Meditation On Psalm 22 On Good Friday

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My Lent to Easter tradition is to listen to Bach’s magnificent MatthäusPassion. It begins with the choral, “Come, you daughters, help me lament.” And lament is exactly where I was on Good Friday. Instead of reading the traditional passage from the Gospel of Matthew recounting the crucifixion, this year I read Psalm 22 with its most existential spiritual question, “Eli, Eli, lema sabacthani?” or “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Jesus utters David’s words from the cross in the most haunting and heart-wrenching words for me in the entirety of scriptures. I shudder to think of Christ’s rasping, questioning voice of one who has been intimately connected to God before there was time and Creation and now that connection is split, gone, and in the absolute cry of abandonment, he cries out with the strained, broken voice of one who has suffered the unimaginable in body, mind, and spirit.

David’s question has been one that has driven deeply to my core whenever I read it. Having been at the edge of utter despair and destruction, I, too, once cried out in such a manner. I was asking, “Where are You? Why have You abandoned me?” Yet, as I read the opening line from Psalm 22, I found the question altered, my own spirit responding to a different question that was no less painful to ask, “My God, my God, why have I forsaken you?”

When I imagine the few of his faithful who had gathered at the foot of the cross, I understand that I would not have been one of them. Like most of the disciples, I would have scattered and fled for fear of my own safety and security. I would have hidden and startled at every sound, every movement for absolute terror that the Roman soldiers or the crowds who called for Christ to be crucified would be coming for me now. It’s a hard realization to face. We all would like to believe ourselves strong enough to stand and proclaim, even at the cost of our own lives. Yet as I sat in silent meditation, I knew I would not have.

How do I know this?

Because of the way that question came back on me, “My God, my God, why have I forsaken You?” I am all too ready to wander and question and struggle and fight and question and wrestle and blame and doubt and forget the One who came to me in the depths of my own hell and reminded me that, even when I was not faithful, He still was. Why then do I so often and so easily walk away? Why do I continually find myself asking, “Is any of this even real? Was all of this created to comfort us in our fear of death?”

In one of the recitatives, Bach has Jesus sing:

All ye shall be offended because of me this night; for

it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep

of the flock, shall be scattered abroad. But after I am

risen again. I will go before you into Galilee.

Then Bach has the Chorale reply:

Know me, my keeper,

my shepherd, take me to Thee.

By Thee, source of all good things,

much good has befallen me.

Thy mouth has refreshed me

with milk and sweetmeats

Thy spirit has favoured me

with many a heavenly longing.

I hear those words as a follow-up to what Christ has just told his followers and realize that, despite his being the “source of all good things,” I am still prone to abandon and deny him.

I see myself in the doubting of Thomas and the denying of Peter. It always moves me to tears when Peter’s aria comes on:

Have mercy, my God,

for my tears’ sake;

Look hither, heart and eyes

weep bitterly before Thee.

Have mercy!

In the depths of darkness, I cried and wept bitterly myself and prayed just such words. Even after such a moment of utter brokenness, when God has pulled me out of the pit, out of a depression and woundedness that I was willing to end it all; even though light shone in that darkness, even though I heard His voice speak to me, “Look up!” I still find myself in times where I would as the hymn “Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing” states:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

Too often I turn from that divine grace, that utter overwhelming show of eternal mercy and endless love, and become prone to wander.

As it so often has in the past, poetry has been the guide that draws me back. This time it has been a poet who is new to me, Jane Tyson Clement. In a collection entitled The Heart’s Necessities: Life in Poetry. With any collection of poetry, I do not devour them in quick readings but read a poem and then reflect on it throughout my day. I let the words sink in, mull them over and consider and contemplate the poet’s imagery and meaning. On Good Friday, my poem by Clement entitled “The Sea is Dusk Now.” It was written when she was only 22 and in college. She had just come through a period of severe pneumonia (fevers, extremely painful coughs, fatigue, and unsure if she was even going to live). She begins the poem with the painful, “The sea is dusk now, and the wind is dying: / landward the last night-driven gull is flying.” I love this image of the seaside just after a violent storm. It is still dark but there is a calm returning.

The sea is dusk now, and the wind is dying;

landward the last night-driven gull is flying.

Give up your mind now to the destined dark

and under the wide sky arched and high with stars

seek not the daylight and the touch of the sun.

Accept the strong design – unlimited

by light, by dark, by wind and slow stars creeping:

there is a deep heart which is never sleeping.

That last line hit me as I read it: there is a deep heart which is never sleeping. God never sleeps. Even in the midst of the storms, the darkness, the crashing waves, the lighting and the thunder, God is awake and aware and present even when I cannot feel or imagine it is so. God is greater than the coming night and that He is “unlimited by light, by dark, by wind and slow stars creeping.” These are words that resounded from the page this Good Friday. It is a reminder of the truth of Good Friday and Easter. Neither darkness, nor the grave, nor death can overcome Him. This is a poem that moves from fear and doubt to acceptance and understanding. These words reminded me that He is the way back home again, He is the dawn after the darkest night, He is the arms that embrace and the lips that kiss every prodigal child with abandon and eternal love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shelter Your Heart

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Sometimes my soul seems darker than the storm clouds that gather outside before a great downpour. Before the storm, I leave the house to drink in the scent of the air before a heavy rain. To listen to the birdsong: are they warning each other? Are they saying, “Get back to your nest! Get back to your nest”?

There is a sharpness to the world just before a storm. An awakening of sorts.

Because we live in a house that is over a century old and the huge oak trees that surround it are even older, storms are a thing of concern. How long will the roots keep those massive oaks standing? Especially since we have had so much rain lately. And there is a coming wind. I would imagine that even those of no faith would pray for such oaks to remain standing around their homes.

Standing beneath the large branches, I look upward. Then I begin to feel raindrops on my face. The storm is coming. It will be here soon. Take shelter as the birds have done.

I go back inside just as the clouds can no longer contain the water they hold. Water begins to sluice off our roof. Lightning flashes across the sky like a child playing with a flashlight: clicking it on and off, on and off. Thunder is a loud, grumbling dog making us aware of his discontentment.

As I watch the storm gather and unleash itself, my mind turns to the words of the seventeenth-century founder of the Quakers, George Fox, when he wrote, “I saw, also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God.”

The branches of the oaks are lashed by the wind and rain as if caught in the quarrel of ancient gods. Violent storms make the world seem tumultuous and uncertain. One’s spirit can become restless and anxious. One can feel as if one is in a boat battered at sea. The blows come against its sides and the waves wash in. Do I offer it a sacrifice? A quiet prayer of peace or a sing out a hymn to the wildness of the weather?

Restless to this raging fury, this spring tempest. Rain is more than rain. Wind is more than wind. This storm is a reminder that I am not in control.

In her poem “Faith,” Jane Tyson Clement writes:

You who have watched the wings of darkness lifting

and heard the misted whisper of the sea,

shelter your heart with patience now, with patience,

and keep it free.

Let not the voiced destruction and the tumult

urge to a lesser prize your turning mind;

keep faith with beauty now, and in the ending

stars you may find.

I take comfort in this poet’s words. “Shelter your heart with patience now, with patience,” I quietly repeat as if in meditation. And this darkness will left just as this storm will pass.

And this poem repeats itself in my memory as I watch as Notre Dame Cathedral burns in Paris. I grieve for this place I have never been to; not just because it is historical and irreplaceable, but because this cathedral burning reminds me of the fragility of beauty in this world where anything can go up in flames in a moment. I think of the Cardinal’s eggs in the nest that rests in the tree by my goldfish pond. One day I noticed that one had gotten outside of the nest and was close to falling out of the small tree. As gently as I could, I took out a handkerchief from my pocket and, with the grace and mercy so often shown to me, I carefully and gently returned the egg to safety. Today, when I passed by the tree, I saw this:

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A baby Cardinal with its mouth open: as if waiting for the priest to offer it the Eucharist bread that is broken for us or crying out to God.

I am that baby bird crying out to God. I am crying out to be fed, to be taken care of, to have my needs met again and again. But that cry will turn to song one day. Song that fills the breezes that gently move through the foliage of the trees. Song that dances like the monarch butterfly does amidst our garden.

Sing your song. Sing your song of praise. Sing your song of lament. Know that praise will turn to lament and lament to praise. Both pass as the storm passes. Yes, the clouds may look dark and foreboding but know that it will be overcome by that “infinite ocean of light and love.”

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Secret Correspondence

 

IMG_8436Contemplation and appreciation of beauty is a form of prayer. It is certainly one I am practising this afternoon as I stroll through our backyard. Today, the natural world requires of me a concentrated focus that lingers on details, as if they were frames from a Tarkovsky film. Bees hummingly appreciate the wisteria that droops overhead. The trees are filled with the movement and calls of birds. One small tree that hangs over my fish pond contains a Cardinal’s nest, with the mother resting on her eggs. The eggs are a grayish white with brown speckles.

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I cannot help but think of Mary Oliver’s words, “it is a serious thing / just to be alive / on this fresh morning / in this broken world.”

This is a truth I must remind myself of. Depression can often cause one to focus so much inward that the world becomes smaller and smaller; as if folding in on itself. So I must refocus. Draw outward. Go outside. Pay attention to this life: not just my own but that all around me and above me.  To see the grace in a raindrop still on the petals of a flower.

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The poet Shelley wrote in On Love, ” . . . in solitude . . .  we love the flowers, the grass and the waters and the sky. In the motions of the very leaves of spring in the blue air there is then found a secret correspondence with our heart.” Today, in these moments, I feel that “secret correspondence.” In this solitude, there is a communication between my innermost self and the natural world. I listen to the sounds of the mockingbird or notice as two bees appear to be chasing each other through the sky. The sky itself is a mixture of uncertainty: dark clouds and glimpses of sunshine.

I have to be outside. To feel the wet blades of grass on my feet again. To be in the world and to see it and to hear it and to react to it because it’s only when I do that I can even begin to understand myself again. It is only in these moments of small astonishments, when I see with eyes that see and hear with ears that hear and have a heart that is open and ready to receive that there is infinite tenderness in the sight of a mother Cardinal nesting and knowing that, in a few short weeks, those eggs will hatch. There is awe to be felt when one sees that one is being watched by the great mother Barred Owl of the old oak tree. She, like a Dowager, oversees this backyard world and suffers not the slights of smaller birds who chitter and chirp and fly about her. There is a seriousness to her stare, a sense of watchfulness, that makes one feel small in her gaze: as if one were merely a vole or a mouse.

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This is the world that harbours my imagination, my contemplation, my meditation, and my gratitude. It is where I can be silent and listen to the lips of the world as it speaks to me in something deeper than mere words: something far more ancient than speech. Emerson proclaimed that we should live the examined life. It is a sacred act and, like prayer or meditation, this examined life does not come naturally but through holy habits: a reminding oneself of its necessity. Be still. Let go your anxious and busy heart.

We must be divers in this life: not content to merely wade in the shallows but to dive more and more deeply. In Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton wrote, “If a man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit.”

Creation did not end after the seven days but continues and will keep continuing

A calico cat darts past. A black-capped chickadee flies onto a nearby branch. There is a small splash made on the surface of the pond by a fish.

The world is wider and wilder and extravagant and elegant but it requires of us that we stop and see. Awareness is the beginning of love.

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Contemplate The Beauty

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“Poetry is a way of looking at the world for the first time.”

W.S. Merwin

It’s been a period in which prayers have been like sand on my tongue; the words choked in my throat before they had even been spoken. Where faith ends and doubt begins has blurred to the point where I don’t know which outweighs the other. A period of Divine Absence. Silence in the soul. I consider what is death without eternity: as impossibility. If I let go, will I despair? Will I feel it a loss? If a life just ends at death – if we are re-translated back into the matter we were before, the stuff of stars, is that the same as heaven?

With so much unresolved in my heart, I set out for the woods. There, without a signal on my cell phone, I am left with only the world around me and that within me. My own thoughts and I can, hopefully, find stillness. I go not to seek answers but to focus my attention, again, on the wonders of this world without consideration of whether or not there’ another.

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I have been reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and I come to this passage, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

I come to contemplate the beauty, to find those reserves of strength I find missing lately. More the scripture, I find myself turning to scientists and poets and naturalists to return myself to a place of wonder again. To fathom the imponderable, to consider the mystery that lies around us, above us, and within us. The complexities of the unseen threads that weave us all together, that connect us in ways we have not even begun to imagine.

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My younger son goes with me; sketchbook in hand. He knows I will not mind his stopping to sit down on dirt or grass or tree stump or stone to draw what he sees in the world around him. Considering and, putting pencil to pad, sketching. Because he is still, he delights in the approach of a pair of Canada Geese. As they draw near to the shore, one dabbles its head in the shallow water and nibbles on the grass.  They both look as they hear the loud honking of some other geese who fly over the surface of the lake. My son is in awe. The world is a miraculous place where such occurrences can happen right before one’s eyes. Nothing brings him joy like wildlife, especially birds. His hand sketches as quickly as it can before the two paddle off, away from us.

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The every day is filled with such wondrous beauty for those who are open to it. Every forest is an enchanted one for those who have eyes to truly see it. Some of the geese fly through the clear, blue sky overhead. Their honking is harsh and exciting. Once they are gone, we are returned to stillness again. The lake ripples only from the breezes. My son’s focus turns to a turtle, resting in the sun on a log that juts up from the water.

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Ah, if only so many of us in this world could be as content as that turtle, in that moment. It wants and wishes for nothing but the warmth of the sun. Maybe that, in itself, is a kind of prayer. I look down and see some tadpoles swimming about in the murk and grass along the lake’s shore. It won’t be long before we hear the songs of frogs or catch a glimpse of one as it splashes back into the water at the first sound of people approaching. It’s curious to think about how life first came from the water and all that has developed since those first microorganisms. Is that not, in itself, a kind of miracle?

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Out of the corner of my eye, I catch movement. A small, green lizard moves stealthily along the bark of a tree. Life is all around us but how many of us miss it because we do not stop to be present to it? Without our phones or our distractions, simply there, in that moment, breathing in life and realizing there is more than our daily tasks and assignments. Oh to see again with the clear-eyed vision of a child. To feel one’s pulse quicken at spotting something new and unpredicted.

There is not the sound of traffic. Only a chorus of black-capped chickadees in the branches of the trees overhead. Their song is the beautiful trills to each other, unconcerned about the humans below them.

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I am standing there, at the water’s edge, staring out across its surface and a swallowtail butterfly dances past. In such moments as these, one cannot help but feel that one is being refilled in one’s soul, as if one is storing up an inheritance that will strengthen one at some later time. Returning to Rachel Carson, she writes, “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” It’s a question I always ask myself because one does not know. This could be one’s last moments on earth. How am I spending them? Am I aware of the deep, rich, wondrous miracles that are taking place in every given second? Life is abundant about us. In the sky, in the soil, in the water . . . A thank you rises up from within. It’s the closest I have had to a real prayer in a long time. But is that not a start? A returning or a beginning again?

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Many speak of grace as a great spiritual act, but what if it is also these small, momentary glimpses of what so often remains imperceptible to us because we do not take the time to look and see. Nature returns me to humility before it. Is faith not a way of seeing with a spirit of wonder and curiosity? To not seek answers, but to allow for the questions to rest within us and be content to know that we do not know?

In this moment, I think of W.S. Merwin, who recently passed away, and I think of his words:

come back
believer in shade
believer in silence and elegance
believer in ferns
believer in patience
believer in the rain.

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Like the buds that are returning, perhaps, I, too, am? I am coming back, as Merwin wrote as a “believer in silence and elegance.” And, for now, that is enough.

 

The Owl

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I first heard her call at twilight.

A warning or a calling? I was not sure.

This is not the first I heard from our hundred-years-old oak trees

That remind us how time is all relative.

I have heard them at twilight and near dawn.

Each time, I am still startled out of myself –

Awakened, really – to the world outside me.

I try to find where the call is coming from.

Then I see her:

Like a queen upon her throne

She gazes down (Benevolently?) 

From the great limb where she’s perched.

The owl has seen me long before I noticed her.

In that moment, I am grateful.

Grateful that I am not a mouse or vole

Or any other small rodent whom she would devour

As greedily as a child with Halloween candy.

To be seen by a bird of prey –

To fall under their gaze –

Is to be humbled, 

As if by some great god of the past.

Suddenly, she spreads her wings

And swoops off to snatch up – what?

I do not see

And am only glad it is not I

In those sharp talons of 

God’s.

 

 

 

In Praise Of Woolgathering

Pride and Prejudice

My teachers all complained of my daydreaming. To be labeled a “daydreamer” was a negative and was frowned upon. To daydream was to waste time.  One could not afford to waste time. School was for learning (supposedly). To become lost in thought was frivolous and was sheer idleness.  After all, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” To do so went against our very Puritan work ethic. One must always be busy, one cannot just be.

But, no matter how much criticism I received, I remained a daydreamy boy whose head was always lost somewhere in the clouds of imagining. I was a stripling of a boy and did not care for sports but searched the woods behind our house for a magical portal to another, more wondrous realm. I was convinced it was the old abandoned VW Bug that had somehow broken down and remained in the center of the wood. I just needed to figure out how it was. Much thought went into considering each and every possibility. I never found one but I also never considered that time spent in wondering to have been a waste.

I was a natural born woolgatherer. Woolgathering is defined as the “indulgence in aimless thought or dreamy imagining; absentmindedness.”

Woolgathering often means sitting and simply thinking, pondering, wondering, imagining, and daydreaming. In our society that prides utilitarianism, woolgathering appears to be a waste of time, a true indulgence. In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Rebecca Solnit writes, “The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between…Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued-that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more production, or faster-paced…I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.”

I shudder at that last phrase “faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.”

Woolgathering allows for thought. for considering, for speculating, for dreaming.

Someone who was a big daydreamer was Albert Einstein. It was while he was lost in thought that he originated the pioneering theory that led him to establish the foundation of modern physics was actually envisioned in one of his many famous thought experiments. He came up with his theory of relativity after spending hours lost in his own mind. And he was not alone, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and James Joyce were the same way.

Why?

Because spending hours allowing the mind to wander frees it to consider many different possibilities in solving complex problems with creative solutions. Now we are not all going to be Einstein coming up with the Theory of Relativity or James Joyce writing Dubliners, but we can still benefit from time spent simply in thought.

The term “woolgathering” used to mean, quite literally, gathering bits of wool that had been shed in tufts from the sheep that had gotten caught on bushes or fences. Those who did, wandered about, looking for and gathering these tiny scraps of wool. It wasn’t until the mid-16th century that it began to have another meaning when people began to say, “My wits went a woolgathering” (meaning aimlessly wandering in thought).

And yet I consider such time precious. Time spent lying under a tree’s shade just watching clouds pass overhead or the canopy of stars.

When Patti Smith heard someone being called a woolgather she writes, “I was not at all sure what a woolgatherer was but it sounded like a worthy calling and seemed a good job for me. And so I kept watch, in every weather. In every weather. . . And the image of woolgatherers in that sleepy field drew me to sleep as well. And I wandered among them, through the thistle and thorn, with no task more exceptional than to rescue a fleeting thought, a tuft of wool, from the comb of the wind.”

Gather thoughts like tufts of wool. Thoughts so easily blown away by the wind.

Thoughts passing by like clouds.

Idleness is not laziness. Idleness can spark creativity.

As author Neil Gaiman understands, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

In the woods behind our house, there was a great boulder that I love to lay on because it was my dreaming stone. During the summer it was warm from the sun, especially since I most often went without a shirt on. In the fall and spring, it was cool against my back, even through the shirt I had on. On that dreaming stone, I would either close my eyes or leave them open. Either way, it did not take long to get lost in my own thoughts. They were rich and full and plentiful. I imagined what my life would be like, I imagined other worlds and what they were like, I created pictures of images or words, I delighted in the simple, pure pleasure of the dream.

Even now, there are times when I will be driving along and will spot a stream. Pulling my car over somewhere, I will get out and go sit on the banks and watch as the waters meander past me. And I allow myself a few moments to do nothing else. To breathe. To quiet the busyness of the world and to allow my thoughts to have free rein. It’s amazing how just spending a few moments in this way can shift something deep within me and I can feel the sacredness of life and the wonder of the world.

Time is fleeting. Time is short. Time is a gift.

That is why time should not all be spent in hurrying to accomplish tasks and to meet deadlines. Time must be treasured in a way that is luxurious, that is indulgent, that is spent in simply woolgathering. How big and wide and wondrous his world is and our time in it. Take that time to reflect, to wish and dream and imagine. From such moments come music and poetry and art and literature and science and philosophy.

Gather the discarded. Gather the forgotten, Gather that which has been blown away. Gather that which others do not. Gather the tufts of those things that will be your gift to the world. Pluck from the thorn that image, that word, that metaphor because it is precious.

Woolgatherers gathered the small bits of wool without pay and many of us may find ourselves unpaid by wages for our art, but gather anyway. Continue to gather and weave with grace, with delight in the simple act of doing it, of creating to create.

So go out into that world and be a woolgatherer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kerouac’s Tips For Writing

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For as long as I can remember, I have delighted in creating my own imaginary worlds. I drew maps and wrote stories, I had histories of those who inhabited those worlds, and I often spent more time there than I did in the very one around me. Creating these worlds was a form of escape from boredom, loneliness, and insecurities. When I got older and read about the Brontës did the same and had invented the made-up realm of Glass Town Federation, I longed to be there with them in that parsonage so that I would have others who were like me. I envied that they had each other to create Gondal with its four kingdoms of Gondal, Angora, Exina, and Alcona. It was originally begun by Emily and Anne but soon their older siblings, Charlotte and Branwell joined in. They wrote their stories down and created a map of their world.

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I can only imagine the hours of enjoyment they had as they envisioned this world and the characters who lived there. Yet as we all grow up, how many of us lose that sense of playfulness and wonder that invests our imaginary creations: be they writing or drawing or simply playing. The imagined worlds of childhood are powerful and all-encompassing. Yet as we undergo education, many lose their ability to lose themselves in creating. Instead of having fun, the older we get the more our critical mind begins to come to the front of things and demand that everything be logical or make sense. We also hear the voices of others, especially if they are grown-ups, telling us we are not artists and writers and poets and creators. And sadly, we, as children, begin to believe them.

Yet for those who still hold to the desire to create, to put pen to paper and write, we often get too intimidated by the blank page or screen. We start thinking of all the authors whose works we love and we compare ourselves to them and, in fear of measuring up, we give up. But not all of us. Some still find the courage to create. How do they ignore the critical voices in their heads? How do they move past rejection letters? How do they make themselves sit down with pen in hand or hands on a computer keyboard, and stay there until there are words on the page?

Beat writer Jack Kerouac had a list of thirty tips for writing. Here are some of them:

  1. Be submissive to everything, opening, listening.
  2. Be in love with your life.
  3. Something that you feel will find its own form.
  4. Remove literary, grammatical, and syntactical inhibition.
  5. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  6.  Swim in the language sea
  7. Accept loss forever
  8. Believe in the holy contour of life
  9. Don’t think of words when you stop, but see the picture better
  10. No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language, and knowledge
  11. Write for the world to see your exact pictures of it

How many of us follow such rules?

Be present to our lives. Pay attention. See the world so that you can picture it on the page with words. Stop editing while we are writing that first draft. Just get it all down on paper and correct it later.

One of my favorites was: Swim in the language sea. What a beautiful metaphor for writing. Imagine a gorgeous sea, crystal clear, the most lovely of blues, and imagine that instead of seeing fish and coral, you see words. Words as a great ocean. Words that one can dive into and swim about in.

“Believe in the holy contour of life.” All ground is holy ground. All is sacred. This isn’t about focusing on publication or in making money or gaining readers, it’s about that pure and holy act of being present and aware to the holiness about ourselves and capturing it as best we can on the page. We are modern psalmists no matter what we write. We are finding the underlying grace of the world by tracing it with our pens. This means we have to find silence and stillness to draw from that deep inner reservoir and it means, before we do this, we have seen and heard and felt the world around us.  Communion with the world and then communion with our own spirits as we translate that into words. Writing as a form of prayer.

Stop trying to write the stories your favorite authors write and write the one that only you can write. Find the truth of your own tales. Offer others the insights and vision of the world as only you can see it. Let them fall in love with your words, your characters, your images, and language. To do this, we must, as Kerouac said, “Be in love with your life.” Sometimes this can be one of the hardest tips he offers and, having read much about him, I am not sure that he lived up to it so well. But when we create from a place of love, we create from a place of hope and healing. We are not scribbling with our poisonous pen in retaliation at all of those people who mocked us, who doubted us, who ignored us, who rejected us. Creation should come from a place of joy, no matter what the subject is. One cannot read a work by Charles Dickens and not see the joy and delight he took in creating the novels that he wrote. He loved his characters, even the bad ones because he inhabited each of them. He became them. Even when he dealt with serious topics (the orphanage system, workhouses, debtors prisons), he wrote in such a way that one comes away from his novels with hope.

In a world that is often paralyzing with the number of tragedies and suffering that occurs moment by moment, we can find ourselves so overwhelmed that we don’t know how to respond. But I think it is exactly when the world appears chaotic and bleak that we most need to offer up the balm of our art. To provide the words that give another person the opportunity to see that there is still beauty, that there is still love and mercy and compassion, that there are others out there who feel as they feel and that they are not alone.  As Madeleine L’Engle understood, “Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth.”

So write. Or sing. Or paint. Or compose music. Or perform music. Or dance. Or plant a garden. Or cook a meal. Find the courage and create.

Finding Beauty

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Tomorrow is the elections here in the United States. I wish I could say that I am hopeful about the results that will come from people turning out to vote, but I’m not. I am deeply unsure and this uncertainty brings with it anxiety. I hope that people vote their conscience but, in so doing, consider the impacts their choices have on those who are so often forgotten by our political systems, those most in need of having their voices heard. I hope that when people cast their votes, they do so with the hopes that it means equality for all, that each and every person in this country is valued and of great worth and deserving of dignity.

No matter the outcome, I will react in the only way that I can: creating works that, hopefully, offer others hope and a sense of beauty.  May I never give in to cynicism and despair, but write in a manner that still manages to reveal the grace and beauty that underlies this world if we would stop to notice. I will continue to read poetry and be nourished by it. I will take my dog for a walk. I will play with my younger son and read stories to him. I will continue to sing and dance. I will still take long, pausing walks in nature where I stop to admire a brightly colored fallen leaf.

My days will still be spent in focusing on the good in the world and offering this to others by the simple gesture of a smile, a kind word, or letting someone in front of me in line at the grocery store or in traffic. I will meditate on those works that are lovely and edifying so that, when the media is filled with whatever tragedy happens, I can draw from that work of art, that symphony, that haiku, that novel that make me grateful that I am alive. I will seek replenishment in nature, in the changing of the leaves and the seasons, in the trills of birdsong, or the snuggling of the dog in my lap at night.

I will go about my days, finding the sacredness inherent in each person my path crosses.

Sometimes, I will turn off all the lights in the house at night and simply light a single candle. One candle to remind me of the light one life can bring to the world.

I will read a psalm and a poem each morning with my coffee.

Lastly, I will focus on what Terry Tempest Williams words, “Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find.”

This is how I will greet whatever results this election holds.

 

 

Awakened To Autumn

Autumn Tree

It’s late October and only now has it begun to get that crisp, chilly autumn feel to the air. the leaves are slowly beginning to remind us again that there can be great beauty in dying as they transform their leaves into a glorious pallet of reds and golds and oranges. My younger son and I have been reading aloud together Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It’s a wonderful work that has yielded up a harvest of discussions on topics ranging from self-control to judging others, as well as about the persecution of others whose beliefs are different from ours.

Yesterday, as we read Chapter 14, I came across these beautiful passages:

After the keen still days of September, the October sun filled the world with mellow warmth. Before Kit’s eyes a miracle took place, for which she was totally unprepared. She stood in the doorway of her uncle’s house and held her breath in wonder. The maple tree in front of the doorstep burned like a gigantic red torch. The oaks along the roadway glowed yellow and bronze. The fields stretched like a carpet of jewels, emerald and topaz and garnet. Everywhere she walked the color shouted and sang around her. The dried brown leaves crackled beneath her feet and gave off a delicious smoky fragrance. No one had ever told her about autumn in New England. The excitement over it beat in her blood. Every morning she woke with a new confidence and buoyancy she could not explain. In October any wonderful unexpected thing might happen.

As the days grew shorter and colder, this new sense of expectancy increased and her heightened awareness seemed to give new significance to every common thing around her. Otherwise she might have overlooked a small scene that, once noticed, she would never entirely forget.

After we read this beautifully descriptive passage, my young son asked me to read it again. We have been learning about how to use description to awaken a reader’s senses to the world we are portraying for them. How descriptions can give a feeling of mood as well as make them see, hear, smell, and touch this imagined world we are writing about. As I reread the passages, my young son closed his eyes and a smile came across his face. When I had finished, he was thrilled, “You really can make the reader feel and sense all those things just through the words you use.” It was a new discovery for him. Something he had never imagined or even thought about.

What I loved about Elizabeth George Speare’s writing was its reminder, through Kit, for all of to pay attention to the changes our daily world offers us that we too often take for granted. Each season is another unfolding of nature’s ways and a reminder of the changes that occur in our own lives as we grow older.

Life is a miracle.

How often are we truly conscious of this?

When I read about how Kit was seeing this New England autumn for the first time (she had come from Barbados), I returned to my own first viewings of autumn as a child. Of working in the yard with my dad and younger sister as we raked leaves and filled the wheelbarrow with them. Of getting in among those leaves and having my dad rush about the yard, pushing me or my sister, in the wheelbarrow as we giggled and squealed with delight. Or of raking great big piles of leaves just so we could jump into them. Of pumpkins and apple cider. Of taking drives to the Blue Ridge Parkway to take in the mountain air and the gorgeous canvas of glory that was all around us. We had never seen so many shades of reds, ochres, bronzes, golds, and oranges as those on the leaves of the trees that covered the mountainsides.

The older I get, the more precious each moment becomes. I hold tightly to memories of my own childhood and the childhoods of my sons. But I also appreciate the newness of the memories that are being created as they grow older. Recently we drove up to the mountains to where my son is in college. It was family weekend and we were going to watch his university football game. With all of the tailgating, there were the aromas of grilling everywhere (hot dogs, hamburgers, steaks) and those of a mountain autumn. There was the sound of mountain streams and, as we came out of my son’s dorm and went down a steep hill, we were greeted with a maple that was exactly as Kit had seen the one in front of her uncle’s house: a blazing red torch. It was breathtaking. We all just stood there and marveled at it for a moment, lingering in the beauty that was offered up to us. As we did, my freshman in college son, took my hand in his. I love when he reminds me that he is still my child.

Like Kit, we must approach each season with a heightened awareness so that we can be present to those moments and present to those who are with us in those moments. We need to slow down and see what is all about us: listen to the crunch of dry leaves on the woodland path as we walk. Of stopping to gaze at those leaves (both on the trees and even on the path itself).  Gaze at every common thing until it becomes an uncommon one again. See as a young child sees: that the world is a place of delight and wonder. “Unless you become as a little child . . .” I think Christ says that the kingdom of heaven is like a child because children do find pleasure in creation, in autumn leaves, in the taste of an apple, in trying to catch clouds while driving with windows down on a mountain road, of feeling the cold stream water on their feet.

 

Fantasy Books Tag

Russian Lord of the Rings

After I posted the blog about Classics Book Tag, I guess I should have expected that someone else would tag me to do another one, this time about fantasy books. The questions appeared to be skewed towards the Harry Potter series, which, while I thoroughly enjoyed that series, is not my favorite (maybe if I had been younger when they came out it would be different).

1. What is the longest fantasy series that you have ever read? 

Harry Potter

If, by longest fantasy series, the question is referring to the number of books in that series, then it’s a tie between C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I will go with the latter since it not only has seven books but they are also much, much longer than the Narnia books.

2. Favorite fantastical setting or world. 

Earthsea Map

This question is difficult for me in that I love Narnia, Middle Earth, and Earthsea (also Neverland, Wonderland, Ingary, and Hogwarts). I narrowed it down to two: Earthsea and Middle Earth. This is probably due to the fact that these two fantasy series are the two most important to me. So much of fantasy novels reflect the long shadow cast by J.R.R. Tolkien and his amazing creation of Middle Earth. The details and histories and languages that he created are unparalleled. One cannot read fantasy without seeing the influence that Tolkien has had, which is also why I did not read a lot of (too much of fantasy was derivative of his world). Ursula K. Le Guin created a mythical world that used the tropes of fantasy (wizards, magic, dragons) but did it in a way that was fresh and uniquely her own. Unlike most fantasy novels, Earthsea is not a large land mass with and a sea but is an archipelago of islands.

3. Besides Harry Potter, what is your favorite fantasy book/series?

Earthsea

I found this question to be shaped by a generation younger than my own who has embraced and been so unwilling to let go of the world that J.K. Rowling created. I did love her books, but I also found that they owed a lot to a great number of fantasy writers who often did it better, Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, and Ursula K. Le Guin being three of them. Once more, I was torn between the Tolkien and Le Guin. I opted for Le Guin because her works are so singular in the fantasy genre. One of the things I love most about Earthsea is that the magic is rooted in words and knowing the true name of something. Like Tolkien, Le Guin has filled her world with myths and histories and songs and poems. She also deals with serious topics like racism, sexism, inequality, the hierarchies of class, addiction, abuse, and slave trafficking in a way that does not feel that she is lecturing or that they are not integral parts of the story.

4. What fantasy book do you wish was more popular? 

Dark-is-Rising

Without a doubt, it would be Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. What Cooper does with myth and legend is incredible. She weaves a narrative that continues to builds in complexity and depth. Like Le Guin, Cooper doesn’t stick to the traditional good versus evil presentation that most fantasy novels have. They are works that are deeply symbolic as well as poetic.

5. Your favorite villain.

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No, it’s not He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, but Dolores Umbridge who I choose as mine. Unlike Voldermort, who is trying to overthrow and create his own system of rule, Dolores Umbridge uses the system to enact her own evil. She works within the education system to be a bully and to impose her dark agenda on those who cannot fight back: her students.

6. What’s the first fantasy book you have ever read?

Lion

C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I would not be the reader I am today if it weren’t for this book. It made me beg my mother to get my the entire series for Christmas. I then spent my Christmas vacation ignoring all else but Lewis’ world, Narnia. From the very moment that Lucy enters the wardrobe and passes from the furs hanging in it to the snowy fir trees to spotting a streetlamp, Lewis had me hooked. And he wrote it in a way that was engaging and wondrous and caused me to despair that a closet in a middle-class neighborhood suburb did not lead to any magic lands no matter how much I called for Aslan. I also adored that Aslan sang Narnia into being.

7. Your favorite Harry Potter book. 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I love the wide-eyed magic of the first book and because I read it before all of the hype and the media attention and it became the worldwide phenomenon and juggernaut that the series became. But my favorite was the third book in the series because that’s when it begins to turn darker, more serious, and Rowling will begin to deal with the deeper subjects of racism, loss and death, oppression, and survival. Unlike the later books, this one is not overly-long and unwieldy as some of the last books became.

8. What is your favorite mythical creature?

dragon of Earthsea

The dragons of Earthsea. These are not your typical, Smaug-like dragons. These dragons are more complex and are more Asian in their composition; being neither all good or all bad. Le Guin’s dragons are wise, have their own language (the language of true magic) and gather knowledge.

9. Favorite female protagonist from a fantasy book?

Sophie

Originally, I planned to answer with Hermione Granger. She is an obvious choice for me since she is an avid reader and I think the smartest of the three young protagonists in the Harry Potter series,but then I also considered Lucy Pevensie, who was the first to usher me into a fantastic world and whose staunch belief in what is good and what is right steadies her through the worst of the difficulties she has to face. But, in the end, I settled instead on Sophie Hatter, the eldest daughter in Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. I love how she becomes more herself when she is “cursed” and turned into an old lady by the Witch of the Waste. Unlike her younger self, when she is older, Sophie loses her sense of fear and becomes more assured of who she is and becomes a more strong-minded individual as she deals with the Wizard Howl, the fire demon Calcifer, and Howl’s apprentice Michael.

10. Favorite male protagonist?

Samwise

The answer that immediately comes to mind is Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. I believe he is the true hero of those books as it is he that continues to keep Frodo going to the point that he is literally carrying his friend up Mount Doom. Sam also has my favorite lines from all of those books when he explains why, in the midst of hardship and difficulty, when one is constantly facing setbacks and evil, why anyone keeps going:

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something… That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

Those lines should be an encouragement for all of us to keep going, to keep fighting because there is some good in this world.