Nearly a summer ago, I backpacked through the Beartooth Mountains in Montana with eight other adventurers. One in our group was highly focused on reading maps, planning routes, and covering miles to get to our daily destination. When those of us at the front of the single-file line of hikers stopped for a breather to pick wild raspberries growing along the path, Map Guy would shout from his position in the back, “Cut the berries! We need to make time!” That memory stuck–a reminder of how easy it is to miss life’s simplest pleasures because we’re too busy or stressed to even notice them or consider them worth our time.
Fast forward to summer of 2023–more specifically to the yearly Fourth of July campout at the farm where my wife grew up. As she does every year, she asked if I’d be willing to join her for a few hours picking wild black raspberries. Her idea of a good time on vacation is dressing in old jeans and a long-sleeved shirt in muggy weather, spraying herself for tick and mosquito protection, and wandering into dense briars that seem to guard the succulent berries as if she were Indiana Jones coming to steal the Artk of the Covenant. I mindfully noted my brain’s plentiful objections to joining her, got dressed, sprayed up, and headed out with her to collect the harvest. A half hour in it began to rain, lightly first–and the the dark sky unloaded.
At first I thought the whole outing was a disaster. Something shifted, though, when I realized I was already soaked as I could be. I gave up fighting and replaced it with acceptance. First, I accepted the rain, which led to accepting the heat, the briars, the bugs–the whole soggy, sorry, prickly situation. Everything slowed down. The next couple of hours felt like a mindfulness retreat. Things that earlioer appeared to make joy impossible seemed to become part of the joy of gathering as many of those plump, juicy berries as we could. Call me strange, but this was one of the highlights of my summer–an experience of immersion, flow, focus, and mindful acceptance to be savored each time we enjoy the black raspberry preserves that came from it.
Actually, I want to recall that moment of going from soaked to soaking it-in far more often than when we’re spreading the fruits of our labor on toast. When my mind is stuck in fight mode trying to figure out, fix, or be rid of life’s challenges, a personalized parable can be more helpful than any left-brain analysis of how to get unstuck. The lingering invitation from the strange peace I experienced in the rain and briars tha day is: How can I more often meet the rest of life that way?
Now in my early 60s, I feel some expectation to come up with a bucket list to make sure I get the most out of life. I have nothing against that, but it’s only one of three lists I want to have. I also need a daily f**k-it list to help me let go of preoccupations that block my capacity to flow with compassion and joy. More than either of those, I want a pluck-it list that will me think of good days not so much as the ones in which I am busy “making time,” but those when I slow down enough to enjoy simple things–to pluck what is right here and now and ripe for soaking deep into my awareness.
This pluck-it list idea may sound like little more than “Stop and smell the roses.” But I think “Accept the mosquitos, briars, downpours and keep plucking berries,” though less pithy, is better suited to life as we experience it in this dukkha-soaked existence. Rainer Maria Rilke seemed to be encouraging us to have a pluck-it list when he wrote in Letters to a Young Poet: “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.”
And why are we not poet enough? We may think it’s the challenging energies that come at us incessantly from the world that block our perception of life’s poetry and grace. But Rilke seems to be suggesting we need to look at energies within us that block our ability to see as poets see. The human brain is an amazing tool, but reversing the two vowels in “brain” and covering up half of the “n” transforms it into “briar.” Worries, fears, preoccupations, comparisons, discouragements, disappointments, triggers, cravings, doubts–yes, it can be a prickly tangle in there! I think this is what Anne Lamott was referring to when she wrote” “My mind is like a bad neighborhood–I try not to go there alone.”
It’s hard to give up the fight and move toward acceptance in our brains, so it’s not surprising that things can also get tangled in our long-term relationships. Couples in therapy often report that they get along well and enjoy each other on vacation. When they come back to life, however, they don’t know how to find the simple joys of connection, time together, kindness, and affection. They get so caught fighting life’s mosquitoes and brambles or cursing the rain clouds of their conflicts that they forget about plucking the good stuff. They go back to a “Cut the berries!” way of living. They want to eventually get to the fruit, but they believe it must wait until the rain has stopped and until conditions are perfect for joy to appear.
Like everything else, ease and comfort are impermanent. If life feels perfect for a moment or a bit longer, it doesn’t stay there. But if we have a daily pluck-it list, we can be poet enough to call forth its riches.
— © Spirituality & Health, November/December 2023, by Kevin Anderson