Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


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Along my path of world citizenship

The afternoon train that typically brings me back to my German “hometown” of Wertheim.

I’ve been retracing a path of family history, following portions of the route that brought my parents together in England during World War II and eventually resulted in my speaking German (well, a kindergartner’s “German”) almost as early as I spoke my mother tongue.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, one of Germany’s most-visited towns.

During the U.S. occupation of Europe after the war, my military family spent two tours in Germany, the last of which holds my oldest memories.

In the winter of 1960, we sailed across the Atlantic to a very new life. As military housing was at a premium, we lived “on the economy,” first in a hotel that I still visit, then in a tiny village 45 minutes from Frankfurt. A family named Geis welcomed us into the ground floor of their home while they squeezed upstairs to make room for us.

My British grandmother visited us in Germany in 1960.

Contrary to popular belief about German-American relations at the time, they were unfailingly kind and astonishingly generous, especially since they had very little after the war. While they no doubt welcomed the money they received for sharing that clean, accommodating space with us, they always felt more like grandparents than landlords to me.

What I remember most is how cheerful and happy they always were. I later learned that Herr Geis, like my family, was a recent arrival in Germany. Before that, his wife and children had waited nearly 15 years while he was a prisoner of war in a Russian prison camp, wondering whether they’d ever see him again. I understand now that after he came home, they saw every day as a new beginning and treated it like something too precious to waste on anything but gratitude and joy.

Along the Main River near Wertheim.

It was during Easter week that this couple and I shared one of my earliest intercultural exchanges. One day my parents had some appointments and errands and the Geises offered to watch me while they were away. My four-year-old self delighted in the day’s pursuits, which actually involved little more than following along behind the couple as they did their chores, preparing their field near the Main River for planting, and helping me discover some stray potatoes they’d missed at harvest time.

After we’d eaten those at the mid-day meal, together with eggs we’d collected from their hens, they introduced me to my first Easter eggs.

We were coloring them when my parents appeared at their kitchen door, bearing some traditional American fare — Hershey bars and a big bowl of popcorn — that they’d brought as an Easter gift and thank-you.

Würzburg, Germany, after the war.

Most Germans had never seen popcorn, since corn was grown only for animal feed in Europe in those days. That bowl lasted for hours as the Geises removed a piece at a time, holding it up and marveling as they named the creature or object that its shape approximated. Eventually, we all began to do the same amid lots of laughter, and a pretty good vocabulary lesson on both sides of our collective language barrier.

This event stands out in my memory because it signals such a perceptible shift in my family’s bond with the Geises, the kind that meant they’d become regular guests at our military-base quarters on-base quarters long after we’d moved from our temporary shelter in their house.

I didn’t know of any other American families who shared this kind of friendship, and after my mother’s horrific experiences during the Blitz in Britain, most anyone would have forgiven her if she’d been hesitant to embrace Germans.

As I travel through Germany all these decades later, I feel eternally thankful for parents who were always able to see the humanity in any situation, above and beyond past history or politics. I realize today what a vital part of peace-building this is.

Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details

 

 

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The mustache we’d know anywhere

On a recent visit with young friend, Anya, one of the first readers of my newest book.

Sixty-three years ago today, during a brief 24-hour lull between two hurricanes, my mother-in-law delivered her first child at the hospital of the Kittery Naval Shipyard in Maine.

The photo on the left below, taken on the roof of my husband’s childhood home (one of them, anyway) embodies his spirit, for me.

Lord knows what this experience was about — probably an expedition to tackle all of that plant growth around the chimney. But knowing my husband, he was among the first in this little family group to volunteer for it.

Photo courtesy Thomas Tufts

Second from the right, he’s facing the photographer almost completely, in a stance that suggests balance, and ease. These two qualities are not only a part of who he is essentially, but what he often offers to the situations around him.

My true life companion, he is my fellow traveler in the most meaningful of ways. Many of our adventures lately have been ones that retrace family history, in Ireland, Britain, and Europe.

With an artifact from family history during a recent visit to the village where my mother grew up in England.

On one of his journal-writing days, he captured down some thoughts as he contemplated words of writer Anne Lamott’s about being part of the tapestry of life and of relationships, and the pathway by which souls learn and grow and evolve.

His words on the page reminded me of this: “Heirloom is a compound word, with its roots in heredity and looming. Weaving, writing and painting our stories into the things we create is a way of feeding the Holy in Nature, which has kept us fed and alive.

“And as we put all of our lostness and longing into the beauty we make, we do so knowing that we may never hope for more than to pass on these heirlooms to the young ones so they may find their way home across the songlines, as we have been found by those who made beautiful things before us. If even one generation is denied their inheritance, the story and the way home may be lost. As it is said in West Africa, ‘When an elder dies, a library burns to the ground.’” ~ Toko-pa

Artwork: Joan Haskell

After six-plus decades of my own life, I’m finding more and more each day that the most pervading art form and inheritance we leave in the world may be summed up in the following questions, for which I thank author Ronnie Tomanio — and my husband, for years of willingness to live them together:

At this moment in time, what is the act of service I am capable of giving that will build up the good in this relationship?

At this moment in time, what is the act of service I am capable of receiving that will build up the good in this relationship?

 


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Following the spiritual breadcrumbs

As I revisit themes from my novel, The Munich Girl, during my travels in Europe over these next weeks, I am mining, inwardly, for facets of my experience in writing that book that have been calling –and loudly — for quite some time now.

Doesn’t matter whether I’m awake or asleep, they mean business, and they’re not going away. What they want even appeared like a sign on a wall in a dream: memoir.

This is always the point at which I hear a voice in my head, with a mild British accent, asking, “Whatever bloody for?” It chimed in frequently over the nearly nine years that The Munich Girl came into being. The process of that book showed me that if I didn’t flinch or back away from that question but met it head-on, that voice frequently shifted to something like, “Oh, right, then,” and actually became a helpful ally.

As a writer, I have actively avoided the prospect of memoir for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is public embarrassment. (“Who cares?” is an effective deterrent, too.) Some might argue that I’ve already gotten the embarrassment part out of the way, perhaps more than once, and I wouldn’t disagree.

When I finally understood enough about the purpose of memoir as focusing in and reflecting about a specific stage or aspect of personal experience, I had a humbling recognition. The fact is, in much the way creative process, in all its mystery, delivered every part of the novel’s story when I was willing to let it lead, it offered up, at the same time, a cache of memoir material. It was like those dual-action machines gaining popularity in Europe that both wash and dry your clothes — it had practically outlined the next book for me.

If I had the heart, and will, to follow the trail again. “Spiritual breadcrumbs,” one friend calls this, adding boldly, “Are you going to be so ungrateful as to let them go to waste?”

I hadn’t planned to write a memoir any more than I had a novel that includes Hitler’s wife . But just as the environs of that story did, something is acting on me in a way I’ve given up trying to explain, but absolutely cannot deny.  As I have more conversations with readers of The Munich Girl, encounter the deep questions they ask and the observations they make after living in the book for a time, the following passage, which played a big part in the emotional themes of the novel, is right back in front of me for re-examination.

Without a doubt, I’ll let it lead again, whatever the outcome, because my heart knows it’s too big a piece of our current dilemmas in this world — too universal a one — not to heed, and honor.

We are all of us searching for love, for the intimacy, closeness, tenderness we may remember from when we were in our mother’s arms or may have glimpsed in a lover’s embrace.

Or we may know it just as a sense of something we always wanted, something missing from our life.

This love is at the core of our being, and yet we search for it everywhere, so often causing our self pain in the process, losing our way, becoming entangled in our desires and all our images of love.

Then, one day, something makes us turn away from the outer world to seek this truth within us.

~ Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee


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Patience a key on the soul’s map

Photo: David Campbell / GBCTours.com

It was a turning point when I realized that patience isn’t something I “should” cultivate or practice, but a bearer of grace and mystery that deserves to be warmly welcomed into my life.

More things require — demand — it in my days now. Much like the better-informed choices that can help preserve my physical well-being, patience is too vital a resource to overlook in these rapidly changing days.

Photo: Nelson Ashberger

When I open to patience like a flower, receive its remedy, and practice restraint with the personal tendencies that want to trample it underfoot, I feel protected from things that could become stressors and irritants. Eventually, many of them stop hitting my inner radar screen at all, which suggests that, without patience, those previously mentioned tendencies actually go looking for unhelpful things. Patience is a key that opens a door that leads beyond them.

Of course, intercepting those tendencies often leads to encountering feelings, ones that the tendencies seem determined to avoid. That’s when I remember that patience, when welcomed like a kind, benevolent friend, rekindles something I love very much: a quiet, steady believing feeling that things are going to turn out as they need to, and all is well. The whole experience of living feels reassuring. Soul-sized, from a liberating overall perspective, rather than the ruts those old tendencies of mental habit might drag me through. They won’t stop trying to drag me there, but I don’t have to go.

Recently, someone who works hard, does a lot to help others, and has challenges, just like the rest of us, stood beside me and breathed, “I have a good life.”

It was like a blessing. It definitely felt like words that come from the other side of that door that patience, with its resulting assurance, invites us through.

John O’Donohue expressed this kind reality beautifully:

“The soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey.”

 


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Awakening is no longer a luxury

“Heart Rise” – photo: Nelson Ashberger

GLEANINGS FOUND HERE AND THERE:

There is no need to choose between science and spirituality.

But there is certainly a need, as there has always been, to choose between materialism and spirituality.

~ Mario Beauregard

Times are difficult globally; awakening is no longer a luxury or an ideal. It’s becoming critical.

View from Baha’u’llah’s prison cell in Akka – photo: Barbara Keene.

We don’t need to add more depression, more discouragement, or more anger to what’s already here.

It’s becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times.

The earth seems to be beseeching us to connect with joy and discover our innermost essence.

This is the best way that we can benefit others.

~ Pema Chödrön

Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose.

~Eckhart Tolle

If we can stay true to the sacred substance and sacred meaning of the seed, it will help us to be a place of rebirth: a place where the inner and outer worlds meet, where real nourishment can once again be born and flower.

Working together with the Earth, with its wonder and mystery, we can help in its healing and regeneration.”

~ Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee


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Going the distance, staying the course

Sometimes, as one friend has described, we’re simply “riding the donkey”. Decades ago, this was how one got from one place to the next and in many places, it still is.

It could be tedious. It can be tiresome, taxing of heart and testing of patience — even of confidence and faith, when the going is especially slow. Eventually, inevitably we all face such biding and abiding (ask any pregnant mother). Ideally, we make peace with it, yield to receiving what it brings – what our own ideas and designs often chafe against.

A heroine of mine, Marion Jack, learned a lot about this. When I need inspiration for staying the course, going the distance, perhaps when I most want to quit, I remember what her life demonstrates about accepting this price of some of life’s most valuable outcomes, even though our urge may be to flee, dodge, or fight.

Marion Jack

Marion stayed the course, consciously, willingly in very trying times, and places. One was Nazi-occupied, and filled with treachery. She could have left – she had opportunity. She chose to stay for others’ sake, and for commitments she’d made.

“As I have the capacity of suffering much, so I also enjoy much,” she once observed. She also noted with real pleasure, “It seems wonderful, what one can do without.”

Other words of hers hit close to home: “Each one has his own little work to fill in the great scheme of things. Mine seems to be to work quietly in new fields or in assisting the real [workers]. So I always think it wisest to try and do one’s own work and not think of attempting the line of other people.”

She was well-experienced with riding life’s donkey. I imagine her as thankful for the steps it covered on her behalf, however much the movement may have sometimes seemed backward. Or, at best, like treading in place.

She didn’t forget that, whatever circumstances felt like around her, she was being carried. And no matter what she could see, things were advancing. Often, the biggest of those was love, just as the real means of their advance was love, too.

She knew from experience that the pace that took, even when it resembled a donkey’s, was always exactly right.


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Out from under the old

The world is in travail, its agitation boiling over as chaos and confusion increase daily, even hourly. Some days, I barely get my eyes open before the spectre of these assails my inner and outer senses.

Thankfully, many of us recognize this time of immense transition for our human family, this new stage of inner evolution we’re being summoned to. I could say “invited”, but I must remind myself that, whether or not I accept, the big event is going to happen, with or without me.

If left to the limits of my human nature, I would surely be in despair. I would live there, like a permanent address.

“The true joy of every soul is the realization of the divine Spirit,” says Hazrat Inayat Khan. “Absence of realization keeps the soul in despair.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá offers an observation that is particularly timely about this process of realization:

“When woman’s point of view receives due consideration and woman’s will is allowed adequate expression in the arrangement of social affairs, we may expect great advancement in matters which have often be grievously neglected under the old regime of male dominance — such matters as health, temperance, peace, and regard for the value of the individual life. Improvements in these respects will have very far-reaching and beneficent effects.”

What remedies lie waiting if we give such due consideration and allow such adequate expression?

How does it FEEL, within us,  to contemplate what it means to be “grievously neglected”?

Artwork: Judy Wright

And what curious term did ‘Abdu’l-Bahá choose to describe something grossly imbalanced that has ceased to provide benefit and, quite often, causes harm? He calls it a “regime”.

What has any of this to do with my own choices, perception, and thoughts — the powers of my own birthright? It’s so much easier to read a passage like this and feel pulled downward, toward hopelessness, or outward, to make judgments about current conditions and others’ behavior.

Yet what keys do the things ‘Abdu’l-Bahá identifies here hold for the “realization of the divine Spirit”? He also said:

“The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting; force is losing its dominance, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideals, or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.”

As he points to the bright possibility of this balance, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is saying that the regime of dominance, which has ruled with force, is losing that dominance. Two questions that immediately come to mind are: Do I believe that?” and “How am I working in harmony with that reality?” Other considerations might include: “Are there ways that I still resist that liberating truth — or in which I prop up that obsolete regime?”

As travail, chaos, and confusion escalate, even engulf our world, I can recognize the effective remedy that awaits me, and the world, in the qualities described here. Of course, part of the paradox is how much the social conditioning of that “old regime” degrades these very qualities, even seeks to destroy them, when it can’t co-opt them for its own self-serving agenda, most of which doesn’t sustain life, but imperils it.

The delightfully good news is that these qualities ‘Abdu’l-Bahá names are unlimited, and indestructible. Unlike that regime.

What does a world in which “mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service” are valued — even prized — look like? Feel like?

In the midst of any noisy, confused chaos, I can look for and discover this in myself and others, every day.