“Make of yourself a light” said the Buddha, before he died. I think of this every morning as the east begins to tear off its many clouds of darkness, to send up the first signal — a white fan streaked with pink and violet, even green. An old man, he lay down between two sala trees, and he might have said anything, knowing it was his final hour. The light burns upward, it thickens and settles over the fields. Around him, the villagers gathered and stretched forward to listen. Even before the sun itself hangs, disattached, in the blue air, I am touched every whereby its ocean of yellow waves. No doubt he thought of everything that had happened in his difficult life. And then I feel the sun itself as it blazes over the hills, like a million flowers on fire — clearly I’m not needed, yet I feel myself turning into something of inexplicable value. Slowly, beneath the branches, he raised his head. He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.
– Mary Oliver –
From poet-theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, I learned different ways to read and hear a poem. This one below, a re-created, very abridged version from Mary Oliver’s above offering, using the last word of every line. A poem becomes a poem.
light Buddha died morning begins clouds first fan violet green down trees anything hour upward fields gathered listen itself air every waves everything life itself hills fire needed turning value branches head crowd
Pray to whomever you kneel down to: Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross, his suffering face bent to kiss you, Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat, Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary that she may lay her palm on our brows, to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth, to Inanna in her stripped descent.
Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work. On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus, for everyone riding buses all over the world. Drop some silver and pray.
Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM, for your latte and croissant, offer your plea. Make your eating and drinking a supplication. Make your slicing of carrots a holy act, each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.
To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray. Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats. Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.
Make the brushing of your hair a prayer, every strand its own voice, singing in the choir on your head. As you wash your face, the water slipping through your fingers, a prayer: Water, softest thing on earth, gentleness that wears away rock.
Making love, of course, is already prayer. Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin, the fragile cases we are poured into.
If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired. Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day. Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth. When you walk to your car, to the mailbox, to the video store, let each step be a prayer that we all keep our legs, that we do not blow off anyone else’s legs. Or crush their skulls. And if you are riding on a bicycle or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves: less harm, less harm, less harm.
And as you work, typing with a new manicure, a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail, or delivering soda or drawing good blood into rubber-capped vials, twirling pizzas–
With each breath in, take in the faith of those who have believed when belief seemed foolish, who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.
Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace, feed the birds, each shiny seed that spills onto the earth, another second of peace. Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.
Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk. Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child around your Visa card. Scoop your holy water from the gutter. Gnaw your crust. Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling your prayer through the streets.
– Ellen Bass –
This poem prayer was posted this week on social media, I suppose in response to the current re-ignition of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Today, I read that a ceasefire has been called. May we see peace, bring peace, pray for peace, make peace, and be peace.
Terry Tempest Williams, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, in Abbey of the Arts, “Give Me a Word for 2021”
NATURE. My word for 2021. Again, not so much chosen as received through the twelve-day process of deep listening and discerning hosted by the Abbey of the Arts. If this word – NATURE – has even a portion of prescient relevancy as last year’s word – HOME – I’ll become converted to this as an annual process.
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, And next year’s words await another voice.”
T. S. Eliot in Abbey of the Arts, “Give Me a Word for 2021”
By registering and dedicating time to the daily lessons, I crossed a threshold into that liminal, imaginary space where symbols and signs, whispers and words, prayers and dreams have potential to bear fruit for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
“A door opens in the center of our being and we seem to fall through it into the immense depths which, although they are infinite, are all accessible to us.”
Thomas Merton in Abbey of the Arts, “Give Me a Word for 2021”
In an early lesson derived from the practice of Lectio Divina, I reviewed last year (yes, that year!) as a form of sacred text over which to meditate and select an image or event that “shimmered.” Without question it was my time outdoors – whether in urban nature by the river, suburban treks through the golf course, sitting in my treed back yard, walking through villages and cities in Andalusia, or getting lost on the Lost Lake trail in my provincial park – that inspired, soothed, challenged, settled.
Another day’s lesson of taking a contemplative walk has become so much a part of my daily routine during these many months of pandemic life, satisfying both Annie’s and my need for fresh air and movement and giving reassurance there is life beyond our house, that it simply confirmed my knowing of Nature’s promise and powers.
Still, to stay open and not prematurely settled, I noticed my dreams as per another day’s lesson, and when consulting a soul friend was prescribed, that day I just happened to open the “year in review” e-letter from beloved friends – they whose practical life wisdom and deep reverence for Nature serve as meaningful mentoring – and read their closing words which echoed and amplified my knowing:
“May the bigness and mysteries of Nature carry our hearts through all concerns. Let us trust the stones, the waters, the trees, the fungi. Let us befriend the birds, the fishes, the animals, the plants. Let us befriend one another.”
Allowing the word time to “ripen” by holding it gently while still wondering what else; illustrating the word visually through phone photos that caught my attention as we walked the snow-covered park paths; and committing to a “word rooted” practice, which for me is simply a re-commitment to heed Annie’s after lunch nudge, I feel settled that this word has come this year for me.
Writing a poem was the final day’s lesson. Today, my haiku in tribute took form:
This new year my word. NATURE, my holy Teacher, Healer, Guide, and Friend.
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.”
This blessing keeps nothing for itself. You can find it by following the path of what it has let go, of what it has learned it can live without.
Say this blessing out loud a few times and you will hear the hollow places within it, how it echoes in a way that gives your voice back to you as if you had never heard it before.
Yet this blessing would not be mistaken for any other, as if, in its emptying, it had lost what makes it most itself.
It simply desires to have room enough to welcome what comes.
Today, it’s you.
So come and sit in this place made holy by its hollows. You think you have too much to do, too little time, too great a weight of responsibility that none but you can carry.
I tell you, lay it down. Just for a moment, if that’s what you can manage at first. Five minutes. Lift up your voice— in laughter, in weeping, it does not matter— and let it ring against these spacious walls.
Do this until you can hear the spaces within your own breathing. Do this until you can feel the hollow in your heart where something is letting go, where something is making way.
– Jan Richardson – Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
I’m standing on the cusp of the seasons, now dressed for winter when I walk Annie. Gloves need to be swapped out for mittens, trail runners for Blundstones. Tomorrow, we’ll go shopping for a new winter coat for Annie, as I think with age, we’re both feeling the cold more. Today there’s a skiff of snow on roofs and yards, the shallow pond froze last night, and during yesterday morning’s river valley walk, the shoreline was edged with ice. Yet, still the red, golden green and light brown falling leaves.
This autumn, one particularly resplendent in colour and warmth with sunshine most every day, I felt the invitation to “see” what was on display and unfolding while Annie and I walked. She, ever patient, and I, and with my early generation, single lens phone camera in hand, stopped in front of a red amur maple, reminiscent of my Niagara youth. Glowing, almost vibrating vermillion, I was awestruck and until now, never thought my phone could capture what I was seeing. It was the beginning.
“I take my camera out into the world, and it invites me to slow down and linger over these moments of beauty. It opens me to wonder and delight.”
Christine Valters Paintner, Eyes of the Heart, 2013
Then it was the roses, full blown blossoms and buds, still. And the sweet peas – always an irony for me with an April birthday, and them the designated flower.
The dandelion, harbinger of spring, peeking among the dried leaves. The golden ash against our signature blue sky. Ruby globes of crabapple, sun-kissed cherries, orange mountain ash berries.
Sunflower sentinels bordering a walkway. And the skies.
One day the clouds had me spellbound. Later that day, after I’d shared their magnificence on Facebook, friends said they, too, had noticed and appreciated I’d stopped to notice, to press, to share. Another day, later in the season, I was smitten by treetops in their yonder backdrops.
And throughout, always that amur maple marking autumn’s reign.
“…this is one of the wonders of photography: to be able to frame a moment in time and, within my gaze and absolute presence in that particular moment, to discover holiness. In that single moment, I am reminded that all moments are holy.”
Christine Valters Paintner, Eyes of the Heart, 2013
Framing these moments during our neighborhood walks has easily transferred into chronicling my weekly trek in the river valley. The “Camino de Edmonton,” a thirteen-week staged event to correspond in distance to a final leg of the Camino de Santiago, finds twenty or so hardy souls meeting every Saturday at various rendezvous points in the city for an 8:00 am start. There, I bring my Lumix “point and shoot” hung around my neck, tucked securely into the hip belt of my Deuter pack.
“the graced eye can glimpse beauty everywhere, seeing the divine at work in the hidden depths of things. It is so easy to let our senses be dulled and to settle for the ordinary.”
Christine Valters Paintner, Eyes of the Heart, 2013
Most often walking alone, safely distanced, I settle into my pace and breath, letting my gaze soften, slowing to see with eyes of the heart onto what is asking to be seen. Again, vistas full to bursting with autumn’s abundance. Yet, at the same time, growing more visible with every week, the giving way to emptying, the baring, the decaying and the dying that is winter.
“We don’t have to go out and try to take ‘beautiful’ photos. We simply need to pay attention and foster a different kind of seeing.”
Christine Valters Paintner, Eyes of the Heart, 2013
And accept the invitation to see what’s asking to be seen.
Give up the world; give up self; finally, give up God. Find god in rhododendrons and rocks, passers-by, your cat. Pare your beliefs, your absolutes. Make it simple; make it clean. No carry-on luggage allowed. Examine all you have with a loving and critical eye, then throw away some more. Repeat. Repeat. Keep this and only this: what your heart beats loudly for what feels heavy and full in your gut. There will only be one or two things you will keep, and they will fit lightly in your pocket.
– Sheri Hostetler – (A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry)
“Praying. It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”
I pray. Not so often in that formal, elaborate, church going way. But when I think of Anne Lamott’s two best prayers, “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I’m devout.
Too, when I sit during my favourite time of day, in the still and quiet morning, before sunrise – which comes earlier now – and look out onto the trees, now still full of leaves, but soon, soon, bare limbed and yes, snow covered. Or when I’m beside Annie on “her” sofa, my hand resting on her head, her front paw resting on my arm. Those count too, I think.
I’ve written about more consciously living my life as prayer since the pandemic, one of its gifts. Though when I posted about getting lost during my medicine walk, how I’d managed to manifest into the 3D physical, my interior lostness, I now admit to having felt shy to say that I’d prayed as I’d been taught, it being part of the preparation for a medicine walk and fasting quest. To offer thanks, to ask for guidance and protection at the threshold between one’s urban, more mundane life and the wilder, nature bound, sacred space beyond. Anne Lamott’s “thank you, help me” kind of prayer. And I chanted on the trail for hundreds of steps, the Buddhist mantra “om mani padme hum,” to keep myself company, and let anyone out there, hidden in the woods, know I was around. My vocal version of a bear bell.
Truth be told, I absolutely believe those prayers helped me get found, safe and sound. Helped me avoid any wildlife encounters beyond bird song, dragonflies, and scat. Like when I realized I’d lost the diamond stud earring, a cherished gift from my husband, and prayed for its return. Three days later, after retracing all my steps and stops, I took a chance to revisit the gym where I’d played pickleball. Earlier when I’d called to ask if it had been found, I’d been told they’d taken down the nets, swept the floors, and installed equipment and inflatables for children coming to play during spring break, but I persisted. Walking carefully, head bent, l traced the room’s periphery, breaking the rule to cross beyond the “stay away” sign to where the inflatable was plugged in. There it was, on the floor, inches away from the socket. How it had not been spotted by anyone plugging in and pulling out that cord for several days, was my answered prayer. Admittedly trivial in the scheme of life, with its tragedy, so much going seemingly from bad to worse every day, especially this year, but for me a vivid, visceral reminder.
When I somewhat sheepishly shared my lost on the Lost Lake trail story with my friends who had served as my quest guides last year, they said that what shone through was my recognition of prayer and its power. That yes, I had been held safe by an ancient benevolent wisdom found in nature. That I had surrendered to it when I knew I didn’t have the balance to cross the fallen tree across the “how deep” stream. Had I, I would have become even further astray. That I had remembered a line of poetry to tell me to stand still in the forest when I knew I was lost. That I had a phone and service. That I’d taken the map with emergency contact numbers. That the warden was back from vacation just that very day. That she was in that particular park, given her area of responsibility is all the public spaces spanning hundreds of kilometres to the west. That she could come and get me with her truck. That I hadn’t been stalked by the coyotes that had stalked another woman and her dogs on the same trail. That the sun shone and breeze blew comfortably. That the shots I heard fired by hunters were well beyond into another neck of the woods. That I had water, food, and time. Yes, I had prepared, and yes, I had been heard.
In that same conversation, we talked about the world, about their country, its upcoming presidential election, the pandemic impacts of COVID-19 and racism. It was before the forest fires burned into three states, leaving death and destruction, orange skies and zero visibility in their wake. I shared feeling that tension of wanting to do something to help and not knowing what. I emailed to them the next day:
… I realized I have felt “spellbound” by thinking I must do something, and not knowing what TO DO. But knowing, I do know how to pray.
Many times it seems my thinking is foggy and lazy, that it isn’t “cogent” or coherent, that I can’t put together a compelling argument of defense. And then it came to me, this is the feminine way – to feel my way through a depth of complexity that is dark and foggy, that isn’t necessarily, yet, cogent nor coherent.
You wrote to me, gifted me, once with the invocation that I recognize with increasing vividness that I know what I know, that find myself less and less inclined to self-doubt, meekness and hesitation.
So, yes, I know the power of prayer.
I know too, the making of beauty.
Let the beauty that you love be what you do.
I know the power of prayer and the making of beauty are my offerings for social action, for social change.
It’s been a good two months living in this history making Covid-19 time. Socially distanced. Compassionately retreated. Many of us are baking bread, Marie Kondo-ing our homes, cleaning our yards, walking, taking photos or organizing those we took, ordering take-out, reading, streaming movies, watching YouTube travel videos, zooming meetings, face-timing our family and friends.
We adapt. It’s one of our long and strong suits.
On the surface, life in and around our home is pretty much the same as it ever was. Quiet, with few interruptions except for a parcel delivery, and Annie “guard dogging” with her barks whenever anyone walks by, or rings the doorbell. Funny thing, she doesn’t differentiate if it’s the same person walking by. A neighbor has taken to walking circuits around the green space in our cul de sac. Every five minutes or so, there he goes past our house, and there she goes. We could set a timer with her barking.
And yet, truth be told, in the past week I’ve been feeling weary. Well yes, and weary. This cycle of growing daylight interrupts my sleep patterns. Finally, I’ve learned to keep my sleep mask under my pillow if not on my head. Several recent episodes of early morning insomnia in the past week, like right now, when I’ve been awake since two. Four hours sleep, and if I’m lucky, perhaps a couple more as the sun rises and the robins lullaby me into dreamtime.
“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, 1996
But this is different. Last week, I listened to the news that Alberta’s honey production has been seriously impacted by the loss of 50,000 hives and how would they be replaced given pandemic-imposed travel restrictions. This became another proverbial straw this time broke on the back of knowing each day more and more of the pandemic’s pervasive personal and global impacts and implications. Using as metaphor from one of those travel YouTube videos I’d been watching, I feel like I’m on a train travelling through a mountain tunnel. It’s dark as pitch, and while I trust there will be a light at the end, I have no idea how wide the mountain we burrowing through, how long before I see light, nor will I recognize anything once through and on the other side?
Ever late to the party, last week I started walking Annie and listening to podcasts. I heard Krista Tippett from her OnBeing podcasts speak to the very real fatigue of virtually connecting. Calling it “zoomzaustion,” our heads and hearts feel good seeing and hearing each other on our devices, but our bodies miss the very real enlivening energy flow we give and get only when in the physical presence of others. These months of not being physically present with friends, unable to visit family are exacting a toll, even though I’m home in good loving company.
During the weekend we dined on take out. It’s our commitment to “live local with love” and support local chefs by once a week ordering in dinner. A mix up with the order meant I sat and waited in the empty but for chef and staff restaurant as our food was prepared. First time visit, I was struck by the attractive décor, the open kitchen, the hip music. Staff were pleasant, apologetic, offered me a glass of BC sparkling wine to pass the time. Food delivered, bill paid, goodbyes and well wishes exchanged, once home and chowing down, my husband and I both remarked on the heart and soul put into creating that space, making this food, serving their customers, realizing a vision; on the questionable future to sustain themselves under their current pivot business plan, as opening under the province’s re-entry plan, with 50% capacity and the required 2 metre distance between tables would ensure bankruptcy.
“The only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land. We use these situations either to wake ourselves up or to put ourselves to sleep. Right now — in the very instant of groundlessness — is the seed of taking care of those who need our care and of discovering our goodness.”
Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, 1996
Today, I’d hoped to have a “safe distance” walk with my friend in celebration of her birthday. “Thick rain” meant we cancelled, for now. So I’ll make chile cheese cornbread muffins to go with the “beerbutt” chicken my husband will grill for supper. I’ll call a friend grieving the passing of her mother. Tomorrow, I’ll purchase a CSA from a local greenhouse. Then I’ll see my chiropractor for a long overdue tune-up. All of us masked and gloved.
This weariness ebbs and flows. I stay open to the vulnerable tenderness of this life.
“When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality.”