Shifting Gears

Shifting Gears


The Menlo Park conference was over at midnight. A young man asked me, “I heard you live in Berkeley. Could I get a ride with you to the Oakland Navy Base?”

“I don’t know that area,” I answered. “Can you guide us there?”


The ride was slow because of the dark and the pouring rain, but we quickly discovered a shared enthusiasm and the miles rolled by.  Suddenly my rider said, “Turn right at the next light,” then we were at the Base gate. A few more turns, and without prelude he thanked me, jumped out of the car and dashed for the barracks door.

“Wait!” I cried. “How do I get out of here?”

“There’s only one way out. You can’t get lost.” And he was gone.

Now what? I had no idea how I got here. I tried to remember. It was 1:30 a.m. and still pouring. I hoped I could figure it out. After several false turns and passing through completely strange sections of the Base, I knew I was utterly lost. I kept trying to remember; no luck.

Suddenly I found myself facing a high chain link fence with a sign: “SECURITY AREA! Turn off your lights!”

Yikes. I did. I sat there a few moments, trying to collect myself.

Well, I couldn’t stay here. So in the darkness, I jockeyed the car around 180 degrees and turned on the headlights. And there, not 15 feet away, were two does and a fawn, staring into the lights. I was entranced. For several minutes they stood still, then slowly stepped out of the lights and disappeared. Wow.

Then a thought came: something in me got in here and that something must know how to get out; maybe if I just think about the deer…I started the car and drove without error through several turns to the gate. I was on my way home.

It was an intense lesson: if I stay with my intuition and don’t try so hard to reason about everything, my deeper self knows what to do. I began the new practice. It has served me well—well, that is, when I pay attention. When I think of the deer and not the confusion. May we all discover the pleasure of following those inner leads!
























We all have them—moments when something wonderful happens that moves our heart, opening it anew to beauty. So powerful are these, that their images and sounds remain and continue to offer their nourishment. Here is one I will never forget.

I led, years ago, along with two others, a Hospitality Center for German merchant seamen, a place where they could find understanding and respite from the challenges of the life they had chosen. On this particular day, our three vans were heading out to the Grand Canyon, one of them driven by a sailor. I had helped get it all together and now it was about 7:30 a.m. and they were gone. I was exhausted from a lot of 18-hour days. I planned to walk the three miles home just to fall into bed.

As I started down the dock, the ship’s carpenter, Jochen, spied me from the deck and called down. “Where are you going?”

“I’m exhausted. I’m going home,” I told him.

“Selber Schuld!” he answered. That means “it’s your own fault,” the idea being that there are better options. “Come back up here.”

Too tired to argue, I boarded the ship once again. He waved his arm, commanding me down a gangway. To his own cabin door. I looked up at him, uncertain. He said, “I’m going to lock you in here until noon. No one will disturb you and you have nothing to do but sleep. Go on, get in there!”

Astonished, I obeyed. The door closed. I heard the lock turn to. He was right. There was nothing to do here. So I laid on his well-made bunk and fell asleep. I awoke only at the sound of his respectful knock at noon—over 4 hours later. I felt greatly renewed.

Over lunch in the crew’s dining room, I asked him why he had done such a lovely thing. “You should know,” he said. He wouldn’t say another word about it.

Insight like that, kindly thoughtfulness like that—rare enough in our world. These days, I especially cherish moments like it, because our societal attention is often drawn to other, less lovely, qualities. I open this memory to remind me and enrich me.

What are your precious moments? Do you revisit them for your own present and extended nourishment?
















Hummingbird Mother

The minute mother was sitting quite still on her two-inch nest. The eight of us humans standing around her were also quite still. No, more attentive now, I could see that her head was moving ever so slightly back and forth. Alert. Ready.

I was so close to her that I could have reached out a hand and touched her. It didn’t occur to me, though. I was even closer to the seven people around me and not touching them either. No one made a sound.

We were all held in a single heart of wonder, gazing at this tiny hummingbird on her astoundingly skillful nest. It was soft, the Desert Museum having provided fluffy nesting material in this walk-in hummingbird aviary. The nest sat on a branch without obvious support. Only when I looked very closely could I see the filaments of spider web that reached in geometrical patterns from the nest itself downward to embrace the branch. How could anything so fine hold anything else? It did, though. She built it to do that. Mother Hummer knew exactly how.

Only when other folks arrived who wanted to see, too, did we move silently away.

Remembering those minutes, I am be-wondered again.

Abraham Heschel, the great Jewish mystic and philosopher, once said that if God asked him to give up everything except one thing, he would choose to keep wonder.

Wonder lives within us. It can be aroused by almost anything, since everything can display its own half-hidden miracles. The little hummer caught us up in heart-wonder. Later, I wanted to ask why. Was it the rarity of the experience? Was it because she was so tiny? Was it that we couldn’t imagine how she built her nest securely? Maybe all of those. But mostly, for me, it was that, in those moments, nothing existed for me except her and her nest.

When we look at, or listen to, anything—anyone—with such absorbed, conscious attention, wonder is the only possible response of the soul. It is the tenderness of the Universe. It is a tiny taste of Love, of Divine Source. I want to seek it often. My soul needs it.



















The Small Joy

Many years ago I spent a year in Germany. Things have changed a lot, both here and there, since then. Yet some insights have never left me.

Someone told me then that they missed “the war time.” I was shocked. So much had been hellish then. “Why?” I asked him.

“Because we understood then the value of the small joy.” In the midst of so much horror and fear and misery, people found great pleasure in small things: a red candle lit on a bare table, a jar of berry jam untasted for years, tenderness in a passing touch, stars on a clear evening.

I know now that it needn’t take a war to give us the delight of “the small joy.” Those witnesses to the grandeur of life are always present. Are we present to them?

Thanks to our advertising culture and the affluence that many of us live in, we tend to demand only big pleasures—a cruise with mountains of food, endless music at our fingertips, closets full of beautiful clothes, the newest technological wonder. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these splendid enjoyments. That’s not the point.

The point is: where is our attention? What we pay attention to, especially if we attend with appreciation, will give us the delight we seek. It’s more about what’s going on within us, than what’s going on “out there.” We can take three moments to breathe and see the beauty in what is before us, especially the small, available things.

We all know this principle. But knowing it has no value unless we do it. So before rushing off to work, take two minutes to smile at the leaves on the bush by your door. Notice the pretty pattern in the bedspread while you make the bed. When you stack the dishwasher, be glad for the beauty of the crafts that resulted in your dishes.

None of these takes time. We needn’t make huge changes in what we do. We need only change how we notice. Remembering to attend can be challenging at first, but joy is everywhere if we look from the beauty of our own heart. Let’s not wait for a war to impel us to appreciate the small joy.
















One of life’s endless fascinations is to get a glimpse into a world that is not, and never will be, my own. (Videos don’t cut it; personal presence is required.) It seldom matters what it is, just that it’s not mine. Glimpses like this are, first of all, intriguing. Often they are humbling–so many have skills I don’t even dream of. Sometimes I learn something.

Here’s one:

I was standing on my second floor balcony, over looking a large area where the construction of a new apartment complex was under way. Just across the alley-way, a crew was putting up a retaining wall of concrete blocks. I’d never seen masons at work before, so it was fun to observe. Soon it became obvious that one of them, maybe the foreman, was exceptionally good at it.

When he troweled mortar onto a block, it was always just the right amount—no drips down the wall. Even when he plunked another block on top of the fresh mortar, nothing oozed out. Somehow, he knew—in his very bones—just the right amount of mortar required.

Then there was his rhythm. Reach for the bucket of mortar, load the trowel, lay the mud on the block, reach back and grab a block from the stack, set it firmly in the mortar. Use the handle of the trowel to tap the block into perfect plumb alignment. Begin again. Reach, load, trowel on, reach and grab, set, and tap. Repeat. And never any waste. I watched him a long time. It was a dance, lacking only a stage.

Some days later, I was again outside when this man walked down the alley along the now-complete wall. I called to him. He looked up and paused. I told him how much I’d enjoyed watching him, how beautiful his skill was. He bowed slightly. “Thank you, Ma’am. It took many years.” And he walked on his purposeful way.

Even more than I’d been struck by his masonry, I was now impressed by his dignity. He appreciated my words, he acknowledged his skill, but he had no need to strut. He gave me an example of  simple, elegant authenticity. It was only a glimpse, but it formed something new in my soul.