Quid Nunc?

Emilio passed away some years ago, but he remains vivid to me. He was long retired when I met him, still full of vitality and passion about all of life. He had been, I believe, an executive in a major Chicago corporation, but that was well behind him.

The snippet of memory that returns most frequently to me is an oft-repeated question. He would cock his head, grin widely and ask, “quid nunc?” My high school Latin told me that meant, “What now?”

Sometimes, when we feel out of sorts, “what now?” means something like “oh no, not another one!” This was not what Emilio meant. For him, “quid nunc” held the taste of exploration, of happy wonder about what was coming next, an eagerness to turn the next corner to a new view, a new idea, a new possibility. His was a constant, open readiness. He even faced his open heart surgery like this. What would it be like? What surprises were in store? Bring them—I’m ready!

Most often, though, when Emilio asked “quid nunc?”, he was in the midst of creating something—a new project, a different approach to a problem, an expectation that more was coming although yet unseen. I remember a conversation that included my then-new husband. We were creating a whole new life and Emilio asked us, “Quid nunc?” By which he encapsulated what he wanted us to be reflecting on: what now? What are you bringing to this new circumstance? What openings are you seeking? What do you offer to each other that is different, challenging, expansive? What will you become now? “Quid nunc?”—grinning as he said it.

It seems to me that Emilio had found a phrase to articulate a question we all have at myriad junctures in our lives. Maybe we are stuck, maybe we have finished something, maybe we’re restless and looking for novelty, maybe we are contented and seeking new meanings. Quid nunc? When it’s conscious and happy, it’s a door-opener within our hearts and externally, too.

I was geographically distant when Emilio approached death at ninety eight. I’ll bet that until the last moment of awareness on this plane, he was asking, “Quid nunc?” And rejoicing in the adventure of it all—as indeed he always had.

Quid nunc? What now—for you?

 

 

If you’d like to know more, take a look at  www.befriendingyoursoul.com

 

Kindness Remembered

Of memories that come as the years flow by, the most precious are those of unexpected kindness received. Here is one:

Professor Huston Smith is remembered for many accomplishments in the field of Comparative Religion, including a standard text and several videos. He is remembered also as a talented and dedicated teacher. But many who knew him, as I was privileged briefly to do, remember him best for his generous kindness.

As it happened, he sat on my doctoral dissertation committee and was always gently encouraging. The incident that shows him most typically came with his presence as one examiner at my dissertation oral exam.

To say I approached that experience with terror is an understatement. I had traveled by myself from Tucson to Berkeley. I was staying in a hotel.  Two of the other committee people were professor/friends I knew much better than I knew Huston. As he came into the exam room, the first prof to arrive, Huston greeted me and added, “I’d like to see you after this is all over, Marilyn.” It was like being asked, mysteriously, to stay after school! It didn’t help my nerves.

After the exam, a success surprising to no one but me, I waited for Huston. He was sorting the pages of my dissertation and apologized for keeping some and tossing some. “I will die one day and I don’t want my children to have to sort through more than is necessary. So I’m keeping only the most important ones.”

Then, “Right now, Marilyn, I’d like to take you home to Kendra (his wife whom I had met once) for supper.”

Astonished, I gladly accepted, but I was puzzled. My friends had not offered any such thing. Why had Huston? He didn’t know me well.

As we drove up to the Berkeley hills, I couldn’t contain my question. “Huston, this is so kind of you and I appreciate it. But–why?”

He glanced briefly over at me, and then, “Oh… Well, Marilyn, there are times in life when one should not be alone. This is one of them.”

Wow.

They fed me a supper of fish soup, toasted my success with sweet sherry, and then Kendra went off to her meeting and Huston delivered me to the bus and went to his meeting.

Simple. Direct. Indelible.

 

 

If you’d like to know more, take a look at  www.befriendingyoursoul.com

 

Ego Surprises

Years ago, I participated in some beautiful, very complex, dances with people who’d had a lot of experience. I was the novice. The challenge was that the lines of dancers interwove as they moved, and if one person made a mistake, the whole undertaking could be thrown into chaos. I was more than a little nervous.

Fortunately, the experienced dancers were kindly. If I didn’t move when I was supposed to, or moved in the wrong direction, someone would shove me into the spot where I belonged. It was clumsy, but at least the whole dance didn’t fall apart.

Gradually—oh so gradually!—I learned the complexities of what I was supposed to do. It required an intense and unbroken focus of attention to my body, as well as staying focused on the flow of the dance. There were moments when that focus appeared and my body did exactly what it was supposed to do.

But then I was inclined to think “Good for you, Marilyn!” and the next move was lost and askew, instantly. Getting it right didn’t cause the problem. Letting the ego grab my attention did. The slightest self-congratulation and poof! No more focus.

I simply must not thinkduring the dancing. I could assess it afterwards, but as we moved, the calling was to stay utterly focused on what I was doing and not more than a single step ahead of myself. Such attention gave me knowledge of what I was to do.

Later, I found myself wondering what life would be like if I could live in that focus all the time. I couldn’t and still can’t. But there are moments…moments when I can look back on them and see that yes, the focus was there. And then I did know just what to say or what to do. I didn’t have to think, but was just truthful in expression, when my attention was held precisely where I was and nowhere else. Clarity came, and effectiveness. And there was joy. Perhaps this is what some call “flow,” but I think of it a little differently. To me, it is the aim of a life lived in awareness. Attention that is simple and direct and steady.

Easy to say, not even possible much of the time. But so worth every effort!

 

 

Want to increase your capacity for attention? Contact me: 520-829-3497 or gustinmarilyn@gmail.com

Jason’s Gift

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about circulating kindness. This story has been on my mind. It’s longer than usual, but please read it all:

I drove to the minimum security prison, far out in the desert, at the end of the only road in those parts.

When I arrived in the visitors’ yard this November day, the sergeant on duty welcomed me. He’d seen me regularly here for some months. Soon Dave, my inmate host for this visit, came onto the yard. We sat at a concrete picnic table under a thatched ramada.  Dave began to talk about the last meeting of an inmate growth group.

He said the staff facilitator had asked the men, “What’s the hardest thing for you during the holidays?” Answers had varied, my host reported, but one had stuck in his mind: Jason’s (not his real name). Jason had killed someone when he was nineteen. He’d been sentenced to life and had already done twenty-nine years in prison. By law, he’d be eligible for parole, but he must have a plan, a place to go. However, for the last twenty-five of those years, Jason had had no contact with the outside world—family and everyone he’d known had abandoned him. He had a son somewhere whom he would never know. No one had sent a card or a note.

So, when Jason began to answer the facilitator’s question, everyone expected him to say something about his family. But, gripping one hand with the other, he murmured, “The hardest thing is never having anything to give away.”

I gasped. This I could not ignore.

As I left the prison yard that day, I spoke to the sergeant, even though I knew the rule: no inmate could receive packages unless the sender was on that inmate’s visiting list. Since I would never meet Jason, I couldn’t be on his list—a circle of impossibility. I begged the officer to make a single exception for him.

“It’s for Christmas,” I urged. I pleaded. I promised, “never a second time.” Maybe because the authorities knew me, more likely because they knew Jason, they made the exception.

So I rallied a couple friends and went shopping, the prison’s list of permitted items in hand. We sent Jason the maximum allowed, twenty-five pounds of little things: chocolate bars, wrapped fruits, packaged nuts, small packaged stuffed animals, and a few useful items they couldn’t get inside.

Then, we waited. I wondered how he’d responded–what happened? Not until mid-January did I get back to the prison and hear the story. Dave, again my inmate host, delighted in telling me.

Several days before Christmas, other inmates told Jason he had a package in the prison post office. Jason didn’t believe it. After all, for twenty five years, nothing had come for him. He got angry at them for trifling with his emotions and leapt at them. They fended him off, laughing, avoiding a fight. They persisted for half an hour before they convinced him to walk down to the post office.

Jason returned to the dorm, hugging his twenty-five pound box in both arms. He carried it inside, set it in his open steel cabinet and sat down on the foot of his cot, facing it. He sat there, staring at that box, for two hours.

Then he set the box on his cot. He tore off the tape. He took out the dozens of small items, examined each one as if he’d never seen such a thing. After twenty five years of being forgotten by the outside world, he took his time, fondling each item. He lined them all up by category in his cabinet. Then he locked the cabinet and forbade anyone to come near it.

Christmas morning came. After count, the old lifer tucked one small, tan stuffed bear into the center of his own pillow. He savored one chocolate bar.  Then, after so many years, all the rest of his twenty-five pounds of goodies, Jason gave away to his friends.

Another Way

My husband John and I were on an unfamiliar, two-lane, wooded road in upstate New York. He was driving. We were heading for a destination that might have been drawing many other people in cars, but it didn’t feel like it until suddenly all traffic came to a stop. We couldn’t see any free space ahead of us.

We began inching along and even then stopping for many minutes at a time. I began to get nervous about being very late and missing out on something important. I felt edgy. Could we turn somewhere? Was there another way? Nothing seemed open. Then we came to a side road, but weren’t tempted by it because we had no idea where it would take us. Besides, there was a very large Cadillac waiting on that side  road. The traffic stopped us, yet again, right there.

As we waited there, the Cadillac began trying to move forward, to put its fender in front of us just far enough that we’d have no choice but to give it our place in this endless line. I immediately resented that intrusion, as it might hamper us yet another step in getting where we were going. I looked at John and he was watching the Cadillac carefully, but said nothing. As we waited and the Cadillac edged forward more and more, I got more and more edgy with it.

After about half an hour, the traffic started to move slowly once again. John caught the eye of the Cadillac driver, gave a little bow and waved him ahead of us. I was astonished. That wasn’t necessary! I looked at my husband with a big question mark all over my face.

He grinned a little, and said only, “Takes the sting out.”

Oh. It wasn’t because he thought he had to give way. It wasn’t even a favor to the unknown, rude driver. It was for the peace in his own heart.

Over the years, his gentleness has come back to me again and again. Rather than resist the ordinary obstructions in life, he chose to give something. When I tried it, I found too that it cleared away opaque layers over my own heart. I could find joy without any mountainous resentment to climb over. A gift indeed.

 

 

If you’d like to discover more of your own gentleness, please contact me at gustinmarilyn@gmail.com or call 520-829-3497

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To See

Some years ago I was giving a week long series of workshops at a church in Louisiana. I had one “day off” and the pastor asked what I’d like to do. I knew, but had no idea what it might entail. “I’d like to go to the swamps, the bayous.”

“What? Really?” He was astonished—after all, I hadn’t chosen Bourbon Street—and delighted, because he had a trawler and loved the swamps himself. So we packed a lunch and headed out there.

I was enchanted. I’d never seen country like this before. The trawler could move slower than walking, so the opportunity to see new things was perfect. Only, for some time, I didn’t see much except trees and water. Everything seemed to be about the same color. The pastor realized I wasn’t seeing well. He began to point things out: eyes like bubbles on the water’s surface were an alligator; those bumps on a log were water turtles; white spots perfectly still above the water were egrets. Without him pointing them out, I’d have missed them all.

I’m pretty observant in nature. But in this totally new environment, I didn’t know how to look, how to see. I didn’t know what to look for, what was ordinary and what wasn’t, what would always be there (like a tree trunk) and what might disappear any moment (like a turtle or a bird).

As often, nature seems to offer analogies about living. My memories of all that I saw in that swamp have faded, but I’ll never forget what it felt like to need to be taught how to see. I think life brings us many experiences that require us to learn how to see.

New experience is like new territory. Perhaps it’s a new opportunity, or an illness, or the birth of twins, and we often don’t know how to “see” it. That is, we don’t know how to think about it or what attitude to adopt toward it. We need to be taught how to see.

That’s when a large and open-hearted world view can help. Asking other people who’ve had the experience can also help. Experiencing oneself as a learner is the best of all. We can cultivate open, interested attitudes before our particular, unexpected day-in-the-swamp comes along. Then we won’t miss out, since we’re ready to spot and enjoy what life really offers us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing in Rock

The other day, walking in the desert, I came across something I’ve seen before, though not often. It’s a short saguaro cactus, growing directly out of a rock, with no visible soil around its base and no shelter from the sun. I paused to reflect on this amazing thing.

Clearly the cactus has put down roots—however thin or fragile—that go deeper than what I can observe. And I’m guessing that the plant is smaller than another of similar age that has plenty of soil. Nevertheless, it’s there, alive and growing at its own pace.

I’m inspired by such plants. They’re a good analogy for life in the tough times. The teaching is not so hard to read: when life gets hard, put your roots down deep into any available crack. The challenges will affect you, it seems to be saying, but will not destroy you nor prevent your growing.

We know people like this. When adversity comes along, they know to settle in and seek inner resources—which we all have and often ignore. These are the folks who smile through illness or injury, who find ways to expand even when limited by circumstances, who simply keep going against the odds.

How do they do it? I’ve noticed a few common characteristics among such folks.

First, they don’t complain. They accept where they actually are and what they are actually facing. Some of them have worked hard to come to this attitude. Second, they express gratitude. They’re thankful for what is theirs and for the beauty and joy available. They express gratefulness for help they receive. Third, they cherish some kind of growth purpose: they want to create something, or experience something, or accomplish something. Whatever they must do or find to equip themselves for such growth, they simply undertake it and do it.

And they treasure the present experience. A story is told about Thomas Edison. His laboratory—the place and repository of years of work and records—caught fire. Watching the huge blaze, he said to one of his employees, “Go get my wife! She’ll never get to see anything as spectacular as this again!”

I admire such people. And if I can’t always emulate them, I can copy the little cactus: put my roots down through any available slot and say “yes” to growing in the sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting

There were about 1500 people (no exaggeration!) ahead of me in the ashram lunch line. It was a lovely day to wait outside, but still…Around me conversation buzzed and much of it was complaint. Then the man behind me quietly said, “The measure of your spiritual development is how you stand in line.”

Over the years, this has often reminded me that spiritual development is not primarily reflected in great experiences or fabulous meditations, but in the way we do the most ordinary things—like waiting, whether it be in a line or in traffic or for something to happen in our life.

We live in a society that’s in a hurry. We do not like to wait—for anything. We get impatient and pushy over the slightest delay in traffic. We complain, at least in our heads, if the checkout clerk is too slow. We wait for non-physical things, too, for dreams to come true, for relationships to arrive, for changes in our own experiences. We seem to want the world to move at the speed that is most comfortable for us and since we’re usually in a hurry, impatience, if not its outer expression, sends our blood pressure into a snit.

Then, when we seek to be quiet for reflection or meditation, how easy is it? Can we sink into the silence?

Waiting, like most other ordinary activities, can be an opportunity to seek inner peacefulness, if we so choose. If we’re standing in line for concert tickets with 20 people ahead of us, we can choose to take a couple deep breaths, relax our tense muscles and center ourselves. In this state, waiting for a few minutes, we can recall how grateful we are for being here at all, how much we are looking forward to the music, how pleasant it is to be sharing the experience with others, or how beautiful the moon is, floating quietly above city lights.

So our waiting is not only a measure of our spiritual development, but also an opportunity to foster it even more. It can be a respite from our rushing around. It can give us a few minutes of ease. It can present us with awareness of what is really important and give us a chance to be glad about it.

How do you stand in line?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Connections

While doing my end-of-year review, I’ve gradually became aware of the number of human dramas that might be defined as “separation/union” plots. National political separations; families separated by divorces, sicknesses, accidents and even deaths; similar changes in other personal relationships; disagreements that escalate, or understandings that bring together. Even our sports are dominated by the separations of rivalries, alongside the power of team unity.

It almost seems to be a universal theme in human activity. We might put it into a question: are we fundamentally separate? Or fundamentally one? Looking around, it’s not easy to tell, because we seem to swing like a pendulum between these two ends of some global arc.

This past year has seen a lot of disasters, which I needn’t detail. You know them. Yet it has struck me with unusual force how often someone whose life has been unalterably changed, makes a comment like this: “You discover what’s important and it’s not the things, as much as we like them. It’s the people we love, the family. If we are still together, that’s what matters.” This seems so evident in tragedy and so much taken for granted in more usual circumstances.

I have recently read that in the Blackfoot language, one person doesn’t actually greet another with “how are you?” They ask instead, “How are your connections?”

It might be the perfect question to be asking ourselves in 2019: how are my connections? How much is there of closeness, of mutuality, of shared approval and appreciation? Or am I swept into the web of separations that our world seems to foster—and indeed that I myself foster by judgments and disapprovals?

Many of us look at the troubles in the world and feel overwhelmed and helpless. But there is something that we can do, that we need to do: tend our connections. Life is, after all, holographic and we are all in this world together. If I tend the connectedness that is possible in my own life, and you tend the connections in yours, we would in fact make a difference—maybe a bigger one than we can imagine, much less track. We would experience differences in our own living and affect the rest of our human relations at the same time.

So maybe it bears daily attention, this question: how are your connections?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Childhood Christmas

The childhood Christmas I remember best happened the year we could not afford a tree. I was 12. I don’t know the problems my parents faced that year, but I clearly remember what we did instead of a tree.

In the spot where the tree would have stood, we took a couple wooden orange crates from the garage, a couple of planks from Dad’s woodshop, a piece of old drapery, and created a platform. There we carefully placed the cardboard nativity scene that had been in the family since I was six. It was our centerpiece for Christmas.

Mom gave us each a few dollars and told us we could buy gifts for each other, but we could spend only one dollar on each gift. She challenged us to discover what was  possible, that the receiver might still like. (Mom wasn’t a teacher for nothing!)

We used old, familiar tree decorations to decorate the house in new ways. We wrapped our “finds” with care and laid them in front of our little manger. Unexpectedly, we were more excited than usual about our Christmas Eve ceremony of reading the Christmas story and giving gifts. Gifts were small—I remember receiving bobby pins with rubber tips. There were also a few “empty” packages, with letters of love and appreciation inside, written on colorful paper.

We loved that Christmas!

Looking back, I know that one reason I remember it is that it was an exception: we usually did the more usual things. But I also suspect there was something else happening, something deeper. We couldn’t look outside ourselves for the main pleasure of other years: choosing, buying and decorating a big beautiful tree. So we looked inside ourselves and became creative. It was a lot more fun—and meaningful—than our usual external focus.

Today, I still enjoy the external pleasures of Christmas observances. But over the years, I have also learned that inner observances—of Christmas or other parts of living—are richer and more lasting. They are more beautiful. I suspect inner practices come much closer to touching the eternal in our hearts than any external activity can possibly do. I forget that almost as often as I remember it. This Christmas, though, I’m giving it a lot more attention. Care to join me?