When I don’t write, I scare myself by thinking I’ve forgotten how. Like the first day in a new season back on a bicycle, or snow skis.
I know they say it’s simple, like riding a bicycle – you never forget. But I forget that when I simply take my favourite fine black ink pen to write on simple white lined paper, words, which have been patiently waiting for me, arrive.
Sure, they might need some dusting off, some spit and polish.
But words, carrying and conveying feelings and emotions, images and impressions, questions and doubts, come tumbling out
often in a coherence that startles me revealing a wisdom reminding me I am paying attention even when I think I’ve forgotten how.
your voice the companion to my otherwise silent walks reciting others’ poems in my ears offering interpretation and invitation into new contexts, meanings, shapes, and forms
I’d thought that glorious enough until I heard your voice recite your words interpret and invite me into hearing anew holy scripture and story
your poems a clarion call to love and justice to curiosity and compassion to wondering as I walk who am I and how am I complicit in empire’s delusion?
Naomi Shihab Nye
hearing her disembodied voice coming to you across the plaza in Columbia telling you of kindness and its peculiar kin you take the only possessions you have left – save the clothing on your back – and with pen and notebook alone take dictation, writing words that become iconic for their naked, known truth
too, in Albuquerque’s airport you hear her call and with your broken Arabic and wide-open heart you tend to the distressed grandmother both of you delayed at the gate soon a party breaks out as Arabic cookies and American juice boxes are shared community made among women dusted for those hours of waiting in something far sweeter than powdered sugar
something my heart yearns for with every poem of yours I read
This is my third and final set of poems written as tribute to poets for National Poetry Month. I “met” Pádraig Ó Tuama last spring walking with Annie and listening to him host the podcast, Poetry Unbound. Becoming a fan, I discovered he was Poet-in-Residence at NYC’s Church of the Heavenly Rest, leading virtual workshops on contemporary interpretation of scripture, guided by his work in social justice and conflict mediation in Ireland. Naomi Shihab Nye came to my attention with her wondrous poem of tending and befriending at the Albuquerque Airport, Gate A-4. Her work often sheds light on the plight of refugees, immigration, cultural conflict, and belonging. Both poets incisively invite me into deepening consciousness of my privilege, complicity, and commitments.
you were the first poet whose words I memorized your famous question becoming my mantra my north star for realizing mine was a life wild and precious and worthy of planning
you said you got saved by poetry and the beauty of the world that in your later years Rumi became your daily companion bringing refinement to – what in my eyes are – your already perfect observations your morning walks with pencil and notebook pausing to notice and note, your practice rendering with words the details of God’s creation, your gift amazement, your holy vow
bentlily (Samantha Reynolds)
yours are words that fit exactly the shape of holes in wounded hearts you write one a day – pithy, poignant, piercing – about your life’s everyday moments about your husband, children, friends, and jeans sometimes less than twenty lines, barely more than twenty words those are the ones that take my breath away urge me to winnow mine to essence to notice well and choose what to let be
Today, two more poems to two more poets whose words instruct me in the art of noticing life, and in so doing, make sacred the mundane. Mary Oliver needs no introduction. Vancouver’s Samantha Reynolds, writing under the pen name “bentlily”, began writing a poem a day ten years ago “to find more joy in the tedious rhythm of life as a new mother.” It’s a practice she maintains to this day, delighting us who receive her weekly collection in our inboxes.
eight hundred years ago words tumbled from your mouth as you whirled in ecstasy caught by the quill of your scribe creating images read the world over in a future unforeseen a reed burned hollow yearning for your breath a ground knelt upon and kissed in hundreds of ways a house guest greeted warmly as holy visitor
your own blazing love and searching, afire with your Beloved’s glory now the flame that lights now the song that dances me home
Christine Valters Paintner
a modern monk moored in a Celtic landscape contemplation and creativity your stock in trade prayer and painting poetry and dance song and silence evoked by your Benedictine vows and wide awake discerning eyes where illness and grief have polished smooth the cave of your heart making space for the shimmering of earth, wind, sea, and sky and the wisdom of ancients and ancestors to tell their stories and shape your words into offerings for a holy communion
As April is National Poetry Month, in appreciation and celebration, I have written a poem to each of six poets whose words, for me, inspire, instruct, and illuminate. This week, through the lens of sacred inspiration, I write to Rumi, the founder of the Whirling Dervish community of Sufism and author of several of its sacred texts, and to Christine Valters Painter, poet and abbess of the Abbey of the Arts, a global online meeting space for contemplation and creative expression. In the past year, I’ve participated in several of the Abbey’s retreats and shared here impressions and impacts of their numerous prompts and invitations.
This supper a somber affair. The feast of Passover always is, but tonight is more so.
A foreboding hangs in the air, though it appears only the man they call Jesus knows its source. The other men, twelve in total, follow their master’s lead, talking quietly among themselves, unsure of what is unfolding.
I am the unleavened bread made special to order for this gathering. My flavor is bland but when I am broken and dipped into the finest quality olive oil, I come alive in the mouths of those who chew me. I fill their stomachs with a hefty goodness.
Now I hear the man they call Jesus say I am his body. What does this mean?
Now I absorb my cousin, the heavy, dark red wine that each man sips, as the same man says, it is his blood. What does this mean?
Together, I and my cousin, the fruit of the vine made wine, are proclaimed the body and blood of this man. I know not how this is so. But I do know that as each man slowly chews me, and reverently sips my cousin, savors us together with this man’s words, we warm their bodies as we nourish and enliven them.
Now, we are part of them and what is to come.
Now we, in each of their bodies, travel to the Mount of Olives, the home of our friend, the olive oil.
Now, I sit heavy like a stone in their stomachs as they hear their master tell them they will fall away from him. I feel their stomachs clench around me.
One man, emboldened by that inner alchemy between me and my cousin, steps close to his master and passionately declares his love and commitment.
Now, this same man, resisting the bile rising in his gullet from us as we sour in his belly, the reaction to being told he will soon deny his master three times, more passionately denies this.
Soon, for some, our life giving to be denied, too.
– KW –
An experiment in Midrash, the ancient Jewish practice of re-imagining sacred text, I wrote this piece during my participation last spring in the Abbey of the Arts “Soul of a Pilgrim” online retreat. As weekly my photo and poem feature, I’m posting this a day early, in acknowledgement of the Last Supper, commemorated in the Christian tradition on Maundy Thursday.
“Must be brain freeze,” I just tapped out to a friend, as I’m late again for this week’s post.
It. Is. Cold. An Arctic vortex has descended upon the prairies. Years ago, I recall my city’s well-loved and highly respected meteorologist calling it “the dreaded of all meteorological phenomena: the Siberian High.” Sunshine and signature Alberta blue skies, but with wind blowing steady, take those already frigid temperatures well below zero – centigrade or Fahrenheit – and drop them at least another ten, dangerous degrees. Since the weekend, weather apps have shown red banners and yellow exclamation points and maps show red across the entire province.
But last Thursday, in advance of its arrival, we waxed up the skies and went out to our local provincial park, Blackfoot-Waskahegan, for some easy-going cross-country skiing. As it had been several years since I’d been on the trails, we took a practice run the week before in the new-this-year tracks set on the golf course. Quiet except for the scratch of the skies on snow, my breathing, the squawking and chirping magpies and chickadees, it was heaven sent, though for now, on pause.
Sunday, dressed warmly in a fleece lined wool toque, down parka, gortex snow pants, shearling boots and new “extreme cold” Hesta mitts, I met many folks on the paths, similarly bundled, each enjoying our daily walks in the sunshine. An hour later, the mitts standing up to their reputation, my hands were sweating. The wind blew in that evening, and now even Annie, ever ready to brave the elements – except rain – is less than enthusiastic to be outside. She’s conceded to wearing her boots again with her stylish coat, and we manage a walk around the block. But she didn’t hesitate or pull the other way when I turned down the street headed home. Yesterday after sending her indoors, I took on clearing the sidewalk and driveway of hard packed snow. Got nearly 10,000 steps with it all. That sunshine is a powerful draw. But right this moment, in a day just beginning to clear, she’s napping on her cushion by the space heater as I write.
A year ago today, we were making our way to Sevilla for a winter sojourn in Andalusia. Right about now we were napping in a cozy sleep pod at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Later in the afternoon, we’d catch our flight to Sevilla, check into our hotel, and enjoy our first of many “al fresco” Spanish tapas. Smoky olives, sweet red vermut on ice, grilled octopus.
Ahhhh memory. “The power to gather roses in Winter.”
During the next few weeks, to mark the occasion I’ll mix an Americano cocktail (first enjoyed during my first visit to Andalusia in 2017) with a slice of orange (not Sevillian, too bitter), chew on Spanish olives, and “gather roses” as I wander across the pages of my journal and photo book from last year’s last trip before the pandemic.
And now, after finishing this post, I’ll check to see if a walk is doable. And then, inspired by returning to reading Melanie Falick’s beautiful story of hand makers and DIYers, Making a Life, I’ll continue embellishing the sweater I knitted a few years back. Worked from a pattern I’d rejigged, with very fine lacy yarn – a silk mohair blend – it’s rife with mis-takes and mis-stitches, too big, and too disappointing after numerous tear-outs and restarts. After taking it out from hiding a few months ago, glancing at it every now and then, holding lightly what and how to proceed, last night I took needle and thread and using a running straight stitch, took in the sides and arms in an exposed French seam. I roll hemmed the entire sweater, again using a straight stitch, letting it show. Then, with a skein of similarly spun yarn from a sweater my mother made for me years ago, I’m running it though those uneven ladders to bring in texture and colour. A true “wabi sabi” creation, using what’s imperfect with what’s on hand, to make beautiful.
Like the little water colour I did while attending a conference last Saturday on Medieval Pilgrimages. Bored with the academic posturing and paper reading, and needing distraction to sort and discern what was of value for me, I adhered to the principles of intuitive painting – no premeditation, design, or meaning – and simply worked with colour and stroke. And then, almost as an afterthought, used a fine black pen to outline the shapes that emerged. Delightful, colourful, nonsensical.
“Ways to trust one’s own wisdom to bless the imperfections to see and make apparent the inherent beauty to smell crimson roses even in Winter when her blizzards blow and blind.”
Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet. You must depend upon affection, reading, knowledge, skill — more of each than you have — inspiration, work, growing older, patience, for patience joins time to eternity. Any readers who like your work, doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath the unconditioned air. Shun electric wire. Communicate slowly. Live a three-dimensioned life; stay away from screens. Stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in. There are no unsacred places; There are only sacred places And desecrated places.
In reflection to a prompt from last week’s theme in Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist – “Creative Work as Vocation and Holy Service” – a powerful memory was evoked of a group activity of deep listening and sensing into space and collective. Thirty or so of us standing in a room led by a famous percussionist were invited to make a brief improv musical composition using only six sounds, one of each assigned to each of us, to be used only once. Like the maestro, he signaled the start and as I listened, waiting for when to make my contribution with my sound, it became apparent that staying silent was most needed for the coherence of the emerging melody.
“Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”
Mary Oliver, The Messenger
Over the years, calling back that visceral experience has always been a profound, astonishing even, lesson of the discernment and value of silence, stillness and spaciousness in works that matter.
Last week that memory gave me a fresh way into understanding my place right now. The waxing and waning between finally feeling – after several fallow and lost months of grieving my sudden, unexpected arrival at “retirement” – for the first time in my life, a deep contentment with not working, AND, too, missing the ways in which I had worked, been of service, made a living. Missing the known and felt meaning and value I gave and received for my work. Such missing occasionally “stings” as my circle of women friends are still so employed or creating their “encore” careers.
“Our daily work may rise out of our true calling in the world, or it may just pay the bills; either way, we each have a vocation. We each were given certain gifts to offer in service to others. Our calling is deeply connected to our creativity. The truths we long to express in the world and the way we feel moved to give form to beauty are signs of the Spirit at work in us. Vocation is a daily invitation to be fully who we are and to allow our lives to unfold in ways that are organic to this deepest identity.”
Christine Valters Paintner, The Artist’s Rule, 2011
So how, now in my autumn years, will this unfamiliar “non work” become my “love made visible” in counter-cultural, less obvious, silent, still and spacious ways? How, as I find myself living a long-held dream of having expanses of time and space, unfettered by plans and obligation (thanks in part to the pandemic), may creativity emerge as vocation, take form as holy service? How do I learn to be astonished?
A cursory inventory:
Shifting my perspective to give value to home care, meal preparation, dog walking as my labors of love.
Trusting that the beauty I notice and express, via written word and photograph – in my blog, on social media, in my practice of hand writing note cards sent to friends – are an offering of my life as poem and prayer.
Remembering my meditation and prayer, a lit candle, and passing thought for another, known or unknown, are silent weavings for healing and community.
Giving space for my holy grief, holy gratitude and holy love creates space for others to do so.
Sitting with the questions of my heart, in the tension of knowing a greater plan is at work, revealed only – word by word, brush stroke by brush stroke, action by action – in the ordinary living into each day.
Learning to “move at the pace of guidance,” heeding the wisdom of energies seen and unseen.
“We make what we make, we give a gift, not only through what we make or do, but in the way we feel as we do, and even, in the way others witness us in our feeling and doing, giving to them as they give to us…a work and an identity that holds both together, not only for an end, but for every step that shapes an onward way.”
“Keep it simple, keep it kind” to grease and ease passage through resistance into the Dance of Sacred Yes and Sacred No. Known and named resistance for one so facile with words – spoken and written – knows Body Knows and will slipstream with Her own Wisdom, shape shift to Truth.
“By the sacred yes or the sacred no I mean that affirmation or negation that comes from a deep place of wisdom and courage, even if it creates conflict or disagreement. The sacred yes is not willful or egocentric, but rather is willing and surrendered. The sacred no is not rebellion or refusal, but always the necessary protecting of boundaries.”
Richard Rohr, in The Artist’s Rule by Christine Valters Paintner
The Deal struck – leave words and utterances behind for Body in its silence to teach, with music of shaman’s dream to guide.
Kneel before the altar. Candle lit. Head bowed. Stilling, silencing, falling into the cave of the heart. Listening to a beat older than time. Imaginal images flutter through time and space.
SACRED YES sees ancient Sun Dancer, pierced with deer cord bound to Tree in Life Hoop’s center. Face to the sun, sweat and blood streaming. Is this not a Sacred Dance to the Sacred Yes of Life? Elephant Matriarch swinging her massive head and trunk, warning all to beware as she guides her family through danger. Arms suspended as Seaweed floating on the ocean’s surf. Then outstretched seeking surfer’s balance as he rides the Wave. Now bald Eagle silently soaring, high wide view of land and sky. Hold hair tight like Kali, Durga. Bounce and bound like Ape. Silent belly rumble and laugh. Inhale deep. Exhale deeper like bellows. Not a word. Not a sound. Felt Sense Flashes. All a truer expression of that commitment to Life through its ages, when all Bodies knew. Then rest, dream of YES, slip into Dream Time to bring it through, to be it, to be with it. No words needed. Body knows. Space surrounding Body holds vibration and emanation of this Dance to SACRED YES.
SACRED NO awakens to Tibetan bells. Flowing gentle melody instantly illumines Sacred No is always in service of Sacred Yes. In obedience bows to Life. Bending forward to purge the false yes, compliance, making small, resentments and envies – all taken as truth those lifetimes of lies. Rising up, strengthen arms and legs, back and front, shake head free of delusion, break free of an invisible bondage as concrete eggshell shatters. Drum beat evokes fierce warrior. Strike and chop and kick and stomp. Claim and proclaim. Power and empower. Swoon with sudden sick feeling as Ego slips in guised to taint and turn the Sacred against itself. BIG MEDICINE here. Stand still. Is not standing still on one’s ground like Mountain the Sacred Dance of the Sacred No? Then sway and soften into Life, like Tree who knows to withstand Storm he must give and bend. Be fluid, fluent like River flows. Dance SACRED NO as betrothed partner to SACRED YES. Shape shift through Ego’s seduction. Discern the step. Quiet presence, fierce with fight. When to be loud with silence, soft with strength.
“A thousand half-loves must be surrendered to take a whole heart home.”
For the past couple of months I’ve been participating in another Abbey of the Arts online program. “Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist,” a thirteen-week study into the archetypes of contemplative and creative – two of my deep affinities – was another of those intentional activities undertaken to flourish during these darkening, distanced days. Again, each week corresponds to a book chapter, this time, The Artist’s Rule, authored by abbess-host Christine Valters Paintner.
Too, each week follows a similar agenda. Monday is a live video session with a couple of hundred of us tuning in globally as Christine welcomes us into the week’s theme, guides us in meditative reflection and journaling, gives the week’s overview and invitations for creative process, and answers questions. Tuesday features a scriptural interpretation by Christine’s husband and theology teacher, John. Wednesday is devoted to the sacred practice of Lectio Divina, listening with the “ears of the heart” to a scripture or poem, pondering on a word or phrase that “shimmers.” Thursday and Friday are for creative expression via writing and or art making. Saturday for closing reflections and “catch up”; and Sunday for rest and integration – what I like to think of as the yogi’s savasana. Throughout we’re invited to share our reflections and comment to each other, with the proviso that no advice be given. Instead it’s the application throughout of what “shimmers.”
Last week – our seventh and midpoint – focused on “Inner Hospitality and Welcoming the Stranger.” Scripture, Rumi’s poem “The Guest House,” and Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness” were frames for supporting the encounter with our inner strangers.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
I’m struck how often synchronicity is at play, with the “unexpected” appearance of a poem, a podcast, a picture that deepens, resonates or brings a touch of humor. This favourite appeared on Facebook a few days before the week’s scripture:
Thursday’s creative expression was an exercise to get in touch with our inner strangers via “gush” painting. I welcomed this as an invitation to return to a practice I had left several years ago. I painted according to my teacher, Michele Cassou, and her intuitive process painting outlined in Life, Paint, and Passion: Reclaiming the Magic of Spontaneity.
I’ve written in other blogs about my experimentation in this process, but shared last week in the course, the “back story” of having bought Michele’s book for $2.00 where it sat on my shelf for a few years. That one summer, re-intrigued by the cover, I read it in one sitting. Mesmerized by the paintings, and knowing in my core she was writing truth, and that being sprinkled with Rumi, what was not to love? That I immediately searched online for a class and remarkably discovered there was a retreat being held in – of all places – an obscure little town where we lived before moving to Alberta. It took a few years before the stars and my schedule aligned, but I went for a week, for three consecutive years, to have the requisite hours to go to Taos, NM during my sabbatical year and study at Michele’s master class, where upon my return home, I hosted painting weekends – a life saver for me and those many who attended, mostly women from work – each of us coping with the dismantling of our department and huge work stress-uncertainties.
Too, I shared that consistent with the “gush” practice, and how I entered into this activity, it’s never about product, but about process: attempting to paint spontaneously, allowing the colour and image to come to guide, without meaning or interpretation, without choosing, but following that often, nearly mute impulse. Typically, not shared, as like pages from a journal, paintings often reveal truths and vulnerabilities that others, upon reading or seeing, or our own critical selves, might judge, and then frighten and subsequently inhibit ourselves from expressing. So, too, when a painting is acclaimed, perhaps even a more insidious trap.
Given it had been a few years since I’d last painted in this way, so long that my tempera paints had dried, I took a “practice run”…just to get back into feeling the brush on the paper, my body into gesture, my head out of the way.
A second painting emerged, attracted to colours and a style that have always evoked creativity, life, vitality, desire, the ooze of life and inner fire.
“This is your body, your greatest gift, pregnant with wisdom you do not hear, grief you thought was forgotten, and joy you have never known.”
Marion Woodman, Coming Home to Myself, 1998
The third felt the most unexpected, unbidden, honest. A self portrait. Evoked perhaps from the poem I’d shared earlier in the week describing the impact of getting Bells Palsy in 2013.
“We have lived our lives behind a mask. Sooner or later – if we are lucky – the mask will be smashed.”
Marion Woodman, Coming Home to Myself, 1998
A powerful depiction of the often felt, though less obvious to the outside world – unless I’m stressed or tired – lingering effects: the loss of facial symmetry, the odd tingly sensations and itchiness especially around my nose and cheek, my mouth that droops, my eye that dries or tears up. Not chewing as well, nor singing because of the loss of strength in my palate. Even speaking can be challenging some days. A shyness that developed, though perhaps it allowed for a truer introverted aspect of self to emerge. It certainly broke open my life –shattering the mask that paradoxically invited in a truer relationship to self, in my marriage and in my life. With a daily felt and seen reminder of how lucky I am.
And, in another stroke of lovely synchronicity, this, from the Vancouver poet, bentlily, appeared on Facebook, hours after painting:
“When I start to feel nervous about letting my creativity run free, it’s always because I am afraid of what people will think of what I create. And yet wanting the world to love what you make is not the problem. It’s natural (and financially, it’s very reasonable!). The problem is when I start thinking more about “you” than I do about me…But I still have to trust that if I write my poems for me, you will come. Because if I am too preoccupied with how and what to write for you, eventually, no poems will come at all because I will have lost the “me.”
bentlily by Samantha Reynolds, Facebook, October 23, 2020
Here’s to creativity off leash. Wild and messy and free.