Ripples: A Different Perspective on the Parable of the Sower

“And some seed fell on good soil, and when it grew, it produced fruit a hundredfold.” Luke 8:8

St. Theresa of Avila said something to the effect that God has no hands, no feet, no voice in this world except ours and through these He works. I’m sure some will interpret that literally and will object. Some Christians will point to Scripture — God’s Word, his voice in this world. Some Catholics will point to the Sacraments — God’s action in our lives.

As literal as I can be at times, when I first read that, I didn’t think of either of those objections. I simply responded, “Yes! Let that be me! Let me be your hands, your feet, your voice in this world.” This “Yes” led me to engage in activities which would deepen my relationship with God, such as meditating on Scripture and keeping a spiritual journal. It also motivated me to volunteer for tasks which would allow me to share my understanding of God, such as teaching religious education and leading retreats.

Fifteen years later, my understanding of that call has changed. I’ve come to appreciate the Ignatian idea of God in all things, and have come to realize that to be God’s hands, his feet, his voice, we have to understand that he is present in ways infinitely beyond our human capacity to understand, present in birdsong and joy, in winds whipping across the waters and pain, present — always present.

And in that presence, he calls us always to make choices for life — choices that bring to life inside us all the gifts he has given us, choices that affirm his goodness in ways that send ripples into the world. Those ripples are his hands, his feet, his voice because they emanate from his action in our lives.

I think the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-9, Mark 4:3-9, Luke 8:5-8) can help us do this. 

Some seed fell on the path; it was trampled and birds of the sky ate it up. Whenever we trample upon the rights of others or take from them what they need, we are failing to choose life. This has tremendous political and economic ramifications, but it has deeply personal implications as well. We must look at our lives with both charity and honesty to see if this dynamic is at work in any way. If it is, and we allow it to continue, we are conspiring to silence God.

It does happen. I worked for more than seven years for a woman who took credit for my accomplishments and blamed me for her mistakes. I had numerous reasons for staying, some better than others, but with the wisdom of 20/20 hindsight I can see the damage I did to myself and to those whose lives touched mine by failing to recognize that I was not in a place where I could put down roots, blossom and bear fruit.

Some seed fell on rocky soil and withered for lack of moisture. Different scenario, same results. Sometimes, an opportunity looks good, and we jump in with both feet, but it doesn’t work in the overall scheme of our lives. For me, personally, that means any new endeavor must be balanced with time for prayer, time to write, time to paint and some opportunities for social interaction. Without those activities, something inside me withers and dies. 

That is not what God wants for me. If I am to be his hands, his feet, his voice, I must be alive inside and out! Only that which lives can bear fruit, and only with the fruit that our lives bear can we reflect God into the world. It’s that simple.

Some seed fell among the thorns which choked it. Our lives can be choked in so many ways. Some ways are obvious: abusive people choke the lives out of those around them by in stilling fear and by undermining self-esteem. But we can be choked in subtle ways as well. When someone we love is critical of our choices, because their expectations are different than our dreams, we lose confidence in ourselves and in our dreams. That, too, prevents our lives from bearing fruit that reflects God into the world.

We have a responsibility, a moral obligation, to seek rich soil, soil in which we can put down roots, grow, blossom and bear fruit. That is not to say we should immediately throw away everything that doesn’t work in our lives. Instead, we should begin by looking at our lives and seeking to understand what is preventing us from putting down roots and moving toward fruitfulness. Then, we should begin moving in the direction of life, trusting in the step-by-step process God’s life-giving presence.

I needed to have the courage to walk away from an employer whose choices choked me, even if it meant working in a convenience store while getting my bearings. I needed to appreciate the way God nourishes me not only with his Word and the sacraments, but also at the easel, and to make a commitment to creating art. I needed to make these decisions and others to find rich soil, but I think I have found it — and I am grateful. In my gratitude, I can only desire for others this blessing I have come to know.

Be God’s hands, God’s feet, God’s voice in this world — seek rich soil.

A Time of Miracles

We live in a time of miracles.

I don’t think my generation — or any of those that follow — can claim the moniker Tom Brokaw gave those who grew up during the Great Depression, and those who fought in the trenches and on the homefront during World War II: the Greatest Generation. Those men and women were great because they were willing to make sacrifices for the common good. When soldiers went off to war, those at home did what was necessary to pay for that war — they didn’t wave a few flags to feel righteously patriotic and then go on with their own lives as though those in the the trenches didn’t matter.

And yet, in the midst of the self-centered, “I don’t want to pay taxes but I want good roads and good schools and responsive services from the government (without government intervention in my life)” mentality which runs rampant today, miracles are occurring. I’m not talking about breakthroughs in cancer treatment (though having lost a mother to cancer, I celebrate what can be done today), and I am not talking about technology (though things might get ugly if anyone attempts to separate me from my tablet, smartphone or e-reader). I am talking about the miraculous way we are coming to see one another as human beings.

I grew up in a different world.

I grew up in a world where people were judged by the color of their skin. I was in seventh grade when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was in third grade when he gave his famous,  “I Have a Dream” speech just months before John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He said on that August day: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are create equal.’ … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

On that day, black men and women were still expected to give up their seats for white people on buses. On that day, signs reading “For Whites Only” stripped the dignity from black men and women. On that day, police brutality against blacks was considered acceptable by too many Americans.

Today, too many doors are still closed to blacks and other minorities as a result of poverty, but the law stands with them and that is a miracle for which I give thanks. I give thanks that American voters chose a black president in my lifetime, that while Martin Luther King, Jr., did not live to see the dream of a black man judged not by the color of his skin but by his character, I did live to see it.

And yesterday, another miracle occurred — the Supreme Court ruled laws banning gay marriage were unconstitutional. For me, that is evidence of the Spirit of the Living God sweeping across this nation. God declared in Genesis that it is not good for man (or, by extension, woman) to be alone, and in their mothers’ wombs, He created some with a same sex orientation. We must believe that He has been drawing us to this point for a very long time now.

I am grateful to have lived to see it. I have to confess that I was not aware of any orientation other than heterosexual until I was nearly 30 — but I was both naive and confused about sexuality as a result of being the victim of sexual violence. One night, I was drinking wine with a friend who was also a single parent. She said, “I love you,” and kissed me. I was stunned. I had no idea that women could love women.

Since that night, when my eyes were opened to the variations of sexual experience, I have met numerous amazing people who are gay or lesbian. (If I’ve met others, they’ve not identified themselves to me.) At times, I’ve ached for them — for the struggles some have faced. For the friend who was torn to pieces when she fell in love because she is also a person of faith who attends a church that still is fundamentally homophobic. For the friend who was afraid to come out to his parents because his father would occasionally make homophobic remarks; how could he be himself and honor his parents?

Truthfully, I wish I could end this by coming out, finding a wonderful woman to love and living happily ever after — now that it’s legal to do so. The writer in me likes the drama of that ending. Unfortunately, time has shown me that scars from being victimized by sexual violence stand between me and emotional intimacy, which must be the precursor of physical intimacy regardless of its nature.

And  so, I can only share vicariously the momentous joy of knowing — as it was widely proclaimed yesterday — love wins! But I do proclaim it! Love wins!

Motherhood as Visionary

“True visionaries are true believers.They have the courage of their convictions because they have convictions. They transform others only because they themselves have been transformed by the power and majesty of their beliefs.And steeled by their beliefs, they can willingly persevere in seemingly impossible quests to repair the world.” — Chris Lowney, HEROIC LIVING:DISCOVER YOUR PURPOSE AND CHANGE THE WORLD

I’ve been feeling my age lately — for several years, actually. I don’t have the energy I once had, need more sleep, need more time to sit quietly and reflect, am less  willing to exhaust myself by multi-tasking. Even working full-time seems onerous some days.

Sometimes I tell myself I’m just exhausted. It’s been a long and lonely life. I’ve worked hard but have little to show for it — in terms that our society sees and values. I have to remind myself that what I accomplished is significant, if not entirely tangible. I raised two girls by myself, with no child support and little family support. By myself, despite being deeply wounded by life, I  gave them healthy enough roots and strong enough wings for them to grow into remarkable young women. By myself.

I did this because Ioving them transformed me. At 60, I can still remember seeing my oldest for the first time and wanting to give her the world. I knew that I could only do this if I went before her and set an example, created a trail that she could follow. She was born on February 18; I started college in June. I was going to teach her the importance of education by getting a college education myself. I was not going to be a do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do parent.

Of course, having had a mother with an eighth-grade education and a dad whose educational endeavors didn’t extend past high school, I didn’t understand a great deal about the college experience. I’ve heard that studies have been done on the challenges faced by first-generation college students, but they didn’t exist when I was young. I just bumbled into the experience, learning as I went. I didn’t realize, for example, that I should not accept a financial aid package that included three different student loans because repaying them concurrently would  be impossible. I simply trusted the financial aid folks knew what they were doing and were doing what they could to help me. I didn’t realize that a college education only leads to a higher-paying job if you prepare for a profession that garners a decent income. I trusted advisers who  assured me that just getting a degree would make a difference in my earning ability.

The lessons were hard ones, and ones for which I’ve paid dearly. But, I don’t regret learning them. I’ve seen both of my daughters graduate from college with honors, and build careers. They’ve had other lessons to learn, but my desire to teach them the importance of education gave them a foothold to go further than I found possible.

And I stopped the cycle of violence in my family, which I consider to be especially remarkable because, in addition to the physical violence I experienced at home, I was sexually molested when I was 12, and wakened in my bed by a couple drunken strangers who took my virginity when I was 18. Today, domestic violence is a crime and rape crisis centers exist to help women whose sexual encounters are not consensual, but I grew up in a different world — one that didn’t acknowledge the toll those experiences could take on a women’s heart or psyche.

The world was starting to change when I was a young mother. One day, when I went to class with a choker of bruises that I hadn’t been able to hide with clothing accessories and make-up, a classmate who was earning a degree in counseling took me to the women’s crisis center. There I learned that (a) the abysmal mess I kept making of my life was an expression of my woundedness, and (b) my girls would repeat the same patterns if I didn’t address those issues in order to provide them with an emotionally stable home and to set a better example than my mother had set for me.

Because I did not want my girls to face the same demons that terrorized me, I worked with a gifted counselor for nearly five years. I faced with as much courage as I could muster all of the experiences I had locked in boxes and tried to shove to the back of my emotional closet. There were many nights, after my girls went to bed, when I would pull out my journal and write until the pain was so visceral, I thought I would die. I would rock and cry and rock and cry until I was too exhausted to do more than sleep. I will always love my counselor for walking  through those dark years with me, and I will always be grateful to her for helping me to find my way to a place where I could function with some degree of wholeness.

Her work enabled me to raise girls whose lives reflect none of the self-destructive patterns that characterize the lives of those of us who have been wounded by violence. While one of my daughters remains single, I have watched the other marry a truly good man and I have seen the way in which their relationship continues to grow. I see his commitment to her and to their marriage, and my heart aches with joy because she experiences every day something I have never known and will never know — love. She has no idea how hard I worked to do what I could to ensure her heart and mind were not scarred in ways that would make it difficult to have a healthy relationship.

I wonder sometimes how I managed to juggle the life I lived while raising those girls. I often worked two jobs in addition to cooking, caring for our home, going to the laudromat weekly with five or six loads of dirty clothes, and trying to carve out time to paint, an activity necessary for me to keep body and soul together. In reading Chris  Lowney’s book, I remember. I wanted to build a better life for my girls than I had, and that vision strengthened me. I may not have repaired the world, but I did persevere in what I believed was important.

I raised two amazing women by myself.

Numinous Improvisation

“You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:31, GNTD)

That’s straightforward enough. An angel comes; an angel says, “This is what you will do and this is how it will happen;” and that’s what happens.

Kind of. Her betrothed almost set her aside — though he did plan to do it quietly and, hopefully, avoid the stoning which was the penalty for adultery. She gave birth in a barn — though Bethlehem would have been full of relatives at the time, which demonstrates how hardened most hearts were toward her among family members. Then, because her husband had a dream, she found herself traveling to Egypt with a newborn, possibly before she had recovered from the birthing experience, which may have been accomplished without the help of a skilled midwife.

Two thousand years have done a great job of wiping away the sweat and tears of what must have been a difficult lived experience. But stories always do that — even the stories we tell ourselves, especially the stories we tell ourselves about others. Their lives never seem to have the muck and chaos of our own.

This morning, as I sat down to prayer, which is how I start every morning when I am on my own, the daily readings included the gospel story of the Annunciation, and I found myself envying the way God clearly indicated to Mary his will for her life. I’ve not had that clarity for a very long time — since 1998, to be exact. In truth, I only had clarity in my life for one short period of time — from 1990 – 1998. I had gone to the Chicago Institute of Art with a dear friend, saw one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s cloud paintings; thought, “I could do that;” and walked out of the museum knowing in my bones that my life would be wasted if I didn’t paint. So, creating art; motherhood, the deep call of my heart; and personal/spiritual growth formed the triad that shaped my life during that period of my life.

It might be more accurate to say creating art, motherhood and personal/spiritual growth shaped me during that time, but I did not allow them to be enough. Who knows why? In a meditation published in December in a devotional called The Magnificat, Ann Voskamp, writing about The Fall in the Garden of Eden, says, “Our fall was, has always been, and always will be, that we aren’t satisfied in God and what he gives.” Perhaps, unintentionally, I did allow myself to be tempted away from the grace-filled gifts that God had given me.

Sister Joan Chittister, in her book, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose and Joy, writes, “People who are unusually gifted in something often tend to take it for granted. … In fact, they are often inclined not only to discount the gift itself as commonplace or even worthless, but to doubt their own abilities in anything else.” While it may be arrogant to claim unusual giftedness in any of the areas indicated, it might be fair to wonder if I didn’t try to prove myself in other areas — grant writing, non-profit management, mentoring — because of self-doubt. It might also be fair to wonder if I failed to recognize the deep stirring of my heart in the areas of motherhood, art and personal/spiritual growth because I was so engaged in trying to prove myself.

I’ve been spending several evenings a week throughout Lent in prayer and in reflecting on God’s call for me at this juncture in my life. I’m turning 60 this year, and am acutely aware of time’s winged chariots. During the past 17 years, I’ve moved seven times and held nine different jobs. I was not carried on the wings of a dream or driven by burning ambition. At best, it might be said, I was a pilgrim seeking the Holy Grail of destiny or clarity or God’s will or something. I wanted to know again the passion that allowed me to balance two jobs, an art career, raising children, caring for a household, and prolific, self-reflective journal writing.

What I’ve come to realize is this — for me it comes down to three things: my relationship with God, creative expression  and — yes — motherhood. A life shaped around that sacred-in-my-life triad is deeply authentic and has the potential of becoming deeply rooted. Because I failed to value what mattered most — going so far as to set painting aside for at least five years, maybe longer — I don’t know what that life will look like. I know that I’m a deeply contemplative person, so it probably won’t be a busy life. I know that these authentic expressions of myself will have to be balanced with activities that enable me to be financially self-sufficient. I know that I will have to be flexible in exploring what all of this means, in imagining what it will look like.

Over the weekend, when I was writing in my journal, I found a phrase to describe this phase in my pilgrimage — numinous improvisation. I like the sound of that. I like the way it characterizes this time as sacred. I like the way it alludes to music and theater and other performing arts. I like the dignity it accords this shaping period of uncertainty.

I also like being old enough to appreciate a simple truth: Mary’s clear instructions didn’t reveal how difficult God’s promise unfolding in her life would be. Maybe all these years of drifting through myriad life experiences has been God’s promise unfolding my my life. Maybe, I’ve been collecting material which will provide rich earth for the seeds of creative self to grow through this numinous improvisation and  bloom. I hope so.

I switched metaphors there, didn’t I? Hopefully, you get the picture anyway.

Weaknesses and Deficiencies

“It is therefore of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves, but for others. When we do this, we will be able to face, and accept, our own limitations. … We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need others and others need us. We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.” (Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island)

Thomas Merton wrote this in his Prologue to the book, No Man Is An Island, which was published the year I was born. I  discovered it about the time I turned 45 — the book with its prologue.

Thomas Merton, who died in 1968, is one of those men who truly changed the world, and continues to change the world, though non-Catholics may be entirely unfamiliar with him or with any of his work. Merton was a Trappist monk, whose autobiography revealed how God can touch even the most unchurched of us. I’ve read that a whole generation of seekers was inspired by The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography, and it has never gone out of print.

He is known in Catholic circles for taking contemplative prayer out of the monastery and into the lives of the laity. (That’s what the average church-goer is called in Catholic circles.) However, he was also a behind-the-scenes peace activist, encouraging those on the front lines, like Dorothy Day. As a monk in a religious order where speech is strongly discouraged, he was remarkably vocal, writing numerous books and innumerable letters which continue to impact people today. One of my favorite authors, James Martin, SJ, speaks and writes often about the impact of Thomas Merton on his life.

But I will, possibly forever, remember Thomas Merton for the lines quotes above. When I first read them, I could not continue with the book. Night after night, I would crawl into my bed, grab No Man is an Island, open it to that page and reread the section of which that is a part. That passage called for a radical shift in the way I thought about myself and about my relationships with others.

Merton went on to write, “My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others…. Nor are my failures my own. They may spring from the failure of another but they are also compensated for by another’s achievement. Therefore, the meaning of my life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my own achievements. It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures with the achievements and failures of my own generation…. It is seen, above all, in my integration in the mystery of Christ.”

Thomas Merton introduced me to the concept of our inter-relatedness. Americans glorify the rugged individual and we idolize those who rise to the top of the heap, regardless of how they got there. They have money and therefore they are successful. That is why our nation has none of the programs which support the health of the family found in other industrialized nations, and why we have the appalling tendency to denigrate the poor, regardless of how hard they work and regardless of how much their quality of life was created by the greed of those at the top.

(Lost a lot of you there, didn’t I? You don’t agree. You like the way you think. You’ve worked hard for what you have achieved and to hell with everyone else. Yep! I can hear one of my brothers from here — and he hasn’t even read this yet.)

I didn’t function well within the average American mindset. I was always getting sidetracked by someone  in need — the single mom who grew up in the foster care system and had no real concept of family though she was desperate for love, the recovering drug addict I met while selling Avon products, the unemployed teacher who ended up delivering newspapers and working as a motel housekeeper to keep a roof over her head. I simply could not fail to offer assistance, though more often than not the only assistance I could provide was my time and a compassionate ear.

But time, as every American knows, is money and money is the measure of success. Right? Merton said, “No, it’s not.” Merton said our lives are inter-related, that my strength meets your need and, in that, Christ is present.

For the first time, I didn’t feel like such a loser. For the first time, I thought, “OK, I can live this.” It took a seven-day silent retreat five years later and a little (well, more than a little) adversity to fully appreciate what Merton was saying, though. I was comfortable in being the one with strengths who could help others. I could accept not rising to the top of the great American heap, but I was not equally comfortable with the whole weakness component. It always humiliated me to the bone to ask for assistance. I felt like the animal excrement a farmer scrapes off his boots every time I had to ask, every time I had to accept assistance.

But, the year I turned 50, I gave myself the gift of a seven-day silent retreat during which I came to understand that to be whole in Christ, we have to accept the whole Christ; we must be willing to receive as well as give. Yes, Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick. But Jesus also said he was found in the hungry who were fed and the homeless who were given shelter and the prisoner who was visited (cf. Matt.25:34-40). It’s OK to be strong, I came to understand, but it OK to be weak sometimes, too.”

Even today, I can’t say I am at home with weakness and with receiving, but I have learned to accept gifts with a little more grace as a result of  learning about this idea of wholeness that Merton introduced and long hours of prayer affirmed. And, as a result, I’ve come to see God in unexpected places. My daughter and her husband, for example, will undoubtedly be on the right-hand when the day of judgment comes for they feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless month after month. Although they don’t attend church with same regularity that I do, they open themselves to be God’s hands in this world as though it were the most natural thing  in the world.

I wonder if most of those on the right at the last judgment won’t be just like them. After all, according to Jesus, those on the right didn’t even know they were caring for him by their actions in this world. “When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?” they asked. When? When? When? (Matt. 25:37-39) It’s a sobering thought.

What’s Up, Doc?

I know I am not Bugs Bunny. I doubt if I have much in common with the Looney Tunes character who munched on his carrot with such insouciance. And yet, as Lent draws its mantle around me, something within looks forward with nearly the same cavalier abandon.

For some reason, many of the major transitions in my life have occurred at this time of year.  In 1998, after months of nagging phone calls from someone who did not have my best interests at heart, from someone who imagined — fool that she was — that I could be manipulated like a marionette, I acquiesced and accepted a job I did not want. I — fool that I was — imagined I could balance the job with my dream as I had done with other positions.

Seventeen years later, I still have not recovered from that error in judgment. The art career I had built through hard work and sacrifice while working (sometimes two jobs) and raising two children without a dime of child support is just a halcyon memory. The joy of walking into an exhibit space and being surrounded by the work of my hands — gone. The pleasure of hugs from and animated conversation with other artists at opening receptions — gone.

In 2006, Lent brought another leave-taking. With my art career in ashes, I rose like a phoenix to become a respected journalist, winning awards, watching my stories cross the wire, enjoying every day of work as though I had been created for that life. And then, in 2004, a short leave of absence from the newspaper became a resignation when the board of a nonprofit I sought to help irresponsibly failed to fulfill their part in the verbal agreement we had made. I could have walked away and let them deal with the mess they had made, but I did not. I shouldered the burden right up to the day that same board decided to relieve me of it — during Holy Week.

That experience cost me my home. I was so deeply wounded by the board’s betrayal and that breach of trust, that I had a difficult time getting on my feet again. I tried to retreat back into the profession which had given me so much pleasure, but we can’t go home again. With no local jobs, I was forced to move in order to find work — to move away from the river which was the subject of so many acrylic sketches, to move away from the view out my window that filled me with joy in all seasons, to move away from the friends and life I had built for myself.

I have turned over that sequence of events so many times the edges have become smooth. Thy will be done, I learned to pray. Thy will be done. Over and over. Over and over. Thy will be done. The prayer and the desire to submit myself to the will of our Father in Heaven led me into an ever deepening prayer life and an ever deepening trust in God. So, when the newspaper for which I worked experienced financial difficulties, and the publisher decided, during Lent in 2011, to save money by replacing me with someone less experienced — God bless those employment-at-will states which are an employer’s delight — I was shocked, but not unduly disheartened.

This year, I go into Lent feeling change is imminent. At the very least, my status with the nonprofit where I have been in training will change. But it’s possible other change may come as well. To prepare, I have given up fiction for Lent. (I have also given up sweets and snacks, but giving up fiction is the more difficult fast.) Usually, when I walk to work or take care of chores around the apartment, I listen to an audio book. And when I crawl into bed at night, I grab a mystery to distract me from the concerns of the day.

While this habit of escaping into fiction is not nearly as destructive as drinking myself into oblivion or drugging myself to the gills, the effect isn’t terribly different. Instead of embracing the gift of the day, instead being open to the blessings and challenges that make life rich with experience, I’m turning away. That’s no way to prepare for change. Change should be met with an open heart and an open mind. Change should be met with joy as a resurrection experience. Change should be cherished as a gift and grace.

I know this. I know it in my head. Now I cultivate the ground of my heart with prayer and reflection to receive whatever comes, using mindfully the time previously given over to fiction with plots, endings and closure. It’s an adventure, which today took an unexpected twist. For some odd reason, a phrase popped into my head when I grabbed a carrot for lunch, a phrase I haven’t heard in more than 40 years. “What’s up, Doc?”

I laughed with confusion, but couldn’t put it out of my mind. I begin to suspect that whatever comes, I’ll face it with grace and resilience. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even have a little of that rabbit’s arrogant confidence.

 

Last Call

Scenes unroll this morning like a spool of ribbon dropped to the floor. Verdant fields. The shadow of mountains. Small worn-out houses with fenced yards abutting the tracks. Mile after mile of groves neatly aligned. Vineyards stretching like corduroy as far as the eye can see. The shabby side of businesses and towns.

Raindrops crawl sideways across the windows as I watch it all. I am doing something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child — traveling by train.

I don’t know when passenger trains ceased to run in South Dakota, but they were a thing of the past by the time I started school. However, according to reports from older students, my first grade teacher always arranged a field trip for her class — students rode to the neighboring town in the caboose of one of the freight trains that still traversed the state. All year I waited to climb aboard. And then the school year ended and I hadn’t had the adventure for which I longed.

Eventually, that disappointment faded, as childhood experiences do. I even forgot until my dad’s sister brought her family to visit. Part of their journey from Oregon to South Dakota had been made by train. At that point in my life, the longest trip I had made was to a music camp my freshman year in high school — 165 miles. My parents had taken me by car, and it was a one-time experience. I was wonderstruck by the idea of crossing the country by train, and fantasized about places I would go.

But I was not raised to follow the allure of the road. I was raised to believe opportunities were gifts given to others, to believe that I needed to learn how to be content with what I had instead of longing for more. Since my mother died more than 40 years ago and my dad wasn’t inclined to talk about the decisions he made as a parent, I don’t know why I was taught to limit my dreams rather than to pursue them. I just know it created in me a dissonant dichotomy.

On one hand, my world became small; I took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves rather than explored paths that excited my imagination. On the other hand, I was plagued with an inner restlessness; I rarely stuck with a job more than three or four years, and have moved more often than I care to remember. Only my inner journey has been unencumbered by artificial barriers. I’ve studied human development and spiritual development and shied away from nothing.

As I sit here now though, watching the world go by, watching passengers come and go, I find myself wondering if it’s not time to explore the final frontier — not space, but the wonderful world in which I live. I wonder if it’s not time to see how I might be shaped by a broader range of experiences.
I find myself wondering if this morning’s cry of “All aboard” might not become one of many I hear in my lifetime.

I wonder.