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Our Walk in the World: Field Notes on Living

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Columnist Mark Nepo shares his field notes on living and insights found in his lifelong conversation with the Universe.

I’m excited to share these excerpts from my new book, Things That Join the Sea and the Sky: Field Notes on Living, just published by Sounds True. These reflections are drawn from over fifty years of journaling. They are field notes on living, insights found in my lifelong conversation with the Universe.

Quieting the Thieves

Today I am sad, or so I thought. But more I am tired of keeping up with all that doesn’t matter. I’m sipping coffee, listening to rain. I like watching the leaves hang in long weather. I like to close my eyes and feel the rain quiet the earth. I welcome that quieting. I like to have my habits of going here and there interrupted. I was caught in the rain when coming here. The cool blotches sink in all over. The many lists I carry in my shirt are wet. I take them out to dry and all the tasks have blurred. At last. Unreadable. Forgettable. We carry these lists near our heart and finger them like worry beads. It doesn’t matter what is on them. They are the thieves and it is the insidious virtue to have everything in order before we live that is the greatest thief. I feel the rain drip down my neck. I think I’m becoming unfinished. 

Navigating Trouble

I almost died. It could have gone either way. And as I was jettisoned back into life, I saw something that’s hard to put into words. But let me try. You might be working to pick something up. Or put something down. You might be desperate to forget something terrible. Or longing for a love to set you free. Or grieving someone who is irreplaceable. Or trying to find what will keep you going. Fortune or misfortune. Love or loss. Every circumstance incubates the soul so it might germinate while we are here. And wishing you were someone else or somewhere else only makes things worse. I know it’s hard to look this deeply into what we’re given. But at the cellular level there are even spaces in stone. And spaces of light in everything dark. And spaces of safety in rushes of fear. And spaces of release in flashes of pain. Even spaces of dawn in the cramps of grief. It’s not about running from one to the other. But entering where we are—thoroughly—until we can see a way through. 

The Symmetry of Kindness

The train slammed into the station, injuring hundreds. The engineer was critically hurt. People toppled over each other, bouncing across seats and against windows. There was blood and glass everywhere. One woman shimmied her way to the platform when a part of the station ceiling fell, pinning her. She thought she would die. Then the hands of fellow passengers lifted her, one to another, and she was saved. Later, she wanted to say thank you but didn’t know who to thank. Once on the mend, she retrieved a list of those who were with her that day. Now, one by one, she looks them up, asking if they had helped her. Each of them smiles and says no. Once with them, she can see what each needs, and so she helps them along. She unpacks groceries for an old woman, listens to a widower’s story, and gives a single mom her umbrella. This has gone on for weeks. She keeps trying to find those who helped her, only to help those she finds. Finally, it occurs to her that this is God’s symmetry of kindness. She will never know who helped her, so she can thank and help everyone she meets along the way. 

Becoming a Small Gesture

Maybe all my sufferings have been carving me into a statue of Ganesh that someone will find in the next life in a small store in New York, when they rush in to get out of the rain. Maybe all I’ve been through will draw them to pick me up and touch my long trunk or one of my four giving hands. And though they can’t afford to take me home, they might circle the store three times before putting me on their credit card. Because something in the way life has carved my eyes shut speaks to the unawakened song they carry that they so desperately want to sing. Maybe they’ll take me home and place me on their bed stand where I can bless them as they dream of being who they are.  

Questions to Walk With

  • In your journal, describe a time when you received the kindness of a stranger and how that affected your own sense of giving.
  • In conversation with a friend or loved one, tell the story of a darkness you experienced that has passed. How did it pass? How did you know it was passing?

Mark Nepo moved and inspired readers and seekers all over the world with his #1 New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakening. Beloved as a poet, teacher, and storyteller, Mark has been called "one of the finest spiritual guides of our time. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages.


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