Saying yes to life
Begin the song exactly where you are…
September 3rd 2016 found me and Rebecca Moon (my oldest friend) standing guard over a small mountain of suitcases in a tiny Scottish bus station. Just a few days before, I'd been with my family in Oxford, wedding my sister to her handsome Dutchman. Rebecca— a saint and a doll— met me in London to take the trek up to Scotland and help me move in. St. Andrews, we joked, was Hogwarts. And Rebecca my magical pet.
After two days of hefting my bulbous luggage on and off of trains in the split second before the train left us or our belongings behind, I began to think Rebecca truly possessed magical qualities.
Thank you God for Rebecca Moon, I thought as she deftly hailed a cab from the cue.
As we stacked my luggage into the slouching trunk of the cab like a careless game of jenga, I inwardly resolved to take a vow of poverty renouncing all earthly possessions, while outwardly giving the cabby my new address.
From his bearded face proceeded friendly, Scottish sounds. One might even think they were words. English words perhaps?
Rebecca and I exchanged blank stares.
More sounds came from the gregarious man. All that impressed itself on my mind was a vague impression of friendliness and… perhaps inquiry?
“Yes,” I replied feebly.
The cabby laughed. This reply seemed to satisfy him, and he began to pull out of the bus station.
I leaned across the lumpy back pack between me and Rebecca and whispered as quietly as I could manage…
“Do you think that was English?”
We crumpled into giggles as the cabby gazed through the rearview mirror in bemusement.
Over the following weeks and months I was plunged headlong into an altogether surprising new life. From the subtle but significant identity shift of "undergraduate" to "masters student," to living in a postgraduate dorm rich in enigmatic traditions and comprised of masters students from all over the world, to the peculiarities and delights of living in a Scottish coastal town, I found myself in a constant state of merry disorientation. I often found myself wondering, not unhappily, what in the world have I done with my life?
Standing on the other side of this year, I see a year that was dense with life, laughter, learning and love (and alliteration apparently).
Relationships deeper than I hoped or expected to have.
The opportunity to write a play performed in London (that's a whole nother story...)
Conversations that challenged me and continue to shape the way I see the world.
A truly astonishing trip to Paris.
Marvellous, wonderful people (to whom a whole nother post is due).
Chances to laugh, celebrate, and grieve with friends. And to be laughed with, celebrated, and grieved with.
A ceilidh in a castle.
Coming at me faster than the trains in and out of Kings Cross were moments where life seemed to ask me "Will you say yes to this?"
And so this was the lesson of my year: to say "yes" to life.
As an active and driven person, I've never much held with the idea of "accepting your life." This always seemed to me to be the code of conduct for the passive. But this year, for adjustment and survival, I found myself continually a receptive attitude toward life. Saying yes to circumstances, responsibilities, friends, adventures. Accepting what was.
Do you know the etymology of the word "accept?" No? Well, I didn't until recently.
The Online Etymologist defines it in the following way:
late 14c., "to take what is offered; admit and agree to (a proposal, etc.)," from Old French accepter (14c.) or directly from Latin acceptare "take or receive willingly," frequentative of accipere "receive, get without effort," from ad "to" (see ad-) + capere"to take," from PIE root *kap- "to grasp.
What struck me as I read this definition was the dual nature of acceptance; it is both passive and active.
To accept life is both to receive it willingly, but it is also to grasp it.
To graciously admit the circumstances of life space in your life and living room, but also to take it by the collar and tell it, "listen buddy, this is what we're gonna do..."
As life came at me this year, fast and strange, sometimes hard and often wonderful, I found myself learning to accept life.
To say yes, to receive.
Hard earned wisdom.
And then, to make something of them. To throw myself in, use what resources I have, pray for what resources I don't. To risk and to count the cost. To not shy away.
The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is one of the stories of Jesus that has always scared me most. The master of a household gives his staff some money before going on a trip. Most of them do a risky thing: they invest the money, and upon his return, the master praises them. But to the one who just saved the money, burrying it in the ground as not to use it, he is harsh. "You wicked and slothful servant!" he says. "Why didn't you at least put it in a bank where it would incur interest?"
A good question.
I'm sure there is a complexity of theological meaning in this text which I am not equipped to unbury, but one obvious interpretation stands out to me: receive what God gives you, but do not be passive.
It seems evident to me that the master in the story expected his servants to truly accept the gifts given to them in the old sense of the word.
To receive, yes.
But also to grasp.
This is your story, and it's the only one you get.
As one of my favourite songs articulates it,
"There's not making cases
For getting out or changing places,
You are here."
In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell calls it the Matthew Principle (after this parable). This principle encourages us to recognise that much of our lives will be determined by the opportunities and difficulties we encounter (by no merit or mistake of our own), but also by our willingness to take those circumstances by the horns and make something of them.
It reminds me of a poem I have long loved.
The Singing Bowl by Malcolm Guite:
Begin the song exactly where you are,
Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air,
Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood
And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.
Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.
Become an open singing-bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.
And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.
In the whirl and pull of life, this poem reminded me to begin where I was. To accept, as passive and active. To make something of the puzzle pieces of my life.
I have by no means mastered this practice. But as I stand at the cusp of a new autumn, startled all over again by the strangeness of life (I'm doing a Phd!), I am filled with a renewed vigor to say yes to life.
To accept all that is laid before me, and to make something of it.
To begin the song exactly where I am.
I wish the same for you.
A few announcements...
Now that I am back in Scotland and settling back in, I am happy to announce that I will be posting once a week! (now that I've said that in public to the WHOLE INTERWEB, I must do it. Accountability, friends).
I am also excited to announce that I will soon be starting a podcast titled "Speaking with Joy." The goal of this podcast is to connect listeners with great art, think deeply about it, and show how it enriches and complicates how we see the world. And also to tell stories about my odd life in Scotland, of course. Stay tuned. :)
Finally, now that Joel and I are in the same country, we're making music! To keep up with us, check out our Patreon.
See you next week, friends!