under all the praise, that feeling of meaninglessness even when people say we are fantastic—1that is what makes us sometimes grab onto people and expect from them an affection and love they cannot give.” — Henri Nouwen

Our hearts are bottomless pits that no human can fill. But, that is a gift. A gift that must be poured out in the creative work. A gift that requires constant courage and vulnerability of the self. The artist points to eternity because she creates from an eternal emptiness, woundedness, and ache.

These are the things that keep the artist alive. Tenderness. Intimacy. Love. Connection. Community. There are certainly times a friend’s touch can reignite us. There are moments a companion’s gaze can reinvigorate us. And there are seconds our own hand on our face might remind us that we do indeed belong, if only to ourselves. These are the moments that must be recalled time and time again so that we might stay afloat and keep creating.

“Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.” — Audre Lorde

“…But I believe that loneliness is something essential to human nature; it can only be covered over, it can never actually go away. Loneliness is a part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart.” — Jean Vanier

This piece was originally posted on the Sick Pilgrim Blog.

 

Enjoy my writing? Become a Patron. become_a_patron_button@2x

Trying To Say ‘God’ – Update

This month I’ve spent bouncing around the world from the Pelicam Film Festival in Romania (with the sponsorship of the US Embassy), to the ITMS (International Thomas Merton Society) Conference at St. Bonaventure University, and most recently the literary conference, Trying to Say ‘God’as put on by Sick Pilgrim and Notre Dame‘s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts. 

You can learn a lot hanging out with a bunch of people that feel deeply, love with vulnerability, and are open-minded to the insights of one another. At Trying to Say ‘God’, I was surrounded by humans that companion the suffering soul like no other group I’ve ever come across. My heart is not full, but it is alive. My wounds are not healed, but they are tended to. The wisdom and insights I heard at Notre Dame have stimulated my hope, opened my eyes, and quite literally breathed new life into all my anxious uncertainty. I was lucky enough to present on two panels with a few dear friends (see below). I was honored to be with some of the people dearest to my heart. The people that know the bottomless pit of my heart, and still care for it with an unquestioning tenderness. The people that remind me it is so good to be alive. To feel. To touch. To truly see one another with an unbroken attention. Trying to Say ‘God’ wasn’t just a literary conference – it was a soul-touching, faith-filled, vulnerability-doused, honest space of love.

Some of the same full-hearted people were at the Thomas Merton conference where I was able to ignite old and new friendships with soul-touching people. Some highlights from the ITMS 2017 conference include two presentations of the documentary film I helped co-produce, In Pursuit of Silence (releasing in Los Angeles theaters this weekend) and being elected as Secretary of the board for 2017-2019. 

But perhaps the biggest highlight from ITMS comes from my final evening at the Conference. On a cool summer day, I rode with a few friends to a nearby abandoned cottage full of life. It was in this cottage that Poet Robert Lax and his friend Thomas Merton spent the summers of 1939 and 1940. They spent their time there writing, exploring their futures together, and carrying on in their lifelong friendship. As I stood there with my three friends on the porch, taking in the creativity and momentum this small abandoned cottage witnessed; we considered the importance of friendship, the brevity of life, and the never ending communion of prayer. There, I gazed with these three friends past all the human hands pointing to the moon* to graciously embrace what our time there was saying. Over a growler of beer, we took in our poetic moment together. And, in true Lax form, we ever so briefly spoke into the sunset air that surrounded us. Check out more on Lax and Merton in Michael McGregor’s beautiful book, Pure Act: An Uncommon Life of Robert Lax (see below for an excerpt on Lax’s response to Merton’s death).

*”I must state clearly that my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.” Buddha

Trying to Say ‘God’ Panels:

The Inner Room: Untrying to Say ‘God’, Allowing Silence to Speak God’s Name” with Kevin M. Johnson and Cassidy Hall

“Notes from a Contemplative: Thomas Merton on the Art of Writing as Resistance and Protest” with Dave Griffith, Gordon Oyer, Kathleen Tarr, Cassidy Hall (you can listen to this one below). 

From Pure Act: An Uncommon Life of Robert Lax by Michael McGregor (New York, Fordham University Press, 2015) pp. 292-94.

“That evening, as Lax was going into town, he saw a single star and a single cloud above a hill. A poem came to him and he wrote it down, not realizing until later that it was about Merton. A few days later he enclosed it with a letter to Antonucci in which he wrote, “Think somehow night and day about [his death] & him …. Basically feeling o.k. Glad to be here where every part of landscape makes sense.” Antonucci illustrated the poem and published it under the title ‘A Poem for Thomas Merton’:

sin

gu

lar

 

star

 

sin

gu

lar

 

cloud

 

sin

gu

lar

 

hill

 

sin

gu

lar

 

cloud

 

sin

gu

lar

 

star

 

sin

gu

lar

 

hill

one

cloud

 

one

star

 

one

hill

 

one

hill

 

one

cloud

 

one

star

 

The Voice of the Heart

Listening to the voice of my heart has never come easy for me. I’m usually quick to assume a present feeling is final, an agony is forever, or that all of my questions should have answers and answers NOW. Yet, I know better. And, the more I grow through those fleeting assumptions–the more I find myself truly pausing and listening to the utterances of my heart–the more I’m truly in touch with those parts of myself that so softly speak my own truth.

…Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final…” Rilke, Book of Hours I, 59

I’ve found sacred pauses to buoy up my ability to hear those quiet whispers of myself: from going to monasteries, to turning off my car radio, and even truly sitting still in order to tend to “nothing”. Most recently, I returned from my second visit to Snowmass Monastery in Colorado where through the solitude and silence I was once again brought face to face with that interior whisper of who I am. Though the clarity is never striking or certain, it seems to offer a meeting place with the great unknowns and mysteries that somehow always know more, if even unspoken.

On this occasion to Snowmass Monastery, I arrived for more than just a notation on pilgrimage or for space and time away. I was attending the solemn profession of monastic vows that my friend, Brother Aaron, was about to take. He’d been a monk now for nearly eight years and was ready to make his vows of stability, obedience, and conversion of manners (Trappist/Cistercian Monastic vows*). Though I hadn’t seen him for nearly three and a half years, we’d been in touch via letters nearly every week since our initial meeting in 2013.

Much like all of my monastic trips, I settled in and rested for a moment before taking a familiar saunter into the church and meander around the accessible monastic grounds. Snowmass Monastery’s bookstore was a special stop for me to make, as it was where I’d met Brother Aaron nearly three and a half years ago. There, I sat on a bench, admired the new collection of poetry, and breathed in the beginning of a precious friendship, a sacred space of growth, and a familiarity with knowing I’m right where I should be in this very moment.

Just as I began making my way out of the store, a strangely familiar yet unrecognizable voice called out from the lawn near the bookstore, “Cassidy?” It could only be one person, someone that could know me so well to know my demeanor and recognize me by way of just that. Sure enough, it was Brother Aaron, and I finally received the true to word sign-off on each of his letters, “Big Hug”.

As we made our way back towards the guesthouse, we talked about all the friends and family pouring in from all over the map to see him on his special day. He spoke about how he was deeply moved by this and joyfully overwhelmed with all the love he was encountering. He explored with me the meaning of his choice in vocation, his decision to move forward with vows, and his sense of overflowing love with all those from his life who had come together for this important day. He told me that it seemed, “the closer I get to love in my own heart, the closer love comes to me.” That as he continued to be true and loving towards himself and love in his own life: his calling, his vocation, his personal truth–the overwhelming way in which love came to him left him speechless.

These profound words fastened to my attention throughout my time there and beyond – two weeks later they’re still searing into my being in a way that elevates my curiosity of what it really means to be true to oneself and one’s calling or vocation in life. How can one listen and be true to the heart’s quiet breathings, loud speakings, and miscellaneous messages in-between?

This dear monk has taught me time and time again of the great love we’re all capable of giving and receiving in our own unique ways and through our own unique vocations, but coming around to what that means for me certainly continues to evolve, as it does for each individual. Seeing his world come together in a way that renewed and fortified his own view on this was wondrous. As he was following his truth, listening to his call, exploring his heart – love flowed in from around the world for him, literally and figuratively.

Needless to say, I won’t soon forget seeing the solemn profession of monastic vows by my dear friend Brother Aaron. I can only hope to continue to strive towards those sacred pauses that continue to be a meeting place with the voice of my heart.

tree.png
Temescal Gateway Park, photo by Cassidy Hall

_________________________________________________________________

*For more about Cistercian Spirituality, check out author Carl McColman’s Befriending Silence.