painting by CLARE ELSAESSER
“This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know:
that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”
– Mary Oliver
In this season of gifts and giving I wanted to share this image above by the luminous Clare Elsaesser. Her work feeds my heart in such deep ways and this image in particular really sings to me today, as I reflect on this moment– which wraps around me with all I have learned, all I am feeling and all I have yet to experience– this present moment where I write to you after coming in from a long walk with my dog.
Outside it is bitter cold with snow on the ground. Inside the house is warm, the dog is snoring at my feet– all super familiar and yet, just like in the painting above– it seems I am moving between worlds.
That sounds so easy, right? Transition — whether it is to a new home, a new job, a new puppy – hell, even a new haircut can take some getting used to– has to be lived through and as much as you wanted that new house, you asked for that new job, you have been dreaming of that new puppy there is an adjustment period that can range from awkward to uncomfortable to straight-up challenging.
Being with what is, when it’s unfamiliar,
or not what you expected, is a practice.
To face the unknown and not run from it, takes strength.
photo by TORY WILLIAMS
Connecting with our breath, with our inner quiet when so much is swirling around us can feel impossible. At least, it does for me. What helps is to find the links. Clare’s painting links me to the photo above where I am swimming out from the dock at High Pines– having left my bed moments before to submerge into the magical waters of Squam lake.
It comforts me to access all the sensation of that moment: I am out far too deep to be able to touch the bottom of the lake; the water on my skin feels amazing and the sparkle of the light all around me is like an electric current that renders me fully awake, alive, and brimming over with gratitude. All of that is true and, at the very same time, I remember clearly that I was also going through a big transition in my life which felt scary and overwhelming.
Perhaps some of you can remember a scene from Ramona the Pest on her first day of kindergarten. There she is, just a kid– five years old– unclear about how things work and feeling a bit confused when the teacher points to a chair and tells her to “sit here for the present.” So she does. Thinking, quite logically, that if she does what she is told, she will be given a present.
Perhaps you never read this book as a kid and have no idea what I am talking about, but the reason it is in my mind right now is because I read it when I was very young and it imprinted me deeply in so many ways. The searing humiliation you feel when it becomes clear you have completely misunderstood something that was quite obvious to everyone else in the room. The crushing disappointment that rushes over you when you learn that what you had been hoping for and expecting is never going to happen. And, the multiple meanings of the word, present.
In the story, while all the other children are playing games and doing group activities, each time the teacher invites her to join in, Ramona refuses– she believes that the only way she will get the “present” she has been promised is if she stays put in her chair.
Okay, so I could probably go off in the weeds here, landing in some metaphorical swamp if I begin exploring all the possible interpretations of this scene. Instead, I will say that although I don’t know that Beverly Cleary, the author, ever intended this scene to spark a meditation on presence, that’s what this little story that is so deeply embedded in my consciousness always brings to me.
Just like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, Ramona loses the whole day anticipating and waiting on something that never comes. She misses out on all the fun, play, lessons because she is entirely focused on some imagined future. We understand she is simply confused, but I would suggest that she is no more confused than we are, right now, today and every day as we stumble about in this world of distraction– always looking and waiting for something beyond the moment we are in.
When I am able to connect with my breath, with this moment, I can see that it is an illusion to think we are ever in anything but a transitory moment. It’s all transition all the time. To believe there is a “there” to get to, or a “something wonderful” that will arrive if we wait long enough– that is what causes the discomfort.
And, I remember another moment (video below) where September Squam 2017 had just wrapped. All the twinkle lights, heart, dreamcatcher, boxes and tulle were safely tucked away in the storage unit. My bags were packed and stuffed into the back of my car. Meg and I decided to take one last swim before we hit the road and my dear friend Tara captured it on her i-phone.
It was the end of a weekend.
It was the start of a new season.
It was epic. It was ordinary.
It was a moment filled with grace.
Just like this one.
May your holidays be filled with light, ease and the sweetest of presence.
Blessed be, Elizabeth