Read an Excerpt
Spot of Grace
Remarkable Stories of How You do Make a Difference
By Dawna Markova
New World LibraryCopyright © 2008 Dawna Markova
All rights reserved.
How Do You Call Yourself When You Want Your Soul to Answer?
* * *
Driven by the force of love, the fragments of the world seek each other that the world may come into being.
PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN, The Phenomenon of Man
My grandmother began to stroke my forehead very slowly, the signal that a story was on its way. Her stories always made a silken tent for the two of us to crawl into.
"Imagine, my darling, that back in the very beginning of everything, there was an immense crystal bowl floating in the dark velvet sky. Imagine it was glowing because it was made of light."
I held my breath until she continued.
"We don't know how the bowl got there or how long it stayed. But we do know that one day there was a cracking, crashing sound that was almost as big as the sky. The bowl shattered into a million, billion, trillion different seeds of light. They flew everywhere, piercing everything alive in the world. From that moment on, each living being has had, hidden in its heart, one of those tiny seeds of light."
She bent over and looked right into me with her Coca-Cola brown eyes. She whispered as if she were telling me great secrets.
"One such seed is inside of you, and one is inside of me. I call it the spot of grace. Every one of us, whether we know it or not, is supposed to find that special light. Then we are meant to grow it and shine it into the darkness of the world, helping others find their light. When everyone does, you see, the bowl will be made whole again."
"How come nobody talks about their spot of grace, Grandma?"
She leaned over and placed her lips against my ear. "Most people don't know about the bowl or that little seed of light because they don't have a grandma like you do. So when you grow up, your job will be to help them find it. Maybe you'll tell them this story. And when you do, your spot of grace will glow even brighter."
That story has carried me forward for more than six decades. It has turned every wound and tragedy of my life into a doorway. Even now, as I reach toward you, dear reader, I still think of the spot of grace as a tiny seed of light, a luminosity that results from bringing the gift that only you can bring to the rest of the human community. This gift of the soul is what lights you up and gives your life meaning. It is what helps you know who you truly are and feel as if you belong, as if you don't want to hold anything back or in. When your days are rooted in this place, you stop caring about whether you have enough or are enough. Doubt gives way to wonder. You know that you do matter, and even more, you know that the world matters to you. It is this, remarkably, that allows you to make a difference.
I have had many incarnations in this one life — teacher, psychotherapist, researcher, corporate mythologist, thinking partner, author, organizational fairy godmother. Whatever I called it, what I have been doing is supporting individuals and communities of every shape and kind in recovering their lost wisdom and liberating their full capacity. I have been learning ways to turn inward with others in wonder so they can recognize and risk growing their spot of grace. I think of it as a transformative moment of meeting, creating a "yes tunnel," where together we follow the footprints of their soul.
Something different ignites that place for each of us. My son tells me he feels grace when he jumps off a snowy cornice on skis. My nephew lights up while watching the stock market gyrate. My friend Lorin describes the feeling of union he has when singing in a church choir. I experience moments of grace when I am connecting with other people in a particular way that feels like a great melting: when I sit with someone and listen deeply to the questions his or her life is asking or when I speak to a group and feel a ribbon of stories unfolding in my mind from some source larger than myself. There is a sense in the canyons of my bones that I'm doing what I was born to do. Plato said that the greatest calling of a human being is to be a midwife to the soul of another. The Buddhists call someone who aspires to help others in this way kalyanamitra. John O'Donohue, Irish poet and philosopher, calls it anam cara — friend of the soul.
I have lived enough to realize that I can't make grace happen. But I am discovering how to create the conditions that will make it possible for it to emerge. I can't say where it comes from, but I know that it feels like a cellular sense of well-being and being well; it feels as though everything — emotion, knowledge, intellect, and intuition — comes together in a single embrace and sighs. This book is a collection of such moments.
How Do You Make the World Whole Again?
* * *
Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for joy.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN, When Things Fall Apart
Two questions lie at the center of this book: Who helped you know you are unique? And whose uniqueness have you recognized and fostered?
As I write this, I've just returned from Denver, where my older and only sister, Joan, died of a brain tumor. She was the last member of my family of origin and one of the first people who helped me recognize my uniqueness. The world as I knew it has shattered in the middle of my chest. During the fifteen months she was ill, I shuttled back and forth, challenged again and again to open my heart in a very personal hell. It was a pilgrimage of hope that has now ended. What are the stories I can tell myself to console the orphan I have become? What are the stories that will rearrange the pieces and make the world whole again?
How does a hole become whole? An images arises from the blankness in my mind. The hole becomes a void space. Avoid space. A sterile, void space. I am closing in on myself to avoid feeling that hollow emptiness — the feeling my sister's death has carved in my solar plexus. Closing in the way the coffin closed on her.
Stop. I am not in the coffin. What if I open it? Open myself to the feeling, give it space. I think about the hollow space in the clay that makes a bowl possible. How can a sterile void become fertile? I think about zero. The zero that makes all numbers possible. I think about a circle, a circle that has no beginning, no end.
I walk with my questions as companions to open the space. I walk to launch them into the great vastness around me. How does "broken apart" become "broken open"? I walk to listen through the soles of my feet, to hear the stories in the earth, to reseed a larger landscape, to broaden the geography of my heart.
As I do so, my mind begins to lay down the stepping-stones of a path forward by telling me stories of how I learned to relate to sorrow in the past. A decade ago, when my father died, grief shattered my heart as it has now. I felt skinless. One dark night I wrote a poem titled "I Will Not Die an Unlived Life." It made it possible for me to breathe, and in breathing, I could float on that ocean of sorrow. Living the unlived life became the new axis of what mattered to me.
Writing that poem, and the book it grew into, opened doorways I didn't even know were shut. Much to my surprise, the poem and the book have passed from one invisible hand to another, circling the world many times. They have woven together an invisible community of people I could not have imagined existed. The emails and letters were threads across time and space. What was true for me was also true for many others. I realized that the questions that string the loom of our days and the stories that shuttle back and forth as we trudge through the events that happen to us form the fabric of life that holds us all. They can integrate fragments and moments into meaning. They can connect me with others, seen and unseen, who have the same human experience, can create a balancing structure to the isolation of despair. Diving deep enough into the darkness, I found the light of a hidden wholeness, rekindling my faith that greater forces are at work in the world than I can know. Thus I too can belong to a community, a circle — empty, fertile, and full.
As I write this, I'm one hour closer to my death than I was when I sat down at my computer. You will be one hour closer to your death when you finish reading it. I don't say this as a Zen koan or to be dramatic. Living with cancer for three decades and the deaths of my father, mother, and sister have taught me that every mindless moment is one less moment that I have to spend. No one, no matter how much they love me or how wealthy they are, can give me any more moments than the ones that exist in the diminishing space between now and my death.
When I was growing up, whenever my parents gave me a gift, they would say, "Use it well." I am acutely aware that the moments I have to live are a gift. I want to be fully alive as I spend each one. I am writing this book, therefore, as a way to make the grief I feel more comprehensible and to make what matters to me more explicit. I am writing it, dear reader, so I can profess and proclaim my faith that you too carry a seed of light, a unique prism of meaning. I offer this book as a companion while you come to recognize and grow that gift.
How Would You Live If You Knew Your Life Were an Unfinished Work of Art?
* * *
We are exploring together. We are cultivating a garden together, backs to the sun. The question is a hoe in our hands and we are digging beneath the hard and crusty surface to the rich humus of our lives.
PARKER PALMER, Let Your Life Speak
It became obvious, as I began to write this book, that if I chose to privatize my grief, I would be leaving my heart behind. Instead, I wrote with Joan floating on the surface of my mind. In this way even though she is gone, our relationship remains alive. In crafting these pages, I am bowing in respect to the love that carried us like a river — often turbulent, sometimes humble and serene — for sixty-five years.
The first time I experienced my sister's soul ignite was also the time I realized how different we were. She, age fifteen, decided to take me, eight, on a train to New York City so I could go to a museum and see real art. All she could talk about was the beauty of the paintings and sculptures in those big drafty rooms. I had never seen her so alive. At the end of the day, too exhausted to walk anymore, we collapsed on the wide granite steps in the front of the building. We sat there for an hour. I watched more people walk by than I had seen in my whole life, and never, ever, did I see two who looked the same. Each carried a unique story, an individual history and possible future. On the train ride home, all I could think about was the miracle of how each person was different from every other.
Joan continued to love art and museums throughout her life, but her true masterpiece was her devotion to her grandchildren. I decided, therefore, to dedicate this book to the love she seeded in those five young people, to the generations that stand behind us and the generations that will follow us, and to all of us who are truly grandparents to the future.
The one quality Joan always strived to maintain was graciousness. For her, that denoted a certain public civility and elegance. I tend toward the awkward and cumbersome, but graciousness in my lexicon means a very private and spiritual sense of connection — the spot of grace.
Being the perfectly responsible older sister, she hated to be the focus of attention. She carried other people in conversation on a current of questions about what mattered most to them. As they responded with stories of their sick father or their son with autism or their last trip to Machu Picchu, she leaned in, eyes bright, lips soft. An hour could go by before she would talk about herself. This was not out of humility but rather because, for as long as I knew her, Joan just wasn't very interested in herself.
We were as opposite as two sisters could be. Questions were her native language, stories mine. If Joan paid attention to details in the outer world, I focused always on the internal horizon. If she was a genius at networking with the public, I was a shy person who flourished in solitude. We were what I call unlived parentheses of each other.
Now that she has passed, I have had to close the circle by creating dialogues between my own magnetic north and south poles. I have had to learn to ask questions of the public world and receive the stories people give me in response. I imagined creating a network of those stories and sewing them together the way Joan taught me to sew my first cotton apron.
I asked people about their spot of grace in workshops I taught, in speeches I gave, in conversations on airplanes. I sent out an email inquiry to 2,500 of Joan's friends and my own. These were the words I used:
Settle in for a few minutes and think about a person, a group of people, an animal, or a place that helped you realize that you are unique and have something to contribute to the rest of us. Or think about someone whose spot of grace you recognized and encouraged. Then scribble it down and send it to me. It doesn't have to be correctly spelled or fancy, just authentic to you, with a few details that will bring your memories alive. You can remain anonymous if you like or use your name.
I ended it with the last lines of my poem, "I Will Not Die an Unlived Life":
Know that in sending me your stories, you will be "risking your significance, taking what came to you as seed and passing it on as blossom, and transforming that which came as blossom into fruit."
The stories began to drift slowly into my mailboxes. At first I worried that people had no idea what I was talking about. Indeed, many people said to me, "What do you mean, 'Who taught me that I'm unique'? Unique? There are six billion people on this planet, Dawna. I'm just ordinary, normal, like everyone else." I felt great sorrow then, imagining that no one realized what a miracle their individuality really was. But after I sent out the email, thirty stories appeared one day, forty the next. Some came from people I knew, others from people I had never met. Most of them came with expressions of gratitude. "Writing this was like taking an antidepressant. I was pretty bummed out when I started, but writing it made it all come alive again."
Maybe this is why a ripple began when people who had received the email sent it to their friends. Stories came from Capetown, Auckland, Shanghai, Paducah, and Bruges. I was amazed at the responses. Each story had its own voice. Some were as simple as a South Dakota cornfield and others so complex that I had to read them out loud to understand them all the way down to the bone. How could one question evoke such a wide variety of responses? Based on past experience, I had expected to get stories primarily from women, but many men responded as well. A mother passed the invitation to her ten-year-old son. All the members of a book club in Chicago responded. Four grown siblings who are scattered across the globe each sent in a story without consulting the others, and a hospice nurse from Denver sent stories from her dying patients. Some people who I really thought would write didn't, and some people who I never thought would write anything more than a shopping list did. A few people sent in five or six stories. One woman sent in two and then changed her mind and decided to keep them private because they were so precious to her.
What was the pattern, the design, the form that was trying to emerge and reveal the meaning people had made from the question I had sent? I remember being on the deck of my cabin in Utah on a clear, velvet night, staring in awe at the splattering of light across such a vast sky. Where were the patterns? Wondering. There! The Big Dipper. There! The North Star. As I learned to recognize constellations and make up stories about them, I also recognized that they were in a slightly different place each night. Indeed, as humans had for thousands of years, I saw a great and slow turning right before my eyes. I remember thinking, "Oh, so this is how we invented the wheel!"
Excerpted from Spot of Grace by Dawna Markova. Copyright © 2008 Dawna Markova. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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