I Made a Friend in Stockholm
It was a casual decision. The bread from the breakfast buffet that I lost interest in after consuming the other delicious offerings of muesli, yogurt and jam, egg, pate and ham I would wrap in a blue paper dinner napkin and take with me. "For the swans," I'd said. But that slice of bread was long forgotten by late afternoon when I found myself under a pure warm Autumn sun strolling the outermost path on Kastellholmen pressing crisping leaves underfoot. The water here is shallow and its potable clarity readily apparent; its gentle lapping was a liquid music to my ears, and I was taken away. Still, when a single swan paddled toward me, I remembered and took my cue.For a moment, I wasn't even sure I'd taken the bread with me, but a little fishing in my bag turned it up, happily. I sat on the wall and the swan swam closer, hissing all the way, being sure to establish its command over the situation: "I want something from you, but I'll have it my way." A swan is a very large bird, but humans are larger. No matter, I deferred to her dominance, and made sure to keep my sandaled feed out of nipping range.Breaking and tossing commenced, and I made that one slice last as long as I could, filling myself all the while with the majesty of this fierce but nevertheless angel-winged icon of grace. This time I had the camera and this time I made good use of it, taking still and moving pictures, marking our brief encounter.I say "her" because her larger companion swam in, after the last crumb had fallen, alas, along with a third. I tried the pith of an orange (another "stolen" fruit from the hotel) on them, which they took once or twice then rejected thereafter. And exactly when it was clear there would be no more palatable morsels forthcoming, the three unceremoniously moved on.Back home in Dublin, when I open up to see the extent of what I'd photographed there, I am surprised to feel the sort of delight one feels when spontaneously encountering a new friend after not seeing one another for a time."I made a friend in Stockholm," I say to myself, and I know it is flattery or fantasy really, but somehow true as well. It's stopping that does this, I am convinced. Stopping fortified in this case by the breaking of bread. What is it that happens when food is shared? A simple, dry, staling piece of bread--it doesn't matter the quality of the food; it's about the sharing. The pausing. Like the pause I took those two hours on Norrmalm to write, to steep in sun and dappled water, to be with the twittering of the bird in the willow overhanging my bench. That which I encounter while in motion passes; that which I encounter at pause comes with me.And so, I can also share her with you.
Musings in Stockholm
So does it matter to see the gold leaf in the Golden Hall of The City Hall of Stockholm? Would it be more than seeing: feeling, say. Sensing, experiencing, re-experiencing all that has transpired, all that is represented there. Certainly it would be extraordinary to set foot in this place. But would it be life changing? Would I be cheating myself to miss it? Is it even open today to tourists? I think of Notre Dame, Chartres--even the Golden Gate bridge. And I wonder how I am changed by having visited these places? Am I changed by them?
Travel can be a sort of conquering, I realize. A tally, an accumulation of destinations. A passport can become document from which to brag: "Look, I've been here and here and here!" Postcards too, for that matter:"Greetings from Stockholm--ha! Who'd have thought?!?"I don't mean to be bragging when I write this. I am not bragging. But I might as well be. Does my family need to see an image of this place they will never visit? And why is it we have gravitated to the cities? Do I want to encounter all the great cities of the world one by one? After all, there is a whole world beyond these cities that is all but irrelevant to what goes on in them.Why am I here?There is too much smoking here, I know that. For all their consciousness about biking and recycling, spas and saunas and etcetera, I wouldn't expect this. Why don't they just stop smoking? That would make a huge difference. Extend lives. Provide clean air to all beings great and small.Why am I here? Am I here to experience Love's particular way with the Swedes? To determine what is present, what is missing in this realm?So much rushing: a city is for rushing. And why? Why is all this rushing, this busyness necessary? Nothing is urgent, really. Nothing. Not even medical emergencies are urgent. The presumed urgency (sirens, ambulances, medics rushing) is to prevent death--ha! As if death can be avoided. Do we want to live forever? We avoid it, forestall it at all costs, yet death is the prize. We don't understand this. Or we don't live as though it is true. Death is the prize, my friend, the award that waits patiently for our eventual acceptance of it.The "German church" is very old. It sits perched upon Gamla Stan. Hessam took us by there last night. We peered into--through--one stained glass panel. "The mother of God," I called it. It was beautiful, indeed. There is even more beauty inside, I am certain. I will make it there today, our last day--see for myself feel...
experience...; I will make it there, or I will not. I will make it to the Golden Hall or I will not. For how, how is this any less beautiful, to sit in full sun upon this bench supported by cobblestones, the sparkle of trembling water displayed like a luscious repast before me; the chirp-tweet-peep of this bird in the willow above me could not be sweeter. How could those rooms be more beautiful than this?Life is enough, it is. It is enough to live well, no matter where I place myself, where I find myself, where I choose to do that living. Rushing is not what living is about. Rushing is for those who have forgotten how to live. Some fill their bellies with too much food to conquer the emptiness that comes of forgetting. Forgetting is an exodus, an eviction of sorts. Some rush to maintain their forgetting.My mind moves to a photographic exhibition in Paris. March, 2008: Saul Leiter, Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson. I could describe a handful of the images for you: many were indeed memorable and have stayed with me. But what is most lasting is the synergy, the way in which we were so wonderfully (gracefully, joyfully, richly, smoothly), my beloved and me, together. We flowed, and Life flowed with us. We moved with Her as through music.You can try to tell me that we are the same in different places, just the same no matter the place, but I won't believe you. That's crazy. It's like saying I am exactly the same no matter who I am with, and this is not so. There is a chemistry, an exchange, an interchange: interaction, reaction. There is harmony or disharmony or something in between: this one brings out the worst in me, and this one, the best. That's just the way it is.And so I tell you this: Stockholm is not our place. It is a strange thing perhaps to say about such a pristine, achingly beautiful, romantic and dynamic place, but it's true. I knew it early on. Our challenge here has been one of pacing. Pacing and timing. We have been asynchronous here, and I can't say exactly why. Is it the aggression, the hardness that rises to the surface now and then and is not beautiful? In any case, the task has become to survive this city. We will get out in the nick of time.It could be that I am dying, I think, and what follows that thought is this one: of course. Of course I am dying. It's only a question of sooner or later.I am exhausted: this I know. Did I let Stockholm exhaust me? I do believe so. Did I come here to consume something? To take from Stockholm? What have I to give to Stockholm? In the abstract, lots. In reality, very little. Very little because Stockholm is not my place, our place. Stockholm is a fine first date after which there will not be a second: Stockholm is an exquisitely beautiful city I will never love. Why? I don't know. I know that it feels good--very very good--to be writing. I know that a banana never tasted sweeter than this one I've exhumed from my bag, my "stolen" banana from the hotel. But I don't know why I will never love Stockholm. And anyway, why ask why? Some things are just so. You live with them, live by them. You do not try to change them.This week, I have not loved well. I am suddenly not fashionable enough, not worldly enough, not quick enough, not wealthy enough, not beautiful enough. Would travels to all the great cities of the world redeem me? I sure hope not. To wear my passport stamps like badges: what would that prove? Life is not time to be filled, nor is it a series of destinations to be claimed. Life is already complete. Nothing more needs to be brought to Its table, already abundantly, lavishly, elegantly set. The perfect atmosphere has been provided for our Loving. We pull up to the table and allow ourselves to be nourished, or we do not. Sometimes, every now and then, we get a glimpse of Providence. We breathe--respire--and with that breath relax the tight hold we keep on things. Life loves this! "Ah!..." it seems to say, "at last! At long last I can have my way with you."No sooner are we delighted than we are lost again: poof. It is as if we had been sprinkled with fairy dust, but the dust has worn off. We are back to our own devices and our struggle.I have lost my way, my relationship with ease this week. I have bedded down with struggle. It has not served me well, this choice, but I chose it anyway.Why? What has happened here?
Who's To Say if It's Good or Bad
It was Monday. Walking home from having returned our rental car, I decided to go by way of the Grand Canal. We had hiked on Sunday in the Wicklow Mountains. Forty-seven euros plus another 8 for gas afforded us that privilege. But I didn't think of it that way--as "afforded" or as a "privilege"--until I came upon the man stretched out across the park bench. The canal path runs parallel to the street and sidewalk but one level lower so it is slightly underneath and so, on some occasions (such as this one), slightly underbelly.His bench wasn't exactly private, but it wasn't as public as most of the city's benches; perhaps he'd chosen it for that reason. I was startled at first by his presence. I'd walked this canal path--the more tranquil, greener alternative to taking the sidewalk above--several times before, and as yet I'd only seen remnants of its other life (empties: cans, bottles, condoms), not their source. I glanced but did not gape at the sleeping man, in the way you do when you're trying to give a person due privacy and respect even as curiosity is getting the better of you. I saw he had something for his head to cushion it (newspapers, perhaps), and a light sleeping bag covering, in blue. Late August on the cusp of September means cool nights--at least the previous night had been. He couldn't have been fully warm under that. Still, he was asleep. Still, in a mere minute's time, he took me quite a distance.
First I blessed him. It wasn't a "bless you, son" sort of blessing. It might be more accurate to say that I loved him, or that I sent him Love. Because that's what I did: I silently sent love over and through his being the way any of us does when we say to a dear one "I love you," and mean it.
I can see the presumption in that now, and in what I'm about to say. Who says he needed a blessing? Who says he was looking for love? The man was sleeping on a bench, and I immediately jumped to judgment, a judgment so subtle reached by a process so automatic that it occurred beneath my awareness. He had asked for neither my love nor my blessing. My thought at the time--my assumption, I see now--was this: this man hasn't available to him even the most basic of privileges. I assessed the situation as one of deprivation. For him, a very private act must like it or not occur publicly: I was privy to what should be private. I saw a man on a bench and all at once something stirred in me. First a blessing: I loved him, I say. Then I filled with...empathy? I entered his skin, his experience, and I felt the violation of having been stripped of the basic privilege of privacy. I was acutely aware of the extent of my own privilege: to take a car, to leave a car, to walk on a crisp sunny Monday back from the Europcar agency to my luxurious apartment with its hob and double sink and glass walls looking onto the mountains I had just hiked, its hot-hot shower with the strong water pressure, its fridge and larder stocked. What a luxury, to pluck snapdragon seeds from the dessicated stalk of a street side garden border, to take them home and plant them. To water and tend to them alongside the pansies, viola, stock, geranium and African daisy. What a privilege, to wonder about the course and content of my day, to choose a direction, how to spend it. I felt wealthy for having a bed, fine linens, a comfortable room with walls and doors in which to enjoy it in whatever way I choose to enjoy it.Later, I return to that moment of happening upon the man, I step back inside of it and I think, "but he is not complaining. He is sleeping." Rest: a basic human need. The body must balance its motion with pauses in order to properly function. He was fulfilling his body's requirement, and I was glad for that. But were it not required, would he be choosing to sleep this way, on a hard public bench in full view? Surely not.
Was this a violation of his privacy? Where have I gotten the notion that sleeping should be private? Sheep, cows, cats, dogs, lions, ducks, swans, geese: all manner of beasts needn't private sleep. We are animals too, aren't we?Following this line of thinking, it wasn't long before the tables had turned. I thought I had blessed the man, but I soon realized the reverse had transpired. His materializing along my way pointed me to acknowledging and appreciating the countless privileges I enjoy every day which have become so ordinary, so expected that I take them for granted. It is a lie to say I am anything but wealthy for all the riches in my midst. Yet so many in like positions seek to acquire. Acquire what? Money, possessions. What are these, money and possessions? Money and possessions for what? To enjoy, some say. For ease, comfort, others say. For independence, perhaps: financial freedom. What is that, "financial freedom"? What sort of freedom is a freedom that requires acquisition first? Do not misunderstand: I am by no means denouncing material wealth. I am only pointing out the faulty logic potential in holding it out as an ultimate solution to discontentment about one's circumstances."I have all this, I'm not cold and hungry and sleeping on a park bench somewhere. I should be happy, but..."
Goods don't buy peace of mind and heart.
We live in a ridiculously abundant Universe. There is plenty; plenty is our inheritance. We are all fundamentally wealthy. With our free will and other more mundane inheritances, we do what we will. We cherish, we squander. We struggle, we relax. We give, we grasp. We accumulate, we circulate. We sleep on beds or on benches according to our choices, according to the content of our individual dialogue with the limitless supply and source which I call Love.I thought I had blessed the man, but the man, it turns out, blessed me--not only by eliciting my appreciation, awakening gratitude for my privilege and riches, but also by provoking me to question my assumptions.
Who is freer, him or me?
Many a Claritywork client has come to me feeling trapped:
"My heart's not in this work, but how can I leave it? I have kids, a mortgage--the bills have to be paid!"
And in every case, there is a passion awaiting attention, wanting their time and their love. A spouse, a child, a salary, a home with all its comforts: indeed these are riches. But they are riches that were never meant to be cinches.
Who is freer, him or me?
This is a good subject for debate. But regardless of the results of such debate, my choices have put me here, wherever and whatever constitutes "here," and if I am not happy with "here," I ought to change it. I say that change always involves a shift in thought. And sometimes that shift is sufficient unto itself. I think I need something more, something better or different. But it turns out it is not what I am looking at that needs changing but rather what I am looking through. I am rich apart from my circumstances, this is clear to me. I am rich because I say I am rich. I am rich by virtue of my heart and lungs, hands and feet, eyes, ears, mouth and clear air to breathe.
"I have plenty."
"I need more."
Either of these can be true from one moment to the next depending upon one's perspective. I see more clearly than ever: it is not the presence or absence of particular circumstances that makes one or the other so.
The sleeping man on the bench: is he rich or poor? I cannot presume to know. Only he can say. I do know that in a mere snap of a reflex or two I can make him something he is not, make you something you are not.
Just as I am who and what I say I am, you are who and what you say you are and it is not my place to tamper with that. This might just be the most basic of human dignities: one's own freedom and prerogative to name oneself, to create, to destroy, to recreate oneself. To fly or falter. To sink or swim. To flourish or to flounder. Who the hell am I to say it should be some--any--other way for you than the very way it is? And who's to say that either face of any of those coins is preferable to its other?
How true it is that often we find our teachers in the most unlikely places.
Grace and Gratitude
September 1st marked two years since I set down my first tentative words in this column thus commencing this journey down Love's Freeway. I had forgotten about the anniversary until I turned the page on my 2008 "Languages of Love" Freeway calendar and saw the birthday notation I had entered when designing it. Immediately, I thought of all you who, turning your calendar page and seeing the notation as well, were perhaps joining me however momentarily in marking this day. To you, and to all who are sharing this occasion by way of these words: thank you for being there!
If my life in Ireland is showing me anything, it is highlighting for me what is precious. It has me keenly aware of the many priceless gifts that comprise my life, that comprise Life in general, and deeply appreciating them. First of all, it is safe to say I would not be living this extraordinary expansion in Love Dublin style were it not for Love's Freeway. And every time this expansion bleeds into a new part of the world, I smile through and through. Yesterday, I learned it has touched Germany. Last week, it was Taiwan. These are the new links that I know about; how many others are there that I don't know about?I have asked multiple times in various ways to hear from you, out there making your own unique yet parallel journey. To those of you who have responded, here or elsewhere: thank you. I am enriched by and grateful for your comments, your appreciations. Now I am asking again: tell me how Love's Freeway serves you, how it might serve you better. What else might you like to see in these columns, or beyond them? Where in your part of the world--in your world--does Love seem to be lacking? Where do you see It thriving? In the meantime, I will share from mine.Yesterday, serendipity placed before me the opportunity to be in touch with my seventh grade History teacher who unbeknownst to him made a big difference in my life. Besides history, he taught me about passion, enthusiasm for one's subject and, consequently, how to teach from that. He also, by way of a simple short yearbook comment, a mere four words scratched into that glossy paper, let me know I was more than I seemed. I couldn't resist the opportunity to acknowledge him for these, and so I sent off a letter of appreciation and gratitude from sunny Dublin, Ireland to the land of my upbringing.
The state of gratitude is a state of grace, I am sure.
I am discovering anew or at least more richly here the wealth that is my own history, in particular the riches bestowed upon me by the people who constitute that history. One day out of the blue, I remember fondly a man who always stirred warm feelings in me, and I launch a brief but unsuccessful search for him online. That same day, I am surprised by email from a former coworker and friend we shared in common--someone I haven't heard from in years. Out of our friendly exchange, without soliciting it, the address and phone number of our mutual friend is proffered, along with news that my former boss, President and Founder of our company, died suddenly at the end of June. My spontaneous wandering in thought then has afforded me the opportunity to join this man's family in their remembrance and loss, to join with his colleagues and community--and the world community who continues to benefit from his patented inventions--
in paying him tribute. Life is a grace and a privilege and so is death. So is the opportunity to share in the death of one with whom one has shared any part of one's life. That's how it feels to me right now, anyway. I was privileged to know the living spirit that was Paul Johannessen, to work alongside him, to receive his praise and his criticisms--all his gifts, two of which still reside on my fireplace mantel in Boston.
And speaking of cherished objects resting on surfaces back in Boston: it occurred to me a few days ago that the woman who is making my house her home these days might think them peculiar, the tiny clay elephant and bear each no larger than a thumbnail which decorate my kitchen window sill. There is no way for her to know of the marvel that they embody for me. She can't know that they were created while I looked on by my blind friend Harriet on a hot summer's day when I had gone to cheer her, to lift her spirits which were dipping due to hip surgery and its resulting restrictions on her mobility and comfort at the rehab facility. Harriet asked for guidance only once:
"Is this the yummy plum color" she'd asked while holding that square of sculpting clay above the other two of pink and creamy white. When I confirmed that it was, she set about twisting and pinching pieces of each color into their intended marbled animal shapes, complete with trunk and floppy ears in the case of the elephant, and perfectly placed pink nose and eyes in the case of the bear. Even sighted, I couldn't have produced such dear, enchanting characters, let alone in such a scant bit of time. They were perfect specimens in miniature: the bear very bear-like, the elephant unmistakably elephantine, and both exactly proportioned, their coloration and swirls beautiful in design and contrast. Harriet fashioned them with what seemed to be pure delight as we chatted nonstop. I even cried at one point I remember, so entrustingly and wholeheartedly was I lamenting to her the state of my love life at the time, so compassionately was she receiving it. I'm almost embarrassed to tell of it now. Here I had been thinking I was the giver, that I had come for her benefit. And there she was giving so much to me. Ah, the dynamic of relationship, the mathematics of Love that has it always returning in multiples! Harriet offered true comfort and selfless generosity to me that day. And when it came time to leave, she insisted I take the clay critters with me, sending me off with instructions on how to bake them into a more solid form at home.
Many things of great value can be purchased for a price in this world. Others are just plain priceless. More and more these days, I am seeing: my true wealth has been the people, whether in brief or in prolonged moments, who have crossed my path and thus graced my days. I see that every one of these encounters has been consequential whether or not it felt that way at the time. The people (and creatures) of my life past and present, the moments, the meals, the places we've shared: these are my greatest treasure. These are riches no money can buy.