Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.
— Thomas Merton
Do you see this opportunistic pink flower, peaking her way around the croton plant? She volunteered herself into this pot, with no help from me, the gardener. She just showed up, feisty and gutsy, showing off her colors after surviving a harsh winter. And she grabbed my attention, reminding me to expect the unexpected.
Some of the best years of my childhood were spent on the family farm in Southern New Jersey, not too far from the lush Pine Barrens, teeming with wildlife. Adjacent to the farm was, and still is, an obscure country lane, appropriated named, Unexpected Road. As a child I moseyed down the long stretch countless times, going as far as my parents would allow, to the edge of the thick woods, where sentries of trees guarded the stuff of my dreams. I believed hidden in the dark woods, where Unexpected Road turned and disappeared, were the answers to all my why-questions, and the mounting mysteries swimming in my young impressionable mind.
These days, when I visit The Farm, I never miss an opportunity to take another long pensive look down Unexpected Road, still unpaved and still inviting me to the edge of the woods, and to the far side of my thoughts. But Unexpected Road continues to protect its secrets. Ok, I think. Keep your riddles. Remain mysterious. I can almost hear its reply: isn’t that the point, the lure of the unknown?
American novelist Ken Kesey said the need for mystery is greater than the need for answers. Maybe that’s why Amazon’s best sellers are the whodunits. Readers want a good page turner, a tangled web of intrigue that, by the story’s end, is neatly unraveled. But what about real life?
Among the vast expanse of the unknown, the mystery of self is the most penetrating, getting to the heart of human existential questions. In my ten years as a middle school teacher and administrator, the commonality I saw among these tweeners was that they wore their search for self clearly etched on their young faces. Unlike adults, masking our inner search, adolescents show the immediacy of who am I, who are you, and why do we matter?
The Search for Self
I am in my senior years. You might think the search for self-discovery diminishes with age, but each season of my life carries more unknowns. From my childhood years and on to adolescence, then young adult, marriage, parenting, middle age, and grandparenting, new unexpected roads appear, roads that curve into hidden shadows, tight fisted and unyielding. Old habits are not easily broken. I still look down those roads that offer little. So, I look upward.
I look to the skies. My musings about self are often stirred in cloudscapes, my own private Rorschach gallery of grey-white cottony shapes against a blue sky. Skyscapes reveal more of my inner self than my dresser mirror, which only reflects an external shell.
Along the Jersey Shore, cloudscapes blend into seascapes. Together they offer fathoms of introspective deep diving into the cross currents of my life: my attachments, detachments, conflicts, dreams, regrets, ambiguities, and longings for authenticity. Always searching. Always just below the surface. The true inner self must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea, rescued from confusion, from indistinction, from immersion in the common, the nondescript, the trivial, the sordid, the evanescent (fleeting). (Thomas Merton on search for self)
I Don’t Know How to do Life Without Grits
In the bestselling novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, protagonist Kya, living alone in the marshes of South Carolina and running out of basic food supplies sighs, “I don’t know how to do life without grits.” That about sums it up for me. I don’t know how to do life without mystery. Mystery, nature and search for self, fill out the corners of my God triangle. And when I am fully immersed in all three, I find another dimension, a spiritual dimension, not found in the everyday noise and miles covered. And with all of life’s stuff swirling around me, I can easily miss a current, that drifts onto shore on a seemingly random wave.
Merton continues: . . . my peace, my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.
Oceans almost always stir up restlessness in me. Watching the ebb and flow, like the push and pulls of life, I feel undone. The sea is motion and emotion. She continuously rolls in, carrying briny secrets, but oh, so cleverly, she pulls them right back, along with the gritty sand, down to the ocean floor where white pearls are formed. Standing at the water’s edge, with salty swirls foaming around my ankles, I cannot find the in-betweenness I seek. Above my head, seagulls flutter and they laugh at the futility.
In-Betweenness: A Space for Learning
So, where do seekers go for answers, where sea gulls aren’t so amused? I look for the in-between, in the quiet spaces, in the breaks between the notes, between the comings and goings, between sunrise and daybreak, in the slowing stillness of time. It is in-betweenness where poets and artists compose. I mistakenly thought in-betweenness was my made-up word, but I am heartened to see it already exists, already probed. There is an art gallery in England featuring In-Betweenness to Capture a Sense of Self. Betweenness is even in the Miriam-Webster Dictionary.
One of my favorite writers is Parker J. Palmer who wrote several books on education, adding a spiritual element to the personal exchange between learner and teacher. In his book, To Know as We Are Known, Palmer contends the purpose of education is to create a space for learning, providing a healthy creative tension between our limits and our potentials. Where is your space for learning? Your space for mystery? Think about the important discoveries you have found in your own God triangle, in your search for self.
The Nature Whisperer
I began this blog, this spiritual journey to create a space for you, and in the process, I discovered new dimensions of my self, new insights drawn out like jewels from the bottom of the sea . Thank you for taking this journey with me. In my opening page of my blog, there is this invitation:
Come journey with me. I made a quiet space for you in my garden. A spiritual bouquet awaits.
I have created gardens of thought for you, using lyrical imagery to guide and soften our walk, gathering halos of healing light, wherever they grow, from enlightened souls, and from nature’s own voice, that softly voice floats in on gentle breezes.
Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived. (Thomas Merton