Where Is Your Querencia?

“There is a way to live that makes the angels cry out in rapture. There is a way to live that makes each cell a star.” (from “Clearing,” Morgan Farley)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Harmony Hill

In recent days, I’ve seen a number of writers and bloggers declare that they chose a single word to be their theme or focal point for 2017. In place of traditional resolutions, they selected words like joy, trust, focus, even kindness, to be their inspiration for the year. I started thinking about what word I might choose. Of course, kindness is my raison d’etre. It’s more than just a word—to me it’s a way of living. It’s at the heart of everything. I looked for another word that might speak to the journey ahead.

The one that sprang to mind is a word I encountered some years ago, in one of my favorite books, Kitchen Table Wisdom. Author Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, introduced the concept of querencia, It is a word that has many meanings—none of them especially clear, and that very imprecision contributes to its allure.

Dr. Remen describes how her cat, Charles, finds querencia in certain favorite places in the house they share—behind the drapes, under the stairs, even in one particular spot in plain sight on the living room rug. There, Charles is fearless, he is calm and relaxed. He casts off his usual wariness and basks in serenity. Remen herself finds querencia walking through Muir Woods in early morning before the tourists arrive. She also describes how when the cancer patients she works with find their querencia it begets in them a new strength and peace.

What is this marvelous and magical place?

Most commonly, querencia is used to describe the place in a bull ring (“corrida”) where the bull goes to feel safe and to gather his strength. For each bull it is a different place, so it is the job of the matador to recognize where querencia is for each bull, and keep him out of that spot. I find the idea of bull-fighting abhorrent, but the concept of finding our individual place of safety and sanctuary—while a force tries to keep us away from it—that is compelling … and certainly timely.

As I researched the word online, I found other definitions for querencia:

From Wikipedia: In Spanish, querencia describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home.

John Jeremiah Sullivan defines querencia as “an untranslatable Spanish word that means something like ‘the place where you are your most authentic self’.”

Other definitions:

  • A place in which we know exactly who we are; the place from which we speak our deepest beliefs
  • A safe haven, lair, or sanctuary

If I were a teacher, I would introduce my students to this word. I would put it on spelling tests and ask students to write papers describing their querencia. If I were a parent, I would talk to my child about querencia and encourage them to become familiar with their own place of safety and strength.

How wonderful it would have been at age 8 or 18 to know such a word, to know that there is a place of security and refuge that is ours alone, a place to go to gather strength and be exactly who we are, with no pressure to conform to norms or expectations imposed by others. No matter how idyllic one’s childhood may be, there are always times when we look for safe haven, or when we seek the confidence to speak from the depths of our heart, or when we recognize the place where we come face-to-face with our most authentic self and know that we have found something precious.

Querencia can be a physical place: at the foot of a favorite tree, a cozy window seat, a forest path. Or it can be a place inside us where we breathe into our own strength and feel our own certainty, a certainty that we don’t need to share with anyone else or proselytize to others to convince ourselves. Querencia might be the sense of transport we feel when we read a book, knowing as we do so that it is changing our life. And it might be that sense of oneness with nature that occurs when a place takes our breath away and replaces it—if only for an instant—with its own essence. Or it might be what we feel when we listen to a symphony by Sibelius. For each of us it will be different.

There are places I go to for querencia: the deck of our cabin facing Mt. Pilchuck and the Cascade Range, the labyrinth I built a few summers ago and walk every chance I get, certain books or passages from books that resonate to the thrum of my heart. In my memory, I go to a tiny, secluded cove near a condo my husband and I stayed in years ago on the island of St. John. It was a place of perfect peace, warm water, and star-studded night skies.

As I get older and shed some of the excesses from my life, I see that my inner querencia is much less elusive than it once was. I have cleared a space for it. That matador whose job it has been to keep me away from my querencia has also become less vigilant—perhaps she, too, recognizes the importance of having that place of personal sanctuary.

Something tells me querencia will be a much-needed refuge for many of us in the coming year. It will be a place to retreat to when we see and hear things that denigrate our values, when we are worn down by the effort of standing up to injustice, and when we need to replenish our souls in order to continue standing up.

I didn’t know the word as a child, but I know it now, and I think it’s a fine word to be my companion for 2017. Feel free to adopt it as your own. There is querencia for each of us. Where’s yours?

“Within you there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” (Hermann Hesse)

Gratitude: A Companion to Kindness

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

Attribution: Donna CameronThe American Thanksgiving holiday is just over a week away. It is an opportunity for us to pause and acknowledge all we have to be thankful for. Ideally, we should be doing this every day of our lives, but sometimes business and busyness crowd out gratitude.

Throughout this year of living kindly, I’ve noticed over and over that kindness and gratitude go hand-in-hand and also bolster one another. When I am in touch with my gratitude, kindness flows naturally and effortlessly. And if kindness feels hard to summon, taking a moment to appreciate my surroundings, my friends and loved ones, or little things that fill me with delight, inspires a surge of kindness.

I’ve come to see that there are many ways that kindness and gratitude together produce almost alchemical results:

Slowing Down

Both gratitude and kindness ask us to slow down. Slowing down isn’t always easy in our overscheduled and over-active lives. I often feel like I’m rushing from one deadline to the next, one obligation to the next, ruled by a lengthy to-do list. But slowing down is essential if we are to notice and appreciate the sunrise, the mushrooms growing at the base of a pine tree, the birds circling overhead like ice-skaters with wings. And slowing down is essential if we are to notice the smile on the cashier’s face, the door held open for us, or the myriad opportunities before us each day to extend our own kindnesses.

An Open Heart

When I experience gratitude, my heart feels open. It is an experience of abundance and sufficiency. This is all I need. It is also a feeling of presence—what happened five minutes ago doesn’t matter, and what will happen five minutes from now doesn’t matter. I am in the moment.

Likewise, the experience of kindness—whether given, received, or even just witnessed—opens my heart and allows me to feel fully present in the moment. For that brief moment, kindness is all that matters. It reminds me of one of my very favorite quotes, by Henry James: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”

Abundance, too, is a byproduct of kindness. If we believe we are enough, we can easily believe we have enough. Both of these beliefs help us to reserve judgment and extend kindness. And that sense of abundance, whether related to gratitude or kindness—or most likely, both—inspires us to be generous, with our time, our words, our deeds, and our resources.

Negative Emotions

I think it’s difficult to be angry or fearful when one experiences gratitude. I was surer of this last week that I am today, given the horrific events in Paris this past weekend. Those attacks surely brought fear and anger, not just to the people of France, but people all over the world. While there may also be gratitude that one’s family and friends were spared, can gratitude wipe out the fear and anger? I think not. But maybe there can be moments when gratitude at least overrides fear and lets us see that there is much to appreciate even amidst the horror of an attack such as this, or amidst the devastation of a natural disaster, or a personal catastrophe. Maybe it’s gratitude that helps us recover from the worst things that can befall us.

Kindness is also our answer to fear and anger. If we can recognize that our impulse to be unkind or say something unkind is a response to our fear or anger, we can often overcome it. If we can recognize that another person’s unkindness is their response to feeling fearful, we can often respond with kindness through that understanding. Fear often inhibits us from acting kindly—fear that our action will be misunderstood, fear that we will be rejected or embarrassed. Choosing kindness over fear is an act of courage.

Service to the Planet

When we are grateful for something, our instinct is to protect and defend it. If we stand in awe at the edge of the ocean, or if we marvel at the canopy of trees above us as we hike through the nearby hills, our natural desire is to shield them from harm, to assure that they will always be there for us and for future generations to appreciate. Our gratitude puts us in service to life—what could be more important?

Kindness, too, places us in service to life. It’s our acknowledgment that the ultimate kindness is to honor the Earth and our fellow inhabitants—human and otherwise. A healthy planet and sustainable practices is the kindest gift we can offer our planet and the generations that follow us.

Gratitude Practices

It’s lovely if gratitude comes to us frequently and effortlessly, but that is not always the case. Gratitude, like kindness, golf, or piano-playing, is strengthened with practice. The more we do it, the more we experience it and the better we get at expressing it. If you Google “gratitude practices” you will find countless suggestions, from daily meditation, to keeping a gratitude journal, to prayer. I confess that I haven’t yet established a consistent practice, but I try to spend a few moments each morning before I get up thinking about the things I have to be grateful for (the first is always that goofy guy sleeping beside me).

There’s another splendid gratitude practice that I love and practice sporadically. The wonderful physician and teacher Dr. Rachel Remen teaches this; she learned it from anthropologist Angeles Arrien. It takes very little time:

At the end of each day, sit down for a few minutes and answer these questions:

  • What surprised me today?
  • What moved or touched me today?
  • What inspired me today?

Your answers can just be a few words. What you’re trying to do is summon the memory of something that moved you.

As Dr. Remen describes: “The most interesting thing happens, then. Often people are surprised eight or nine hours after something happens when they look back on it deliberately. But [by doing this exercise] that gap shortens until eventually they are able to see in the very moment what surprises them, what touches them, and what inspires them. And then everything changes. The world has not changed, but they have begun to be able to see the world, and they can communicate that experience….It changes everything. It’s a question of paying attention.”

It’s true. At first this is difficult. You may come up blank day after day. “Nothing surprised me” or “Nothing inspired me.” But if you keep searching, you will think of something. Oh, yes, I was touched when I saw those children playing in the park. And just as Dr. Remen says, with practice you begin to notice things that touch or surprise or inspire you in the moment they happen. That creates an enduring state of gratitude—not to mention presence.

Another lovely gratitude practice: For the month of November, my fellow blogger and new friend, Dr. Catherine Cheng—whose wonderful blog, Healing Through Connection, explores (among other terrific things) fixing our healthcare system by improving communications and relationships between physicians and patients—has issued a post daily featuring something in her life that she’s grateful for. Some are things you might expect: her family, good health. Some have surprised and delighted me: Kung Fu Panda, actor George Takei, volleyball…. I look forward each day to seeing what Catherine has chosen to express gratitude for.

Catherine’s posts remind me to think about what I am grateful for—both the expected and the quirky. Whether or not we take the time to write them down, daily recognition of big and little things we have to be grateful for is a wonderful way to live in perpetual thanksgiving.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” (Melody Beattie)