Consider: In the midst of winter

Dear Friends,

It is winter, the bleak midwinter, the interminable haul between the end of Christmas and the first crocus.  I’ve been remembering a grey, ugly January afternoon many years ago when we still lived in Pennsylvania, when the snow had turned black with car exhaust.  In those days, the kids were young and still needed me every moment; silence was rare, a solitary walk still rarer.  But that frozen day, I needed to be by myself.  I left the girls with Martin and tromped up a neighborhood hill to my dear friend, Nancy’s house.  I lingered on the curb and surveyed her garden.

It was rather a mess: the chard and lettuces had shot to seed long ago; a tangled vine curved around the front door.  I remembered that the summer before, robins had made a nest in the house eaves.  Nancy had instructed the entire family to stop using the front door in order not to disturb the fledglings.  A few short weeks later, she left the garden and the robins and lay down in a hospice bed; shortly afterwards, she died.  She had battled cancer for three years.  I watched as her three young children followed her casket up to the front of the church.

On that January afternoon, the robin’s nest was empty.  Nancy was a zealot for sustainability and permaculture, and her yard showed it: an almond tree’s bare branches rose above a tangle of spent basil.  Around the side of the house, there were still blackened stalks of tomatoes and limp pea vines.  There was the patch where she’d plucked the delicata squash last fall and handed it to me with great awe, as if it were a sacred thing–and it was, pin-striped yellow and green.

Nancy and I were much like sisters in those years; we swapped kids, spent long afternoons peeling apples for sauce.  She taught my daughter to read and I taught hers to sing.  In the sick, miserable months when I was pregnant with my youngest, she sat me on the stool in her kitchen and fed me soup out of her favorite pottery bowl.  We dreamed gardens together.  Late in her illness, I made her soup, I went with her to the clinic, and in the silence as she breathed in oxygen, I recited “The Owl and the Pussycat” to pass the time.

Now, in her winter garden, there was silence again.  I went to work, yanking up dead snarls of herbs, cutting back perennials, scooping up armfuls of leaves.  The dry, brittle plants I pulled and piled up for compost were the same she had tenderly put in the ground months before.  As I cleared the soil back to a dark, black richness, I felt the weight of this sacred duty, and the greatness of my love for her.  I felt, too, the surprising, miraculous presence of life.  Unbidden, even offensive to me who worked in sorrow, I smelled the coming spring.  I snapped back a dead perennial stalk and there was a flash of green.  The dried basil was redolent of summer; the earthworms, I knew, were curled tightly just below my fingers, sleeping until the earth would warm again.

A while after I tidied her garden, I accompanied Nancy’s family to visit her grave, still a unhealed gash in the pale grass.  Around us, farmland rolled away in a sea of undulating hills. Nancy’s children stood beside me, young and vulnerable, desperately missing their mother.  Nancy’s husband raised his eyes and searched the horizon.   “We look for the eternal spring,” he said.

IMG_0804I wondered at the time if those words came straight from the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church, to which the family belonged; for each word seemed to me to bear mysterious promise–like the perennials in Nancy’s garden.  We look for the eternal spring.  Those are the two things I remember from that season following her death: the silence of working in her garden, and the simple goodness of her husband’s graveside words.  Not gaudy or extraneous or saccharine, those words bound up pain and longing and faith at once, and I have carried them with me ever since.

In this new year, may we be present with each other, holding one another in silence, with love, with the goodness of sacred words.  May we find solace in the seasons of this beautiful world, and in the wonder that bids us look beyond the brittle stalks of winter.

Peace,

Kim

Consider: Moondust, our Longing, and the Infinite

Dear Friends,

On Wednesday, as students straggled into school, hungover from Halloween candy and the revelries of parading late in their costumes, the STEM teacher and I aired the documentary, “The Last Man on the Moon.” This documentary chronicles the life of Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, the last of America’s lunar landing expeditions.

To say I have even casual interest in space science would be a generous stretch. While I’m awed when the occasional Hubble Telescope photo crosses my path, I usually glaze over when reading sentences like the one at the bottom of the previous paragraph. As a writer of realistic fiction, my imagination is decidedly terrestrial. I’m lit up by human stories and expeditions to that vastest of interiors: the human heart.  

So I was ready to pass a sleepy morning in the company of pacified 7th and 8th graders and if I gleaned some space science knowledge, so much the better.  What I got instead was a fascinating exploration of the paradoxes and emotional minefields which no rocket shot can shake from the human heart.  Perhaps it was the extremis of being an astronaut — literally out of one’s element, suspended above the world — that dialed up the volume on the constant human scuffle between loneliness and connection. “I felt that all of humanity was with me on that mission,” Cernan says of his first spaceflight with Gemini IX. And yet later, when looking back at his three days on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission, the Earth rising like a blue pearl in the distance, he spoke of incredible loneliness.  Accompanied by all humanity and yet, at once, all alone: Isn’t this a striking picture of our perennial condition?  

On the lunar surface, Cernan traced his daughter’s initials in moondust. This heartfelt act of bestowing what he cherished most to that distant surface struck me. It was as if marking her initials there made them timeless, delivering them to a place where moth and rust cannot destroy. And yet, his relationship with his daughter and wife were fraught; sabotaged by the intense singular focus of his career, marked by his absence. “You think going to the moon is hard, try staying home,” his wife reflected on watching the broadcast of her husband out there on the spearpoint of human technology. Eugene Cernan made it back, but ultimately his marriage didn’t survive. Some frontiers are too vast to cross. Some journeys end with loss.

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2017 Eclipse–when we were all lost in wonder, if only for an hour

I’ve been thinking about Gene Cernan and the moon a lot over these past few days. In what ways does loneliness and deep human connection nudge shoulders in my life? How much I want what I most love to be lifted above time, to be kept safe from the world’s corrosive effects. But even now, while I have breath and life, am I giving the earth-bound, time-bound things I love my full presence?

On August 25, 2012, Gene Cernan climbed the steps to the pulpit at Washington National Cathedral to eulogize his friend and fellow astronaut, Neil Armstrong.  “Neil, wherever you are up there, almost a half century later, you have now shown once again the pathway to the stars…You can now finally put out your hand and touch the face of God.”

I, for one, don’t know much about pathways to the stars. I’m the type who firmly stands with Robert Frost when he says, “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” But Cernan’s words over his friend’s casket resonate all the same. I hear in them a rich longing for the infinite resolution to all our finite journeys. No rocket can lift us there–yet daily, we are invited on this most daring expedition.
Peace,

Lindsay

P.S. You can watch the entirety of Cernan’s moving eulogy for Neil Armstrong here.

A World of Dew, And Yet

It’s early summer and the roses are as wide as tea saucers.  When I pass by the garden on the way into the house, their heady scent cloaks me.  There are too many blooms to cut and bring inside, but the few I’ve arranged simply in vases astound me with their dense layers of petals.  

I am humbled by beauty like this; without a great deal of work from me, the garden yields new blossoms every morning. As I read Lindsay’s Consider this week, I felt humbled again by the realization that though majesty and wonder charge our world, many people can’t experience either. How fortunate I am to be able to feel something as I look at the roses.

I am aware that my perception of beauty and enjoyment of this world is a gift, and a tenuous one at that.  I think of the dear people I’ve known who have battled depression, of the powerlessness and despair they have tried to describe–a dulling of all senses, an inability to respond, to hear, to see.  “It’s like being deep underwater, wrapped in chains,” a friend once told me.  I can see glimmers of action, hear muted voices above me, but I can’t free myself to swim to the surface.”  When this friend ended her life after a long battle with mental illness, someone told me that she believed some people were just not meant for this world.

No.  I can’t believe it.  My convictions tell me otherwise; my faith that we are eternal beings made in the image of God instills a hope in me that, like Emily Dickinson’s bird with feathers, sang on even in the terrible, broken days that followed my friend’s death.

And yet the ache.  And yet the terrible irony that the people I love who have suffered most acutely from depression are people who, when they are well, are most sensitive to the goodness and beauty in the world.  The injustice of it, the awful brokenness of it, makes me long for more than this world of dew.

This world of dew

Is a world of dew,

And yet. . . .

Poet Kobayashi Issa wrote this after his one-year old daughter died from smallpox.  His days were shot through by tragedy–two more children and his wife also died.  And yet he wrote magnificent haiku that evidenced life was often an encounter with delight.  Here’s another from his wonderful volume The Spring of My Life that I loved so much I wrote up on our kitchen wall:

With such a voice

You should also learn to dance,

Bellowing Frog.

“We are made for this world.  We are not made for this world.”  Can both be true?

A year after a close friend of mine died from breast cancer, I stood with her nine-year old daughter at her grave, still a gash of unhealed dirt in the cemetery.  This girl whom I love so much, best friend to my own daughter, bent under the weight of her grief.  Her shoulders shook with sobs.  Her father, my friend’s husband, looked out into the hills smoky with twilight and shining with the first color of fall, and said, “We look for the Eternal Spring.”  

I have never forgotten his words.  In this early summer with the roses before me, I touch the sorrow that scars us all.  I am made for this world, wholly and completely.  With great humility, I say, Yes! to this world, and yet. . .And yet.   I long for the Eternal Spring.

Consider: The Wonder and Wound of this World

Dear Friends-

Yesterday the dog and I went on our favorite run.  For half an hour before I laced my shoes, I walked around moaning, “I don’t want to go.  Don’t make me go.”  There was no one “making” me go, unless you count the way Phoebe paced behind me, showing the “great red tear that makes us so sorry for noble dogs,” as J.M. Barrie calls it.  At last, with what seemed incredible mental effort, my shoes were on, my excuses over and we were padding out the door.  Predictably, within the first 400 yards, I wondered what all my fuss had been about.   

It was impossibly beautiful out there.  In the cooler, shadowy places, the hillsides were blue tongues of lupine, red sparks of Indian Paintbrush.  And in one spot, as I rounded a tight corner, I startled a flock of finches.  They flurried up, a chittering cumulous.  First a few.  Then more and more.  Until scores had burst from cover in the lupine, wings glinting in the low sun, and disappeared into the dark shadows of a lone ponderosa.  I felt over-awed by the sight, filled with a glad in-rush, new-born.  And yet in the same moment, something snagged my heart, that thing we call “a pang,” that sense beauty beheld is passing even as we encounter it.

“For to come upon warblers in early May

Was to forget time and death:

How they filled the oriole’s elm, a twittering restless

cloud, all one morning,” —Theodore Roethke, North American Sequence

I love the beauty in these lines from Roethke.  But I don’t believe them.  Warblers in May or finches startled from among the lupine do not make one forgetful of time’s passage.  They do not obscure the dark stile at the bend in the road.  Despite his statement to the contrary, I don’t for a moment think Roethke forgot these companions, else why bring them up?  Beauty is twined with loss, inseparable.

Every shiver of joy has a pull of loss in it, a rip in the seam. I can catch the glorious up-well of gladness.  But I can’t keep it.  Like the finches, it glints gold for a moment then disappears into a bank of shadow.

“Joy’s trick is to supply

Dry lips with what can cool and slake,

Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache

Nothing can satisfy.”  – Richard Wilbur, “Hamlen Brook”

Richard Wilbur gets it right.  It is the signature trick of joy to both slake and leave behind an unsatisfiable ache.  Like a koan that defies the mind’s desire to parse and explicate, the aftereffect of joy is paradox.  In the middle of the finch storm, I had a deep sense of having been met and having been left.  Filled and emptied.  At home in the world and an exile from my heart’s true homeland.  I’m straining here, which is why the wiser Wilbur used “dumbstruck” and avoided the muddle.

We are made for this world.

We are not made for this world.

Can both of these be true?

At every turn, consciousness tugs us in both directions.  This wonder and wound is a birthright that, however many steps we take, we can’t outrun.

Here’s to cultivating wonder,

–Lindsay

P.S. We would LOVE to send you a little Each Holy Hour through the post office.  Just email us at eachholyhour@gmail.com with your mailing address and we’ll send you a personal message on one of our beautiful postcards. Just a bit of love from us to you.

P.P.S.  Last week’s Consider prompted some discussion on the Back Page about our faith journeys.  Pour a cup of tea and enjoy the meander.

The Why that Drives

Recently a friend invited me to lead a training on vocation for young adults.  “Thanks for thinking of me,” I accepted the invite, “I’d love to.”

Love to?  Maybe.

For me, vocation–the why that drives what I do — is a word full of shifting shadows.  It’s a relentless companion that plucks at my elbow, eats at my board, sleeps when I sleep, rises when I rise.  It’s alternately the draft upon which my heart soars and the hollowing wind that scours me empty.  It’s a prize and a punishment.

Nearly eighteen years ago, Tim and I moved to Montana from the Boston area.  We wanted to start our marriage on our own terms, away from the pace and pressures of the east coast.  Though we’d never stepped foot in the state, we’d gathered ideas about Montana like wild yeasts caught from the air.  Two weeks after our wedding, we packed a moving truck and drove across the country.

In those first years, we rented a small house on the Flathead Reservation, started making soap in the basement as a lark, and completed graduate degrees for our inevitable decampment back East. “Come visit us,” we widely broadcast to friends and family, “this is our last year here.”

Then our first son came.  Still, we reasoned, after one more year, we would go.  Then our second son arrived.  A family now, we considered where we wanted to raise children.  Montana’s rivers and mountains, its famous big sky and slow drifting days had gotten ahold of us.  How could we leave?

We didn’t.  Tim threw himself into turning our basement soap-making operation into a business that could sustain our family.  And to support the eighty-hour weeks those early years of building a business demanded, I stayed home with our boys.

One day, shortly after the birth of our second son, I wove through the grocery store, pushing both boys in the cart.  I bumped into one of my philosophy professors–a brilliant, hard-driven man– with whom Tim and I had both taken classes.  We had loved every minute of his seminars, picking over the bones of modernity.  He’d championed our plans to head back East for more grad school.  That day, in the grocery store, as I tried to keep my toddler from climbing out of the cart, he asked me, “Why are you still in Montana? You’re wasting yourself here.”

The truth of those words struck me.  I’d fallen out of the sphere where my mind could maintain the iron-sharpening-iron edge of academics.  At home with two young children, I was out of the camaraderie and sense of accomplishment of the workforce.  The losses were real.

But in another — equally true — sense, I was gaining myself, gaining myself in a quieter, harder way.  We’d moved to Montana to live on our own terms, and now I was going to have to dig deep and lean into those terms.  I couldn’t use the ready-made handhold of a career to lift my life.

Researcher and storyteller Brene Brown often talks about our tendency to “hustle for our worthiness.”  Through pleasing and performing, we chase a sense of self.  Even though I know in my bones that as a child of God, no amount of “doing” can add to my essential worthiness, I still find myself trying to earn this inheritance.

I believe we each live our own variants of the basic question: What am I here for?  Entangled with ancillary issues like ego, status, failure, fulfillment, shame, hope, becoming, I find this question impossible to get a hold of; one bit snakes out just as I get the lid on the opposite corner.

“Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess.”  Parker Palmer writes in his book, Let Your Life Speak.  My years in Montana, my years of “wasting myself” and gaining myself have been a decades-long lesson in learning not to scramble.

“Love, share, engage,” Kim writes in this week’s Consider. “These are the superhero tasks of our lives.”  Egos scramble.  True selves love, share, engage.  Indeed this is hard and heroic work.

There is an old Hasidic tale that Martin Buber records in this way, “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, ‘In the coming world, they will not ask me: “Why were you not Moses?” They will ask me: “Why were you not Zusya?”’

In the shifting shadows and lights of my life, I’m discovering what it is to be me.  Not Moses, not Zusya, just me.

The Limits of Your Longing

20150710_201308High on the cliffs of Rosario Point above Puget Sound, Ko-Kwal-alwoot stretches out strong arms to hold a salmon against the sky.  Her story pole, carved from a hulking 30’ X 5’ cedar log, tells the Samish Indian myth of a maiden who agrees to marry The Sea to save her people from starvation. Despite her father’s objections, she walks wholeheartedly into the cold salt water, and The Sea–honoring his promise–releases salmon the Samish so desperately depend on.   

You don’t need to search far to find them: myths of the eternal calling to the temporal, divine spirits falling in love with the mortal, and the mortal responding with abandon.  I thought of this as I read Lindsay’s last Consider, as she described the way her spirit swelled and leapt out into the wild waters of the Atlantic.  All ancient cultures bear witness to this longing.

20160621_165438In Cornwall the rugged coastal trail winds into the tiny village of Zennor, where 6th Century Christians established the St. Senara church. Past needlepoint kneelers an ancient wooden chair depicts a mermaid lifting her bare arms.  Legend has it that she wandered from the wild turquoise sea in search of chorister Matthew Trewhellen, whose voice had been borne to her by the wind.  Trewhellen left the familiar–friends and hearth and garden–and dove beneath the waves forever. The call: Come.  The response: I abandon myself completely.

Who among us have not felt this keening?  Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls.  All your waves and breakers have swept over me.  This Psalm has captured me since I was a child.  The eternal calls my name and I long to throw myself off the edge into something greater.

It’s not a call to comfort and easy solace.  Summers at the Atlantic, I remember being caught by a wave, rolled into a swirl of green, pulled by the current, pounded by the surf.  The ocean spat me onto the sand; I gasped for breath.  Then I wiped the salt from my eyes and went back in.

This is a dangerous summons.  Jump in knowing there’s no guarantee you won’t be destroyed.  But you will be remade.

Ko-Kwal-alwoot walks out over smooth stones.   Above her head, osprey call, scanning the water for their next meal.  Behind her, cedars, hemlocks, madrones rise; at her feet, spreading out cold and grey, the waters of Puget Sound.  As she reaches to draw out a shellfish, a hand grasps hers.  “Don’t be afraid,” a voice says.  She must join the Spirit, for her people are starving.  She must plunge into the freezing depths, for there is no other way.  When she visits her family again, she will be changed–damp air will linger in her wake, her hair will wave like kelp.  She will miss the sea; back to the sea she will return; her home will never again be what it once was.

With all our great poetry, music, art, we are no nearer to adequately finding the words to domesticate this longing.  Perhaps few writers have done so well as Rilke:  “God speaks to each of us as he makes us,” he writes, “then walks silently out of the night./These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

Flare up like a flame

and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Ko-Kwal-alwoot extends her hand, sinks into the slate-grey waters.  The young chorister scrambles through thrift and foxgloves, his back to the dark sleeping village, throws himself from the cliffs.  From the wild depths, a summons.  Go to the limits of your longing.  Nearby is the country they call life.  Give me your hand.

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_Postscripts__

-Please check out the beautiful story of the Samish Maiden for yourself, as told by Charlie Edwards to Martin Sampson in 1938.  And if you ever find yourself at Deception Pass near Whidby Island, WA, don’t miss the story pole at Rosario Point.

-Keep stopping by The Back Page for more behind-the-scenes.  Thank you!

Photo Credits:  Martin Cockroft

Consider: Past the Headlands

Dear Friends,

Each Holy Hour is one month old! Like a newborn opening her eyes to the world, Kim and I are in a haze of astonishment at the response we’ve received. Your comments, shares, personal messages and feedback have meant a lot to us. Thank you for letting us into your lives. It is truly an honor to journey with you.

This week, as I watch my kids near the close of another school year and anticipate the long, lazy days of summer ahead, I’ve been thinking about my own childhood. My hometown in coastal New England is a postcard of colonial clapboards and blue ocean. Through all sorts of weather and almost daily in the summer, my family made the short trek to Crane Beach, a glorious four-mile sand beach and estate. We’d park the car, freight ourselves with towels and pails, shovels and sunglasses, and amble over the dunes. On the far side of those shifting mounds, we’d find the closest thing to infinity I knew. The Atlantic. With a few sailboats tacking at the horizon, and (on clear days) Maine’s Mount Katahdin a hazy bump, it was an immensity so searingly beautiful, it was a hair’s-breadth from pain.

The Atlantic nurtured all my budding devotional impulses. Like the Divine, it was unboundable, unknowable, and yet right here, spending itself on the sand, lapping my shins. Changeless yet always changing, it followed its own rhythms of waves and tides, a pattern as old as Earth.

In my family, we were earnest Sunday-school attenders. While my friends zipped around bays and coves in bowriders, I spent Sundays in the pews of First Presbyterian. Often, on our hard benches, we traveled deep into questions of faith and meaning, casting lines from the bow through prayers and hymns, stories and practices.

But the Atlantic preached another kind of sermon. Wordless in its exhortation, speechless in its exegesis, it made me feel the thing we mean when we say, “my heart leapt up.” Solemn elation, deep-fed joy, something at the far-border of my senses, stirred in me.

“Exultation is the going/Of an inland soul to sea, —” writes Emily Dickinson. “Past the houses, past the headlands/ Into deep eternity!” As a child, I thought this poem was written for me. It seemed so intuitive to my experience, I felt proprietary regard for it. It bespoke the way the Atlantic pulled the tide of my heart toward something deeper. It suggested that all the human habitations – the propositional truths and earnest homiletics in which we usually trafficked – were just the beginning of the adventure. Beyond these headlands, deep eternity called.

I’ve never gotten over that call.

Every trip to Crane Beach ended with gathering up our pails and shovels, shaking sand from shoes, traipsing back over the boardwalk. We’d drive home and pack everything away, hang towels on the back porch. I’d brush my salt-tangled hair and arrange a few shells on my shelf, living in the afterimage of the blue, endless Atlantic, and waiting again for this inland soul to go to sea.

Here’s to cultivating wonder,

–Lindsay

p.s. On Friday, Kim will continue the conversation on our blog. Check it out and leave us your thoughts.

p.p.s. We’ve launched a new page on eachholyhour.com. The Back Page is our way to honor the messiness of providing thoughtful content. It chronicles some of the behind-the-scenes pitfalls and levity we bring to this work.