Widening Circles

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I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

— Rainer Maria Rilke

I turn 32 today, and in looking back at the first blog post I wrote, on my 29th birthday, I am struck by the reality that words written then feel fresh to me now. “Boulder Fields” was an appropriate title for that first post. There is nothing quite like having your internal experience mirrored on a geological scale to get you to pay attention. The first month I spent in the Wind River Wilderness in Wyoming, we hiked by expansive boulder fields nearly every day. With backpacks well north of fifty pounds, the shifting of these ancient giants underfoot was terrifying. I went to great lengths to avoid the boulders—going far out of my way to pick a different path over the mountains. But there were times, when the only way over, was through the boulders. Ultimately there is no escape from reality. And when something as sturdy as a mammoth rock can move with the weight of a single human footstep, the world starts to feel like an incredibly unstable place.

I got to see my favorite poet, David Whyte, in person last weekend. He began his talk by saying:

You don’t do the work of transformation. You put yourself on the edge and let transformation happen to you.

The edge. The margin. The fringe. Whyte says that this frontier is the only place where things are real—that the liminal is where true conversation happen.

The fact is, I’ve always gravitated towards the edge. It’s not that I am particularly brave or that I crave an adrenalin rush, because I categorically don’t. I am happier in the rolling alpine meadow filled with wildflowers than I am on the rocky crags. And yet, I keep seeking out that edge, even while I long for the comfort of the meadow.

My mom’s style of mothering did not mirror the style of other moms I knew. She had a remarkable capacity to let my brother and me go out into the world. She let me board a plane by myself when I was three, go to summer camp for weeks on end when I was six, and travel internationally by myself when I was fourteen. She thought baby talk and pacifiers and diapers were demeaning. So she never spoke to me in baby talk, she clipped the nipples off the pacifiers I was given and tossed them in the trash, and she got me out of diapers just as soon as I could possibly toddle my way over to the toilet. In essence she believed from the beginning in my capacity to be an autonomous human, and she celebrated my independence. Her mothering embodied the line in Khalil Gibran’s poem, “On Children,”

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

My dad also celebrated me as an autonomous being, but he continually reminded me that home was always waiting, whenever I needed a soft place to land. And so given blessings by both of my parents to explore and having the faith that if I crashed I had a place to heal, I chose to explore the edge over and over again.

Exploration of the physical world that dominated my adolescence and young adulthood took me all over the world and got me to push my body to carry huge backpacks over mountains and run marathons and then ultra-marathons. And I learned that the edge is forever receding, because when you get close, you realize in fact, you can go further still.

But as I’ve moved into my thirties, the outer landscape is becoming less important to me. This is not to say my soul isn’t happier in the mountains, because it is. But with time, it’s become clear to me that the most important edge exists in my internal landscape. And the question that I am leaning into at this moment in my life is this: is there any thread of constancy in this ever-changing world? Do we have any right to call ourselves human beings or are we only human becomings?

And as I look back through the blogs I’ve posted over the last three years, and I leaf back through journals I kept starting in early adolescence, it seems that I’m still wrestling some of the same dragons now as I was then. And I’ve stopped wondering if that will change. I’ve stopped wanting to put a punctuation mark on grief and losses I’ve experienced. I’ve stopped hoping that one day it will all make sense. And instead, I’m leaning into the truth of poetry, and into the idea that life is, as Rilke says, a “widening circle.” We are obsessed in western culture with linear progression. But I’m convinced that linear progression doesn’t exist. That our great loves and losses are with us always and that the wider circles of our lives just afford different perspectives. That the wider circles create space for all the conflicting emotions and thoughts to co-exist more amicably. And it seems to me that perhaps the most hopeful possibility is that our life of becoming will move us closer to our life of being.

My dad’s favorite story to tell about me as a child is this: Molly, our beloved family dog, was hit by a car when I was four years old. My parents asked the pastor from our church to come over for a backyard funeral. We stood in a little circle, the four of us and the pastor, around the fresh mound of dirt in the garden, and the pastor asked us if we wanted to say anything, and I said, we should also pray for the woman who hit Molly, because she was sad too.

Six years later following the death of our next family dog, I was screaming in my parents’ bedroom that I wanted to kill the dogs that had attacked and killed our little dog, Winky.

So I can only hope that with time, I will in fact be able to access again the wisdom and generosity I had as a very young child. That my becoming is more of a process of stripping away the layers of dirt that have accumulated over the years and finding again the center of my being. That the spaciousness of years will grant me access to what I’ve known forever but forgotten along the way.