A faithful woman with a kind face spent the bulk of her life caring for those without a place to call home. Leading a street ministry that spanned decades she had little interest in converting anyone to anything. Her sole mission was to decrease the imagined and real boundaries between those who have little materially and those who have much. Her time on the street was about showing up, about noticing, listening and fostering a sense of hope—if only by her presence.
In a meeting at a shabby café, she once said to me, there is nothing worse than a do-gooder; a phrase that stung a little despite the fact that she wasn’t referring to me. It was a remark that went under my skin and floated around in my head like a storm cloud, threatening to rain down on any effort I made to bring light into the world. At the meeting she had guided me away from an idea, suggesting I move in a different direction instead.
Maybe there is something you could do with those, she’d said, pointing to a couple of photos of work I’d brought to share. She was interested in the collages I’d made from thousands of torn papers—large drawings of archetypical figures filled in with colorful remnants of heavy weighted scraps. We drank bitter coffee in a yet-to-be gentrified neighborhood in the space between winter and spring when damp days envelop the landscape in a lengthy circuit of dark and grey.
Later, I poured washer fluid into my car at a gas station across the street. Bending forward, I felt vulnerable under the hood of my vehicle—my back unguarded in an unfamiliar place, exposed to my surroundings.
In the many years since that conversation, I’ve massaged the question of what it means to make a difference; to leave an imprint on the world that blends passion and insight with a seemingly endless mountain of need and goes beyond the level of personal achievement or just throwing money at things.
How can we know if what seems to be helping is actually doing more harm than good? How can we unearth a depth of care that is patient and allows time for a healthy study of things and a breadth of understanding beyond the superficial? How do we access the roots of issues so that we do not go about cutting weeds at the level of ground soil, knowing full well their stems will come popping up once again in no time? What if it turns out the so-called weeds have value after all?
This reminds me a little of what it means to teach children (and some adults) about garbage removal. Just because something has been sent out of the house, does not mean it has found its right place in the world. Whether our throw-aways wind up in landfills, at the Salvation Army, or on a cargo ship headed out to sea, they do not go away.
There is no away. And there is no fixing everything—should we even try?
All of this begs another question.
What constitutes a meaningful life, anyway?
Before school, arms laced around my waist, Adrian tips his head back looking up at me and preparing for a hug. I’ve tucked his violin in the middle of the trunk between two backpacks, so it doesn’t get left behind. I take in his hazel eyes, appearing green in the morning sun. I press him up against me and hold my hand across the back of his head knowing he will be going out into the world where I can no longer control everything.
Might a worthwhile life be one in which an incessant need for control falls away?
On the soccer field Jonah’s face turns bright red and when I see him on the sideline his body is pouring with sweat. The scratchy turf surface has absorbed the heat of an unseasonably scorching day making the playing field like an oven set to broil. I call his name and ask him to take a sip of my iced tea—hoping the caffeine will give him a lift. I am leaving for another game in another town and do not yet have the pleasure of knowing his luck will turn once I’ve gone. I imagine I can leave my angels with him—large hovering creatures with enormous white wings that will surround him in my absence, lifting him up and carrying him to the goal all while dodging the giant, beastly athletes on the other team.
In the next town up the coast and in the last quarter of the game, Adrian breaks away from his teammates like a bull—charging the striker on the opposite end of the field. His courage takes my breath away and adds a jolt of excitement to the day. Later, twinges of pain will shoot through his heel when he walks and I will check the inside of his cleats, looking for the cause of his discomfort. Attempting to rub arnica on the sole of his foot at bedtime, he teases me, hiding his feet under the sheets and making me search for them. I have to guess or remember which is the injured—they both look the same.
When we bump up against each other—each of us at times with conflicting desires—we make light of it afterward, using expressions outside our normal lexicon.
I’m sorry we quarreled.
Too bad we had a row.
It eases the distress of not always seeing things eye to eye.
It’s a good thing I’ve learned a few tricks in the kitchen. Life is filled with thousands of snacks and meals. On winter days I relish gathering up all of the stray and wilted vegetables in the drawer in the fridge and chopping them up for a tasty concoction—fire crackling in the woodstove. The colorful kite paper stars on the glass doors juxtapose brilliantly with a snowy white backdrop. Other days I wonder how I can possibly go on with the incessant meal preparation for offspring who plead for second supper just before lights go out at bedtime.
In the garden, I massage soil with bare hands, breaking up the areas that have become hardened by watering and a drop in temperature in the night. I’m ruminating about what it is I am here to do. Wondering about what it means to make a contribution and contemplating the situations in which true transformation may occur—wanting to avoid work that fosters further division or slaps band aids on grossly dysfunctional systems. I keep coming back to language and listening—the potential for fostering understanding between opposing ideas.
At the sunrise meditation near the red rocks, I’m shivering. My sister’s Mexican blanket is wrapped around me, the rough texture and layer providing extra warmth and grounding me in my cross-legged position. We begin making our way through the energy centers of our bodies, shaking up stagnations then setting them free. Ancient stories about who do you think you are? Tragic life events that have frightened to the bones. Barricades built protectively around hearts and then accidentally left for good. Endless trains of thought. This is judging. This is explaining. This is convincing.
Movement and vocalizations, dynamic breath and hot wet tears propel us through the channels of our being. Suddenly it doesn’t feel so cold. We’ve raised our heartbeats to a steady pulse, now dropping eyes down and sinking into the dark depths within, we come upon that which is always there—the steady rhythm of our hearts. Only in this case, we turn with purposeful intent toward this unrelenting gift of life—always in our midst. The sensation of others surrounding me is drowned out by the vision that I am right there with my very own pulsing heart—watching as it cracks open and expands letting loose a cinch, I hadn’t known was put there.
Nearly forgetting about the sunrise, we are reminded to peel open our eyes once again, returning to our surroundings—renewed and basking in a sparkling light, as if in a dream. The earth feels buoyant, a sense of possibility returned with the rising sun. Coming to our feet, we move to face a partner, locking eyes and venturing to synch our breath with another being. Observing ever so closely and without the disturbance of words, we join mismatched magnitudes and patterns of breath. A penetrating presence and keen observation is required to discover the communal space in which breath can rise and fall harmoniously and in union. Despite the seeming unknowingness between us, my lungs expand and contract in perfect rhythm with another. Suddenly it seems as if the whole world can be witnessed in the eyes of a stranger.
At first, all of the trials we’ve endured come flooding between us, compassion rising up in direct proportion to all that we know it means to walk as human beings in our two different skins upon this earth. It seems that with each length of breath we go swimming deeper and deeper into the stories between us—the heartaches and conditioning, an echo of life’s unfolding. Deep in the eyes of my partner in this soulful expansion, I imagine a curtain has been pulled back and I’ve been invited into the most sacred space of exquisite understanding. It feels as if I’ve been given the answer to the question about where to begin with anything I might venture to do in this world.
Then something amazing begins to occur. Two hearts begin lifting in unison, as if encased in a single balloon that’s been released. The corners of our mouths both turn upward into smiles that come and go, come and go. Sweet sounding laughter begins to erupt between us. Ours is a dance of joy and sorrow, swaying and dipping between the two, a gentle assertion of polarity, of our mutual capacity for being with it all.