Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


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The quest for breadth and depth

Photo: Liz Turner

As I dive deeper into a new writing project, I am reconnecting with the power of my relationship with my thoughts — the very narration of my days. As every one of my storyteller friends knows, narration is both a daily companion we can’t escape and a maker of meaning that we all need.

I revisited an insightful article on the topic by writer Steve Almond, which is reminding me of what’s missing in much of writing these days: an effective narrator. It reinforces for me how much I need one personally, just as my writing does.

In the cultural shifts of the last decades that turned many into viewers rather than readers, “we’ve lost our grip on the essential virtues embodied by a narrator: the capacity to make sense of the world, both around and inside us,” Almond writes.

Photo: Diane Kirkup

Narrators serve the role of portraying big things, conceptually: how individual fates collide with history. More than just awakening readers’ sympathies, they help enlarge their moral imagination as “they offer a sweeping depiction of the world that helps us clarify our role in it,” he says. The perspective that narration offers helps us make meaning of a story, and of our lives, and also find a sense of place for ourselves in the scheme of things.

In times whose only constant seems to be constant change, we need narrative more than ever, even as it’s fast disappearing. While publishing gets downright pedantic that writers “show, don’t tell,” a well-developed narrative and its vital contribution to a story, like nutrition in a diet, becomes endangered through ignorance and oversight.

Narrative is as essential in human life as purpose is. It’s the one thing that, when time is shrinking, spinning, rushing past us with ever-increasing speed, points faithfully to what is timeless. We don’t need it to spoon-feed us, naturally. But we do need its signposts.   

Almond notes that media has created increasingly passive audiences, able to absorb and react, but not to imagine. That’s a pretty low (survival-based) level of human experience. And, accordingly, the focus of a lot of current writing is on the instinctual aspects of human beings — survival or perpetuation of the species (chase scenes and preoccupation with the sexual, often voyeuristically so).

Author Nathan Rutstein predicted this more than 25 years ago. He had worked in television and other media and authored many books when he made the observation that human society was increasingly losing sight (literally, as if not seeing it) of the higher possibilities and qualities in human potential as it grew more fascinated with and gripped by materialism, both in media and in the rest of what was called culture.

Almond’s article describes the approach of most media as that of “minimizing sustained attention,” which results in a flitting, easily distracted behavior that doesn’t ever engage with any depth – becomes incapable of doing so, perhaps. That’s almost the exact opposite of what a novel (or painting or play) was designed to require and invite. Or a spiritual, contemplated life.

Reading, unlike scanning and surfing, requires involvement and commitment, both from writer and reader. The narrator, and a story’s narration, is what facilitates this, helps create a book’s world, then lends it meaning. Many books now feel as much like packaged entertainment as most commercial television, and as unsatisfying and lacking in nourishment for our inner life. Much in publishing seems to train attention on mechanics, a shock-value, attention-getting and contrived writing style and manipulative repetition of “tropes.” A  cookie-cutter approach to more of the same. So much more of the same. Preoccupation with the lower nature, particularly if a series might be wrested from it. In order to have more of the same. Where is the room for discovery, depth, mystery? Soul?

Photo: Karen Darling

Almond describes how although some current works reach for these, “still work heroically to make sense of the world,” they find themselves “on the margins of a popular culture dominated by glittering fantasies of violence and fame. On a grand scale, we’ve traded perspective for immediacy, depth for speed, emotion for sensation, the panoramic vision of a narrator for a series of bright beckoning keyholes,” he says.

We’ve bartered away the riches of our indwelling higher nature, what brings meaning and depth to life, for the indulgence and absorption of our instinctual one. In a way, that is the only aspect of human being that seems to get the attention and focus now, perhaps with a thin veneer of the intellectual applied over it, or emotion that’s dealt with mainly in sentimentality, hyper-dramatization or other superficiality.

Narrative, and the meaning it serves, can restore the breadth and depth of human experience and bring it back home whole. Ennobled.

True expression, in any form, and always, in its highest one, is incomplete without it.

Find Steve Almond’s excellent article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/magazine/once-upon-a-time-there-was-a-person-who-said-once-upon-a-time.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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The circle is meant to include us all

Ten years ago this month, my husband, Jon, our two grown kids, and our new son-in-law were in Haifa, Israel, to share a Baha’i pilgrimage. Nineteen years earlier, Jon and I had visited this same spot and I’d prayed that, if it were truly in the best interest of all involved, we might return one day as a family. And so, here we were, living into a heart’s prayer answered; a dream realized.

In the golden evening glow of the Bab’s shrine, the reality of the larger spiritual reunion I am part of came home to me in a sweetly unexpected way. It was close to sunset on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath, when many in Haifa close their shops or leave work early to prepare for this day kept sacred. A mood of impending reverence and quiet settled in as the streets grew vacant.

I sat in the silence of the shrine, aware of the atmosphere of spiritual preparation going on all over this bustling city.

Bells began to toll from the Carmelite monastery, located near one of the caves of the Old Testament prophet Elijah, as more lovers of God began turning to prayer as the day drew to a close.

Then, from the minaret of a nearby mosque, the melodious call to prayer began to sound with soul-stirring beauty.

And here, we Baha’i pilgrims, assembled from throughout the world, lovers of all faiths, with personal roots in many different ones, were all gathered in the spot that honors one whose martyrdom, akin to Christ’s, aimed to help free mankind from its deepest bondage, and help it finally come home together.

As human beings grow, they lead the most spiritually actualized lives not when they cling to the small circle of family and what is familiar, but as they learn to embrace ever-widening circles and bonds with others.

The pain in the world today seems directly proportionate to the degree to which we haven’t yet found the love for God and our fellow beings that will transcend our own limited knowledge and assumptions, that will make us eager to seek our Beloved, by whatever name we call Him, in every face.

The changeless faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future, draws a circle meant to include each and every one.

 

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

https://www.amazon.com/Life-First-Sight-Finding-Details-ebook/dp/B00B5MR9B0

 


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Making room for the new, and the good

GLEANINGS FOUND HERE AND THERE:

“Taz,” courtesy of Jon Ring.

 

When you suffer because of discrimination, there’s always an urge to speak out. But even if you spend a thousand years speaking out, your suffering won’t be relieved.

Only through deep understanding and liberation from ignorance can you be liberated from your suffering.

When you break through to the truth, compassion springs up like a stream of water. With that compassion, you can embrace even the people who have persecuted you.

When you’re motivated by desire to help those who are victims of ignorance, only then are you free from your suffering and feelings of violation. 

Don’t wait for things to change around you. You have to practice liberating yourself. Then you will be equipped with the power of compassion and understanding, the only kind of power that can help transform an environment full of injustice and discrimination.

You have to become such a person — one who can embody tolerance, understanding, and compassion. You transform yourself into an instrument for social change and change in the collective consciousness of mankind.

 ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, Answers from the Heart: Practical Responses To Life’s Burning Questions

No matter how it seems out there, humanity IS evolving from war-like competitiveness to peaceful and loving connectedness and CO-existence.

… the chaos we are experiencing in the outer world is nothing more than our own resistance to freedom and peace.

And notice that the deeper “resistance to change” digs in its heels, the more irrational it becomes.

~ Christine DeLorey

I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit.

When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run.

~ Henry David Thoreau

Your life situation may be full of problems — most life situations are — but find out if you have any problem at this moment.

Not tomorrow or in ten minutes, but now. Do you have a problem now?

When you are full of problems, there is no room for anything new to enter, no room for a solution.

So whenever you can, make some room, create some space, so that you find the life underneath your life situation.

~ Eckhart Tolle

 


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The light of our kindness vanquishes the dark

Photos courtesy of David Campbell / http://gbctours.com/

 

As Winter overtakes my days, one book reviewer’s words continue to strike a chord:

 “One of the things I also enjoyed was that this story took place in a kind world, with supportive and loving folks, despite their past difficulties, even with each other.”

This is the reason that I write –  from the belief that this is the world that all of our hearts want – and that all of our hearts are capable of helping to bring it into being.

Our minds can be reinforced in a thousand ways to believe that this is unrealistic and impossible.

But our hearts know so very much better. They always hold the key to that kinder world they can envision, with love.

Perhaps this is what Carl Jung was pointing to in these words:

As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence
is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.

It seems that “kindling a light of meaning” is inextricably linked with compassion, which author Christine DeLorey recently defined as “love of life.”

Our experience of life in these times can feel harsh and cold and unyielding. Those are the times when our hearts can feel stricken, fearful, confounded.

But like the sun, even in winter, there is always, each day, that waiting possibility of “radiating light throughout the world and illuminating your own darknesses” so that “your virtue becomes a sanctuary for yourself and all beings.”

Those words of Lao Tzu’s, shared a long time ago, capture the timeless essence conveyed in what we remember in every new Season of Light: the light does, indeed, shine forth most brightly, unmistakably, in darkness.


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A story of many kinds of homecomings

A highlight for me as my novel, The Munich Girl, came into the world was my return to the first place in Germany where my family lived when I was a child.

On the cloudy November afternoon that the book published, I faced the Main River in the tiny village of Dorfprozelten and offered my thanks at the grave of Herr and Frau Geis, who shared their house with my family back in the early 1960s.

It was because my military family lived “on the economy” with them that my sense of myself as a citizen of the world began so early. The fact that my family established close ties with German people in post-war Europe also inevitably led me to want to understand the experience of Germans themselves during the war.

I’d never have imagined that this path would take me through Hitler’s living room as it drew me into the life of his longtime mistress, later wife, Eva Braun.

“How will you ever get readers past the fact that it’s her – that she’s such a large part of the story?” is a question I grew used to hearing.

I wouldn’t. I knew that from the start. Readers would embark on that particular journey only if they were willing to.

This story in no way seeks to exonerate or “redeem” her, Rather, she makes a good motif for looking at the ways in which many people, women in particular, suppress our own lives – or often don’t even claim those lives fully at all.

The story of The Munich Girl is about many things, including, of course, Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, and many facets of history from the time of the war in Germany. It is also about the power of friendship, and the importance of our often ignored and overlooked inner life, without which our world careens increasingly out-of-balance, as it did in those wartime days.

Much like the book’s protagonist, Anna, I repeatedly experience what invites me to look beyond what I think I know, and have understood about life. The process of uncovering the story has helped me remember many kinds of homecomings, spiritual and material, that life brings to us.

At its heart, it’s a story about outlasting that chaos and confusion that unavoidably visit us, in both public and private wars. We seem to do that by valuing, and believing in, the stronger possibility in all of the good that we are willing to contribute to building together.

Part of our ability to do that, I’ve come to believe, rests in being able to recognize that human beings aren’t usually all good, or all bad, but a complex mix of where our experience, understanding, and choices have led us.  As one character in The Munich Girl observes: “Sometimes, we must outlast even what seems worse than we have imagined, because we believe in the things that are good. So that there can be good things again.”

Eight years ago when the process of this book began, I also couldn’t have imagined what those words might come to mean in the atmosphere of our world today. I thank every reader who’s giving the book time, and also offering thoughtful reflection that helps me to continue learning from the pathway of this story, every day.

More about The Munich Girl: https://www.amazon.com/Munich-Girl-Novel-Legacies-Outlast/dp/0996546987


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Coming home to oneness

Deep in each of our hearts, we already know oneness, because we are created in it. Every atom of existence embodies and reflects this truth.

Sending love and prayerful blessings to all as celebrations unfold worldwide on this 200th anniversary of the Birth of Baha’u’llah.

“The incomparable Friend saith:

“The path to freedom hath been outstretched; hasten ye thereunto.

“The wellspring of wisdom is overflowing; quaff ye therefrom.

“Say: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers.

Courtesy of Lara Kearns

“Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

“Verily I say, whatsoever leadeth to the decline of ignorance and the increase of knowledge hath been, and will ever remain, approved in the sight of the Lord of creation.

“Say: O people! Walk ye neath the shadow of justice and truthfulness and seek ye shelter within the tabernacle of unity.”

~ Baha’u’llah, The Tabernacle of Unity

 

Courtesy of Diane Kirkup

“Through the power of Baha’u’llah all will be united.

“He upraised this standard of the oneness of humanity in prison.
“When subjected to banishment by two kings, while a refugee from enemies of all nations and during the days of His long imprisonment He wrote to the kings and rulers of the world in words of wonderful eloquence, arraigning them severely and summoning them to the divine standard of unity and justice.
“He exhorted them to peace and international agreement, making it incumbent upon them to establish a board of international arbitration — that from all nations and governments of the world there should be delegates selected for a congress of nations which should constitute a universal arbitral court of justice to settle international disputes.
“He wrote to Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, the Czar of Russia, the Emperor of Germany, Napoleon III of France and others, inviting them to world unity and peace.
Through a heavenly power He was enabled to promulgate these ideals in the Orient. Kings could not withstand Him. They endeavored to extinguish His light but served only to increase its intensity and illumination.”
 
~ Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace (Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1982 Edition) pp. 202-203.


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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