Good day, team.
This week’s challenge is about allowing the great mystery of our lives and the things that happen to us be as they are. Here’s the experience that sparked this idea:
Years ago, I was in Ireland on a writing trip with the poet David Whyte and 22 other aspiring writers. We signed up for this adventure to learn more about writing and to experience the Irish countryside with someone who knew the land extremely well. Once there, we traveled, mostly on foot, throughout the countryside in Western Ireland with David and many of his poet, musician and otherwise eccentric friends.
Our days were pretty much the same. We woke in our lovely cottages in the seaside town of Ballyvaughn, had breakfast with our cottage mates, then walked to the main house for tea and coffee, and shared the stories and poems that we had written along the way. Then we’d hike together for the rest of the morning, which always managed to produce some amazing revelations, either from the earth or the stones or the animals, about life, love, the universe and nature.
After our morning jaunt, we usually had a hearty lunch at a pub or restaurant and then more ambling in the afternoon, followed by a late afternoon nap back at the cottage. In the evenings, we were entertained by local musicians or simply had a few pints at the pub and shared stories — with plenty of laughter. All in all, it was my idea of the perfect vacation.
One day, after a particularly strenuous hike, we arrived in a small town, anxious to plunk ourselves down at the pub for food and drink at lunchtime. As we drove into the town square, we all noticed a bright red phone booth and immediately expressed our desire to call home before lunch. We’d not had any Internet or phone access for about five days, so the idea that we could call loved ones, check voicemail or touch base with work associates seemed like a luxury. We exited our vans quickly and immediately lined up at the phone booth to make our calls. I ended up last in line — mostly because others seemed to have a more pressing need to call family and work. It was fine with me; I wasn’t in a hurry to call home.
As I stood in line, I noticed how much the light kept changing — not at all unusual for Ireland at the beginning of June when blasts of rain and wind can come up without warning to produce a mini-torrential downpour and, within the next moment, be gone as quickly as they came. I also noticed a gentlemen standing just outside the door of the pub, under a small bit of roof overhang, smoking a pipe. He donned a woolen cap and wore the typical wool blazer, you so often see on the farmers and field workers in Ireland, complete with a few holes and well-worn patches at the elbows.
He watched us Americans in our waterproof jackets, hiking shoes and nylon pants, with walking sticks in hand and backpacks slung over our shoulders. Here we were, all lined up at the only phone booth for miles around, looking anxiously at whomever was on the phone trying to be patient for our turn. I wondered what he must think of us as he stood so still and contemplative, pipe smoke drifting up around his capped head. He appeared infinitely patient compared with the anxiety and anticipation that circulated within our group.
It seemed odd to be so excited about a phone call, but we’d all grown up with the ability to pick up the phone at anytime, anywhere and get the information we needed. So this felt like our big chance! I watched as each person emerged from the phone booth, some with satisfied expressions, having made the connection they’d hoped for. Others, with disappointed faces, not having been able to connect with the person they were trying to reach. Who could explain this phenomenon of picking up a phone receiver, holding it to your ear, putting some money into a box, and then within a few seconds, hearing the voice of another person who was thousands of miles away from you? “Hello?” they would answer, and there you were in a bright red phone booth in a tiny Irish town no one had ever heard of, speaking to them as though they were sitting right next to you.
Now that, I thought, is a mystery. I know someone could explain how it all works to me at least mechanically and technologically. But I was baffled by the idea itself. Perhaps because I’d gone for five days without using a phone, it dawned on me what an amazing thing it was that we could do this. I’d never thought about it before. But now it seemed to be nothing short of a miracle that technology had enabled this tool for people to connect emotionally and intellectually in a fairly intimate fashion over such great distances. I remember distinctly thinking, “Goodness me, what other mysteries exist in my life that I take for granted?”
As the line got smaller, I gave more thought about who to call. I began to get excited about talking with my mother to let her know how I was. She was always so happy to hear from me, and she would love the idea that I was calling from a red phone booth in Ireland somewhere.
Just as my turn for the booth was getting close, the skies turned black and a sudden downpour soaked me to the bone. The person before me was just finishing his call, but until he did, I stood waiting in the rain. As he quickly opened the glass door to the booth, I heard a quick, “I’m so sorry,” as he made a mad dash for the pub. I got in the booth and, as the rain beat loudly on the metal roof, I realized that the deafening sound would prevent me from hearing anyone on the other end of the line. I waited, feeling like an idiot to be standing in a glass box, while the rain thundered across the town square in huge sheets of water. The man at the pub’s doorway, continued to smoke his pipe and made a slight adjustment of his legs, so that his right foot scooted back under the overhang, which now dripped incessantly from the rain.
As the windows to the phone booth steamed up, it became impossible to see what was happening outside, and it made my waiting for the storm to pass even more vexing. Then, as the rain began to dissipate, I picked up the receiver in hopes of making my call. The phone was dead. I would not get to make a call after all. All I could do was wait for the storm to pass so I could make my way into the pub.
After five or so long minutes, I began to see the inside of the booth lighten up, and I knew that it was over. As I emerged from the booth, I was happy to see rays of light streaming through fast-moving clouds and everything within my sight was twinkling as tiny bits of raindrops sparkled in the sunlight. What a miracle, I thought. The world around me was refreshed and enlightened.
I made my way across the now muddy main street to the front door of the pub. The Irish gentleman still stood there, now poking at the bowl of his pipe with a well worn metal tool, looking intently at its contents. As I approached, he looked right at me, eye to eye, heart to heart. His eyes were so bright and present that they disarmed me. I was suddenly embarrassed by the intimacy and buffered it by making small talk. “Gosh,” I exclaimed, “that was quite a storm!” He looked up at the sky for a brief moment and then back at me. “It’s a mystery,” he responded. The total acceptance in his voice and the presence in his eyes rendered me silent. We stood, in that moment, looking into each others eyes in complete silence. There was nothing else to say. It was a mystery, and it was perfect.
As I sat in the pub a few moments later with a pint in my hand, I realized how right he was. It’s really all a mystery, I thought. It’s all a matter of how you see it. You can take it all for granted and not see the great mystery or beauty in anything, or you can experience just the opposite. Every leaf of grass, as Walt Whitman said, is a miracle. In that moment, I knew that the great mysteries of life are just that and need no further explanation. The wise Irishman at the doorway had allowed me to see it simply for what it was — no need to analyze, no need to investigate, no need to explain — just a mystery. And being fine with that was the gift he gave me in that moment.
This week, take notice of the mysteries in your life. Perhaps it’s the shrubs in your yard beginning to grow new buds. Maybe it’s the color of your teammate’s sweater that matches the color of her eyes. How about the first bite of a warmed morning muffin or a sip of scrumptious red wine? Notice the changing weather this time of year from cold and rainy to bright and sunny, all within a few minutes span. Last weekend, I saw three different rainbows emerge across the city and was reminded again of life’s great mysteries.
See these mysteries and try being content with just observing them. Try experiencing them instead of explaining them. Allow them to seep into you like water into a sponge. Be with them just as they are.
As the great author Paulo Coelho wrote, “We have to stop and be humble enough to understand that there is something called ‘mystery.’”
Have a good week!
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