If the lights go out, just move

Winter field andscape in Sheffield

This past winter I spent a long weekend on retreat in stillness and good company. The theme of the retreat was hidden seeds, the way nature can look as if it’s sleeping or even dead, when in fact it is gathering strength, getting ready to burst forth when the conditions are favorable.

I myself was coming back to life after several months of feeling in the dark, disconnected from myself and the people I cared about. Like the winter landscape outside me, I felt used up and in need of rest. Worse still, I felt disengaged and cynical. I hoped the retreat would help me move through this inner winter.

The retreat took place in England, in a wonderful house filled with quirky landings and hallways, double taps at the sink, with a huge vat of tea standing at the ready. Perhaps less notably English but more eco-friendly were the light fixtures in the bathroom stalls. A friendly note near the door latch explained that the lights were motion activated and what to do if one found oneself sitting in the dark:

If the lights go out, just move.

Poetry filled a special purpose throughout the weekend, allowing us to get to the heart of the ideas we needed to talk about in the way only poetry can. This poem by John O’Donahue closed the retreat.

For a New Beginning

In out of the way places of the heart
Where your thoughts never think to wander
This beginning has been quietly forming
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire
Feeling the emptiness grow inside you
Noticing how you willed yourself on
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

John O’Donahue, from To Bless the Space Between Us. 2008, Penguin Random House

Receiving those words that Sunday morning, I realize I have firmly stepped up to the threshold; no, I’ve crossed it. A seed has been lying dormant inside of me for many years, gathering vitality, waiting for conditions within it and around it to be right. The safety and ego that once offered a feeling of competence and accomplishment suddenly felt constricting, bursting at the seams like a jacket that is still considered beautiful but is now too small.

Then, with no effort besides the willingness to be a channel for something bigger than myself, I find myself standing here in delight, ready to head out again with just a few essentials. With spare abundance in both things and company, I trust that whatever I need is here. That there is enough. I trust that whatever I have inside me might just be what someone else needs. That I am enough.

The adventure begins. I notice I already have a map in my hands. I look at it and see that there are several paths; I don’t need to worry yet about which one to take–the exact way will present itself in due time. All I need to do is take a step, and trust. Welcoming what comes next, welcoming myself to come along.

If the lights go out, just move.

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Durga’s Tool #329: Wonder

Here’s another in my toolbox series of techniques that inspire me to live with joy, compassion and courage, as inspired by the Hindu goddess Durga  – my nominee for patron saint of special needs parents.

I was at a workshop this weekend for people with special needs and their parents, learning about how to advocate. The course leader delivered a short parable that skillfully summed up a key strategy for success.

“Let’s imagine I have two aunts,” she began. “I haven’t seen either of them in a while and so I go to each of them for a visit. At one visit my first aunt desperately says, ‘Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you to visit for ages. I’m so lonely and you never visit anymore.’ The second one says warmly, ‘Welcome! I am so glad to see you. I know it’s been years but I’m so happy we have time to have some tea and catch up.'”

The course leader encouraged us to think about what each of those visits would feel like. She went on to ask: Which visit were we more likely to enjoy? Which aunt were we likely to visit again?

And so it is with this work, that you and I will often have to meet with people to ask for their help or their support. Maybe they are gatekeepers of services for our own families, or maybe they are policy makers with the power to change the playing field for thousands of families like ours. Maybe we meet them in a public meeting, maybe we deal with them by email or phone, or maybe we find ourselves sitting across the table from them at an annual review of services.

In those moments, are we the angry, desperate aunt or the friendly, inviting one?

I think sometimes we special needs parents are getting the wrong message. We’re told that if we want to be effective, we should be the mama bear — fierce and protective. Or the victim, sad and pleading.

The course leader’s parable reminded me that I have other options, ones that actually might be more effective than anger or sadness. I can be friendly. I can be willing to meet someone half way. If I can do that, I’m more likely to get what I need, for human nature is such that we are attracted to the pleasurable and repelled by the unpleasant. That’s just the way it is.

The challenge, of course, is that sometimes we feel really righteous in our sorrow or our anger. On the surface it seems so obvious that we should be angry or sad that to be positive or collaborative would be false or self-obliterating. How can you be pleasant and cheerful when the other person is ignoring the law or hiding behind a culture of bureaucracy and complacency?

In those moments I remember the words of Parker Palmer: When the going gets rough, turn to wonder.

Wonder, as in, “I wonder what could have caused our education system to produce a policy like that. I wonder how I change that policy.” Or “I wonder what is going on with our health care system that makes this person feel like it’s ok for them to treat me this way. I wonder how I change that system.” Or even, “I wonder why I am getting so upset about this that I am willing to abandon my own integrity. I wonder why I am yelling right now.” Turning to wonder for me has often gives me the breathing room to not take things so personally, to continue to see the other person as a person even when I’d rather not.

It’s easier said than done, I know. I forget this lesson all the time. Just this morning I had an interaction with a dental scheduler that could have gone better. But if I’m lucky, I’ll get lots of chances to practice. Until then, I’ll just have to wonder what it would take for me to learn this lesson faster.