Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Finding Peace in the Autumn Garden

The aster in autumn
     It is possible to see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour, as William Blake suggests. We can invert the vast and concentrate on the small, though it takes some effort to do so in this noisy world.
     It becomes easier as days shorten and the sun's rays fall lower on the horizon: autumn in the garden is a quieter time, the time when small things come to the foreground.
     There are extraordinary events taking place in your own garden right this minute. The spider's web drips with early morning dew and awaits the stumbling flight of an insect losing body heat as the days turn chilly. Groundcovers in shades of green are now blanketed with jewel tones from the trees above. Where buds once formed, now there are acorns. If you don't have a garden of your own, take a stroll in a nearby park. All this will reveal itself in the details of change that surround you.
     We expect permutations of orange, rust and maroon, veils of gold and brown in the garden in autumn. But then we come across a shock of violet, where golden-eyed asters are bright as errant amethysts and bob on the cooling breeze. Even more surprising is the shy and delicate pink of autumn crocus where it keeps company with brown mushrooms and fallen leaves at the base of a sturdy tree.
     All is not quiet, however. The squirrel with the fat cheeks will screech the minute she stashes her hazel nuts, and the gathering crows will sound warnings to all birds preparing to migrate: the way is south and the time is now.
     To paraphrase Blake, what immortal hand or eye could frame such a world as what we see before us? What is this universe? Hold this question in awareness as you go through your day, and hold it despite all the mounting evidence in our raucous, consumerist world that to do so is to indulge in a flight of fancy. But pondering these things gives you room to consider the meaning of your own life. It can help you see your own purpose, your role, and what you value. Then, as the gentle rays of the afternoon sun fade, remember that night will come, and it will blanket you with stars that seem particularly brilliant at this time of year.
     Autumn is a time of turning inward, a time of forgiveness, a time to let go of all past efforts that have not born fruit. It presents an opportunity to rest, just the way the garden rests, before new undertakings which are soon to come at the turn of another year.
     So hunker down: take care of yourself and all you hold dear.
     Breathe in the deep calm of the season.
     Relax as you exhale.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Giving the Gift that Costs You Nothing

     There is a gift you can give anyone at any time. It is one of the most valuable things a person can receive. And it won't cost you anything.
     What is it?
     First, let me tell you a story.
     I knew a young woman who was very bright. She came from a difficult family background, with alcoholism, sibling cruelty, and financial insecurity clogging her passage through childhood and adolescence. She went off to college and did well, separated for the first time from the quagmire of her family. She was a strong student, naturally highly motivated, and graduated with honors. After college, however, she began to lose her bearings. Without the structure of academics, she felt adrift, unsure of her own worth and her place in the world.
     At one point, a colleague at work announced that she was going to take the Law School Admission Test and then begin applying to law schools. "You should take it, too," her colleague told her. "You're smart enough." And so the young woman took the LSAT with her friend.
     She achieved a nearly perfect score.
     You can imagine her colleague's response, after seeing her own very average test results. "That's not fair," she said. "It was my idea. My dream. You wouldn't have even taken the test if I hadn't begged you to go with me! Who do you think you are?" That friend didn't have much time for the young woman after that, shunning her as if she had stolen something from her that was rightfully hers.
     The young woman applied to law schools anyway, more from a sense of duty to her high scores than from any sense of capability or worthiness. She wrote a compelling essay that outlined her own concerns about questions related to the convergence of law and medicine, and she submitted it with her applications.
     The finest law schools in the country sent her a welcome letter, inviting her to attend. But the young woman kept this information to herself. She certainly didn't tell her colleague, and no one else had been aware she had even been considering law school.
     But slowly, gradually, she began to see herself in a new light. Notions of attending law school, spreading her wings, rising to her level of competence began to show up at the corners of her consciousness. Could this be possible? Could she really go to law school? Become a lawyer? Work on issues related to medical-legal ethics? Her heart pounded at the thought of such engaging work.
     At a family member's birthday dinner she approached the subject of law school during a lull in the conversation and mentioned that she had been offered admission to several schools. She received comments such as these:
                "What would make you want to do something like that?"
                "How would you ever pay for it?"
                "I can't imagine you as a lawyer."
     And then the conversation drifted toward more familiar topics, such as the game, relatives who were not at the table, and other subjects that became just so much background noise to the young woman, who felt as if she had just opened a vein by bringing up law school, and had been put quickly in her place, and then ignored, erased like writing in the sand when the tide resumes.
     This young woman did not go on to law school. Because why would she want to do something like that? How would she ever pay for it? She couldn't even imagine herself as a lawyer anyway.
     So what is the gift I mentioned at the beginning of this post?
     Encouragement.
     Sometimes even the strongest and most capable, the best and the brightest, need additional wind under their wings in order to fly. You can provide it. Your attention, your support, your words of encouragement can mean much more than you realize. Listen carefully to the people in your life. You will hear and be able to identify in the unspoken words the places where the doubts live. This is where encouragement can take root and grow, thriving in the most unlikely conditions.
     Your words of encouragement can change the course of a person's life.
     Is there a greater gift one person can give another than support for the realization of her own goals?