May 22, 2011
Last Friday, I gave the commencement address for the last graduating class of Chamisa Mesa School, an alternative high school I co-founded twenty years ago. Although I have not taught there for the past fifteen years, each one of our five daughters and most of their friends attended the school, and it has been humbling and gratifying to see the legacy live on. This crop of graduates embodied everything I ever wished for our students: kindness and courage; wisdom and hopefulness; humor and tenderness.
I was nearly 30 when I took it upon myself to manifest a vision of a place where adolescents could be empowered to be who they are, to freely express their creativity, to learn to govern themselves and each other with compassion and autonomy, to face the world with a discerning mind and an open heart. Now I have just turned 50, and once again I feel that I am standing on the threshold of the unknown, curious to see where the path will lead from here.
These are my notes for the graduation speech.
Read from St. John of the Cross, (Sounds True, p. 37)
Today I invite you to not know. I invite you to wonder. In fact, I urge you to unlearn everything you thought you knew. Do it quickly! There is no time to lose. The world is burning, and only those who drop all preconceptions will have their hearts free to douse the flames and soothe the wounds.
Whenever the impulse arises to have it all figured out, try turning and turning again toward the mystery. Cultivate a passionate curiosity for all that is. Curiosity for your most intimate loved ones, for the identified enemy, for the perfect stranger. And especially for your own beautiful, complicated self. Know yourself, yes, as Socrates suggested, and then make sure to unknow yourself with the very next breath. Be conscious, yes, be mindful, as the Buddha teaches, take responsibility for your own thoughts and actions, and then let go of any illusions that your story about yourself is true. Don’t believe everything you think. Do not believe everything you think. Show up again and again for the reality of the present moment. With humility and tenderness, let yourself down into the arms of the unknown. This is the most radical act you can engage in. I don’t blame you if you’re scared.
Yet it is only by emptying your cup that you can be filled with the grace that permeates the universe – the unbounded love that seeps into the broken seams of our lives and restores us to wholeness – the wild, unbridled, sacred suchness that is your birthright.
And when you have allowed yourself to be renewed by a direct encounter with the mystery, get to work. The world needs you. It needs your bewilderment and your yearning. It needs your broken-hearted compassion and your outrageous boldness in the face of impossible odds. This commitment to radical unknowingness is not an excuse for complacency. It is the starting place for effective action.
Read from Mother of God, Similar to Fire (“Cries of the World”), p. 37
How do we do this holy thing? How do we learn how get out of our own way and let the loving intelligence of the cosmos act through us? I recommend meditation.
By setting the intention to engage in a regular contemplative practice, you make a space for the mystery to enter and abide with you. When you sit in silence and rest in stillness, an ineffable sweetness rises into the emptiness like a drop of indigo infusing a clear glass of water with luminous blue, and you become saturated.
This is the antidote to angry activism. This is the remedy for spiritual exhaustion. This is the source for loving service to the web of all life, of which you are a tiny yet irreplaceable facet.
Read from The Interior Castle, Intro, pp 1&3
Thank you, my friends, for allowing me to share this sacred moment with you, to greet you on this side of the threshold you cross today, and bow to you. You may know nothing – nothing at all – but you are infinitely wise. And we have urgent need of your wisdom. May you be forever blessed.
May 6, 2011
When my third book came out in 2005, a new translation of The Book of My Life by St. Teresa of Avila, my agent flew out from New York to New Mexico to celebrate with me. She joined me on air for radio interviews, helped make arrangements with the venue, introduced me at my reading and book signing, and even picked my outfit and styled my hair for the event. It’s not as if we had received a big pile of money for the book – the advance was modest – but my agent is not an ordinary businesswoman. She is someone who embraces the people in her life with frank and unsentimental devotion.
“Life is too short for boundaries,” she told me once. This comment penetrated what small walls I had tried to build around my heart in the illusory effort protect myself and others. I don’t even try anymore.
When I sit with grieving people, I sometimes find myself down on the floor scooping them into my arms while they wail, tears streaming down my own cheeks as I take the power of their pain into every fiber of my being. This is not what they teach you in therapy school. I don’t care. It is the only thing that makes sense to me. When someone calls out to me from the heart of the fire, the only possible response is to climb into the flames and burn with them there. I have already been annihilated again and again. I have nothing to lose. Plus I know from experience that we will both be held safe in the invisible arms of grace.
If I encounter someone I know who has recently experienced a loss, I do not hesitate to go to them, to touch their arm if they are shy or embrace them in a bear hug if they are open, and express my sorrow at the death of their loved one. I am not worried that they might cry in the grocery store aisle: their tears are the blossoms of their love. I am not afraid that my gesture will remind them of their pain: I know that hardly an hour goes by when they are not thinking of their loved one, and my reaching out helps them feel like they are not alone in carrying the knowledge that this person mattered.
I choose this boundary-melting approach based on experience. When Jenny died, I longed for others to acknowledge that she had lived, that I must have loved her with all my heart, that I’m bound to be missing her with a ferocious yearning. It made me feel less exiled when a friend or even a virtual stranger reached out across the chasm of my silent suffering and said, “In this moment I am feeling your pain with you.”
This does not mean there are not arenas in which it is appropriate to behave with a little more restraint. I do not recommending confronting your child’s teacher in line at the movies and demanding to know why he is failing algebra, for instance, or asking for medical advice from a doctor at a dinner party. I have made the mistake of telling a therapist about my blog at the gym so that she could direct her grieving clients to it, while she was trying to concentrate on exercising. It’s a fine line, sometimes, between disarming our own hearts and violating other people’s professional or personal sensibilities. But I would rather make a mistake with love than miss a healing opportunity out of fear.
Life is too short for boundaries.