I had the privilege of working in the backyard of Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA several years ago when they hosted a group of Buddhist monks on campus. As part of their visit, the monks taught the art of constructing sand mandalas through demonstration. DAYS OF DEMONSTRATION.
A mom of a three- and five-year-old at the time, I couldn’t imagine focusing on anything for days, much less working with something as sensitive as sand. Heck, coloring mandalas were all the rage back then, and I couldn’t finish one of those either.
So I made it a point to visit, and I took our two busy, curious, distractible boys with me. What we saw was awe-inspiring. Truly AWE-some. Epic proportions of concentration balanced on an education in the philosophy and significance of the task yielded beautiful and delicate pieces of art. I encourage you to watch the practice here.
A week or so later, when it was time to go home, the monks destroyed their creation. Hours and hours of prayer, meditation, and attention, a beautiful piece of collaborative art… gone. Like so much of the process, this destruction is symbolic, too. The monks remind us that life is impermanent. And if the greatest gift we are given, life, is impermanent, then we can apply this reminder to the impermanence of other parts of our life, too. From rocks he’s found on walks, to empty bottles he thinks would look pretty on a shelf, my youngest son, a collector of anything not pinned down, struggles to let go of the tangible things in life and be okay that what was can be as beautiful as what is.
Our family has moved a lot. Thanks to Facebook, we keep up and remain connected with friends far away, but it’s not the same as being in regular relationship with them: neighbors sharing cookie cake, weekly meetups on soccer fields, in Scouts, at church. I miss so many of these people because knowing them makes me better, even when I don’t get to see them anymore. On one hand, it’s great to stay in touch with friends. But if we aren’t seeing each other at the ballgame every week, do we maintain this relationship? Can we be thankful for what was and move on without hurting feelings?
My parents also moved recently, which meant saying goodbye to a home I knew for over 30 years and offering thanks for the memories made there. Some members of my family are empty-nesting. This means that roles and relationships may change. What does staying in touch look like when we don’t live in the same home anymore? As our children transition into adults, how do we love and guide our “babies” and also honor the adults they’ve become?
The transitory nature of life isn’t just seen in where we live. Nowadays Americans in particular change jobs much more often than previous generations. Thirty years and the proverbial gold watch is a relic of a time gone by. Well-versed in the “growth mindset” and the hope that gives us, we can lean into what we don’t know “yet” and try on new careers, thankful for what that last adventure taught us.
Slowly I am learning by experience that it’s okay to say good-bye to people, relationships, places, memories, experiences, and to look around to what is or forward to what can be ahead. Even though saying good-bye is hard and grief sucks, they both lead to growth. So rather than being swallowed up by grief, I am working to choose a posture of gratitude; offering thanks for what has been and optimism for what can be.
What I’m learning is this: being grounded in an open heart to the Spirit is a gift, should we choose to listen. Some call this faith.
I say all this on the heels of my mom’s death. She died relatively quickly of ALS back in July. And while I miss her TERRIBLY and would be grateful to have just a few more minutes to chat and listen to the things she tried to teach me when I wouldn’t listen, her death was a promise fulfilled. We don’t get to stay. We get to go. And it’s not on our schedule. When I look hard enough, I find gifts in those last moments. There are so many memories I have with my mom in her last year or two on Earth that I never would have had if she hadn’t gotten sick. Vulnerable moments when we both could push our differences aside and just be together.
I will always and forever believe that attention is the greatest gift we can give one another. The most beautiful moments in life are times we gave or received the holy gift of attention. We see this throughout the New Testament and Jesus’ ministry — so many times he completely stopped what he was doing, stilled his body, and offered another person his full attention. And sometimes we learn these lessons the hard way — when we are running out of time to give it, when we realize we aren’t giving it, when we feel the pain of not receiving it.
The lectionary recently rolled over everyone’s favorite, “leave all your stuff and come follow me,” verse in Matthew. A stewardship Sunday classic. But, what if we remember that everything we own and everyone we are with is impermanent? What if we remember that the only perpetual thing in life is RIGHT NOW? Then maybe we can breathe in this moment, giving it our full attention, and recognizing heaven as it is on Earth… before it blows away, like sand.
Can we offer our gratitude for seeing the gift, loving others, stranger and friend, in the moment? Can we honor the Spirit we hear, and eventually, say goodbye, grateful for what was, what we had, and hopeful for where we are now, and what we have in the future? We can, with God’s help.