I’ve been reading a lot of Parker Palmer (A Hidden Wholeness, The Active Life) and in both of his works, this poem shows up. I love the reflection it takes me on in my own approach to my life – my work, my mothering, even keeping a house.
I hope you enjoy.
Chuang Tzu: “Poem of the Woodcarver”
Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”
Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.
“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.
“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”
1. I’m not a good listener. I am fantastic at hearing and absorbing and synthesizing information. However, if simple listening is what you need, I’m not your gal. Recently, I’ve tried to ask friends about their needs in this regard. Do you want advice right now or do you want me to just listen? At least then we’re both understanding the same expectations. Because….
2. I’m an ideas person. I’m a believer that we are not so firmly planted in our ways of life that we cannot change the things we do not like. We can’t change all of the things, but we can change our approach or our response to them. So I all-to-often share what I’ve done, read, heard, or thought about. I’m one of “those people” who will recommend a great book for an extremely difficult season in your life. I know this about myself and I’m trying to pull on the reigns, but it remains a life pattern which is not easily rectified.
So do you know how God has dealt with me, continually throughout my life? He gives me people in grief. I’m completely awful with it. I’m not good at talking about it because there is no book or lecture I can recite to alleviate the pain. I hate the pain, it’s so incredibly hard to sit with and hold their pain, so I wash dishes and bake cinnamon rolls and try to pretend it’s an illness that will someday find healing.
I must be a failure at these grief “growth opportunities” because they have appeared throughout my life. Particularly with friends whose mother is named Deb. Those friends’ mothers tend to die of cancer. I feel as if I should offer this as a warning to potential new friends. I should write it on my name tag at socials and meetings.Hi, my name is Michele. If your mother’s name is Deb, we cannot be friends. I’m sure you’re fantastic!
Grief seems to be the extreme side of general “hard times” in life, of which all people move in and out. It seems the eternal question as a decent human being is: How do I help those I love during those hard times? What does love and support look like? Is it just listening? Getting a glass of wine? Bringing a pot of soup?
About four years ago, I was walking through an incredibly dark time. So many unknowns sat in front of us and it simply hurt to think, and to not-think, about it. I needed something from others but I couldn’t put words to it. One day I was singing to Crowder, as I often do, when I realized I was singing:
Shine Your light so I can see You Pull me up, I need to be near You Hold me, I need to feel loved Can You overcome this heart that’s overcome?
I realized that light was exactly what I needed. But here’s the thing: I didn’t need someone to shine a light at me. I needed them to shine the light for me. I needed them to walk just ahead, beside or even behind me and point that light forward so that I could see the next step. They may need even to drag me to the next step. Of course, daylight would be nice. But my friends have no control over daylight. They can, however, shine the light of a small candle in the immediate space around us.
Right now I’m not walking in a season of darkness. Actually, colors are quite vibrant in my world. I’m living in a spring day in which I see so much beauty – the grass is greener, the sun is brighter and I have a sense of where we’re headed. Even though many unknowns lie ahead, I’m not living in fear of constantly stumbling around in the dark.
But my friend is not. She’s living in the darkness. She remarked, “I just wish we could see some sort of light in all of this.” And I knew so well what she meant. My heart aches that there’s nothing I can do in the situation. I’ve delivered multiple pots of soup, so she’s probably a tad tired of my efforts to help.
Last weekend at church, the topic was something around “faith during hard times”. We sang a song very much related to that topic. I enjoy the song, but my initial thought was, “this isn’t exactly what I’m experiencing right now.” It felt a little untrue. But I remembered my friend and how true it is for her right now. I thought about the times that songs have been so true that I couldn’t mutter the words out loud because the trueness almost hurt. Or I would start crying. Yeah, mostly that.
These songs would make grand promises about God actually being good and seeing us through to the end and I wouldn’t sing because I didn’t know if I could or would believe that again. In my darkness, that part didn’t feel true. I didn’t sing those parts because I wondered if I believed it.
A teacher once taught about singing and gave reasons “why we sing.” It was a great lesson but the only one that stuck with me is that we might “sing until it’s true.” We might not believe something to be true, but we sing it anyway. The words and melody shape us and push us onward toward belief. They can carry us toward belief.
Last weekend I decided that we can also sing until someone else believes it’s true. Those parts of songs that are simply too true to utter out loud still need sang. Those of us living in light times simply must sing them on behalf of those walking in darkness. We must supply the melody and hum the rhythm so that, eventually, others can join in the song.
We shine the light. We sing the song. Not at, but for, beside, behind and around those who need it.
My third-born developed a pattern: when she’s lonely, she’s destructive. The moments that we we want her to go and play like a nice little girl, she shoves herself back into our line of vision, sometimes with a crayon on our wall. She can’t contain her emotions and will react to small frustrations with bites upon her older siblings. Usually, she’s asking for something (a nap or a cuddle most often) but she uses the wrong words. The wrong means.
As a mother, especially of many, sometimes I don’t want to have to give that to her. I might prefer reprimand and get angry that she took her aggressive feelings out on other things and people. It’s inconvenient to sit and listen and hold, especially when I cannot identify with her feelings of frustration that come with broken crayons or a brother that won’t do as he’s told. These seem like pretty insignificant ordeals in my world, but to her corner of the universe, they matter. On my Good Mom Days, if they matter to her, they matter to me. That’s how things like empathy, kindness and love take root in a heart and grow us into beings that recognize the holiness in all things and people.
I chose not to learn a darn thing about Ferguson (chastise me later). I don’t know the names, the actions, the anything. I know there’s a police side and a black side and a whole lot of feelings. For a second just join me over here and set your opinion aside. I want you to hear me clearly. I’m not talking about agreeing or disagreeing with a grand jury right now. I don’t know who or what to agree or disagree with, and knowing my track record, I probably agree with everyone.
Right now there is a population of people who is so angry, they feel the need to burn things in order to get our attention. We might want to yell and discipline, but if we’re good humans, we should stop and question why riots have to happen in order to get our country to talk about race.
We have brothers and sisters in this country trying to say something. They’re telling us about a hurt, something so outside our immediate context that we have difficulty identifying with them. We want to blow it off, tell them to stop the current behavior and believe we’ve fixed a problem. Hear me: I’m not justifying behavior. I don’t like crayons on my walls nor fire in my streets. It’s not okay. But behavior modification will not fix this problem – it’s a symptom of a larger issue.
My three-year-old has taught me about human nature in her action. She has also shined a light on my propensity to gloss over her very real hurt with my reaction. Finally, in the third year of raising the third kid, when we see these behaviors I have come to ask myself, “does she need something from me that I’m not giving her?” The answer is nearly always, yes. She needs my attention. She needs me to hear. She needs me to try to imagine her world and what this is like. When I give her those basic internal needs, she exhibits the kind and loving behavior we seek from her. Her behavior has a direct correlation with her sense of security and place in our family dynamic.
What we lack in understanding, may we make up for in a willingness to listen to the real request of these behaviors.