NURTURING THE BEAUTY

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I encountered a homeless man unlike any I had met before. I’m not sure what it is about me that invites homeless people to come up to me and talk, but they often do. This African-American man was older, his face was as wrinkled as a shriveled balloon, stooped over, the long beard of a prophet, and, like many homeless people, wearing layers of clothes despite the warmer temperature.

Unlike any homeless person I had encountered before, this man’s grocery cart wasn’t full of trash bags containing the sum total of his worldly belongings. Instead, his cart was filled with thriving, beautiful plants.

As we entered conversation, I found out a little more about Charles’ life, who he was and what got him to this point, and I finally asked him why he had so many plants in his cart that he pushed around every day.

“I gather the throwaways,” he said. “The plants that are being tossed out. I take them and water them and nurture them until they thrive again. I like to have such beauty in my life, so that no matter how hard my life gets when I look at these plants, I know that there is more to this life than just hardship and suffering.”

I stood there, tears running down my cheeks, speechless.

How many who see this man only see the homeless man? Do they see him as a useless drain on society? As a possible drug addict or drunk?

Do they see him as a throwaway?

And yet, like a poet, he grasps that there is more to this life, that he understands the need to nurture and nourish beauty.

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There is an Iris that has just bloomed in our garden. Most, if asked, would say that it was white. Yet, upon closer inspection, one would see that this seemingly plain, white bloom had elements of green, yellow and pink.

We cannot look at anyone or anything in such narrow, simplistic terms because, when we do, we miss out on the true miracle that is there before us. Everyone has so much more to them that what we so often see on the surface. Beneath that surface is a story and when we hear that story, we see that person a little better and we begin to understand that the world is ablaze with poetry for those who are willing to take the time and look a little more deeply.

This homeless man continued to teach me a lesson I need to carry within me: that life, all of it, is such a miraculous gift and that there is always beauty to be found, even in the hardest of places.

 

 

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Impactfulness

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“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you,” Jane Goodall has said,  “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” This is a statement about being conscious of how we live our days and deciding that our goal is to be useful, compassionate and aware of the needs of others. This is often easier said than done, as we all tend to get caught up in the busyness of our days.

When I am overwhelmed by the chaos and cruelty of the world, which most often gets all of the media’s attention, I try, instead, to focus on those who, without the limelight on them, go about their days performing acts of generosity and kindness.

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One of those people is Antonio La Cava. After 42 years of teaching, he retired bought an Ape motorbike that he modified into a portable library that he calls his “Bibliomotocarro.” With over 700 books, La Cava travels to villages that do not have a local library so that the children there can check out books and learn to love reading. Having taught for so long, he realized, “A disinterest in reading often starts in schools where the technique is taught, but it’s not being accompanied by love. Reading should be a pleasure, not a duty.”

His reason reminded me of a quote by one of my favorite authors, Kate DiCamillo, who said, “Reading should not be presented to children as a chore, a duty. It should be offered as a gift.” I wholeheartedly agree and have, with my own sons, offered them a house filled with books as an opportunity to enter other’s stories and get a sense that the world is both bigger than they imagined and closer than they imagined (as we so often find that the feelings we believed that only we felt are shared by other people in distant places – a great reminder that we are all, indeed, intimately connected).

So when I become dismayed and find myself frustrated by the harshness and violence that takes over the television, I will stop and pause to remember that this world also contains people like Antonio La Cava who, because of his own love and joy of reading, wants to share that with others who aren’t afforded that opportunity.

Poets As Lights In The Darkness

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The Persian Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” Such tender, compassionate words that one would long to hear when the darkness is tangible and one’s soul is anguished. Who was the poet speaking these words to? Anyone who now reads them; for that is the power of poetry, of the written word, that long after the author has died they continue to speak to us. They remain lights shining in the darkness for those who come after them.

This reminds me of that wonderful passage in chapter five of Madeliene L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, when Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which are talking to the children about the fighters who come from earth to battle the darkness.

“And we’re not alone, you know, children,” came Mrs.Whatsit, the comforter. “…some of the best fighters have come from your own planet…”
“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.
“Oh, you must know them, dear,” Mrs.Whatsit said. Mrs.Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly.
“And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

The list includes Jesus, da Vinci, Shakespeare, Einstein, Bach, and Gandhi.

How many of us would add names to that list because they have helped bring light into the darkness of our own lives?

For me, in my own life, there have been many, many poets. Poets like Hafiz, Rumi, Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver, and Christian Wiman. When I think of them and all the other poets who have been ministers of balm in the midst of my own suffering, I cannot help but agree with Jane Kenyon when she said, “The poet’s job is to put into words those feelings we all have that are so deep, so important, and yet so difficult to name, to tell the truth in such a beautiful way, that people cannot live without it.”

Anne Sexton taught me that I am not alone in my awful rowing towards God. In the midst of my own bouts of depression, I understood her completely when she wrote:

God went out of me
as if the sea dried up like sandpaper, as if the sun
became a latrine.
God went out of my fingers.
They became stone.
My body became a side of mutton
and despair roamed the slaughterhouse.

I think of poor Anne as she felt like she was rowing and rowing with “oarlocks” that are stuck and rusty. I think of the old priest who came to visit her in the mental hospital, after one of her first attempts at suicide. She told him, “I cannot go to church,” to which he replied, “Your typewriter is your altar.” She then revealed to him, “I cannot pray,” and he understood and spoke truth, “Your poems are your prayers.”

Poems as prayers. There have definitely been periods in my own life when poems, including Sexton’s, were my only form of meditation and spiritual nourishment. I could not pray, I could not read scripture, I could not enter a church. But there, in that darkness, were the lights copied down onto pages. Rilke’s Book of Hours telling me what I felt but could not speak, could not write down (not even in my own private journals):

I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough
to make every moment holy.
I am too tiny in this world, and not tiny enough
just to lie before you like a thing,
shrewd and secretive.
I want my own will, and I want simply to be with my will,
as it goes toward action;
and in those quiet, sometimes hardly moving times,
when something is coming near,
I want to be with those who know secret things
or else alone.

In my own spiritual path, I grasped how Rilke felt when he stated: I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.

Rowing towards. Circling around. Both away from and outside of God. Yet I was not alone. These poets were with me during the dark night of the soul, during the acedia, during the dark depths of depression. When I did not have the strength, their words did.

Just as Gerard Manly Hopkins defiantly cried out, I cried out:

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

These poets, like dear, sweet companions spoke into my darkness and even let me know that the darkness, itself, could be a kind of gift (though it definitely did not feel like one that I wanted to keep. If only there were a receipt for darkness so that it could easily be exchanged for light). I clung to the words of Denise Levertov:

In the dark I rest,
unready for the light which dawns
day after day,
eager to be shared.
Black silk, shelter me.
I need
more of the night before I open
eyes and heart
to illumination. I must still
grow in the dark like a root
not ready, not ready at all.

Only after we come out of the darkness, for those who do, can we begin to understand this. Depression, itself, is like a form of living death. To struggle with depression and still cling to even the faintest sliver of hope to get through the day is a courageous act. These poets and their words were often that sliver of hope. They taught me that there is growth in darkness, that the wounds I came out into the light with, were the very ways of empathy that I could enter the pain of others as they suffered. As the Buddha wisely understood, “If you light a lamp for someone else, it will also brighten your path.”

I think of these poets as a candle lighting the next candle to light the next throughout history. I am thankful and filled with gratitude for them, for their ability to translate their own suffering into beauty, into the art that helps others transform their own woundedness, their own brokenness into light. They have gone into the abyss (as John Berryman wrote, “We must travel in the direction of our fear”), come back and translated it into the most delicate and strong language, imagery that conjures up the reality and the struggle, and offers hope, even when the poet, themselves, felt it not. Their poems have, as Berryman suggested, “are not meant to be understood . . . They are only meant to terrify & comfort.”

To each of these poets who have made the pilgrimage to hell and back enough to write their poems, I offer my eternal and undying thanks. I count myself as one among the living because their words “support like bone” (to quote Peter Gabriel in his song “Mery Street,” a tribute to Anne Sexton).

Who are the poets who have been light in your darkness?

 

 

Attention To Nature

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I can only take four walls for so long before my soul, my imagination and my physical body need release into the wild and wilderness. I’m like Mole at the beginning of The Wind in the Willows, “Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.” I have to get out. I need fields and hills and the language of birds and streams. My feet need to feel rough, hard paths beneath it instead of sidewalks and cement. I need to hear the sounds of leaves and the crack of twigs under my step. Here I am not subjected to the assault of heavy bass blasting from someone’s car radio. I do not understand the person who thinks everyone should hear what they are listening to. Do they ever feel the need for silence or do they fear it so much that they turn the volume so loud that they cannot even hear their spirit speak?

Silence.

A man once sought out the mystical, Persian poet Rumi. When he found him, he asked, “Why do you speak so much about silence?” I love Rumi’s reply, which was, “The radiant one inside me has never said a word.” It is true. The radiant one most often speaks in silence. Perhaps that is why so many fear silence and require constant noise around them.

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Yet there is so much more music in the gentle sound of a stream or creek.  It speaks to me as no music ever can. Deeper than Bach or Mozart is the burbling and bubbling and gurgling and (occasionally) the splash of a fish or frog. I can sit by a stream or creek for hours and lose myself in a way that I never can in peopled society.

“Solitude,” Coleman Barks wrote, “is a fount of healing which makes my life worth living. Talking is often a torment for me, and I need many days of silence to recover from the futility of words.”

Nature has the courtesy not to ask of us to converse; only to be present.

I think more of God when I am in woods than in any church or cathedral. What better sermon for a Creator is one spoken by the caw of a crow or the beating of wings or a mockingbird’s song or the croaking of a bullfrog? They resonate far deeper within me and speak more clearly of holiness.

Is not the wind that rustles through the leaves above me not more like God who spoke to the prophet Elijah in just such a gentle whisper? I have never heard such a whisper in church, but I have in the woods.

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There is no pew like a fallen, rotting log to sit on, especially if it’s near water.

I need the feel of rock and moss and bark and grass and ferns.

Nature is far more generous than people.

What story will unfold before me when I enter the woods? Not once has it disappointed me, especially when I leave the well-trod path to wander less traveled ones. It is only then that I can find the tracks made by animals: raccoons, deer, foxes, possums . . .

Nor is there anything that takes away one’s breath in awe like the swooping down of a bird of prey as it snatches a squirrel or snake or rabbit from right in front of you. It’s the unexpected of terror and delight in witnessing such a moment that we tend to only see on our televisions when we watch nature documentaries. But such shows can never replace being present to such an encounter.

The poet Gary Snyder wrote, “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” Most would not agree but would retreat from nature within the safety of their walls where they can keep animals out and temperatures and light and darkness controlled. We prefer to hold to the false assumption that we truly have dominion over this earth. That falsehood is broken with any tornado or hurricane or earthquake that comes.

To enter nature is to return to forgotten memories of our ancestors, who were closer to the land, closer to the earth, closer to the seasons. They were not docile and separated from both the comfort and harshness of nature. In ages past, they understood the fertileness of soil, the magic of animals, the reality of birth, death and rebirth in nature. We are unbalanced from our world. We have forgotten the truths that are held within the ancient age of oaks and the wearing down of river stone by water.

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In The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane writes, “Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. The seal’s holding gaze, before it flukes to push another tunnel through the sea, the hare’s run, the hawk’s high gyres : such things are wild. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise that live by voices inaudible to you.”

Yes! The natural world, the wild places, are “invaluable to us precisely because they are not us.” It’s a truth most attempt to ignore, much to the detriment of our natural resources.

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Even those who I sometimes encounter on my walks. How many of them walk far and fast without ever touching or being touched by that place. They pass the small patch of wildflowers with their gentle beauty. It saddens me when they rush headlong from point a to point b without realizing that it is not about the beginning and ending but about the experience of allowing oneself to become aware of the mystery that surrounds them: they may notice moss without even knowing what kind it is or that there are over 22,000 species of moss. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book Gathering Moss, writes, “Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.”

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Kimmerer’s writing about attentiveness made me think of how Simone Weil equated attention to being a form of prayer. It is a sacred act. An appreciation or gratitude for the gift that the natural world truly is.  “Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver writes, “is only a report.” Sadly, this is how so many approach the woods: looking without ever seeing. Our gaze is most often a mere scratching of the surface. It is not so much a failure of the eyes, but a failure of the imagination and the patience to be still and truly see. Too  often those I encounter on my walks view this as an opportunity for exercise or for a selfie.

Nature is filled with the sublime, with possibility; it only asks that we be open and available to it. Move past our ordinary perception to dwelling for a time in the company of trees and plants and animals and water. To hear the faraway voices of our ancestors speaking to us, reminding us that our place belongs in that Eden where we no longer reside. We have removed ourselves from the harmony of this natural world. Yet when we return, even for extended periods, we begin to see once more that the beauty of nature goes far beyond mere aesthetics and a photo opportunity.

 

 

 

 

Reflections On April, Edith Holden & Dorothy Wordsworth

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We have entered the month of April, the month of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. April also comes from the Latin word aperit (meaning “to open”). Omnia aperit or “open everything.”I like the idea of April being a month of opening. It is the month my older son was born. I was born at the end of April.

T. S. Eliot proclaimed in The Waste Land that, “April is the cruelest month.”

Shakespeare, however, wrote, “When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim; Hath put a spirit of youth in everything.”

I would prefer to side with Shakespeare. The idea of April putting the “spirit of youth in everything” is a much more optimistic perspective than dreary Eliot’s somber:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

April reveals all around us the promise of Wendell Berry’s “Practice resurrection.” We are reminded of rebirth with the daffodils, the crocuses, the irises, the magnolias, the azaleas all a bloom. Amidst them dart the birds and butterflies. Life. Tender and ebullient life. Breathe it in. Drink it all in. Live it. Be out in it. This is life – joyous, wondrous life.

The sounds of April with the tapping of red-headed woodpeckers hammering away at the bark of trees to feast on the bores inside.

“April showers bring May flowers,” the old rhyme goes, but I love April rains. Thunderstorms gather me into myself, into my thoughts and inspire me to write. I adore the smell after the rain: of damp earth.  Then the Robins come out to feast on worms that they can more easily extract from the soil.

Spring reminds me that earth is filled with its own magic. I think of the colors that surround me: bold whites, gentle pinks, vivid purples, bright golden yellows. It’s enough to make Joseph in his coat of many colors jealous of how brightly arrayed the world can be.

As with the poet Keats, I am awakened by this Spring month.

The temperatures in April are perfect for my nature walks. Like Wordsworth with his sister, Dorothy, and, often Coleridge, I long to hike up mountains and over hills, to cross streams and hear the sound of water passing below.  With journal and pen in hand, I cannot stay indoors but must be out traipsing along footpaths and dirt paths, amidst birdsong and bees buzzing, and stop only in some quiet, sunny spot to counsel my own thoughts and capture them, as best I’m able, into words that are always unequal task.

Nature Notes
Or I find a shady spot, beneath a tree, leaning back against its gray-green lichen trunk find companionship in a book. Lately, it has been Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals or Edith Holden’s The Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady. I inherited my copy from my Mother. It is filled with poems, folklore, Holden’s own observations from her field notes and beautiful illustrations. It’s the sort of book I don’t read all at once, but take down from the shelf throughout the year to read passages corresponding to the month I’m in. This is a book whose pages I love to turn and just enjoy her gorgeous watercolors. It is a book I savor and delight in.
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“Made an expedition in search of wildflowers,” she writes on April 17th and then comes the magic incantation of the names of those she encountered on her expedition: Primroses Cowslips, Ox-slips, Cukoo-flowers, Wood-sorrel, Lady’s Mantle, Blackthorn, Corn Crowfoot, Sweet Purple Violet, wild Pear, Hawthorn, Wood Anemone, Wild Cherry and Spring Vetch. She notes the flight of Chimney Swallows and House-Martins and Willow Wrens or the nesting of a Water-hen.
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Homeschooled as a girl, Edith Holden spent a lot of time in nature (much like another favorite of mine, Beatrix Potter). She loved to sketch, paint and study the natural world around her; filling sketchbooks and notebooks with her findings.  Her parents also imparted to her a love of literature, especially poetry. Later, Edith would study, first at the Birmingham School of Art where she received a scholarship and the attention of Edward Burne-Jones, who visited the school and sparked her interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Later, under Joseph Adam at the Craigmill Art School, she continued to study and paint animals, as well as exploring the countryside around Adam’s farm.
Edith Holden

After graduating, Holden became a teacher and would gather plants for her girls to study and draw. It was during this period that she began what would become The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. It was filled with her observations of the seasons along with delicate drawings and paintings of birds, plants, and insects.

“The Gorse is in its glory,” she writes on April 29th, “and will be for another month. The scent from the Gorse and the sweet soft air were most invigorating. Many Skylarks singing aloft in spite of the wind. Saw a hawk poised over the eastern side of the down. Gathered some Whinberry blossom; A few shaggy little Dartmoor ponies were cropping the gorse on the down; with a wee brown foal at its side.”

Like all of my favorite naturalists, Edith Holden has an artist’s eye for details. She is present to her surroundings and notes the flora and fauna in deft little passages. Reading her words draw me into her countryside and then make me pay closer attention to my own. The rural idyll of Holden’s world is peaceful and creates a longing within the reader to return to those halcyon days of country England before the Great War.

As with her contemporary Beatrix Potter, Holden championed preservation and protection of wilderness and wildlife. She would go on to support the work of the

National Council for Animal Welfare: both using her illustrations for their cause, including images commissioned for the RSPCA, as well as donating her own money to ending cruelty towards the animals she loved all of her life.

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 Or I turn to passages from April months that Dorothy Wordsworth recorded of her time spent with her brother at Dove Cottage in the Lake District. Take this one from April 16th, 1802 (Good Friday):

When I returned I found William writing a poem descriptive of the sights and sounds we saw and heard. There was the gentle flowing of the stream, the glittering lively lake, green fields without a living creature to be seen on them, behind us, a flat pasture with 42 cattle feeding to our left the road leading to the hamlet . . . a dog’s barking now and then, cocks crowing, birds twittering . . . yellow palms, purple and green twigs on the Birches, ashes with their glittering spikes quite bare.  The hawthorn a bright green with black stems under the oak.  The moss of the oak glossy . . . William showed me the little mossy streamlet which he had before loved when he saw its bright green track in the snow. The view above Ambleside, very beautiful. There we sat and looked down on the green vale. We watched the crows at a little distance from us become white as silver as they flew in the sunshine, and when they went still further they looked like the shapes of water passing over the green fields.”

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Primarily a diarist, Dorothy gives an intimate portrait of her life with her brother, of those who came to visit them (Coleridge, Charles Lamb, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Southey among them) and of their constant walks throughout the Lake District. It was his sister’s ability to notice and jot down in vivid details in her diaries what they encountered that William turned to when he composed one of his most famous poems, “Daffodils.” As Dorothy had written in what became known as The Grasmere Journal on April 15th, 1802: I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.”

Dorothy was an avid naturalist and her diaries are filled with exploring what happens in the natural world as they walked along the wooded paths of the Lake District. Both her brother and Coleridge said that they were both so intellectual that the philosophized together when they walked, but that it was when Dorothy walked with them that they saw and felt. And we see this in all of Dorothy’s writing (both her journals and her letters). The journals and letters are filled with passages of vivid portrayals of trees, plants, birds and the seasons, of daily walks among the hills and lakes and rivers, of the people (often workers) they encountered. Dorothy captured the world, as well as created a place for William to think, feel and write.

One cannot imagine poetry without Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (Daffodils)” (one of my personal favorites) and how much of that we have to thank because of Dorothy. When I read her journals, I find myself walking beside them and noticing what her eye is asking me to pay attention to. The details she captures inspires my imagination to picture the images she captures in a few strokes of her pen.

I am grateful to these two remarkable women for helping me this April month to open my eyes and to take walks out past the city where I live, into the country and the mountainsides. To find that nourishing repository of possibilities that are to be found when one engages in connecting to the natural world. There I encounter texture and colors and sounds that I do not find anywhere else. I hear streams and the call of birds and the whisper of the wind among the newly green leaves that are appearing on the trees around me (returning us from the bare, sparseness of winter to the verdant wonder of Spring).

April is the month of epiphany. It reminds me why I am alive: to be among the woods and that a walk is for more than traversing a space to get from one place to the next. It’s not about the destination, but the discovery along the way. Nature invites me into earth’s vast purpose amidst twisting vines and blooming leaf. April is a symbolic month of resurrection and new life; of rediscovery and rebirth. April is the narrative for entering fresh landscapes that we can see again for the very first time despite having passed through them or by them all winter long.

 

 

A Poem For Simone Weil

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“Love is not consolation. It is light.”

– Simone Weil

Love bade me welcome,

or so George Herbert wrote,

but my soul drew back.

Why?

Because a gift so pure,

given from the heart of grace,

can never be returned

and asks nothing in return.

Love is not safe

but is like a sea that batters

one in its tempest waves.

Love tears away all illusions

as if it were the sharp, hooked bill

of a falcon as it rips the flesh of its prey

without regard.

Torn are our illusions, our masks,

our attempts at hiding who we truly are.

We speak of love,

we talk and talk and talk about it

without understanding.

We write songs and poems

that do not even grasp the

furthest edge of love.

Yet we reach out –

desperately –

as if we were the woman

who felt she would be healed

if only she touched the hem of

Christ’s garment.

But what does love, does healing

look like?

It is a letting go of attachments

and becoming exposed like the flesh

of a child. Such vulnerability

makes us long for cover,

for believing in our own misconceptions

like that child who hides beneath his blanket

and believing he is invisible to dangers.

But we are not children

and, if we are to embrace love,

we are to embrace both joy and suffering

equally. We cannot, ungratefully, dismiss

what we do not want (pain and sorrow)

as if they were mere dishes we’d prefer to pass

and not taste, wishing only for dessert.

Sweetness and bitterness are not separate,

not opposites, but are interwoven

in such a way that we cannot know

one without the other.

We cannot make our wishes known,

as if love were merely Father Christmas

or a genie, but we must allow ourselves

to understand that the sea, which can be

so beautiful, can also wreck us.

But we cannot fear the possibility

of a raging storm that could render us in two.

Our attention, unmixed by anything but pure focus

on love itself, is a kind of prayer.

It awakens us to the lies we harbor

and makes us understand:

Love needs only love.

All else does not matter.

As you once said

“We cannot take a step toward the heavens.

God crosses the universe and comes to us.”

You were right.

All is grace.

All is gravity.

All is love.

All is light.

 

 

 

 

Sarton On Solitude

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Half our home is without power.

The electrician informed us that we needed to have it rewired. This does not surprise me nor does it make me thrilled to hear such expensive news. Lately, it feels like all the “charm” and “character” of our century-year-old house is repairs of one kind or another (typically those I cannot do myself and have to pay someone to do for me). This means that workers will be in and out of our elephant-colored one-story house. For me, this will feel like an invasion and a daily intrusion into my routine. I like my habits and my solitude. The last part may seem odd since I have a family, but they, mostly, understand my need for solitariness at times.

The poet May Sarton wrote in her book Journal of a Solitude, “I am here alone for the first time in weeks to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange – that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and discover what is happening or has happened.” These are clearly the words of an introvert, of someone who needs solitude to process the narrative of one’s days and one’s very thoughts.

Years ago, when I worked in a bookshop, I came across a small paperback of  Journal of a Solitude and because of its title (naturally) and the black and white photo of seeing inside a window to a lit lamp on a desk with a typewriter, I was hooked and purchased it immediately. Sitting in the backroom, eating my lunch, I began to connect with the words I was reading.

“There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge,” Sarton writes, “and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse. I lose my center. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over my encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.”

Life can become overwhelming and fragmented. Time alone is time to process and make sense and connections of what is happening throughout my day. There are times when I need to go outside, away from everyone and just walk about our backyard.  As I spend time slowly making my way around our large backyard, I pay attention to the bees as they move about the azalea bushes with their large pink blooms or hear the Robins in branches of the magnolia trees. Sometimes I sit on the bench by our fish pond and just watch the large goldfish moving about beneath the water. Or see water skimmers darting about the surface.

I like to sit beneath one of the big oaks, in the shade, feeling the solid earth and the grass beneath me. Leaning back against its solid base, I look up at its magnificent height, its limbs out-reaching to the sky, and think about how long it has probably been in this spot. It is in  just such a spot that I think of Sarton’s poem “The Work of Happiness.”

I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring.
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.
So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone:
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
White curtains softly and continually blown
As the free air moves quietly about the room;
A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall—
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done,
The growing tree is green and musical.
For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life’s span in a single place,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness?
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.
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I close my eyes.

She is right. “The air is charged with a blessing and does bless.”

I can feel the warm Spring sun on my skin. If I’m still enough, the birds come close: be they Robins or Cardinals or Brown Thrashers or Brown-headed Nuthatches. When I speak of life, I speak of this. Of the nature of things. Of the daily, ordinary things.  To find the miracles of how bulbs planted years before still grown and bloom each Spring: offering up their beauty to those who pause to truly enjoy their offerings. Snowdrops, daffodils, windflowers, crocuses . . . Sitting there, I feel connected, I feel life flowing through me. The natural world is a visibly felt presence. It is in such moments that I understand there’s a whole world inside me.

This refills me in a way that being with people can never do. I love conversations, but not small talk. Small talk is exhausting and tiresome. May Sarton puts it this way, “I hate small talk with a passionate hatred. Why? For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation.”

But, for me, a good, rich conversation with someone is nourishing as well. When I am with someone who also intensely curious and inquisitive, who linger on the question, who are present and open than I feel rejuvenated and joyful. “Only connect” E.M. Forster wrote and that’s what really good conversation can foster. Just as a beautiful novel or poem or song can do. It can resonate and reverberate within oneself for days. But to enjoy that conversation, that time with another person, solitude is necessary and needed.

I am someone who needs these life-enhancing moments. These are what at the center of my creativity and my being. In solitude, I become myself – more myself than when I am in social situations or crowded rooms.

When I’m sitting there, in my backyard, I grasp why Sarton writes, “The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of room, not try to be or do anything whatever.”  To be. Not do. In one of my favorite songs, “I Have a Need for Solitude,” Mary Chapin Carpenter sings:

I have a need
For cool, verdant spaces
Beneath the trees
Secret empty places
Nobody knows
So no one will intrude
I have a need
For solitude

Solitude is a place to care for and sustain oneself.

As Rilke tells the young poet, “Love your solitude.” He understood that true creativity comes from having those moments of aloneness (which is not the same thing as loneliness).  Thomas Mann wrote, “Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous – to poetry.”

Moments of solitude are poetry.

I am never wearied when I am silent and still and present. Instead, I thrive.

So find time for yourself. Go out into the backyard or somewhere there is nature. Go into a quiet room when the light is changing. Sit and be silent. Journal. Paint. Write a poem. Good deeply in those moments. They are not empty, wasted hours. They are necessary and valuable and precious. It is a gift to go inward, to know oneself and be oneself.

 

A Solitary Walk

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I cross the small wooden bridge

that reminds me of the one

Pooh and Christopher Robin

play “Poohsticks” from.

I have played this same game

with my own sons,

to see whose stick would pass

the other side first.

It’s all about anticipation

and the delight of a child

crying out, “There’s mine!”

But today I am alone.

I do not stop on the bridge

but go further into the woods.

The water-color light

reminds me of a Constable painting.

I leave the path, to walk amidst wild ferns

and mossy stumps that were once trees.

I walk amidst light and shadows.

Visiting here is like seeing an old friend,

familiar and cherished.

I come here not to reflect,

but to get away from my own thoughts.

I come here to not be trapped in rooms,

including my own mind.

I want to be present and alive

to what I encounter.

The loud string of song

from the blood-red Cardinal.

The sweet series of notes

from the Black-capped Chickadee.

With eyes open

I see a snakeskin shed

and left behind like

forgotten clothes.

I spot the bones

of a small bird,

picked clean

amidst the leaves.

Without distractions,

I pay attention to

fungi and lichen,

pine combs,

the slender thread

of a spider’s web,

as well as the tadpoles

beneath

the water of the pond.

I stop.

A dragonfly hovers

above the surface

like the Spirit.

Nature always reminds

me that the Creator

has interwoven

the extraordinary

within the ordinary

for those willing to notice.

My hands need to feel

the roughness of bark

or

the smoothness of stones.

I feel at peace here.

I am very much

like the Mimosa pudica

that folds its leaves shyly,

defending itself from harm,

just as I retreat to a corner

whenever I am in

a crowded room.

But here I can

open myself

to the world –

the natural world –

for she opens herself

to me,

and I am thankful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In The Hurt Of Holy Week

snowdrops

This year has battered my soul

like the three-spirited God of Donne.

So I come to Holy Week cold

indifferent, and weary.

The hollow hymn unsung by my tongue.

Hosannas and hallelujahs fall on rocky soul

making no purchase in my heart.

I understand not praises or prayers,

save the one made late in a garden

to let this cup pass . . .

or the cry, “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani.”

The silence weighs heavily on my chest.

My knees will not bend,

a protest in resistant kneeling

to a God who is not close (is not there?)

Is this denial? It is doubting?

If so, I wear my doubting like a coat in winter.

Protecting myself against the darkness,

against the possibility that you are our own invention.

Am I rejecting You? Or have you rejected me?

Are you hiding your face or am I closing my eyes?

Either way, I do not see. I do not feel.

In this hour, where the dying light lingers,

I will, again, tonight, be unable to sleep –

caught up once more in my spirit’s wrestling.

One cannot do so and not end up broken.

It is cold and comfortless these questions

and fears. Is this simply misunderstanding?

Are you closer to me now in my distance?

A holy paradox.

The loneliness of Holy Saturday

where death lingered longer

and the disciples huddled fearful,

bewildered, frightened, and uncertain.

I am with them now. I understand this pain,

this fear, this sacred lack.

We are, all of us, looking into that grave

and wondering, in that moment,

if you could not escape it

what lays in store for us?

We have not reached Easter Sunday

but remain baffled and hidden

in our darkened rooms,

questioning: What has this all been for?

So I look, with longing and trepidation,

for a resurrected hope that light will come.

I, who have lived so long in my unbelief belief,

in my constant inconstancy

and the unanswered question,

long to hear you say, “Fear not,

for I am

with you

always.”

But, right now,

I only hear the silence

of another sleepless night.

 

 

 

Grace & Transformation: Babette’s Feast

Babette

For those of the Christian faith, this week is holy week. It began with Palm Sunday and ends with Easter. Maundy Thursday is the day that commemorates Christ celebrating the last supper with his disciples. It may sound strange to some, but a film I love to watch on Maundy Thursday is Babette’s Feast.

Directed by Gabriel Axel, the movie is a gorgeous tale based on the story by Isak Dinesen. The film begins with the narrator telling us, like a storyteller reading us a fable, “In this remote spot there once lived two sisters who were both past the first flush of youth. They had been christened Martina and Philippa after Martin Luther and his friend Philipp Melanchthon. They spent all their time and almost all their small income on good works.”

The remote spot is a small village on the remote coast of Jutland in 19th century Denmark. The two sisters are pious women Martine (named after Martin Luther) and Philippa (named after Luther’s friend Phillip Melanchthon) who equate piety with austerity and without gaiety.  Their father, a pastor over an austere sect, has passed and the two sisters oversee a dying congregation.

Then Babette Hersant, a refugee, shows up on their door with a letter from Achille Papin, recommending her as a housekeeper to the two sisters. Martine and Philippa inform Babette that they cannot afford to pay her, but she offers to work for free. Though a talented chef, Babette fixes their ascetic, abstemious meals without complaint, though improving on them each time. It’s only after she discovers that she has won the lottery (10,000 francs) that Babette tells the sisters that, using her money, she is going to prepare them a lavish French feast.

Most films that deal with such scrumptious feasts, tend to focus on the sexual or sensual pleasures of food (Chocolat or Eat, Drink, Man, Woman). Another film that is similar in tale, is Big Night about two immigrant Italian brothers who are going to have to close their restaurant because Primo, the brother who is the chef, refuses to make “Americanized” Italian dishes. Before closing, they spend their entire savings to have one last big night with their friends to enjoy a deliciously prepared magnificent meal that centers around a timballo.

Big Night and Babette’s Feast  understand what M.F.K. Fisher, one of the preeminent American writers on food, wrote in the Gastronomical Me, “Like most humans, I am hungry…our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…”

Those eating the meals prepared by Babette or Primo taste the love that went into the preparation of the meal. It was more than just mere food to be quickly devoured, but was meant to be savored, tasted, appreciated, delighted in and experienced.

Both Primo and Babette, through their culinary talents are asking, as Isak Dinesen wrote in her story, “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.” Their food is not just a talent or skill, but a gift they are offering up to those who they love.

Christ’s ministry most often took place around a table, sharing a meal, and enjoying the company of those he was with. To break bread with someone, in his culture, was to accept them. Jesus also revealed his love by sharing a last supper with his disciples (his closest friends) on the night before he died. His last act before death and resurrection was to share in a meal. Quoting M.F.K. Fisher again, “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”

This is what I love about the story and the film adaptation of Babette’s Feast, that at the very heart of it is grace. As Dinesen writes in one of my favorite passages from the story:

Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! That which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!

Babette sacrifices of herself, in service, and by giving up her fortune to share in what she loves most (preparing French cuisine) for the two sisters who took her in. From her sacrifice comes transformation (in both the sisters and those who partake in the feast itself). There is forgiveness, reconciliation and love. Feasting in Babette’s Feast is more than mere pleasure, it is an act of spiritual joy. It is how I imagine all the meals that Christ shared with others to be.

This feast requires one to be present: in all of one’s senses. To see the beauty and the effort required to make this sumptuous meal, but also to enjoy the tastes and textures: the spices, the sautees, the sauces the fragrance, and the colors which counteract the dull blacks and grays that have been throughout most of the film. Grace is not bleak or dreary but is a delight, shared laughter and conversation, appreciation and gratitude and gratefulness.

Like the meals Christ shared, Babette’s meal is a form of connection and community. To quote from Dinesen’s story, “Our longing is our pledge, and blessed are the homesick, for they shall come home.” Babette has not returned to France, but she has returned to the food she grew up with and loves deeply. She is offering her food as a way of offering herself, her home to these sisters, the congregation, and to people from their past. Just as Jesus said, “This is my body, broken for you.”

This is a feast for both body and soul.

Cooking, in the hands of Babette, is a holy ritual. She is making a new creation out of the ingredients she is working with. She is raising simple elements into dishes that are sophisticated, transcendent and artistic in no less a manner than the artisans did in building the Temple.  Babette’s feast is a reminder of Israel with all of its feast days and rituals.

In the film, the character of General Lorenz Lowenheilm says, “Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”

The story itself is born out of Dinesen’s own life. After the suicide of her father, her grandmother and her aunts came to take care of the family. As a ten-year-old girl, who was close to her father, she watched as women loved and tended to each other. She drew on this experience in writing Babette’s Feast. 

Martine and Philippa, after the meal, discover that Babette is surrounded by all of the dirty dishes. The two sisters than her for the meal and Babette informs them that she had been a chef in a famous French restaurant in Paris. They ask if she plans to return now that she has the money to. “No,” she informs them, “the people who would appreciate my talents are now gone from Paris. I have no desire to return.” Then she lets them know that she spent all of her money on this meal. Overcome by hearing this, the two sisters are filled with compassion and embrace her. When they express sadness as her poverty, Babette replies, “An artist is never poor.” Philippa assures her that her art is not lost for in paradise she will be all that God has meant her to be.

Babette’s feast conjures up a spiritual sense of shalom (or wholeness or well-being). The meal was more than mere transaction, but the transformation that leads to forgiveness and reconciliation among people whose pasts had kept them from such healing.  This is not about consumption but about creation and how creation is, ultimately, an act of renewal. Like Christ, Babette’s feast is a sacrificial act meant to bring about this grace and mercy, of letting go of past sins and grudges.

Is this not a beautiful reflection of the Eucharist table?

That is why re-watching Babette’s Feast has become a tradition for me every Maunday Thursday. Like communion, it is done in remembrance of Christ.

Babette's Feast