I’m in a swamp, on a Saturday morning, and my sign is calling to me: “Ecoutez!” It’s a French command to “Listen!” I am trying to listen.
I am two hundred feet from land, surrounded by water, cypress trees, the cold wind of a January day, a deep blue sky, fallen brown logs floating, some of them looking like alligators as they gently blow along the surface of the swamp water, the last few leaves rustling in the breeze, and the male and female cardinals constantly saying “cheep-cheep” as they dart nearby.
I watch for the pileated woodpecker, who loves to eat away at the decaying trees in search of breakfast. I look around to see if the blue heron has returned, or the white egret, or the pair of mallard ducks. I scan the surface of the water for any movement–signaling the presence of the turtles, or even the nutria who has been feasting on the roots of some swamp trees. I watch the blowing magnolia leaves back on the shore, the only sign of green still visible. And I feel the wind chilling my face and searching for any other exposed skin on my body.
I’m in a swamp, trying to watch and listen, trying to be present right here. But my mind wants to wander. It’s what the mind does, right?
My mind remembers the pleasure of being with my family just after Christmas: my son, his son, his wife, her daughter, my mother, my father, my brothers, my sister and nephew. My imagination takes me back to warm hugs, laughter, story-telling, good food shared, playing tag in the cul-de-sac, first days of bike riding to the park and “the hill,” (which is more of a slight incline down the street from my son’s new house, but to the kids it looks like a mountain as they test their new bike-riding skills). I am tremendously blessed with family who love each other and love to spend time together.
Then I realize I am no longer aware of the swamp around me. I bring my attention back for a moment. I feel the cold wind again. But soon my mind wanders away.
I start worrying about what is happening to our country. I worry about the pattern of emotionally reactive tweets by the president-elect. I worry about appointments of billionaires, and bigots. I wonder if the new majorities in congress will really repeal my Affordable Healthcare Insurance plan without any thought given to a replacement plan for twenty million of us. Do they really hate president Obama so much, or care about us so little, that they will do that?
Then I worry about how hatred seems to have been unleashed toward anyone who isn’t a rich, male WASP. How did things go so wrong?
I’m back in the swamp, for a moment, trying to come back to my own breath, trying to be aware of the sunshine on my face despite the frigid wind. The worries weary me. Can I let them be? Out in this wilderness, can I convert my worries to open-hearted compassion?
I imagine my gay and lesbian friends face-by-face. I remember my African American friends, and wonder how they are feeling these days. I picture the immigrant men from Guatemala who worked at our apartments when we lived in New Orleans, and wonder if they are trembling these days, or trying to stay invisible, or even trusting that compassionate Americans will protect them from the threat of deportation after living here for ten years.
I’m in a swamp, on a Saturday morning, and my heart is calling me. It is saying, “Listen to your worries and be moved into compassion. Let lovingkindness flow. Let your worry become caring. In fact, decide right now to help bring the kingdom of God into being. Do your part. Commit to compassion.”
I’m in a swamp, on a cold Saturday morning in January, and even though I will be messy at this, and will fail every day, I commit to compassion. Would you join me?
Messy contemplatives gather around New Orleans in a School for Contemplative Living (www.thescl.net), in hopes that we can live our mission: “Creating contemplative communities who practice the presence of God for personal transformation and radical engagement with the world.” You can read more about our journey in Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture.