Things That Make Life Worth Living

Vermeer

English author George Eliot gave sage advice when she wrote, “It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are still alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger for them.” Other than my faith, family, and friendships these are the things which make life worth living.

This list is in no particular order:

The music of Bach, particularly his Saint Matthew’s Passion. Bach, himself said, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” This comes through in his glorious works.

Yo-Yo Ma’s playing. There is always a joy that comes through his performances. “When people ask me how they should approach performance,” Yo-Yo Ma told an interviewer, “I always tell them . . . the professional musician should aspire to the state of the beginner.” Wisdom for anyone in all that we do. As a side note, whenever I think about heaven and worship, my mind always hears Yo-Yo Ma performing a piece by Bach.

Art. Paintings by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Cezanne, Matisse, Chagall, Makoto Fujimura. I love what Fujimura writes in his book Silence and Beauty, “Art reveals the power of the intuitive, capturing the reality hiding beneath the culture.”

Poetry. From the time I was a child discovering Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (with its lovely illustrations by Tasha Tudor) to now where as part of my daily morning devotionals I always include reading poetry, I have loved all manner of poetry forms. As the Russian director, and son of the poet Arseny Tarkovsky, Andre Tarkovsky said, “Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality.”  Poetry has allowed me to see through the eyes of some amazing wordsmiths and gain an awareness of the world: Shakespeare, Donne, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Rossetti, Rumi, Hafiz, Dickinson, Whitman, Wordsworth, Blake, Rilke, Eliot, Neruda, Auden, cummings, Milosz, Sexton, Plath, Rich, Merwin, Berry, Oliver, Kenyon, Stafford, Guite, Shaw, Nye, and Wiman. Poetry has spoken to me spiritually when no other form of writing was able to. A great example of this was found in William Blake’s epic poem “Jerusalem.” In this masterpiece, he has Christ speak to Albion from the cross. “Fear not, Albion. Unless I die, thou cannot live. Wouldst thou love one who never died for thee or ever die for one who hast not died for thee? And if God dieth not for man and give himself eternally for man, man cannot exist. For God is love as man is love, and every kindness to another is but a little death in the divine image.”

Movies. Movies can transport us in a corporate setting like no other art form. When it is done well, a film can, through imagery, shine a light on the human experience. One of my favorite filmmakers, the late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky said of film, “Modern mass culture, aimed at the ‘consumer’, the civilisation of prosthetics, is crippling people’s souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being.” He believed that great art “… must carry man’s craving for the ideal, must be an expression of his reaching out towards it; that art must give man hope and faith. And the more hopeless the world in the artist’s version, the more clearly perhaps must we see the ideal that stands in opposition – otherwise, life becomes impossible! Art symbolizes the meaning of our existence.” I have seen this not only in Tarkovsky’s films but those of directors like Ingmar Bergman or Krzysztof Kieslowski. Or in a film like Babette’s Feast or The Tree of Life.  I also experienced this in the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Nature. There are times when the world seems so chaotic, so bleak, so destructive that I can only find peace when I get away to the natural world. It is there that I learn what Albert Einstein meant when he said, “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” When I spend time in nature, I find that I am able to love in ever “widening” circles of compassion, especially if that nature is in the mountains.

Fred Rogers. The more I study and learn about this amazing man and the ministry of his life and work in public television, the more I am awed by what he was able to accomplish and how he touched the lives of so many. The older I get, the more I slowly begin to understand the truth of his gentle wisdom. This one saying of his sums it for me, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” The world needs to be more like his neighborhood.

Coffee. And tea, of course. As C.S. Lewis understood, “You can never get a cup of tea (or coffee) large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” And if you can add a pastry or dessert as well as good conversation with a friend, well then, all the better!

Journaling. I don’t go anywhere without one. I am constantly stopping to pause and scribble down my thoughts or notes on what I am seeing in the world around me.

Books. I love how the novelist Paul Auster describes reading, “Reading was my escape and my comfort, my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author’s words reverberating in your head.”

These are just a few of the things that make life worth living for me. What are some of yours?

 

 

 

 

 

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Nature’s Wisdom

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Nature does not take to the notion of clocks.

Birds do not concern themselves with calendars & schedules.

Don’t believe me?

Watch the heron by the lake.

There is no haste nor hustle.

Silent & still.

Even as she takes to the sky,

she slowly rises upward.

No corporate climbing for her.

Nor does the water snake keep its eyes

on budgets and balances.

There is no bottom line, no quota

only necessity and graceful movement.

Birds do not ask for answers,

their flight & their song

is as necessary as breath & beauty.

Trees do not dance in the breeze

for applause or attention,

their worship is faithful

as the music of streams.

Praise as the rocks in rivers

do, they make the waters’ song

as it flows past.

Below swim fish, unquestioning

this poetry of currents.

Is it any wonder, then,

that I stand there amidst it all

& envy them?

 

The Sacred Gift Of Mountains

 

cloudy mountainThere is something deep in my soul that needs mountains, that needs streams, that needs trees and wildness. There is something about being in the natural world that feels as if one is being embraced by one’s Creator.

It’s not surprising to me that so many of the world’s religions hold mountains to be sacred and holy places. I cannot help but think of the prophet Elijah on the mountain, hearing God in the gentle whisper. How can one not hear God in the soft winds that rustle the verdant leaves of the maples, mountain laurel, and pines? I, for one, find myself deep within meditation when I am walking a mountain path or sitting by one of its cold, clear streams.

There are many who make pilgrimages to mountains. Four of the major religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Bon, and Jainism) do so to Mount Kailash and have been for thousands of years. This peregrination is known as a kora, whereby they circle the mountain (either clockwise or counterclockwise) but never climb the mountain itself. To climb Kailash would be to desecrate it and is considered sacrilegious. To walk around Mount Kailash once is to erase one’s sin, but to journey around the mountain 108 times is to reach enlightenment.

As my young son and I begin our trek up the mountain, we tread the path with reverence and respect, not out of religious duty, but because we are awash with the gifts this mountain has to offer us on our journey. We are shaded by the forest canopy and my son calls out the names of the birds he recognizes as if he were reciting a poem: Cardinal, crows, Mockingbird, bullfinch . . . He gets very excited when he spots one he doesn’t recognize and we search out in our bird guide with the devotion of pouring over a sacred text as we try to uncover what this new bird is. “Chipping sparrow,” he smiles and points to the photo and the description.

I show him wild plants like bloodroot, wood-anemone, Carolina Lupine, maidenhair ferns, or milkweed.

Then we spot a deer path.

The path grows steeper and we pause to rest and drink water.

I cannot help but feel a part of the great Mystery when I am out in nature. The closer I get to the natural world, the closer I get to myself as well. I am more in-tune with the spiritual power that’s held in the natural world: in animals, plants, trees, and rivers. It’s no wonder that many cultures have spirits who are guardians over the forests.  I cannot help but think of the Kodama (small, white creatures whose heads rattle in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke). Should we not all be guardians of such places? Ensuring that nature is protected. Perhaps if we spent more time in communion with nature we would?

Suddenly a glorious Pipeline Swallowtail flutters past with its metallic blue hindwing.

My son and I are both glued in awe to the spots where we are standing. Only after the butterfly has gone does my son speak. “That was so awesome!” he declares and I have to agree with him.

When we had started, the top of the mountain was shrouded in low-hanging clouds, but, by the time we have reached its peak, the clouds are gone and we can look out onto the green valley below us. Now he takes his binoculars out of my backpack and gazes at the landscape with greater appreciation and affection because of the effort it took to make our way upward.  Then he spots a broad-winged hawk overhead. I hear his gasp and then he thrusts the binoculars to me with, “Papa! Look!” So I do. “Isn’t that incredible?” he asks me.

Yes, this moment truly is.

 

 

 

In The Valley With Job: Dealing With Depression & Loss

William Blake's The Complaint of Job

Awhile back, I spent over a month’s time reading and meditating on the Old Testament book of Job. Many would prefer to either ignore such a text or rush through it to get to happier and more upbeat books than one that deals with a man who loses everything. Yet I came away from this reading, which was not my first, with a better understanding of Job and suffering because of my own life experience struggling with depression. Suffering, lamentation, sorrow are not topics our modern culture, especially in the Church, like to deal with.  We prefer our worship be joyful (to the point that it becomes hollow) and our sermons uplifting and positive. Yet, without struggle, there is no spiritual depth.

Almost like a fairy tale, the book of Job begins, “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” How many other books of scripture begin this way?  The opening line gives us no indication of what is to come, what is to befall Job. It only paints a portrait of a man who is strong in his belief and love for God.  But the narrative will turn and in a most unexpected and cruel way, with what appears to be a wager between Satan (who is named here for the very first time in the Bible) and God. To me, as the story unfolds, it does so in a way that the narrator is telling an allegory of an Everyman (and this was definitely how the poet and artist William Blake saw him. In fact, Job was a subject he would return to again and again in his career because suffering from depression himself, Blake saw a connection to himself and this biblical figure).

What struck me the deepest in this reading of Job was when I came to the thirtieth book and read these lines:

And now my soul is poured out within me;

days of affliction have taken hold of me.

The night racks my bones, and the pain that

gnaws at me takes no rest. (30:16-17).

As I read those deeply moving lines, my mind returned to a time when I hit the lowest point in my life, when I could not see past my own pain, when my depression brought me to a place where suicide became a viable option. It was a place of such darkness, such loneliness, such isolation and grief for a sorrow that I could not completely name. Yes, I had lost a job that I had poured so much of myself into. Yes, only a couple of years earlier my mother died of cancer. But there was more behind this depression than both of those losses. It was as Saint Therese of Lisieux wrote, “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into.” Mine brought about the near destruction of my marriage and my very life. And one of the hardest things about my depression was being a member of a local church.

As the Church, we are created in and for community, to be there, in love, for one another. Being an introvert, the church has always been a struggle for me. I have a hard time in group settings and, even more so, in social settings. Whenever I go to any social, I come away feeling exhausted and depleted, as if I have had something taken from me. I am always anxious and ill at ease. This is worsened when I am struggling with depression. Many would not even know when I am because depression is not sadness and I can easily mask it. I am not alone, either.

According to the most recent reports, 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression, 18% of Americans suffer from anxiety disorder and 10% suffer from clinical depression. 80% of those who suffer from depression never receive any kind of treatment for it. 7% of those in the church suffer from depression. 27% are women. The statistics on men are unknown since men are less likely to admit it in themselves and remain untreated. A study was done by Barna even showed that one-fifth of young adults leave the church because their faith does not help with the depression, anxiety and other emotional problems they are experiencing. Many felt stigmatized by their illness and found that the Church often frowned on taking medications and view depression as simply a spiritual issue.

William Blake's Job's Friends

 When I was going through the worst of my depression years ago. I felt a sense of shame and secrecy. I had lost my job and found Sunday after Sunday, men asking me, “So have you found a new job yet?” The longer it took, the worse I felt. When Danelle got a job first and went back to work and I became a stay-at-home dad, I found myself being viewed differently in the Church where it’s typically viewed as a man’s role to support his family and here my wife was. Some men joked, “Wow, I wish I could lose my job and just stay at home all day. You sure do have it easy.” It wasn’t. I have absolute admiration for any parent who stays at home. It is a psychologically draining and often thankless job.

Unfortunately, like Job, I found that those around me were not sympathetic or even understanding. I drove the van for the shut-ins at our church for a while. My depression worsened to the point where I had to call the man who was over it to let him know that it would be best that I no longer drove the van. When I explained the reason why there was mostly silence and then, “Okay. Hope you get better.” That was it. And I never got any follow-up calls from him or anyone. No, I wanted to check on you or pray for you. No, I just wanted to let you know I was thinking of you. Nor did this happen when I left our Sunday school (now a growth group) and my wife continued to attend when I hadn’t. No one reached out to me as I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into what Saint John of the Cross labeled “the dark night of the soul,” as I felt more and more worthless and I became more and more withdrawn.

Henri Nouwen, who also suffered from depression throughout his life, wrote, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

Job did not have such friends. Nor did I. They are rare. To be able to do what Nouwen writes is to be Christlike. To simply be there for someone when they are going through hard times and trials and not offer Bible verses or platitudes, but just sit with them.

Whenever I seemed down, I was often told that I just needed to have more faith. I began to feel more and more responsible for my depression. I felt more and more isolated: from others and from God. What was wrong with me? In a culture of faith and where Jesus died for my salvation, I did not find joy or hope, but hopelessness and despair. In his Inferno, Dante wrote: (translation by Robert Pinsky):

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself

In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell

About those woods is hard – so tangled and rough.

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel

The old fear stirring; death is hardly more bitter

And yet, to treat the good I found there as well

I’ll tell what I saw . . .

That line “death is hardly more bitter” is so true to someone in the utter depths of the mire of depression. Death is almost more of a relief. I have struggled with depression ever since I was in high school. It often came on without warning and I have found myself, over the years, waking up with the first thought of, “I hate my life.”

Depression is not an issue of needing more faith. One cannot just snap out of it. It is more than emotional but is physical, physiological and medical.

When one goes back to that thirtieth chapter of Job, he continues with:

But when I hoped for good, evil came,

and when I waited for light, darkness came. My

inward parts are in turmoil and never still;

days of affliction come to meet me.

I go about darkened, but not by the sun;

I stand up in the assembly and cry for help.

When my depression was at its worst, I did not eat and lost so much weight that I became gaunt. My eyes were cold, dead and lifeless as a shark’s.  I was exhausted but could not sleep and suffered insomnia night after night after night. The night hours could be the worst and most painful. All of the world seems to be sleeping but me. I would pace about the house as quietly as I could. “Why?” was so often the question on my lips. Why did I have to be born? Why did I have to live and go through each day again and again and again? Why did everyone else appear so happy and together? Why couldn’t I just go to sleep and not wake up again?

Often, I would just sit and stare for hours.

I stopped reading. Something I had never, ever done before.

Or I would begin to cry for no reason. I was just overcome with an overwhelming sadness.

Ordinary tasks seemed insurmountable. “Why make the bed? I’ll just have to do it again tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that . . ..” endlessly. The mundane and day to day things that I had taken for granted became Sisyphus eternally pushing the boulder up the mountain only to have it roll back down again so that he would have to start over.

My prayers had all withered and dried up within me. And it caused even more of a crisis that, in the midst of my suffering, it felt like God was not enough or, at times, even there at all.

Singer and songwriter Sara Groves, whose most recent album Floodplain dealt with this subject matter, said of her own struggle with anxiety and depression, “You feel like something’s terribly wrong. Like you’re in a fight with somebody you love or you have to confront something but when you look around, there’s really nothing there. Your brain will bring you all kinds of reasons.”

Depression does not make sense. It does not have a logic. One cannot simply think positive thoughts and the depression will go away. You cannot pray it away. Trust me, I tried. Depression is not a spiritual issue. It can come from genetics or because of a biochemical reason or postpartum depression after the birth of a child. Some are situational, such as after a great loss or death. Author and professor Lauren Winner found this out after the breakup of her marriage and the death of her mother. Winner found herself going through a period of utter doubt and despair that she chronicled in her powerful book Still Life: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. As she wrote, “The anxious heart, in all its flailings, loses its hold on whatever grace God has bestowed upon it, and is sapped of its strength to ‘resist the temptations of the evil one,’ who is all the more ready to fish in troubled waters.”

Depression is like being trapped under ice. No matter how hard you attempt to break the ice from underneath, you can’t. No matter how much you struggle to free yourself, you can’t.

It’s also like being a goldfish in one of those plastic bags they fill with water and then tie off with a rubber band at the pet store. Except, this bag has a tiny hole and water is slowly leaking out and the bag is slowly closing in on you.

Depression is inward and downward to a place where the only way out is through. It was in my utmost despair, that I considered suicide. For those who suffer depression, there are moments that become so dark that you cannot see even the tiniest glimpse of light. For many, they reach that point and take their own lives. I was ready to myself, but I cried out to God, “If you’re real then I need to know it right now! Either you’re real or it’s over!” I was that blunt, that direct. I did not have the strength to pray anything else. I was tired and I was done. There, in that bleakest of moments, I heard that voice of inexplicable grace tell me, “Look up.”

I did.

There, on the fridge, was a photo of Benjamin. He was barely five.

As I looked at the face of this little boy, the voice asked, “If you commit this act, how will it impact him? How will he be damaged and suffer his whole life? How much will he question and doubt? Where will the unsurety lead him? To a moment like this one?”

I wept. I wept as I had never wept before.

” . . . if I make my bed in hell, behold, you are there.” (Psalm 139:8).

Depression is a state of disconnection to people and relationships and to the beauty in the world and to God and to one’s self.  I realized how desperately I needed professional help.

Often one needs medication simply to stabilize oneself. I did. Because the troughs I had fallen into were so low, I needed medication to just even me out.  It took medication just so I could even begin to start to see past the suffering and the hurt and the hopelessness. The medication helped me so that I could begin to talk to my Christian counselor about what I was going through. But without that medication, I never would have even begun the process of climbing out of the pit. In the midst of the brokenness comes wholeness. It was only then that I could begin to find myself stable on the God that Paul Tillich called the “ground of being.”

William Blake Job

In one of the most powerful and brutally honest books I have ever read about the struggle with depression was William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. For those who have no concept or the beginning of an idea of what it is like to suffer from depression, Styron writes:

In depression this faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come- not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves not, as in normal affairs, shifting from one annoying situation to another less annoying- or from discomfort to relative comfort, or from boredom to activity- but moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes. And this results in a striking experience- one which I have called, borrowing military terminology, the situation of the walking wounded. For in virtually any other serious sickness, a patient who felt similar devastation would by lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting. His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained. However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations. There he must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship. He must try to utter small talk, and be responsive to questions, and knowingly nod and frown and, God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words.

william-blake-the-lord-answering-job-out-of-the-whirlwind-the-culturium

The history of the Church is filled with those who have suffered depression: Moses, King Saul, King David (look at the period of the Cave of Adullam as well as many of his psalms), many of the Old Testament prophets (such as Elijah and Jeremiah), the apostle Paul,  Saint Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, John Calvin, John Wesley, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Rich Mullins, Brennan Manning, Kathleen Norris (who even wrote a book about it entitled Acedia & Me, as acedia is the spiritual term for the disease), Chonda Pierce (she also wrote a book about it entitled Laughing in the Dark), Jonathan Martin (who wrote How to Survive a Sinking Ship) and the rapper Lecrae.

In Psalm 38, David wrote:

My strength fails;

I feel only weakness, irritation and depression.

I am tempted to complain and to despair.

What has become of the courage I was so proud of,

and that gave me so much self-confidence?

In addition to my pain, I have to bear the

shame of my fretful feebleness.

Are those not the words of a man sunk in despair and ruin?

Because I sought help and got on prescribed antidepressants for awhile, I began to find my way out of Dante’s dark wood. But it deeply changed and transformed me. Simone Weil once wrote, “Love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude.” Many who read that would readily disagree, but she’s right. Because of my struggle with depression, I have become less guarded and more open. Depression has left me with humility, empathy, and compassion for others, particularly others who are hurting themselves. It has opened me to others as I had never been before and I think it has helped me to have a deeper understanding and connection to the sufferings and wounds of my adoptive son. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.”

You can’t cure depression, but you can successfully treat it. 60% to  80% of people suffering from depression can be treated successfully.

Now, whenever I start to feel any anxiety or panic attacks or depression coming on, I am more open about it and less secretive. I ask for help and I tell my wife what is happening.

Depression has left its wounds in me. Yet it is from those wounds that I can help others to heal. We in the Church need to be more sympathetic, empathetic and compassionate to those going through the struggle. It is not an issue of sin. It is not an issue of not having enough faith or trust in God. We need to not attempt to jump in with the answers or a Bible verse but just listen. Just be with the person who is hurting. We need to come to them without judgment or bias.

Depression has not gone away. I am still taking medication for mine. I force myself to find the beauty, the grace and the meaning to go through my days. Unlike in my past, however, I am not silent about my suffering. I am not ashamed or feel that it is a failing in myself or my faith. I speak because there are those who desperately need to hear, “You are not alone. This is not your fault. This is not a personal failing or a weakness of faith. But you do need to get help.”After I first blogged about my depression, many came up to me (in secret) to tell me they needed to read my words, to show their loved ones what they, themselves were dealing with in their own struggles with this illness (and it is an illness no less than cancer). We do not shame other diseases like we do depression. There are no 5-k runs to fight depression. We don’t wear ribbons to celebrate those who have depression.

Recently there has been the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. People are asking, “Why would they kill themselves when they are successful and at the top of their professions?” Success, notoriety, and fame are an outward life that can have absolutely no bearing on the state of one’s inner life. One cannot buy out of, travel away from or escape depression in what our culture considers the pinnacle of what a life should be. In the United States, we have bought into the falsehood of the self-made man or that one can simply “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” We see a comedian like Robin Williams taking his own life and, only as we find out the facts, realize the tragedy behind the comedy, the loneliness behind the laughs and his health problems. Depression does not care if you have power and prestige. Those are not safeguards against it.

Like Dante, I have descended into hell and returned, so that, like the poet, I can say, “And yet, to treat the good I found there as well. I’ll tell what I saw . . .”

This can no longer be taboo. This cannot be something that we, especially in our places of worship, can keep silent about.

And it’s important for those of us who have gone through the darkness and the valley of the shadow of death to speak up. We need to tell our stories and our struggles. We need to be open and honest with the people we should be able to be the most vulnerable with: our brothers and sisters in Christ. And they need to hear this. They need to listen. And they need to love and embrace without condition. Only then will any of us begin to truly heal.

Blake Job

Thankful Remembrances

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I love to rub the leaves of lemon balm between my fingers

and to breathe its scent in;

just as I do mint, sage or rosemary as I walk in the garden.

To remember when I planted them, shortly after moving into

the gray house on the corner.

They had been, first, in my mother’s garden.

Just as the lamb’s ear had been.

Lamb’s ear with their fuzzy leaves, so joyous to touch.

There’s the hydrangea,

with its rich, deep lavender flowers,

that came from my great-grandmother’s farm.

There is a heritage in my garden: of women

who loved to plant and nurture and nourish

living things and to watch them root, grow and bloom.

I planted many of these plants with an old trowel

that had once been my grandmother’s.

I can still see her old, arthritic hands as they dug the soil to plant.

I can hear her softly humming.

Even when I was too young to be a real help,

she tenderly and patiently showed me how.

Whenever I smell the deep fragrance of the Sweet Betsy bush

with its rust-red blooms, I think of her for it came from her backyard.

When I come out to my garden to sit and meditate

on the simple elegance of these beds, weeded and tended, I think:

There is much work to beauty

but the efforts are rewarded by its offerings

and its reminders of those long gone.

I sit here, by my fish pond, and catch glimpses

of the large goldfish as they come up to feed on water-skimmers

and I listen to the prayer of thanks that is each waking breath.

And it’s only then that I realize

that even my very breath

has been given to me

by these women.

 

 

A Night Walk

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I walk at night

amidst starlight and fireflies.

The silence is broken

only by the sound of cicadas

and the conversation of frogs.

They remind me that I am

never truly alone in this world.

Some would not walk without the guidance

of streetlights or flashlights

but there is a stillness to darkness

that is broken when one brings

such things to the world.

It does not take long for the eyes

to adjust, to see that there are shades

and shadows to darkness.

I hear the hooting of a barred owl.

What else is alive and awake

around me at this hour?

In this moment I recall

lines by the poet Hafiz:

“Indeed God

Has written a thousand promises

All over your heart

That say,

Life, life, life,

Is far too sacred to

Ever end.”

Hafiz is right.

But what makes a life?

To gather our pockets with cash?

Surely not.

To risk delight.

To choose curiosity.

To create beauty.

To be an explorer

& a questioner.

To love generously.

To be stubbornly joyful.

These are what make a life.

 

 

 

Gratitude

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The rain has stopped and I take my coffee outside

to listen to the conversation of birds,

like a choir practicing in the arching limbs

of this backyard cathedral that needs no stained glass

for the sunlight is dappled and filtered through verdant ceiling.

The unmowed grass is high and the small spiderwebs

scattered about the yard sparkle with raindrops and sunlight.

Mushrooms have risen from the dark earth to join us

for Lauds.  We all speak our psalms of gentle winds

that move like the Spirit among us now.

We sing of the oaks and the magnolias,

of the birds and the small animals,

of butterflies and dragonflies and buzzing bees.

All join in this invocation of gratitude

for the sunlight and blue sky and white clouds.

Of storm clouds passed.

All is an act of grace. All is the soul in motion:

our atoms dancing even in what we believe to be

stillness.

In such moments, are we not, all, able to bless and forgive?

Do we not get a glimpse of the beauty beyond our own?

How can one not reach out in radiance with dazzled eyes

and declare that eyes and mouth and hands are meant for this?

Live. Live now. Live now in the holy moment, in the sacred mystery.

When I do, then my heart opens like a flower’s bloom:

like the iris and the daylily and the rose.

Then my song is sweeter than the nectar from the wild honeysuckle

This is what it means to be filled with Creation’s urgent flow.

To bear witness as the tree and flower and bird does around me.

To cry out, “Holy, holy, holy” to everyone I meet.

Love, like light, is everywhere.

 

 

Diary Of A Garden

 

IMG_7268.JPGHow many of us truly pay attention to what is around us and are not oblivious to the small, minute yet miraculous changes that occur all around us? How many of us see what William Carlos Williams called “the local.”

Stephen de Vere is a well-known wildlife photographer who has worked on such BBC productions as Life and Frozen Planet. Sir David Attenborough has described him as “an extraordinary cameraman.” He’s captured some of the most amazing wildlife images around the world. Then he decided to spend a year focusing on the changing seasons in his own countryside. He watched the animals and birds that occupied the fields and hedgerows and woods around his own home.  The final film, Through The Garden Gate: A Diary of the English Countryside, was a stunningly quiet, peaceful and beautiful film: a meticulous and lovingly recorded journal of a what he saw: everything from foxes to barn owls to a badger to sparrowhawks to a muntjac.  It’s highly personal despite the fact that we never see Stephen; though his voice narrates the film. What drew me in was how he offered the viewer a portrait of the land around him that he clearly and deeply loves.

In her classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote of what she saw during explorations near her own home in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains through each of the seasons. It’s a glorious meditation on nature, solitude, and observation. As she writes in the first chapter:

“I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”

How might we change if we, ourselves, were to pay attention, closely, to the land around us during the seasons of a single year? Would we be surprised by the unexpected encounters we might have? How might we feel more connected to nature? Would we start seeing the ordinary in a new light if we looked at it with astonished eyes?

Most would dismiss even beginning this with the excuse, “That’s all well and good for a nature photographer or a writer to do, but I’m too busy to just sit around and look at my own yard.” But the poet Mary Oliver would disagree. She ended her poem “Yes! No!” with this line: To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.

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Though we live not that far from the center of our town (it’s within walking distance), I am always constantly amazed by the natural world that I discover within my own backyard. We have had Barred Owls with their owlets, red-tailed hawks, a raccoon, goldfinches, numerous Robins and Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, squirrels, black snakes, chipmunks, and even wild turkeys.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have had less sun and more heavy rainstorms which have, unfortunately, kept us inside a great deal more than we’d have liked. During the respite from the rain, I would venture out so that I might breathe in more deeply and see the changes this weather has wrought on the garden.

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Robins were busily working the soft earth to remove long, juicy worms. Those worms then dangled from their beaks as they flew up to the limbs of nearby trees. Adult Robins do not eat these worms but feed them to their young.

Just outside our kitchen window, in a myrtle with its waxy green leaves, is a nest that has been there for the last few years. I don’t allow my sons to touch it or remove the nest because every year the Robins return and we get to enjoy the hatching and growth of their young. It’s fascinating to us to see them go from small ugly, featherless creatures whose eyes cannot even open to large, round young who are reminiscent of the three men in the tub from the Mother Goose Nursery rhyme.

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This year, we even got to see them as they began to leave the nest. Testing their untested wings, they hopped about our backyard until they were finally able to take to the sky themselves. Their feathers were still tufting up about their heads and bodies.

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By one of our old oaks, a dead vole lay in the soft bowl of grass its body created in our yard. Using a small spade, I gathered him up and buried him in one of our flower beds. Nature always reminds us of our own mortality.

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As I covered the body of that small vole with dark, wet and rich earth, I thought of the day that I heard the fierce screech of the hawks long before I spotted them. To my utter amazement, they landed in our backyard. In the sharp talons of one was the body of a smaller bird, though I could not make out what kind. Both the male and female red-tailed hawk took turns pulling at the sinews and flesh of this bird with their short, dark rostrum. It was a picture that the natural world is both tremendous and terrifying. That there is always death and destruction. When the hawks had departed, all they had left behind in the grass were some small bones and bits of feathers: leaving that small bird indistinguishable and unidentifiable.

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All about the yard, amidst the tall unmowed grass, were mushrooms of various shapes, colors, and sizes. There are over 1.5 million different species of fungi in the world. As children, we most often enjoyed kicking them to watch their pieces fly scattered over the yard. Now, however, like so many other forms of nature, I am fascinated by them. Woodland soil can contain, in a small gram of space, over a million microscopic fungi. Like animals, fungi are eukaryotic organisms (meaning their cells have a true nucleus). How long had these been dormant beneath the ground until we had gotten enough rain to wake them from their slumber? Some can remain dormant for decades. While researching fungi, I found that the honey mushroom is the largest and oldest living organism on earth: having lived 2400 years and covers over 2000 acres. Thankfully, not in my backyard but in Malheur National Forest in Oregon. The fungi in our yard also provided me with the opportunity to teach my younger son, whom I homeschool, all about the importance of them and allowing us to be amateur mycologists for the day.

iris bloom

I have loved watching the bold, vivid colors of the flowers in bloom, like the irises and the day lilies. They are magnificent in their array of hues, iridescence and brightnesses that rivaled those used by Matisse or Gaugin or even O’Keefe. All they ask is that I notice for when I do, I am filled with a sense of gratitude that such beauty offers itself up to me every Spring. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “In some Native languages the term for plants translates to ‘those who take care of us’.” I cannot help but see the truth of those words. How much these plants have taken care of me when I have needed their beauty and their reminder that there are wonders all around us, that life is precious and a gift.

big leaf magnolia

The large, flute-like bloom of the big-leaf Magnolia tree resembles a soft, pale vase one might find in a museum until it opens and reveals its interior of white and daubs of purple with a yellow stamen in the center. This tree is a reminder of a dear friend and neighbor of ours who gave this as a gift to our older son. Every year that it blooms, we cannot help but think of his generosity in giving my son a gift that may outlive us and beneath whose branches at the base, we have buried our beloved dog Chloe. Though my son, who was young at the time, did not grasp the importance of this gift, now that he is older he cherishes this tree and it often inspires us to tell stories of our friend’s life.

Like Stephen de Vere and Annie Dillard, I document, in my own way, the transformations and encounters of my own place as the seasons change, as I and my sons grow older, as life happens and nature reminds me that beneath it all is birth and life and death and rebirth. The physicist Richard Feynman wrote, “Nature has a great simplicity and therefore a great beauty.” How true this statement is when I am present to it. When I take the time to delight in the fact that I am now seeing the soft yellow flickering of fireflies in our backyard at night.

I am, indeed, grateful for the simple movement of the trees in the wind. Of walking the dog at night and being able to look up at the stars and moon and seeing its silver, shimmering reflection in my fish pond. To hear choirs of birdsong in their limbs at dawn and dusk. I am grateful to grasp that all of this is a glorious, gift. I cannot help but gaze in wonderment that so much of this will go on long after I am gone. That the atoms of which I am made will become a part of this natural world just as those of my ancestors are.

Perhaps, if we all stopped and took the time to notice, to really watch the changes of the seasons in our own locals, we would all, like Henry David Thoreau, declare, “I love my fate to the very core and rind.” Whenever I do stop and see, I find that, like Thoreau, I do love my life and the life all about me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Brief Respite From Rainstorms

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Rain.

It’s been a week of heavy rain in our area. Being stuck indoors has made me stir crazy and ready to escape the indoors, even for just a few moments. Whenever there are small breaks in the downpours, I dash outside and breathe in the fragrance of damp earth and to notice the poetry of raindrops on rose petals or that of the daylilies that are as bright and bold as any O’Keefe painting.

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Walking by my fish pond, I notice water striders slowly gliding their way across it. There are over 5,000 species of them worldwide. I sit on the bench by the pond just to spend a few moments observing them skate across the surface of the water. It’s amazing to watch them move so effortlessly across the water. Their legs, reminding me of a granddaddy long legs, are covered in these microscopic hairs are covered with tiny groves. The magazine National Geographic said, “These groves trap air, increasing water resistance of the water’s striders legs and overall buoyancy of the insect.” It’s amazing to think that their legs are more buoyant than even duck feathers. There’s a great cluster of striders in one spot of the pond. I am not sure the reason; perhaps it is group mating? I have read that their mating habits are more like a battlefield than a romance that has been most often referred to by Ecologists as an “antagonistic coevolution.”

I move on to give them their privacy.

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Then I notice a large Robin Redbreast. I watched as he flew from the damp grass to the limb of an old oak. From there he seemed to contentedly watch the world from his high perch. And I could but stand below and envy him.

I love that the trees are filled with the sound of birdsong. Clearly they, like myself, are delighting in the break from the heavy rain. We are, all of us, invigorated in the freedom of being able to venture forth again. Their song is broken only by that of a Downy Woodpecker, busily tapping out insects from a nearby tree with his chisel-like beak.  His long talons cling to the bark of the tree. His small black and white speckled head is in constant movement as his body remains still against the side of the walnut tree. I love the boldness of his black and white stripes.

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Beneath him, amidst the ivy that climbs over my rock wall, is a Brown Thrasher. Though gangly in body, this amazing bird can sing over 1,100 different songs. It’s a regular iPod of ornithology. I remain still so I can watch without scaring it off in the hopes that I can hear its song, which is far more richer, fuller, and melodious than the more famous Mockingbird’s. But, alas, no performance for me today.

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It is said that Catherine Blake, wife of the poet William, once lamented, “I miss my husband’s company – he is so often in paradise.” As I wander about my own backyard, I can imagine her stating the same thing of myself. I tend to lose myself in the natural world, as Blake did in his heavenly visions of angels in trees and of the prophet Ezekiel seated beneath one. I don’t need such otherworldly perceptions when I have the glorious earthly ones that I have around me. These birds, these insects, and plants are, in these moments, heaven enough for now.

But I am pulled from my meditations and observations by the feeling of rain pelting against my skin as the sky begins to release once more to the earth below. Even so, I am still reluctant to leave as if angels were forcing me to abandon Eden.

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Looking & Childhood

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“We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory,” wrote the poet Louise Glück. How often I sift and return to those memories: some beloved and some not. Childhood is frequently romanticized without consideration for those moments we find painful or difficult. Childhood is a place that is filled with treasures, wonders and shadows.

In my memories, there is only one place that I consider home: it was the home I lived in until the time I was twelve. It is, in my mind, seen through the sepia-toned lenses of fondness and of summers and neighborhood friends. I can vividly recall every room in that house. One of my younger sister and my favorite things to do in that house was to use the intercom system that it had to play radio station. We took turns being the DJ and playing our parents’ old 45’s on a portable record player. It was always a mix of songs from the 50’s and 60’s. Do-Wop groups, girl groups, Motown and we loved listening to all of it. On the stereo that was in the den, we liked playing albums from their record collection: music that went all the way from the 40’s to the 70’s. There were jazz records and country albums and the soundtracks to musicals. We ended up loving the music of John Denver, The Carpenters, James Taylor, Carol King, Jim Croce, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle (as well as the solo records of Paul Simon).  Our friends would come into our den, we would play records and dance and sing and sometimes put on pretend shows for each other.

As kids, we used to pretend to be characters from movies we saw or books that we read. We would imagine our backyards as the settings from our favorite stories and reenact them in our own way. Most often, I would make myself the best and main character; choosing others to be the side-kick. When I look back now, I’m often amazed anyone played with me.

Childhood is our initiation into the mystery of things. A time of deepest impressions where all the world appears bigger and grander and more wondrous. The world is one that is full of mystery and magic to be discovered. The woods behind our houses were not only to be explored and delighted in, but they served to play out magical realms where we, like the Pevensie children, were rulers. There was even an old abandoned VW Bug in the center of these woods that no one knew how it even got there but because of not knowing, that old car was as magical as the street lamp in Narnia.

I loved to go to the woods to read. When I was lonely, which was often, I had favorite places to go and read: certain trees in specific spots or there was one large rock that I loved because it reminded me of the one in A Wrinkle in Time.  So much of my time spent reading and imagining sprang from a loneliness and this constant niggling in myself that I never ever really seemed to fit in anywhere.

My imagination stemmed from a yearning. A yearning to create my own worlds where I did. A yearning for magic and miracles. An opening of the heart to the mystery of being.

Boyhood

In school, teachers often complained to my mother at parent-teacher conferences that I tended to daydream and stare out the window. There’s a scene in the lovely film Boyhood by Richard Linkletter in which the mother (played by Patricia Arquette) is talking to her young son Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane), who is sitting in the backseat of their station wagon and she tells him, “Well, your teacher says you have been staring out the window all day long.” I loved the boy’s response, “Well, not all day.” I instantly connected with him in that moment. I saw myself in him.

Like so much of the art that I love most, this film is a poem to the ordinary, daily moments of our lives. The ones we so often fail to notice at the time but hold such significance for us later.

Childhood is a mixture of joy and happiness and laughter, but also loneliness, sadness and struggling with trying to make sense of this great big world and the people in it and where we belong or don’t belong in it.  It’s a time of navigating ourselves, our feelings and our relationships with others.

Childhood is filled with connections, with those friends who we played with those long, slow summer days and into the nights that were filled with fireflies and bats winging overhead and stars and wishes and secrets and peals of delight at playing freeze tag or kick the can or hide n’ go seek. It is Popsicles and playing in sprinklers and riding bicycles and thinking that life will always go on like this. It is feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin and the cool of the grass when you lie down on it under the bows of a weeping willow that you pretend is a waterfall where you can hide and dream and share your thoughts to your best friends. It was a time of drinking warm, metallic tasting water from the hose or eating wild blackberries and drinking the nectar from honeysuckle. It was splashing in a creek and catching frogs. The woods were wild and untamed as a Maurice Sendak book and we loved it for that.

Yards seem bigger. I always remembered our front and backyard as having these huge hills that we loved to roll down and then returning as an adult to show my sons and being shocked by how much smaller everything really was.

But it can also be a time of hearing our parents arguing and fighting and being afraid of what it all meant, of uncertainty and fear of instability. It can be one where friendships shift in ways that cause us to wonder what changed in others that did not change in ourselves. I recall one birthday where most of the kids who were invited didn’t show up and the ones who did, played with each other and kind of left me out. It was a wound I carried well into adulthood. This sense of being the outsider, even at one’s own birthday party.

The short season of childhood passes in all but how it has shaped our feelings, our memories, our identity and how we see the world. The minutes that made up those days seemed to go by so slow but the years went by so fast.

Childhood is contained in those many firsts. The first joy, the first sorrow, the first success, the first failure, the first kiss, the first death, the first adventures, the first friendships, the first loves . . . Often these memories feel more like dreams than reality. It’s often because we have reshaped and reformed them in the remembering. All of the feelings are larger and felt even more so, more deeply.

Childhood does not leave us even long after we have left it. We carry it in our very demeanor and attitudes. You hold onto those times, those people and places.

In his novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman writes, “I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.”

This is something I understand and it beautifully encapsulates how many of us feel about that time in our lives we call childhood. And, still, we find ourselves returning again and again and again to those moments as if we are looking through a photo album. And we are still, sometimes, surprised at what we find there.

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