2) What can I be wholehearted about?
So many of us aren't sure what we're meant to do. We wonder if we're simply doing what others are doing because we feel we don't have enough ideas or even enough strength of our own.
There was a time, many years ago, working at a nonprofit organization, trying to fix the world and finding the world didn't want to be fixed as quickly as I'd like, that I found myself exhausted, stressed and finally, after one particularly hard day, at the end of my tether, I went home and saw a bottle of fine red wine I had left out on the table that morning before I left. No, I did not drink it immediately, though I was tempted, but it reminded me that I was to have a very special guest that evening.
That guest was an Austrian friend, a Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, the nearest thing I had to a really wise person in my life at that time or at any time since. We would read German poetry together—he would translate the original text, I read the translations, all the while drinking the red wine. But I had my day on my mind, and the mind-numbing tiredness I was experiencing at work. I said suddenly, out of nowhere, almost beseechingly, "Brother David, speak to me of exhaustion. Tell me about exhaustion."
And then he said a life-changing thing. "You know," he said, "the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest."
"What is it then?"
"The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness. You're so exhausted because you can't be wholehearted at what you're doing...because your real conversation with life is through poetry."
It was just the beginning of a long road that was to take my real work out into the world, but it was a beginning.
What do I care most about—in my vocation, in my family life, in my heart and mind? This is a conversation that we all must have with ourselves at every stage of our lives, a conversation that we so often don't want to have. We will get to it, we say, when the kids are grown, when there is enough money in the bank, when we are retired, perhaps when we are dead; it will be easier then. But we need to ask it now: What can I be wholehearted about now?
3) Am I harvesting from this year's season of life?
"Youth is wasted on the young" is the old saying. But it might also be said that midlife is wasted on those in their 50s and eldership is very often wasted on the old.
Most people, I believe, are living four or five years behind the curve of their own transformation. I see it all the time, in my own life and others. The temptation is to stay in a place where we were previously comfortable, making it difficult to move to the frontier that we're actually on now.
People usually only come to this frontier when they have had a terrible loss in their life or they've been fired or some other trauma breaks open their story. Then they can't tell that story any more. But having spent so much time away from what is real, they hit present reality with such impact that they break apart on contact with the true circumstance. So the trick is to catch up with the conversation and stay with it —where am I now?—and not let ourselves become abstracted from what is actually occurring around us.
If you were a farmer, and you tried to harvest what belonged to the previous season, you'd exhaust yourself trying to bring it in when it's no longer there. Or attempting to gather fruit too early, too hard or too late and too ripe. A person must understand the conversation happening around them as early in the process as possible and then stay with it until it bears fruit.
4) Where is the temple of my adult aloneness?
In 1996, I wrote a poem called "The House of Belonging." In it, I spoke about the small, beautifully old house I came to live in after the end of my first marriage. In the poem, I wrote:
This is the temple of my adult aloneness
and I belong to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.
That temple was the house I moved into after the end of a chapter in my life. There I would live alone, but also with my son a good deal of the time. It was a new start. There was a great deal of grief in letting go of the old, but I was so very excited about my new home. I felt that even though it was such a small house and an old house, it had endless new horizons for me, as if the rest of my life was just beginning from that place. It is important to have the equivalent of this house at every crucial stage in our lives. Where do you have that feeling of home? Do you have it in your apartment? Do you have it when you walk along the lakeshore or the seashore? Where do you have that sense of spaciousness with the horizon and with your future?
Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher, said that one of the beautiful things about a home is that it is a place where you can dream about your future, and that a good home protects your dreams; it is a place where you feel sheltered enough to risk yourself in the world.