Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall… .

— Robert Frost, Mending Wall

“Did you know that Max escaped again?” Marcia asked.

WTF, I thought. This dog has two acres to roam in.  Why isn’t that good enough?

I can’t count the number of times he’s jumped over the fence. Or dug under it. Or snuck through it.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked its perimeter, rewired it, repaired it.

Maintaining the boundaries might as well be a full time job.

For Max’s benefit. For mine as well.

Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Clearly true for Marcia and me.  Something about Max shitting in her yard that doesn’t work for her.

But at a deeper level, knowing where your turf ends and another’s starts provides a level of clarity, certainty and security.

It feels safe to have a fence around you. And with safety comes repose. At the end of the day, coming home to “your place,” the place that is your own, and no one else’s, is a source of peace.

There are, of course, other boundaries that don’t exactly look like fences. But should.

The great motivational teacher Jim Rohn taught that we are the average of the five folks we hang around with most often: educationally, intellectually, creatively, culturally, socially, and financially.  Look around. I bet I’m right. This is not to suggest that we sink to a lowest common denominator.  But who we spend most of our time with influences – significantly – who we are, who we will become.

If this is true, the choice of who we surround ourselves with truly matters.  The five folks we select ought to reflect our highest and best values, our deepest hopes, our most cherished dreams. They should reflect not only who we hope we are, but, even more, who we aspire to be.

This requires circumspection, a word I choose carefully to connote not only the process of consideration, but also the act of drawing a circle around that group: the act of creating boundary.  If certain folks are good for us, there are certain others that may not be, others who drag us down, others who are toxic to our spirits, others who are damaging to our Journey.

Good fences are needed too in the creative work we do. Robin Sharma teaches, “The secret to exceptional production is the ferocious elimination of distraction.”

I have no clue how my teen is able to work. The notebook is open, the text book not often, the lap top is on, Facebook is up, the television is running, and he’s texting.  Too many neighbors. Not enough fence.

For me, in my creative space, shutting out the extraneous is essential.  Quiet is the ground of ideas. In the stillness, my soul can speak.

And it is here, at last, where we must be most watchful with our fences. If it is the still small voice that is the Divine dwelling within us, how can we possibly listen unless we are willing to wall off the noise that surrounds us in the world?

The monks of old created cloisters, enclosed areas, cut off from the outside world that were places of refuge, places of prayer. Places where the spirit might find rest; sacred places where the Divine might be found walking in the cool of the day.

With circumspection, we can do the same.

Good fences.  How are yours?

Six Degrees

Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.

— Leo Tolstoy

I suspect she’s dead by now. I haven’t seen her in nearly a year.

Sharon was in her forties. She’d battled cancer three or four times. But I can never remember a time when there wasn’t a smile on her face. She would spot me getting out of the car in the lot and would always have the dry cleaning ready by the time I hit the counter. We’d spend a few minutes talking about the day. I liked it. She knew my name.

Seva is from Nepal. He was in the military, a helicopter pilot. Three or four times a day, he would fly up into the Kumbu with medical supplies and rescue equipment. When the Maoist insurgents continued to threaten his family and take his money, he fled to the U.S. and sought asylum. His dream is to have his own limousine service. As we rode through the streets of San Jose, he told us proudly that the taxi he drove belonged to him.

“Your make-up looks beautiful,” Ann said to our waitress.

Angela’s eyes lit up. She smiled brightly. “It’s my nineteenth anniversary.  My husband and I are going out to celebrate later.”

Angela had been a corporate executive, a six-figure earner,  but now had an autistic child at home who needed her. Angela’s sister was finishing her Ph.D. at Oxford. And even though she hadn’t yet gone to visit her, Angela was proud of her sister. The dissertation would be on autism, she told us, as she cleared our breakfast dishes from the table.

I know these stories because, in these rare moments, I stopped long enough to connect: to pay attention, to ask, to listen, to share.

I’m not terribly good at this. I’ve never made the effort to know the woman who delivers my New York Times every Sunday morning regardless of the weather. I don’t know anything about the homeless man in the BART tunnel who gave me directions to my hotel when I was so weary from travel. I didn’t take the time. And I don’t know the names of the ladies who clean my office every other week. I’ve never even asked.

Not only that, there have been times that I’ve been unbearably impatient with operators, clerks and attendants who were just trying to do their jobs, just trying to get through their days, just like me.

What I do know is this: When I connect – when I take the time to stop and really connect – it matters.

The great 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart said: we are each drops in the ocean of the Divine; one and inseparable from the whole.

“We believe we’re all so different. But we’re not. We cover ourselves in customs and costumes of aspiration, struggle and victory, sacrifice and loss – and soon forget who we really are,” Oprah writes. (Yes real men read “O.”)

Who we really are is one.  Each of us with hopes and dreams and stories and struggles and joys and sorrows.  Each of us seeking recognition and affirmation and encouragement. And love.

“I want to makes sure I never lose sight of the truth of my existence,” writes Oprah. “I am a ripple in the ocean of God, and I want to be able to see my reflection in the face of everyone I meet, to understand that even people I will never know are reflections of my undisguised self.”

We like to think we’ve got it goin’ on. We like to think we’re self-sufficient. We like to think we can do it on our own. We like to think we’re separate and distinct.

The truth is: we’re all one; we’re all connected.

The truth is: we need each other.

There is such power is presence.

When we stop, even for a moment, and listen, we discover the most amazing stories of devastation and redemption; trial and perseverance; sorrow and celebration. When we stop, even for a moment and listen, we discover that our presence, our attention, our care, can change a day, lift a heart, and make a difference.

And ultimately we discover this: that the path we’re on is really just one path.

To be truly present to each person who enters our lives, in every interaction, in each and every moment: That’s a Journey.

Requiem For A Squirrel

Sometime I hoard things like a squirrel.  In fact, if I were a squirrel, I would have the most nuts.

I save plastic bags.

I save hangers.

I save razor blades until the one on my razor shreds my face.

I save water filters for the coffee maker until the coffee tastes like battery acid.

I save nice bottles of wine for special occasions for so long that I forget what the occasions might be.

I save clothes that I will never wear.

And shit that I will never use.

I want to save less. And spend more.

I want a generous heart.

Not long ago, we stood talking to a stranger in a parking lot.  Ann and he had been discussing tea.  He had a teapot in his truck, an electric one, the kind that you can only get in the U.K.  Ann admired it.  He gave it to her.  “Take it,” he said.  “Enjoy it.”

It wouldn’t have occurred to me to give away my teapot, especially if it had been one that had been hard to come by. It never would have even crossed my mind.  Maybe I’d have given up the web address.  But I’d be thinking: “Good luck, all the best finding a teapot this good, sweetheart.”

One day last summer, we stood on the street in a far away town with our heavy bags stacked around us. There was a drizzle just steady enough to annoy. We needed to catch the next train in half an hour. There was not a cab in sight.

Feeling a bit panicked, Ann crossed the road to the diner. She asked the woman behind the counter to use the phone to call a cab.

“Where do you need to go?” the waitress asked.

“The station,” Ann replied.

“There are no cabs,” the woman said. “Take my car.”

And handed Ann the keys.

Who does that? Who gives without thought, without worry, without regard? Who trusts that deeply in the goodness of humanity? Whose heart is that open?

Not mine. Not for others.  Not even for myself.

Somewhere I internalized: save it; don’t spend it; don’t give it; don’t loan it; don’t lose it; you never know when you might need it; save it; save it for a rainy day. And OMG there is one bad-assed monsoon just waiting for me.

But when is this rainy day?  Now is all we have.

Fear constrains.

But what if we trusted in the absolute abundance of the universe? What if we nurtured ourselves with this love? What if we gave to others as if there were no lack? What if we could know that when we emptied our hearts, they would always be filled to overflowing? Always.

When I was young, my mother taught: never pass a beggar by.  In later years, I would perform all sorts of mental gymnastics about the need to avoid enabling bad behavior and the importance of “targeting” my giving to agencies that “take care of such things.”  Only to be chastened by my teen one day who crossed a city street to drop the few coins from his pocket into the outstretched hands of a blind man.

A spiritual mentor of mine would say: give to everyone.  That way you don’t miss the ones who truly need it.

The mystic, the warrior, burns with such love, such zeal that there is nothing left.  The flame burns so brightly – like a shooting star across the night sky.  Better to light the darkness in one splendid, glorious display of luminescence than to grope in the shadows with a match.

It is in the giving that we receive.

Spend it. Spend it all on the field.

Spend it without measure.

Play full out.

Hold nothing back.

Walk in faith and not in fear.

Faith that all will be well. Faith that all is well.

Nuts grow on trees.  There are enough to go around. 

Imagination Run Wild

I was in jail for the weekend.

At least it felt that way to start.

I write all this stuff in my weekly blog about living deeply and fully, about being grounded, about being clear and listening with the ear of our hearts.

And then I realize I need to call bullshit on myself because I fail to actually live out what I try to teach.

I dragged myself this past weekend – kicking and screaming – to the Weston Priory. The Priory is a beautiful Benedictine monastery high on a Vermont hillside, with roots that can be traced back to the third century.  A dozen monks live there as brothers in community. They work and pray and sustain themselves. And as Benedict prescribed, offer hospitality to all who come to their door.

I went there to seek quiet, solitude, silence. Rest.

I went there to hear anew my own still small voice.

I went there so that I could touch again for myself what is essential, what is invisible to the eye.

It wasn’t easy to go.  Like so many of us, I travel at a speed that is dizzying.  But in the last several weeks, the velocity began to feel ludicrously supersonic, even by my own warped standards.

When I landed at Weston, it felt as if I had been caught by the arresting cable on the deck of a carrier: grabbed by my own tail, the jet plane of my life came to a screeching halt.

I hadn’t a clue what to do next.  The brother who greeted me pointed me toward my room.  He gave me the meal schedule and the brothers’ times of prayer. “Enjoy your stay,” he said.

I looked at my Blackberry. No signal.  I pulled out my iPad. No wireless. I became anxious. I began to pace. I ate an entire box of cookies. I felt sick.  I began to hold my Blackberry in various corners of my tiny room. To no avail.

I was alone. By myself. Off the grid. In the woods.

Maybe I would be murdered.  Maybe they wouldn’t find my body. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

And then I saw the sign.  It said: “Imagine Peace.”

Imagine a place rooted on the land, a place guided by the seasons, a place steeped in the ancient rhythms of monastic prayer and suffused with the music of its heart. Imagine a place that greets the dawn with light and songs of praise; and, as darkness falls, stands with open hands of gratitude and thanks. Imagine a people who live with radical love, true equality, social justice and a open heart.

Imagine a stillness so profound that it cannot help but seep into your bones.

Yes, imagine that: imagine peace.

Bit by bit, my body settled. And then my mind.  And my heart.  And my soul. I slept and read and walked and ran and prayed and listened to the wind in the trees and the rain on the chapel roof.  I shared my meals in silence with the monks and walked their paths and celebrated with them the hours of their days.

I was able to feel the ground again. My ground.

On Sunday afternoon, I fumbled for the keys to the ignition of my jet.  I looked with wariness at the Blackberry as I headed south toward home.

My friend Anne asked: how can we make decisions in our lives when we’re going 90 miles per hour?  The answer is: we can’t.

I recall a teacher telling me about his military training in special operations.  He and his comrades were dropped on an island. Their missions: avoid being captured by the enemy. He shared with me the sheer terror he felt as he ran up the beech, gunfire screaming overhead. His teammates disappeared into the woods.  Paralyzed with fear, my friend couldn’t imagine where to go. All he could do was stop. And dig a hole.  He crawled in and covered himself over. The enemy came tearing through the woods. And ran right past him. All of his colleagues fell captive. He was the sole survivor.

The notion of retreat, of seeking out the desert places, of finding solitude, is a lost art. But it is essential to our humanity.

Because, sometimes in our lives, all we can do is stop.  Sometimes it is the only sensible thing to do.

Sometimes what we need is peace.

Yes, peace. Imagine that.

Sweet Georgia On My Mind

I think I’m in love.

It seems like it could be a long term relationship.

She’s not exactly a “looker.”  A little “boxy.”  But that’s ok.

I really like her voice.  It’s not very sexy.  But it’s confident, soothing, self-assured.

Her name is Georgia.  At least that’s what I call her.

She’s my GPS.

I had to drive to JFK recently – at night.  It’s not a fun drive under the best of circumstances.  But I had given Georgia the address of the airport hotel.  Without a glitch, I arrived right at the front door.

Last weekend, I missed an exit on the interstate.  Couldn’t figure out where I was.  I pulled Georgia out of the glove box (she rather seems at home there) and gave her a local address.  Sure enough, I was right back on course.

That’s what I love about Georgia.  You tell her exactly where you want to go.  And you’re there.

I’ve been giving Georgia a lot of thought lately (as you can tell). You see, I’m fairly certain that each of us is equipped with an extraordinarily sophisticated internal GPS, a guidance system that will get us to where we want to go.  All we need to do is plug in the address, and, voila, our route is mapped out, our arrival assured.

This works for goals, dreams, aspirations, projects, careers, relationships and things.  Can you think of any meaningful achievement in your life that didn’t, at one time, “exist” only as a thought, only as a vision in your mind’s eye? Our thoughts manifest themselves. We achieve what we envision.

When we become clear on what we want, on where we want to go, on who we want to be – and we set our course – our arrival is a fait accompli.

The key is to become clear.  The key is to know – with certainty – exactly where it is that we want to end up.

If I don’t give Georgia an address, she sits there silently on my dash.  If I give her the “wrong” street number, she takes me exactly to that location, wrong or not.  If I give her a general vicinity, “general” is all I get.

She leads me – or not – to the very place I “envision.” And when I don’t “envision” anything, I end up exactly: nowhere.

In the vernacular of the computer: garbage in, garbage out.

Now here’s a way cool thing about Georgia.  I can miss the exit, blow by the turn off, take a left when I should have taken a right, gone north when I should have been going south, and it doesn’t matter. In her sultry voice, Georgia simply says, “recalculating.” And in the flash of an eye, she gives me new instructions, a fresh perspective, a way to get back on course.

So long as she has the address.

When I struggle with where I am going with my own hopes and dreams and aspirations and feel frustrated about not making progress, I realize that oftentimes it is because I am not being clear with myself about where I want to go.

The law of attraction says we attract that which we think about. If what we think about is fuzzy, fuzz is exactly what we’ll end up with.

Clarity is key.  Be clear on where you want to go. Dial in the address.

Sweet Georgia.  Be true to her.  And she’ll be true to you.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks, it will be opened.

Luke 11:9-10