Practicing November 6, 2014

A few years back, I accepted a challenge to commit to a “regular spiritual practice.”  The terms of the challenge defined that as a daily spiritual discipline of at least twenty minutes.  Unfortunately, the year that I took this on was an especially hectic one.  Try as I might, I just could not clear any twenty-minute windows of time, other than my daily commute to and from work.  And so, my daily practice of rolling meditations was born.

Car driving under bridge
M6 Bridge over Meriden Road at Dusk. Winterbottom, 2006.

This has worked out better than you might suppose. Five days a week–fewer if the weather is snowy or icy, and I need to pay full attention to the road–I start my engines, ease out into traffic… and, as I turn off the main highway and onto the back road shortcut to my destination, I begin my day with prayer.

That prayer, or mediation (my practice varies) takes on one of a number of related forms.  Some days, I center down in as near an approximation of Quaker worship as I can achieve while operating a motor vehicle.  Other times, I let the faces of my friends and relatives rise up in my inner eye.  Sometimes I evoke their faces deliberately; other times, they seem to rise up of their own accord.

.I have, at times, kept a Post-it Note filled with names on my dashboard, of men and women I know are struggling or in pain, and I may focus on lovingly holding the sense of them in my mind as I drive.  Other mornings, it’s the faces of people I know who seem to me to live lives of particular kindness and compassion.  I run my attention over their faces as someone in another form of prayer might run fingers over the beads of a rosary.  These friends are touchstones, gateways to Spirit for me, and I find that just thinking of them opens me more fully to the Light; just remembering them wakes in me the yearning to live more faithfully myself.

On other mornings, I’m too scattered to concentrate.  On those mornings, I sing, or simply gaze out the window, over fields and woodlots.  I try to really see the world beyond the windshield.  Sometimes, I name each particular object that awakens my gratitude as I see it.

I have a lot to be grateful for.  While, like all commuters, I sometimes experience the frustration of being caught behind a slow moving truck or in a line of other cars, my commute is rural, and extraordinarily beautiful.  So as I drive, I observe and give thanks for rural things: forested hills, dark with hemlock or bright with beeches… streams and rivers, ponds that are still, dark mirrors, steaming cauldrons of morning fog, or hushed with ice, as the seasons change.  I watch the sun rise, and sometimes the moon set.

Lately, my eye has been drawn to the animals along my route.  Perhaps that is because, as fall has swept away the leaves and withered the grasses, they are just more visible.  I’ve begun to read the birds and creatures along the way as omens, messages perhaps from the world of spirit.  That flock of crows gleaning the last few grains of corn–are they a warning? Are the geese telling me of plenty, the deer of community, or that hawk of strength?  Sometimes I take these portents as lightly as a fortune cookie, but at other times, they seem to me disconcertingly, even embarrassingly clear.

Sometimes my moveable practice is rich and sustaining to me.  At other times–? At other times, I struggle with it, just as you might suppose.  (There’s a reason they call it “practice.”)

This morning, I left my house late. I was irritable and cranky to begin with, and then I discovered I’d forgotten my coffee mug. Then (and doesn’t this always happen when we are already late?) I found myself trapped on a winding stretch of road behind a slow-moving van, as the seconds ticked by.

Finally, I reached a straight, open stretch of road, pushed the gas to the floor mat, and surged past that poky van.  Breathing hard, I tried to calm my temper as I rounded the curve by Hanging Mountain Farm.  And then I saw it.

Up ahead in the gloaming, flopping its ungainly self off the road and over the burm was the round, brown bundle of a porcupine.  Just as I flashed past, my headlights picked out the details of its shape: the clumsy body, flat tail, and the sharp-etched details of the quills, white against the brown.

Two porcupines cross a road
Two Porcupines. David Herring, 2012

That porcupine has left me with a puzzle.  My morning worship today was hardly worthy of that label, and it was anything but deep.  I was grumpy, and distracted. But does that make the value of the omen less, or more?  On this day, especially, it’s hard to deny the obvious meaning of this morning’s sign: when it comes to facing down oncoming traffic, even the formidable, barbed figure of a porcupine knows it needs to get out of the road.

Clumsy or graceful, I know I’m the one who needs to practice, who needs to remember: the Universe is unimpressed with my grumpiness.  It’s my job to get out of the goddamn road.


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