The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life
By Kent Nerburn
New World Library Copyright © 2006 Kent Nerburn
All rights reserved.
* * *
The heart knows much that the mind cannot see.
THE SERMON OF THE BIRDS
We recognize the spiritual in all creation, and believe that we draw power from it.
— OHIYESA, DAKOTAH SIOUX
It is 5 A.M. on an early spring morning. I am in a garret on the third floor of one of the colleges at Oxford University in England. The early light of dawn is just beginning to cast a pale illumination on the pitched tile roofs and ancient church spires outside my window. I have gotten up to write because the birds awakened me. They love to nest among the overhangs and high stone chimneys of the red brick buildings of the college, and the promise of spring has brought them forth in full song.
The birdsong is different here, full of unfamiliar cadences and unfamiliar melodies. These birds are making different music than the birds outside my window in America, and this fills me with wonder.
I do not often stop to realize how different the music of nature is in each place on earth. But something about this birdsong makes me pause and take notice. It fills me, in a way far deeper than intellect, with a humble awareness of the beauty and mystery of the world around me.
Do they know each other? Are they talking to each other? Is their exuberance truly in their voices, or only in my hearing?
Does each mother know the chirp of her young, as each human mother can pick out the cry of her own infant from the voices of all others? Do they feel love?
These are the questions this birdsong calls forth in me. They lean me toward God and the ineffable mystery of life.
Our lives are filled with moments like these — ordinary moments when the hidden beauty of life breaks into our everyday awareness like an unbidden shaft of light. It is a brush with the sacred, a near occasion of grace.
Too often we are blind to these moments. We are busy with our daily obligations and too occupied with our comings and goings to surround our hearts with the quiet that is necessary to hear life's softer songs.
There is no shame in this. We are only human, and the demands of life make a raucous noise. But we must not let those demands drown out the quieter voices of the spirit. We must take the time to stop and listen, knowing that the voice of the spirit speaks more often in a whisper than a shout.
For spirituality is far more than religious practice. It is a cast of mind, a leaning of the heart, a willingness to see the shadow of the divine mystery in all people and all things. It is feeling the presence of God in every encounter, and seeing the reflection of the divine in the face of every person we meet on the street.
The Confucian philosopher Zou Shouyi said that we too often fail to recognize wisdom in those without talent, achievement, and fame. Jesus, in the Beatitudes, tells us to look to the meek, the poor in spirit, and the pure in heart. The Native Americans tell us to look at the elderly, because their lives have walked the long path toward wisdom.
They all are reminding us that the traces of the sacred are everywhere before our eyes, and that our task, as surely as performing acts of worship, is to find these sacred moments, hallow them with our attention, and raise them up as a celebration of the mystery of life.
The birds are quieting now. The traffic in the streets, the angle of the sun, or something more mystical and inexpressible has told them that they have sung enough.
But the silence they leave in their wake stays with me.
Like the fading echo of a church bell, they have lodged in my heart, and no church, no religious text, could do more than their gentle song to incline my heart toward God.
* * *
The truest measure of our hearts is how we create love and hope in the hearts of the children
JUST A KID
Their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow.
— KAHLIL GIBRAN
She is a sweet girl, not quite twelve, a flower just starting to bloom. I have known her since she was seven, though not well. I helped start the school she attends and have gone into her classroom once or twice a year to read to the students and talk about writing.
I always noticed her because there was such a look of appreciation on her face. And it was not simply for me; it was for all of life. She was one of those rare children born with a sense of gratitude.
I used to cuff her playfully on the shoulder when I'd see her, asking, "How's my girl Sarah doing these days?" She would beam and blush, filled with pride at the attention she was receiving from an adult who seemed to inhabit a universe far more important than her own.
It was one day in the lunchroom, though, when our relationship really began to grow. I was there for a school-board function and was sitting at a table with a few of the teachers. Sarah came running up to me, at once excited and hesitant.
"Mr. Nerburn. Mr. Nerburn," she said. "I saw something you wrote in one of my books!"
She reached in her backpack and pulled out a dog-eared book containing a collection of inspirational thoughts for teenagers. I was pleased that she was reading it, and pleased that she had found the section I had authored.
"Would you autograph it for me?" she asked.
I signed my name and wrote a little note praising her for her good-heartedness and concern for other people.
"Thanks for asking me, Sarah," I told her. "It's a real honor to have someone like you care about my writing."
She blushed and smiled, then ran off holding the book like it was the most precious object in the entire world.
From that moment forward Sarah and I had a special bond. Whenever I came into the school, she would come over to greet me. Whenever there was some display of projects, she would lead me over to look at hers.
It was one of those relationships that an adult cherishes, because you feel privileged that a child has chosen you as someone to value, and you know that your attentions can help give shape to a life.
As the time for her graduation from eighth grade approached, Sarah was required to give a public presentation about what she had learned and where she hoped to go in her life. Such presentations were held in the classroom at the end of the school day and were usually attended by only the parents and a few close friends. But when I heard that Sarah was going to speak, I knew I wanted to be there.
I took a place in the back of the room behind the smattering of family and relatives. When Sarah came in and saw me there, she broke into one of those blushes that made her freckles stand out like tiny stars. Her parents and grandparents she had expected; maybe an uncle or aunt. But Mr. Nerburn, the man who wrote books? Never.
Of course, she did just fine. She showed us her math papers and her artwork, and told of her work with her church youth group and of her dreams of doing something in the world to help other people. By the end there were few dry eyes, as much from pride in the flowering of such a beautiful young woman as from anything in particular that she had said.
I had brought her a gift — a signed and inscribed copy of one of my books. When her presentation was over and everyone had gathered around her to offer congratulations, I quietly handed her the book and prepared to leave. She was too much the center of attention to spend any time with me — and we probably wouldn't have had much to say anyway. But as I walked toward the door she pulled away from the well-wishers and came over to me.
"Thanks for coming, Mr. Nerburn," she said. Then, almost apologetically, she added, "And thanks for paying attention to me, even though I'm just a kid."
I gave her my usual cuff on the shoulder and a quick hug, then left her and her family to their moment of pride and celebration.
But her words lingered with me.
"Thanks for paying attention to me, even though I'm just a kid."
How little she knew; how little she understood.
Had it not been for her, those people would not have been gathered together. Had it not been for her freshness and promise, there would have been no tears. Yes, she was "just a kid." But that kid had brought us together and opened our hearts in a way no adult could ever have done.
I drove back home, wishing I could have found the words to tell her how special she really was. But the words were not there when I needed them — just the smile, the hug, and the playful cuff on the shoulder.
The following day I had to return to the school for a board meeting. I hoped I might see Sarah so I could tell her once again what a wonderful job she had done and what a special person she had become.
As I arrived, a group of kindergartners were playing in the schoolyard — running, screeching, chasing each other. I watched as one of them found a leaf and ran over to show it to her friends. Soon all the children were gathered around, pointing and jostling. I tried to see what it was they had discovered, but at my distance it appeared to be just a leaf. And, in fact, maybe that's all that it was.
At that moment, I realized what it was I had wanted to say to Sarah, what I wanted to say to all these children.
Never apologize for being "just a kid."
For you are the most important person in the world.
You are promise. You are possibility. You are hope when our hope has dimmed. You are joy when our hearts are heavy. In you we see the world as we dream that it could be.
Remain excited at the discovery of a leaf; it tells us there is still beauty in the small, when our eyes have gotten too focused on the great.
Play with each other on playgrounds; it shows us that all people of all backgrounds can meet each other with open hearts.
Keep talking to the dogs and the cats and the pigeons and the ducks; it reminds us that the spirit is present in all living things.
Keep laughing and giggling when you are surprised and delighted; it offers our ears the music of grace.
Do whatever it is that your heart would have you do. Laugh, cry, stomp your feet in anger, dawdle in the morning, resist bedtime at night. Allow us to see how important the moment is to you, and to share, for an instant, the importance of that moment.
For you remind us what it means to be alive.
You command us to be strong, you remind us to be gentle. In your eyes, we see the eyes of all children, and, for an instant, we understand what we have in common with all mothers and fathers at all times in all the places on the earth.
No, never apologize for being "just a kid." For you are strong beyond your wildest imagining. Your goodnight kiss can stop an army; your tears can melt the hardest heart.
For you have the gift of innocence. You have the gift of dreams. When we see you laughing and playing, our spirits take wing. When we lift you and hold you, we are consecrating a world of hope.
With these thoughts swirling, half formed, in my mind, I walked past the gaggle of children, past their squealing discussions and breathless examinations of the leaf.
Ahead, through the door, I could see the older students queuing up for lunch. Sarah would surely be there, and I would have a chance to speak with her again.
But then I changed my mind. I could see her far ahead of me, laughing with her friends, probably discussing boys and parties and plans for the weekend. She did not need me intruding upon her life. I was a part of yesterday. She was already living in tomorrow.
I continued up the stairs to the room where I would have my meeting. There I took my place at a circle of tables covered with folders and agendas and copies of minutes.
No, I thought, Sarah does not need me now, not cutting in on her friends and quieting their laughter. She needs me here, helping the school — establishing policies and balancing books.
For we each have our jobs, she and I. Mine is to hold her safe in unseen hands. Hers is to be a mirror to my dreams.
The darkest waters hold the deepest truths
THE BOY WHO WOULDN'T LEAVE
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
— MATTHEW 5:8
Last week I was sitting on a park bench, reading a book, taking in the rich, warm days of autumn. It was a quiet day, full of an easy peace, and I wanted to savor it in solitude. But a child kept moving around me, making noises, puttering, going back and forth.
I continued my reading and tried to ignore him, but the intrusion was getting irritating. There was no one else around, and this child seemed intent upon either annoying me or getting my attention.
Finally, a bit exasperated, I looked up and found myself staring into the face of a young boy about eight, straddling the bar of a dirt bike, staring back at me. He had a kind of indeterminate retardation that made me feel ashamed for my annoyance. His hair was black and stringy, his eyes wide apart, and his teeth crooked and ill-cared-for.
When he saw me looking, he grinned and waved. His movements were stiff and jerky, as if his muscles were a beat behind his intentions. But his look had the innocence of angels.
He said something to me, but it was unintelligible.
"Excuse me?" I said, hoping now to engage him in conversation, since he so clearly wanted my attention.
His eyes darted quickly. My inability to understand him had reinforced his sense of isolation.
"Nothing," he said clumsily, and looked down.
My mind raced back over the unintelligible syllables, trying to reconstruct them. There had been three, mumbled in a kind of singsong way that faded out at the end.
I took a chance. "Did you say, 'What's your name?'" I asked.
His grin opened like the sun. He waved his hand in ecstatic affirmation and nodded his head vigorously.
"It's Kent," I said.
He laughed, and nodded wildly.
"Kent," he repeated. "Kent."
Then he said it again, more quietly, savoring it as if it were some sort of magical incantation.
"My bike," he said proudly, pointing at the dented, rusty dirt bike he was riding. It was his pride, his self-worth, his closest and perhaps only friend.
I was about to ask him his name when he pushed on one of the pedals and went wobbling off down the sidewalk.
He circled once to make sure I was watching.
"Kent," he said, waving and watching. "Kent."
In his lonely world, he had made what passed for a friend.
I waved at him as he rode away, alone, down the street. I could hear him saying, "Kent," over and over, as if I had given him a gift of inestimable value.
I followed his progress as he churned on unsteady legs up the tree-lined street, then hopped the curb and skidded to a stop in front of a small, one-story house.
A woman was standing on the steps waiting for him. He ran up to her and put his arms around her. She met his embrace with her own, and they stood there, mother and child, holding on to each other in the afternoon sun.
I thought of my own son, only a few years older than this boy, increasingly uncomfortable with his parents' touch as he seeks to separate and define himself in an autonomous adult world. How much would his mother and I give for a hug of this purity and innocence. How much do we dream of seeing him bounding up the steps and allowing us to gather him in our arms. But those days are gone. His love, now, is expressed mostly symbolically, and with more circumspection and caution.
I watched from my distant vantage point as the woman gently stroked her son's hair. He leaned against her, making no effort to pull away, resting in her embrace like a peaceful and weary child.
How lucky you are, I thought, to have a son who will never grow beyond childhood innocence. What a gift you have been given to know such guileless love.
They held their embrace for almost a minute. Then the mother bent down and kissed the boy on the forehead. She opened the door, and they walked together into the tiny, rundown house.
I sat back down, touched by what I had seen and satisfied to return to my reading. But the image of the boy and his guileless smile would not leave me. The thought of the mother's gentle embrace filled me with warmth.
I shut my book and walked slowly down the block to the small house that the two of them had just entered. From the sidewalk I could see the mother standing by the sink in the kitchen. She was laughing and talking. The boy was walking back and forth in his jerky, clumsy way.
I thought of going to the door, of telling her how she and her son had touched me on this warm autumn afternoon. But it seemed intrusive.
I walked back down the street to my solitary park bench, leaving behind this house in which there was so much burden and so much love.
How little, I thought, do we understand of life's wondrous ways, and how hard it is to see the blessings in the shadows.
But there is wine like sunlight and there is wine like blood.
It does not matter which cup is passed to us. We must learn to consecrate life's gifts with love. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ordinary Sacred by Kent Nerburn. Copyright © 2006 Kent Nerburn. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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