Read an Excerpt
The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life
By Kent Nerburn
New World LibraryCopyright © 1998 Kent Nerburn
All rights reserved.
Morning is the dream renewed, the heart refreshed, earth's forgiveness painted in the colors of the dawn.
THE GIFT OF THE DAWN
Each soul must meet the morning sun, the new sweet earth, and the Great Silence alone.
— Ohiyesa, Dakotah Sioux
I have risen early today. Far in the distance, a faint glow paints the horizon. Dawn is coming, gently and full of prayer.
I step quietly from my bed, alive to the silences around me. This is the quiet time, the time of innocence and soft thoughts, the childhood of the day.
Now is the moment when I must pause and lift my heart — now, before the day fragments and my consciousness shatters into a thousand pieces. For this is the moment when the senses are most alive, when a thought, a touch, a piece of music can shape the spirit and color the day.
But if I am not careful — if I rise, frantic, from my bed, full of small concerns — the mystical flow of the imagination at rest will be broken, the past and the future will rush in to claim my mind, and I will be swept up into life's petty details and myriad obligations. Gone will be the openness that comes only to the waking heart, and with it, the chance to focus the spirit and consecrate the day.
All the great spiritual traditions have known this. The Christian monastics remain silent until their first chant of morning praise. Muslims begin their day with petitions of humility and thanks. The Dakotah Indians learned as children to walk in silence to a lake or stream, splash water on their faces, then offer up a prayer toward the sun.
Our lives may not allow such exalted devotions. But something precious is lost if we rush headlong into the details of life without pausing for a moment to pay homage to the mystery of life and the gift of another day.
It need not be much. A prayer whispered quietly, a gentle touching of a plant or flower, a momentary gaze upon a sleeping child, a second's stillness in the presence of the light. Any of these will do. What is needed is only a pausing of the heart so the spirit can take wing and be lifted toward the infinite.
I walk silently toward the window. The darkness is lifting. A thin shaft of lavender has creased the horizon, setting the edges of the trees on fire with morning light. I pause and bow my head. For this brief moment, I am held in the hand of God, and I am sent forth into the morning with the poetry of possibility beating in my heart.
We hear the rain, but not the snow. A day well lived must know the shape of silence.
THE ELOQUENCE OF SILENCE
The silence of creation speaks louder than the tongues of men or angels.
— Thomas Merton
The silence is profound this morning. It is not portentous; there seems to be nothing in the waiting. It is a gentle silence, liquid and pastel, a shimmer on still waters.
It is good to listen to the silence that surrounds each day. In the same way that music is made alive by the silence that surrounds the notes, a day comes alive by the silence that surrounds our actions. And the dawn is the time when silence reveals herself most clearly.
I once met a man who was raised on the Canadian prairies. We got to talking about the open space, and how it had shaped his spirit. "When the wind stops," he said, "it is so loud that everyone pauses to listen."
The thought intrigued me. How could the end of a sound be loud?
But when I traveled to those prairies, I began to understand. For the people in the great prairies, the sound they hear, the music that underlies their lives, is the constant and ever-present howl of the wind. To them it is no sound at all. When it is removed, the silence takes a different shape, and all are aware of it; all pause to hear.
We need to pay heed to the many silences in our lives. An empty room is alive with a different silence than a room where someone is hiding. The silence of a happy house echoes less darkly than the silence of a house of brooding anger.
The silence of a winter morning is sharper than the silence of a summer dawn. The silence of a mountain pass is larger than the silence of a forest glen.
These are not fantasies, they are subtle discriminations of the senses. Though all are the absence of sound, each silence has a character of its own.
No meditation better clears the mind than to listen to the shape of the silence that surrounds us. It focuses us on the thin line between what is there and what is not there. It opens our heart to the unseen, and reminds us that the world is larger than the events that fill our days.
Into this morning's silence comes the first call of a bird. I listen carefully. It cuts through the silence like a rainbow through the dawn.
Our home is the caretaker of our memories. From our windows, our imaginations take wing.
THE WINDOW ON THE HEART
I walk to my window to greet the day. I chose this window for my own long ago, as one chooses a chair or a spoon or a mug. I seek it out each morning before the others in the house awake. It faces slightly to the north, so the morning sun enters it obliquely, giving the light the delicious subtlety of indirection. From it I can watch all of life turn toward the coming of the day.
Whenever I have had to move from a house, the memory I have carried with me — the memory that has most animated my spirit — is always the memory of the light, and the way it cascaded in through the windows and illuminated the passing moments of the day.
Sometimes a shaft, sometimes a soft glow, sometimes a brilliant illumination that made me fear that the house itself was on fire. But it is always in the memory of light that the spirit of the house comes to life.
This house I live in now will forever touch my spirit for the way it offers me the dawn. From my window the day arrives like the distant chanting of a prayer.
I sit before the window and watch the growing dawn. A memory of Alice rises before me, for it was Alice who taught me about windows. She was small, frail, framed in a halo of light from the window before which she sat. I approached cautiously, and knelt beside her.
"Alice?" I asked.
She turned to me. Her eyes were cloudy, but filled with light.
"They said you would be willing to talk to me about life here."
This was not a task I had relished. I was writing a small piece about life in nursing homes, and my sense of rage at the heartless way our elders must end their lives had almost overwhelmed me.
My heart had been torn a thousand ways as I had walked the halls and spoken to the residents in these places that claim to care for our aged and give dignity to their final days. It had been a gauntlet of pain and sorrow. The lonely; the incoherent lost in their private memories; the dazed; the angry; those who grabbed your arm and begged, "Daddy, Daddy, take me out of here, I want to go home" — all of them and more had confronted me and filled me with a deep and unassuageable grief.
With each footstep tears welled up within me and I raged against a heartless God, a heartless society, the cruel ways of nature and the sadnesses of life. My heart did not have enough tears to purge the rage and pain that were washing across me.
"You must talk to Alice," the nurses had said. "She will show you something."
Reluctantly I had agreed to do so.
And now I was beside her. She said "Good morning," but her eyes were staring out the window. I did not wish to disturb her; I kept my silence.
"Look," she said finally, pointing out the window. The traffic flowed noisily below. The cacophony of a life she would never again share rose up from the streets. I stared through her one opening into the outside world. Far in the distance was the cupola of a cathedral.
"Isn't it beautiful?" she said. "I come here every day to watch the sun rise. I've been all over Europe. I've seen Notre Dame and St. Peter's and the Duomo in Florence. But none was more beautiful than this, and I can see it every day."
I looked out. The sun was bursting around the edges of the dome, enveloping it in a halo of pastel light. The sun reflected off her glasses, and I could see the tears in her eyes.
We spoke a bit. I took some notes. But none of that mattered. It was the cathedral, and the dawn, and the radiant morning light that we were sharing. She reached over and grabbed my hand.
"Isn't this a gift?" she said.
I did not know what to say. I had come that morning, prepared to look with sadness on the shrinking horizons of her life, to weep for her lost dreams and the tiny window that framed the boundaries of her day. But those were my tears, not hers. Her tears were for the beauty. From her window she received the spirit of the dawn.
I think often of Alice. She was an artist of the ordinary. The great French Impressionist painter Claude Monet had sat before a window, painting the cathedral at Rouen as the light played upon its surface over the course of a day. Alice was doing no different, but she painted with the colors of her heart.
I left that day changed in some fundamental way. I had wanted to define the walls of Alice's prison; she had wanted to give me the gift of the day. I had wanted to see limitation; she had wanted to show me possibility.
She had taken a moment from the seamless flow of time and space and held it up in private consecration, and we had partaken of it together in a small communion of our spirits.
As I walked back down the hall, one of the nurses who had directed me to Alice looked up from her desk.
"Did she show you something?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered softly.
"I thought so," she smiled, and went back to work.
I walked out into the morning with the eyes of a child.
Ritual is routine infused with mindfulness. It is habit made holy.
OF COFFEE MUGS AND MONKS
I take my morning mug of coffee in both hands and lift it ever so slightly toward the sky.
I am alone; there is no one to see.
This is my private gesture — my acknowledgment, my offering, my moment of thankfulness for the gift of this awakening day. I recall the words of Rikyu, the Zen poet:
In my hands, a bowl of tea.
All of nature is revealed in its green color.
Closing my eyes I find green mountains and pure
water within my own heart.
Silently drinking, I feel these become a part of me.
Perhaps my morning cup of coffee is not so profound. But with this first taste, the fire of life comes alive in me. I sense the richness of the earth, the calming flow of water, the transformative power of fire, the aroma of life and nourishment. All my senses are alert, and my day goes from silence into song.
I think of my Ojibwe friends who see tobacco as a sacrament. To me it is little more than a devastating habit. But in the hands of those who still practice the traditional ways, it is an homage to the Creator.
As one elder told me. "Tobacco comes from the earth. It goes upward toward God. When it has done its work it returns to the earth. When I smoke I am reminded of where we come from and where we must go. It turns my heart toward the Great Mystery."
My morning cup of coffee, though not buoyed by the power of tradition, is not so different. In itself, it is nothing. But partaken with mindfulness, it is a small act of worship, an act of consecration, a prayer of thankfulness to the awakening day.
I am reminded of something I learned while living in a monastery in the mountains of British Columbia. I had gone there to create a sculpture for the monks, and in order to invest the work with a spiritual presence that would resonate with their hearts I had chosen to live by the rules and dictates of their lives.
The abbot in charge of the monastery was a harsh man, disinclined toward compassion and the human touch. He watched me struggle with the austere rigor of monastic life and the constraints within which the monks conducted their daily affairs.
One day he came over to me and said, with no explanation, "Stay in the machine. It will clean you out."
At first I did not know what he meant. The comment was so flip, so casual, and so out of character, that I almost thought he was teasing or chiding me. But day by day I began to understand.
I rose with the monks, chanted with them, worked when they worked, prayed when they prayed. Gradually, the simple rituals of their daily life, the gentle repetition with which they lived their days, began to focus my being and fill me with peace.
By the time I had finished the sculpture six months later, my spirit had deepened, my heart had cleared, my eyes had opened. I was by no means a monk, but I was a believer in the power of their ways. By following their appointed rituals, I had become a deeper and wiser person. I had stayed in the machine. It had begun to clean me out.
Most of us do not live a life of monastic rigor. Our days are full of jagged edges and jangling moments. But most of us do have quiet routines that inform our lives.
We rise each morning and greet our day in the same fashion. A first cup of coffee, a glance at the paper, a certain way we bathe and prepare for our entry into the day — these do not change. They are the rituals by which we shape our days.
But we do not value them as rituals. To us they are the ordinary — sometimes comforting, sometimes mind-deadening — activities that give a familiar sameness to our life. Far from honoring them, we pay them no heed. We see them as routines, not as paths to awareness.
My time in the monastery taught me otherwise. To be sure, the monks lived a life of deep sacramentality and prayer, and that was the true source of their spiritual vision. But the mindful practice of their spiritual exercises spilled over into the way they carried on their daily affairs. They were present to nuance, aware of the space around events. A cup of tea, a meal partaken, a moment shared with another — all commanded their absolute focus. They had tuned their spirits to a fine and subtle sensitivity, and nothing passed unnoticed or unhonored.
With the memory of the monks alive in my heart, I lift my morning cup of coffee toward the dawn. It is not a grand gesture, surely not the equal of great acts of piety or spiritual purification. But in doing so I call myself to awareness. With this simple gesture of acknowledgment, I raise this common act from routine to ritual, and invest my day with an attitude of praise.CHAPTER 2
We become artists when we see with our hearts instead of our eyes.
THE GIFT OF CLOUDS
I step outside into a bracing morning. The day is almost too blue; the air is so clear that it seems alive. Far above me the clouds march in celestial cadence across the sky.
Years ago I used to drive a cab for a living. There was a blind woman I used pick up at one of the local universities. She was taciturn, proper, almost British in her sense of propriety and reserve. And though she seldom talked, we gradually became friends.
One day I asked her what one thing she would wish to see if, for only one minute, she could have the gift of sight.
She smiled and thought a moment. Then, she said, "Clouds."
The answer surprised me. Of all the choices in the wide breadth of the world, she had chosen one that would never have crossed my mind.
"Why clouds?" I asked.
"Because I can't imagine them," she said. "People have tried to explain them to me. They tell me they are like cotton. The tell me they look like fog feels. They spray whipped cream in my hand. They move my fingers over paintings of skies and let me feel the shapes of clouds painted on canvas. But I am still no closer to an understanding. Yes, it would be clouds."
I looked out the window of the cab. The clouds were moving, stately and triumphant, in majestic procession across the sky. Behind me the blind woman sat, prim and self-contained, with her cane propped next to her and her hands folded on her lap.
As I drove along I pondered her words. I, who saw clearly, spent each day wishing for some distant object — a place, a person, some prize of life I hoped to win. But one who valued sight the most — one to whom it was denied — knew that the greatest gift her eyesight could bestow was before me, unnoticed and unhallowed, at that very moment.
Excerpted from Small Graces by Kent Nerburn. Copyright © 1998 Kent Nerburn. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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