To Practice Change

I’ve been looking ahead, daydreaming about blossoms on trees, and fresh starts, and new things. They sound beautiful. Newness means change, though, and I’ve had a complicated relationship with change. Perhaps many of us have in recent years as the pace of it seems to have picked up. Change can bring about great good, but it can also pile up and overwhelm us. 

I remember reaching overwhelm one summer when I moved to a new home near a rail trail. Sitting on the floor and unpacking, I promised myself not to box up my life again for a long, long time. Cardboard cuts from moving box flaps were still fresh on my fingers. Cardboard cuts, like life transitions, can look superficial even when they’ve gone deep. For me, some things had gone deep. I needed to heal. Have you ever been there?

Life doesn’t sit still around us, of course, as we heal. I tried to sit still, myself. Outside my new home, joggers, cyclists, pedestrians, baby strollers, and pets on leashes passed by on the trail at all times of day and night. I spent hours watching them from a chair outside my back door. I let the movement flow past me, wanting nothing more than to rest, nest, and observe.

Scanning my shelves in the evenings, I’d take an old favorite book and a mug of tea to that chair out back. One evening, I found well-marked pages in a copy of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.* I hadn’t picked him up in years, but I remembered his boldness. I’d liked it. I’d liked how he almost seemed to lift up his fingers, marked with their own healed-over cardboard cuts, looking somehow like wisdom by the time he was now writing about experience, and feeling, and discernment. 

Ignatius didn’t advise against movement or change. That struck me. Instead, he suggested dwelling with the new possibilities and noticing how we feel as we imagine different options. He explained that not all options come from the same “spirit.” Some spirits, he said, fill the soul “with peace and quiet,” while others bring turmoil.[1] He suggested noticing which option brought which spirit.

I suppose I’d come to associate moving boxes with turmoil. Perhaps I’d even assumed that change meant the failure. Sometimes that’s the case, but of course, sometimes it isn’t. I couldn’t have found a better place to help me remember that than the little home by the rail trail. The trail kept calling me out, insisting I remember how to move. 

That trail had an interesting history. Nineteenth-century Midwesterners called that railroad path “the Monon.” Tracks of the Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville Railroad ran through the state of Indiana like a big “X” crossing at the town of Monon. The Monon carried troops and supplies during the Civil War. It hosted 90 miles of the funeral train procession for Abraham Lincoln. It served the limestone industry, five universities, and two resort hotels. Eventually, as rail lines were discontinued, tracks got removed. Long swaths of the Monon were converted into the multi-use trail system so busy in my own day.

Though its cargo had changed, I suspected the Monon had kept its old energy. It moved people and things. That’s what it did, and it lured me out.

I started setting books aside for short autumn walks. In October, I noticed a great horned owl beginning its outrageous calls overhead. I brought out snow boots for late November walks. Winter cramped my style, but after months of endless white, grey, and brown, my first glimpse of a crocus poking up through trail-side dirt felt thrilling. I loved those moments observing the earth move through its cycles around me. With so much to take in, is it any wonder I began making time to walk that trail so often?

I’d visit shops along the way. A sporting goods store had operated for years in an old house beside the trail. When they’d grill burgers out in the front yard, I’d stop to chat and look through sale racks. Though a vegetarian, I even ate a burger and enjoyed it. 

New places caught my attention, too. Cafes and farmers market days offered new tastes and new faces. When I bought a bike and tried to ride even further, I discovered the aches and pains of middle-aged legs moving in new ways. I found I didn’t dread that pain as much, though, as I’d dreaded the pain of cardboard cuts. Perhaps it was the new shops, and farmers markets, and faces I thought of finding with the new distances my bike could give. I kept on with it, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

I even took decisions out with me for my time on the Monon. Paradoxically, the movement slowed down my brain in ways that I needed. My mind got to wander, to reflect. I’d picture possibilities. I’d alternate between lingering in daydreamed scenarios and noticing the world around me. One day at a crossing signal, a man on his bike stopped beside me.

“You come this way a lot,” he observed.

“Yes,” I said, studying him, “and you pass me a lot.”

He laughed. 

“You must enjoy it,” he said. “You’re always smiling.”

I hadn’t known that. I had known that other people kept smiling at me, and I’d smile back, relishing the exchange. I’d known that I was settling into movement that took me new places, showed me different things. Some days it even brought me peace. I’d known that eventually, with whatever decision I had on my mind, I’d come to a sense of what I needed to do. Perhaps all that stretching and strengthening of my legs was helping me work through other kinds of pain, as well. 

“Just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises,” wrote Ignatius, “so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul.”[2] I liked his exercise metaphor, but I also liked how he noticed that bodies, senses, and emotions carry their own insights. They teach us and change us, and we practice their lessons in how we pass our days.

I found myself trying out the idea of leaving that little home by the rail trail much sooner than I’d expected. It raised the specter of moving boxes and cardboard cuts, for sure, but it also came with some new possibilities I hadn’t gotten to consider before. I daydreamed through them as I wandered the Monon over the next couple of months. When I once again gathered moving boxes, I noticed a change in myself. This time, I was making no promises about how long it would be before I moved again. Instead, I was feeling more confident that I could know when movements were right. I suspect the Monon trail had given me some good practice. I felt grateful for my time on that path.

What about you? How do you practice change?

[1] Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius* (New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics, 2000) 116.[2] Ignatius of Loyola, 5.

This essay originally appeared in The Beauty of Rest: Contemplative Essays (Clay Patin Press, 2023). The Beauty of Rest is available as a free Kindle ebook today (3/1/23 Pacific Time) only.*

Handling the Holes Created by Loss

I’ve never worked in kintsugi gold, but I’ve begun enjoying the other kinds of repairs that I do manage to do. Repairs feel like a form of care for the things that go with me through my days. On the bookshelf, a Joy of Cooking cookbook I inherited from my grandmother has its cracked spine reinforced with packing tape. A favorite coffee cup still holds up well with its super-glued handle. I even brought out my sewing kit recently to tackle the holes in my shower curtain.

Pulled threads and puncture holes—that curtain has seen better days, for sure. My black cat Bo caused most of the damage. Between playing with the hem, reaching for the tassels, and grabbing at the fabric when she’d slip on the bathtub ledge, Bo left her marks on that shower curtain. When I gave her away, it took me a while to think about repairing the curtain. I had so many other things on my mind.

My father passed away not long before the pandemic began, and I didn’t know what to do with a world that didn’t have him in it. I grieved that presence that had always made sure our family had what we needed, made sure we knew that things would work out all right. I worried about my mother, too, facing her own grief and pandemic isolation, suddenly living alone. I knew that my mother and father had come to love my cat, their “grand-kitty,” and I asked my mother one day if she’d enjoy having Bo move in with her. Without even pausing to consider, she answered, “Yes!”

So, I gave Bo to my mother. I felt glad that Bo would be sharing her warm, playful little presence with someone who probably needed it. All the same, I missed her. I missed my father. I missed the cute cat pictures I’d take—like Bo napping on a peach-colored bath mat—to send to my father to make him smile. I missed telling him stories about her, like the bulge in the shower curtain where Bo would hide on the bathtub ledge, peeking out to watch me get ready in the morning.

I cried often at first, sad and lonely for loved ones missing to death and to pandemic distances. Human lives can break in so many ways, but loss and grief make up one very common kind of hole that we find in our days. Some days, I felt like I had about as many holes in me as the shower curtain had in its fabric.

The more I let myself cry, though, the more I discovered something else happening alongside the tears: I’d be smiling or laughing in the middle of crying. Mending snags in the shower curtain, I remembered how Bo could make a toy out of anything and laughed as I pictured her with boxes and bags and yarn. I reached for the tool kit my father gave to everyone in the family one Christmas (as if he assumed that life would invariably need repairs), and opening the box, I smiled as I imagined how he would smile whenever I’d tell him about using something he’d given me.

I couldn’t deny the hole where my father’s physical life with us used to be. I couldn’t deny the hole where a little black cat used to be—always underfoot. Yet, even as those holes pointed to absence, I also found them pointing to more presence than I’d expected. After all, love doesn’t just disappear. In memories and thoughts, in the joy I still took at picturing Bo’s playfulness, in the care I still experienced from the things and smiles and thousand other reassurances my father had given me over the years, I found both of them still felt very much with me, albeit in different ways than before.

I said I’d never worked in kintsugi gold, but I do think that the image of gold filling our holes—all those painful openings introduced by wear and tear and time—has given me a lovely way to handle those holes. The gold has reminded me to see in the shower curtain punctures how the sweet little pet who’d made me smile every day now offers her playful blessing to my mother. The gold has reminded me to notice, in that gap where calls and visits with my father used to be, how I continue to find his care with me, even now. I suspect my increasing sense of repair work as a form of care has emerged from my practice with noticing the tender, gentle gold that appears in the middle of my hurting holes.

The pandemic has given me nothing if not practice. When I’d done what I could do with repairing Bo’s shower curtain, I brought out my father’s tool kit to see what other kinds of care I could give that space. I’d never been one to decorate bathrooms, but I remembered the colorful artwork and shelves of linens that my grandmother used to have around her bathroom, and I tried my own hand at introducing some new color around that old pastel curtain. I found a painting in my closet to hang on one of the bathroom walls. I assembled shelving where I lined up my collection of colorful towels, including the one with pastel stripes and a ragged hem line which belonged to my grandmother.

“Granny would have liked this,” I thought, looking happily around when I finished. “Bo would definitely have found even more to play with.”

I’ve also called my mother a lot during the pandemic, asking how she and Bo are doing. In the middle of a sentence sometimes, my mother will cut herself off and say, “Bo, stop that.” She uses her most gentle, coaxing, grandmother-like voice.

“What’s she doing now?” I’ll ask.

One day, Bo was apparently laying on the floor scratching at the upholstery of my mother’s recliner.

“I’m so sorry, Mom!” I said, feeling somewhat responsible for any cat-related damage.

“Oh, it’s not really a problem,” my mother said. “I’ve wrapped clear duct tape around the bottom of the recliner. She can’t put any more holes in it, and besides, she’s so cute when she tries to get my attention like that.”

I laughed, liking her way of handling holes.

This essay original appeared on the A Kintsugi Life blog on May 26, 2021.