On frost and sunflowers

Photo by Andre Koch on Unsplash

As the dog and I walked down the street early this morning, I heard the scraping of a car windshield, heralding this season’s first frost. I’m reminded that it’s the autumnal equinox today, and I brace myself for the coming shorter days with a sense of dread by pulling my sweater tighter around me.

I return home and sit down at my desk to look through coursework for a class I’m taking with MIT and the Presencing Institute called u.lab: Leading change from the emerging future. After nearly a decade in healthcare advocacy, my tools and models don’t seem robust enough for the changes we’re trying to make. Our healthcare system is struggling at the precise moment that our ecological system, our educational system, our political system and our financial system seem on the verge of collapse, and I can’t help but suspect that we need something more than small incremental change, root cause analyses and evaluations. I’m looking for inspiration and new ideas.

This is the first week of the class, and I’m still getting oriented. The course team offers a welcome:

“The disruptive social, environmental and cultural changes we face confront us with challenges of a new order of magnitude. These challenges hold the seeds for profound levels of breakthrough innovation while also holding the possibility of massive disruption and breakdown. Whether it’s one or the other depends on our capacity to rise to the occasion and to reframe problems into opportunities for system-wide innovation and renewal. We believe it’s possible to create profound societal renewal in our generation. It will take all of us. We’re glad you’ve joined for the journey.”

The u.lab team

After some readings and videos, I shift to the reflection questions and journaling. There are no small questions here. Their richness and depth makes me feel hopeful, like I’m in the right place:

Where do you experience a world that is ending and dying?

Where do you experience a world that is wanting to be born?

Photo by Mihail Ribkin on Unsplash

At mid-day, the dog and I head out again. This time I stand in front of a brick wall warmed by the sun. The anemones, the sunflowers, the verbena are all in full bloom and show no signs of quitting soon. As summer wanes, a source deep inside them tells them to pick up the pace, creating the seeds that will sprout next spring. The flowers are dying; they are also wanting to be born.

I have spent the past few months seeing the endings of things. Endings at work, endings of my children being kids, ending of phases. But there are things that have been waiting, wanting to be born. Today I see them, too.

Where do you experience a world that is ending and dying, and one that is wanting to be born?

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.